Timeless power of language: nonviolence and violence

Nonviolence: using peaceful means rather than force, especially to bring about political or social change

Nonviolence, in Dr. King’s words, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth… So the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

 

Dr. King’s death was widely reported as an assassination, carried out by a sniper, a lone gunman, who was a white man (or men, if you follow one of many conspiracy theories, as did King’s family.)

In the shadow of the death of Dr. King, who had unparalleled command of language, voice, and delivery, I feel called upon to simply place the following words and their definitions in proximity to one another.

We may identify these words with quite different historical periods. Let time collapse into this historical moment. This moment. Today. As you reflect, let these words talk to one another:

Violence: behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. In law: the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force

Sniper: a person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range

Assassination: the murder of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.

Terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Lynching: kill (someone) for an alleged offense without a legal trial, especially by hanging

Segregation: the act or policy of separating people of different races, religions or sexes and treating them in a different way

Mass incarceration: the imprisonment of a large proportion of a population, used in particular with reference to the significant increase in the rate.

Slavery: the practice or system of owning persons as legal property who are forced to obey their owners.

Institutional racism: racial discrimination that has become established as normal behaviour within a society or organization

White supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society

Jim Crow: the former practice of segregating black people in the US; an implement for straightening iron bars or bending rails by screw pressure.

Redlining: refusal to give loans or insurance to people in an area that is considered to be a bad financial risk

White privilege: inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice

(Note: definitions according to the Oxford English Dictionary)

For myself, I find the significance of each word 

is illumined by the others.

I am better able to take in each word as

the timeless/time-bound piece of reality it is, 

when amongst the others.

I take these words together to be the still 

unaddressed lineage of our country.

It is long past time to own up to our long history

of behaviors intended to hurt, damage, or kill.

May our reflections open us to insight and inspire us to action.

         

P. S. Historical note on the concept of race

IMG_1554THE HISTORY OF THE IDEA OF RACE… AND WHY IT MATTERS Audrey Smedley, Professor of Anthropology Emerita Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, American Anthropological Association.

“In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. They spent decades exploring all of the original documents relating to the establishment of colonies in America. What these scholars discovered was to transform the writing of American history forever. Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.” 

http://www.understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

 


 

Photo of segregated drinking fountain taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, October, 2016

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

 

What counts, and how we count for the greater good

What counts and how we count: our bodies, our voices, our power to be and do good – are questions that preoccupy me. These days more than ever, when numbers drive “trending” news items and the result of every Google search.

As a woman, these questions also remain very personal, shaped by family dynamics and the post-WW II white assimilating Jewish suburban culture in which I grew up. How to find my place, when and where to speak up, speak out have long preoccupied me.

As a citizen, there are ways that I am counted that have to do with white privilege: freedom from harassment by police, merchants, and voting rights enforcers, access to credit and a good public education. As a citizen, there are ways I do not count that have to do with my gender: physical safety on the street, equal opportunity and pay in the workplace.

It got me to thinking about what my Jewish roots and experience have taught me about counting.

The way Jews count ourselves, we do not count heads:  you, Esther, are one; you, Sam are two; you, Bernie are three; you, Sylvia are four (my mother and her siblings.)

It is from King David that we learn of the danger of counting each head, census-like: he made a fatal choice when he counted heads. In the ensuing plague 70,000 Israelites died. The safe way for us to count is the way God had us do it in the desert: a half-shekel went into the pot for each Israelite, then Moses counted the shekels. Or the way Saul counted a shard of pottery offered up by each warrior to number his army. We are permitted to count on our fingers or toes, or according to the number of words of a verse from Psalms, as long as we do not count individuals. We are also permitted to count this way: not-one, not-two… This is how men make sure there are the required ten for prayer.

It is the collective that is important: ten for prayer, 600,000 souls for revelation at Mt. Sinai, 600,000 letters in the Torah. On Yom Kippur we number our sins, A to Z in the first person plural: we account for the state of our collective soul.

Nor do we count the heads of strangers. Abraham, sitting at the door to his tent, is our ancestral role model: he was on the look-out, so he could welcome them in as soon as possible.

Nor do we afflict or oppress the strangers who do show up at the doors of our tents, as we were strangers in Egypt.

Irony, even death, the way others count us: immigration quotas. Education quotas (my father earned his law degree in such a slot.) Tattooed serial numbers on the left fore-arm. Jews were zeroed out of neighborhoods, along with “dogs” and     “n—–s,”  as neighborhood signs commonly announced.

What our society counts and how have shaped our country

In 2010 I first came across the young field of ecosystems services when I taught a course in Ecobiology and Human Health. A  number of environmental causes began to pick up political steam as dollar values were assigned not just to the value of crops produced on agricultural land or the value of coal or gas extracted, but to life-supporting “ecosystem services.” Purification of air and water. Mitigation of droughts and floods. Pollination. If this last one seems odd, consider that by 2012, apple and pear trees were being hand-pollinated in areas of China due to the decimation of their natural pollinators, bees.* The commodification of nature was not lost on researchers, even as political capital for the environment increased.**

From this perspective, what we care about, we count. What we count, counts.

What we don’t count often remains hidden in plain view. As a society, we do not put a dollar value to us, collectively, of family members who care for their chronically ill, disabled, and dying kin. And so they soldier on without the moral and practical supports they need. And when we fear for what we care about, we turn towards quotas and all manner of exclusionary counting.

From another perspective, we know that societal choices guided by numbers-only bring us a host of plagues, not unlike the one that followed King David’s census: we call them unintended consequences.

This puts us right back in our soft, squishy unquantifiable humanity.

This brings us back to neither counting the heads of strangers, nor afflicting nor oppressing them. To open-hearted and open-handed behaviors.

How we work with the tension of these perspectives has everything to do with our own choices: what we count, how we count, and when we refrain from counting. Each of us. All of us together.


*https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193-Decline-of-bees-forces-China-s-apple-farmers-to-pollinate-by-hand

**The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes. Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rudolf de Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, Carlos Montes. Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 1209–1218 http://www.cepal.org/ilpes/noticias/paginas/7/40547/the_history_of_ecosystem.pdf

 

From the sick-bed

From the sick-bed, the herbalist says: I know exactly when the scale tipped for my immune system and lost its preventive edge against this virus. I had already been taking liberal doses of Echinacea, Osha, garlic  and honey for three days, ever since my husband had come down with a cold. They usually do the trick. Between my go-to herbs and some slowing down of activity, I was keeping infection at bay.

 

From the sick-bed, the activist says: But I tipped the scale toward illness. I made a choice: to attend an all-day training on “cultural proficiency awareness,” aka diversity and inclusion. I am passionate on this topic, and there are so few constructive conversations taking place. I want to show up and participate at any opportunity. The day was engaging and revelatory.  I cannot recall ever before being asked to consider, for example, how stereotypes can be helpful. Everyone had showed up to really do the work.  One woman’s intention deeply touched me: “I want to be the sanctuary.”  The meeting room was cold, and I felt ill and sneezy by the time I got home.

Here I am a week later, having bowed out of traveling to DC for my first-ever writers’ conference. And I have no regrets.

I do have two and a half days of completely unscheduled time now to rest and recuperate. And at least another week of choosing with care when and where to engage, cancel, avoid taking on. Time to convalesce, an-almost quaint phenomenon. One more piece of privilege. I’m still going back and forth with myself about whether it is economic or white privilege or both. Convalescence is a luxury for many, among them single parents and breadwinners, anyone worried about job security, even kids worried about keeping up with schoolwork.

 

From the sick-bed, the healing one says: I feel more grateful than usual for this time, and for

hot teas, miso soup, baked sweet potato, brown rice, veggies with olive oil and garlic

quiet

a soft afghan to wrap myself in

a few herbs for my still-boggy sinuses: droppersful of Baptisia and a neti pot with Goldenseal, Echinacea and Propolis

homeopathic Ignatia to soothe my nervous system

 

From the sick-bed,  the awakening one says: And more grateful than usual for every one of you who is out there engaging with as much kindness, consciousness and skill as you can while I bench myself for now. There are other days when some of you will choose to step out for rest, or be felled by a Big Piece of Life, and I’ll be right out there working my fanny off.

We take turns in actively holding up the world. We run and we return. We do what we can when we can. As we fall back or fall down, others get up and get on with it.

Wherever you find yourself in life today,

if you can throw yourself into the thick of things with an open heart, go for it!

If you are low on courage, be extra kind to yourself.

If you need a rest, pull back.

Lean on one another.

Take good care: of yourselves, and with one another.

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.