Hard Conversations

Last month I took an online course facilitated by Patti Digh and Victor Lee Lewis called “Hard Conversations: Intro to Racism,” because I wanted to learn more about systemic racism in the USA and what I can do to be an ally to people of color. During the course of the learning, we covered a number of topics, starting with basic advice about how to listen deeply, understand that “it’s not about you,” empathy vs sympathy and non-violent communication. We watched the movie “The Color of Fear,” and the documentary, “A Class Divided,” and saw a number of educational YouTube videos by people like Chescaleigh, Kat Blaque and Akilah. We got into upsetting topics like the murder of young Emmett Till, the corruption in Ferguson, redlining in the housing industry, police brutality, and also touched upon Black Lives Matter and various activists in the new civil rights movement. We were reminded to take self-care days, and to grant specificity to the other, lest we fall victim to the danger of a single story.

From what I could gather, the majority of the participants were European Americans like me but there were also people of color present. You can’t fully understand other people’s experiences unless you have a somewhat complete knowledge of yourself, and white people in America tend to ignore their own whiteness, so we also got into discussing things like: what is whiteness? what’s wrong with saying you’re ‘colorblind‘? what are ‘white privilege‘ and ‘white fragility‘?  Additionally, we discussed microaggressionscultural appropriation and biracial identities.

I’ve shared all these links to videos and articles to give you sort of a mini-version of what we learned, and if you have the time to go through the links at your leisure, I highly encourage you to do so. If you’re really into this topic, here are a couple of bonus videos: White Man On White Supremacy & Fear of a Black Nation and A Brief History of White Privilege, Racism and Oppression in America | Legalize Democracy excerpt. And check out Michelle Alexander‘s book (or at least the review for) “The New Jim Crow.”

I’d like to share some of the things I learned which were especially eye opening for me personally:

  1. Racism is subtle. I grew up thinking racists were a small minority of clueless white people who just hadn’t made it past the turn of the 19th century in their thinking. In reality, racism is pervasive in American society, yet you may not be noticing it. And this failure to notice can be more damaging than a KKK march. After all, you can’t fix something unless you can admit it is a problem.  Some examples: You might live in a progressive city and hire minorities at your company, while paying them less than white people for the same work. You might live in a diverse neighborhood, but when you walk by darker skinned people, you automatically pull your purse closer or avoid eye contact with them. You might be working retail and unconsciously spend more time and effort with your pale skinned customers under the assumption that they have more money to spend, while at the same time side-eying your darker skinned customers with the idea that they might be fixing to steal something. And this is just the beginning.
  2. When someone tells you their story about how they were hurt by something that happened to them as a racial minority, it really isn’t helpful to chime in with your own anecdotes about a time when you experienced something that felt like prejudice to you. People don’t feel listened to when you keep bringing the attention back to yourself.
  3. Most people of color are more comfortable talking about race than most white people. Pretending to not see someone’s skin color doesn’t actually help anyone.
  4. I also realized that I have long felt a sense of not really relating to my race or ethnic heritage, and that being able to ignore my race and ethnicity is actually a kind of luxury. No one looks at me, sees my Italian background and jokes about the Mafia, sees my German background and jokes about the Nazis, sees my Russian background and ribs me about the Cold War, sees my British background and makes a crack about the Revolutionary War, or sees my Polish background and jokes about how dumb I must be. My whiteness is considered the “default” so I have the luxury of being able to forget about it. Not so for people of color in America.

Ultimately, the deepest takeaway from this course is the reminder that we are all connected, and if one part of the human race is suffering, then we all are suffering, even if we don’t realize it. And, we all have an obligation to do what we can to help relieve systemic injustices that keep us from being free. In that sense, this understanding fits in well with my Buddhist values.

The course calls itself a “firehose of information” and it was indeed, but I looked forward to each new page of links to articles, videos and audio interviews.  If you would like to sign up for the next session, you can do so here.

 

 

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Something I recently learned about chronic pain

“Pain depends on how much danger your brain THINKS you are in, not how much danger you are really in.” – Dr. Lorimer Moseley

After several years of chronic upper back pain, my doctors had done all they could for me, and sent me to Carolyn McManus, a specialist in managing pain with mindfulness. I learned some things from her I wish I’d known thirty years ago.

Once an injury has healed, if you continue to feel pain in the area for months or years, this is happening because of the messages your brain is sending to the area. A feedback loop is created when you think things like, “There’s that pain again, will it ever go away? Maybe I will be like this for the rest of my life! I wonder why my doctors can’t find anything wrong? I better take another Tylenol…” By thinking these sorts of thoughts, you are effectively making things worse. The new hypothesis of chronic pain indicates that emotional memories modulate our experience of pain, and the result is “a brain that has learned to filter emotions, actions, and reward through the lens of pain, rendering the brain addicted to pain.” (From this research paper)

Professor Lorimer Moseley has a fascinating YouTube talk called “Getting a grip on pain and the brain.” He explains how a person can continue to feel pain in a body part, even when they no longer have that body part. Damage to a body part doesn’t have to be painful. Conversely, you could be in a lot of pain without any tissue damage. He tells a story that may feel vaguely familiar once you realize once he’s getting at: pain accompanied by fear and worry is significantly worse than pain accompanied by a relaxed acceptance.

It’s important to understand that this theory does not mean “pain is all in your head.” The pain is real. But if I’m honest with myself, I know that thinking negative thoughts about it isn’t doing me any favors. By continually focusing on the area and how it feels, I’m not only tensing up the muscles inadvertently, but I’m also burning neural pathways that make it easier for me to go down this same negative thought spiral again and again.

The solution, then, is mindfully being aware of the “sensation” you’ve labelled as pain, and noticing that it comes and goes, just like a cloud in the sky. “You are not your pain” to quote a book of the same name. There are other suggestions as well, which you can find either in the book and other links I just mentioned.

This focus on mindfulness and meditation resonates with my practice of Buddhist meditation to some degree. In fact, it could be argued that Buddhists who have reached a high level of attainment have managed to eliminate pain and suffering…after all, isn’t that what Shakyamuni Buddha was said to have done for his own mindstream? Look at this real life example from the life and death of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, as described by his Doctor (minute 27:50 of this documentary).

#BlackLivesMatter at Seattle Public Schools

On October 19, 2016, hundreds of people who work at Seattle Public Schools will be wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts to school, and many educators will be using part of the day to teach students about institutional racism. Capping off the day is a rally at Washington Hall (153 14th Ave. Seattle) from 6-8pm, featuring speakers, musicians and poets.

I sincerely hope we are beginning to see a big shift in the conversation about racism.

If you are a white American like me, it’s likely you were raised to be “colorblind.” The post civil rights era I grew up in was framed with the assumption that all races are equal, so naturally, we assume, there’s no more racism, except perhaps in some backwoods southern or rural outposts. But this utopian idea hides an important truth: despite the occasional exception, African Americans in general are still struggling. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a hollow platitude when tossed haughtily at people who have been unable to grow wealth thanks to redlining, the school to prison pipeline, and bias in the criminal justice system.

Returning to Black Lives Matter, I know some of you may wondering what the organization actually stands for. Please take a look at the guiding principles and 11 Major Misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter Movement. And if you are still saying, “But…All Lives Matter,” please watch this video.

From the Major Misconceptions link above: “The statement “black lives matter” is not an anti-white proposition. Contained within the statement is an unspoken but implied “too,” as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion.”

We are all in this together. When some people are left out in the cold, we all suffer.

White supremacy: “The belief that white people matter more than others.” -Prof. Eddie Glaude

#BlackLivesMatter: “an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.” –BLM official website