Getting to Justice: stories to heal me, heal America Pt 2

Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes.  The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups  – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.

There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.  To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.

 

Here’s my cultural story

I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+  years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.

Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.

If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II.  Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.

Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.

 

Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white. 

I have only selectively thought of myself as white  – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,”  and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.

Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege. 

 

These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time 

I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world,  indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.

I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!

And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.

 

Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.

Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.

Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.

Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.

And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.

 

These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?

Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.

If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.

Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

 

White women: Take the Privilege Challenge

The first in an occasional series that brings the skills and power of a life of practice to bear on healing and awakening deep cultural and tribal divides.

As white women, we know plenty about male privilege. And we can use that knowledge to take the mystery and invisibility out of White Privilege.  I turned to Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for a list of prompts to begin to assemble my own.

While associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women, Macintosh came to understand white privilege through her work on male privilege. She recognized that she had been “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems” that favored her group.  She set out to work on herself by observing the daily effects of white privilege in her life. Her seminal and scholarly piece (dating to 1988) remains widely cited today: White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.”

Take the Privilege Challenge – check out Macintosh’s Knapsack and then unpack your own. I promise you it will wake you up to our shared humanity in some surprising ways. Even if you think of yourself as awake and on to yourself in racial matters.

And if you are a white healer, coach, bodyworker or therapist who works with people of color, as you explore and deepen your embodied awareness of privilege, you will offer them a level of safety in the healing relationship of incalculable value.


On the white side of privilege

When I don’t feel normal I can be sure it’s not institutional racism, or even personal prejudice, at work, just some neurotic part of my personality that’s the culprit.

I can hang out with a bunch of white people almost anywhere, even a street-corner after dark, without being told to move along.

No one comes up to me and touches my hair, or even asks if they can touch my hair.

No one asks me to give them examples of micro-aggressions.

I can browse undisturbed for clothing or CDs or a gift for a friend: no one follows me around to make sure I’m not a shoplifter.

No one will be surprised and thus praise me for being “so articulate.”  The way I speak is considered proper and normal, aka “the norm.”

I do not put myself in danger or suffer any threat or penalty for remaining ignorant of the language, culture, and history of other races.  But I can cluelessly ask a person of color to remedy my ignorance by explaining things to me.

I can have a bad hair day, grocery shop in torn and dirty jeans, even raise my voice in public without anyone attributing my looks or behavior to the bad morals, poverty or illiteracy of my race.

If I get pulled over while driving, I’m going to drive away with a warning or a ticket. No search of my car or body cavities. If I need the police, I can call 911 without worrying that somehow I’ll end up suspect, roughed up, or dead.

I can get really angry, even act really angry without scaring every white person in view.

I have never been denied credit or a rental because I am white.

I never had to have The Talk with my children on how to stay physically safe because of their color. Nor did they go to school in the morning  after their sleep was disturbed by gunshots or their waking by news of another neighbor, cousin or friend shot. I never had trouble finding them books that tell their stories.

No one in my family has been denied bail, tried in a court of law or been imprisoned.

I am pretty free to choose to avoid people who have been taught to be afraid of me.  And if people of another race distrust me, I am likely to be oblivious to it.

Health statistics in my country are pretty much on the side of my race.

It’s easy to find “flesh-colored” crayons and band-aids that are close to the actual color of my skin.

I am never asked to speak for the entire white race.

No one crosses the street to avoid me.

No one freaks out if I wear a hoodie.

No one mistakes me for the janitor, the stock clerk, or the door-person because of my race.

I can come home at the end of a day in city, suburb, or small town without the weight of having felt unwelcome, unsafe, suspect, as if I did not belong. Without the exhaustion of constant vigilance.

 


Now you give the Privilege Challenge a try, and please – share  your findings below.

2017: the power to act weds healing and awakening

It’s 2017 and I’m determined to see that the power to act weds nondual healing and awakening in new ways – for my individual clients,  for the civic body, for the common good.

I was a reluctant student of power. And in my efforts to exercise power and speak truth to power, I burned out as a non-profit professional by the mid ’90s.

My life took a different turn. I learned about other kinds of power: the power of the body to heal itself, the powers of the plants, the transformative power of embodying the nondual. I grew into a healer and an herbalist. The social activist entered a long sleep even as other parts of me were awakening.  

Still, my years as a community organizer taught me to listen to my clients’ stories, to listen not only for the impact of their family life, but the impact of skin color, wealth, opportunity, gender, sexual identity, and the other societal constructs that shape us.

The Baltimore Uprising in April, 2015 woke up that sleeping seeker of justice. The November election energized me.

2017 promises me ample opportunities to explore the relationship between healing and empowerment, to marry the seeker of justice with the healer, to explore ways to heal our civic body.
What could that look like? How about we figure this out together?

 

Here’s my back story,  with a deep bow to remarkable teachers of mine.

I was a reluctant student of power.

Charm and subtle manipulation served me so effectively for so many years in the daughter-mother-wife-entrepreneur roles. And when my few strategies failed me, I had learned to simply withdraw. I was 36 and recently separated when I was hired by the Northeast Community Organization and underwent a week-end church-basement training in Alinsky-style organizing. Among other things, I learned that those who have not amassed wealth to spread their influence around had better learn to amass a lot of human bodies. Also that an opponent, aka enemy on one issue might well become a bedfellow on the next.

Over the next fifteen years, two black professionals tutored me in different aspects of power. I inherited Organizational Psychologist Michael F. Broom, Ph.D. as my mentor when I took over as Director of The Maryland Food Committee, a statewide anti-hunger organization where I’d been working for five years. He was the first person – yes, really – to talk with me about “use of self”: actual skills for becoming aware of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and using intention to choose behaviors that would optimize getting desired results and minimize or at least manage difficulties along the way.

A few months into working with me, Michael cut through my foggy persona like a knife through butter with five words: You’re not helpless, you know.

I certainly had been helpless up to that moment, given how unconscious I was about my – um thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

I went on to learn an enormous amount from Michael and his colleagues Edie and Charlie Seashore, deans in the field of organizational development. How to participate in and then facilitate race and gender conversations in organization settings. How to run multi-day large-group consensus-building processes to address social problems.

But to learn play in the political arena, I needed more street smarts than my tidy upbringing could ever have imagined. My tutor and role-model was Reverend (now Bishop) Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church. Doug also headed Baltimore United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church and neighborhood-based organization affiliated with Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). He picked up with me where the church-based week-end had left off. No, I never set out to learn how to preach from this master of conscience, nor inspire crowds to action as he did.

Doug taught me about the importance of relationships built on trust, and the time, skill and heart needed to develop them.

He taught me about the courage and inner strength human beings draw from standing together, walking a street together, powering a meeting together. About the importance of everyone being crystal clear about the goal and the negotiating position.

Twenty years later

When I left social justice work, my colleagues and I had made some inroads in opening up what we thought of as the real conversation: the poverty that fostered hunger and birthed hundreds of food pantries and dozens of soup kitchens. The resistance to naming and delving into next level of reality, the institutional racism that drove poverty that drove hunger – that resistance was fierce.

Now racism, and all its kin are the stuff of daily conversation, from the raw to the scholarly. The lid is off and #this is our history, #this is who we are. What are we – together – going to do about it?

I am determined to figure out how you and I can each use our life of practice to see that we wed the power to act to nondual healing and awakening in new ways – for our individual clients,  for the civic body, for the common good.

How can we open up meaningful conversations across the divides in our families and communities, make life-changing strides for our hurting kin, all while being our wise and foolish human selves?

Here’s my invitation:  Join me via Zoom, Tuesday, January 17, 7:30-8:30 pm EST

in observing Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

Let’s mobilize our yearning and our practice to bend the long arc towards justice.

TO REGISTER: email me at alifeofpractice@gmail.com

Please make Subject line BEND THE ARC