I’m laughing a little bit at myself this morning. I struggled so hard the other day to tell a story and find the words to describe the form, the character of the internalized racism I have experienced in myself. Then last night I was reading White Fragility, in which Robin Diangelo describes exactly — and so much more succinctly — what I was talking about. There’s a name for it: aversive racism.
Aversive racism is characterized by a conflict between the denial of personal prejudice and unconscious negative feelings and beliefs, which may be rooted in normal psychological processes (such as social categorization).
Basically, it’s an inconsistency between what you say, and what you unconsciously think. Notice, this definition offers that aversive racism happens as a part of “normal psychological processes” and importantly, I will add, socialization into the dominant culture, especially here in the U.S.
So, yay… I am on to something. Now I was to reiterate and clarify points from my post:
I don’t think there’s a way for any white person in the US NOT to have internalized some aspect of white supremacy, and therefore have in us, as part of our thinking, conscious or unconscious, aversive racism.
With that as a given, white people: I believe we can learn to FEEL that incongruence in our bodies. With practice, we can FEEL it arise as defensiveness and use that as a signal to slow down and reassess—what we “know” might be wrong.
It think it’s critical that we learn to do this! Because, as Diangelo says, we may be well-intentioned. But intention does not equal impact, and IMPACT is what really matters here. Are we harming people? Are we unwittingly contributing to white supremacy and the racist systems of power it justifies?
What does any of this have to do with yoga?
I believe that my practice of yoga has given me greater access to and awareness of my emotions as they manifest as sensations in my body.
When my mother died, I began working with a yoga therapist for my grief. Week after week she would ask me, “what do you feel?” And I did not know. This became a central inquiry of my (physical) asana yoga practice: what am I feeling?
Gradually, I came to notice when I was feeling something! I might not know what it was, but I knew it was there, and that was progress!
This ability to notice that I am feeling something is a resource now. In my effort to embody anti-racism, I use it as a signal to slow down and step back; to listen with the knowledge that I, too, have been socialized into white supremacy and my perspective, even if I don’t necessarily understand HOW, has been shaped by those forces. To FEEL that defensiveness arise and pause, I give myself time to make a conscious choice NOT to inadvertently defend something I overtly say I am against.
It’s not about KNOWing theory, or the right words. It’s about FEELING, and allowing myself NOT to know everything. To open to possibility. Because without being open to possibility, we cannot make the change we say we want. That change only lives in possibility.
Maybe all of this is really obvious. Maybe I’m just speaking for and to myself. But, I do hear the defensiveness of other white people who I admire, respect and love… and so, I think I’m onto something… my aim is to break through a little of that defensive shell, also with love.
All that said, this is a strategy for working with people who think they are not racist or who think they do not buy into white supremacy. In a way, this is a strategy for white people who don’t understand that we do actually have a racial identity, and that it is problematic for society. We have a WHOLE other project to take on with the people who are open about their white racial identity and entitlement…
This is a post written mainly FOR other white women about how I am working with my own internalized racism. It’s a snippet of my journey to understanding (ongoing work) and my attempting to do better. It’s a draft. It’s imperfect and incomplete. It’s a start… just like this process.
we all got tickets to The Truth finally we thought finally when the curtain fell away our indrawn breaths could be heard even in the next theater even the gasp of the mime who had slipped in among us a loud whushing like reams of litter whirling upward in a gale hands shot to mouths and mouths fell open I couldn’t say within how many seconds all our minds shut some slamming others just a click like 300 parallel rows of tipped dominoes a racket of almost unison
believe me we wouldn’t have resisted anything but the truth so instantly and universally yet we sat there and waited for something else which you could say we also got if you count the mime’s unpleasant remark so she wasn’t even a real mime probably part of what was clearly just a performance
“Believe me, we wouldn’t have resisted anything but the truth so instantly and universally.”
I saved this poem back in September, but this line strikes me now as I continue to work deeper into my anti-racism work, studies and conversations.
I became sensitized to my own unconscious racism many years ago in grad school, at the age of 28 or 29. I had traveled from The University of Texas up to the University of Wisconsin to attend a National Feminist Graduate Student Conference. It was early in my career as an aspiring academic, and I was ambitious and excited. This was my first multidisciplinary conference, where I was exposed to feminist thinking on a lot of subjects I hadn’t thought about before, or even knew existed. On the last day of the conference, the organizers, who were grad students at UW, invited attendees to consider organizing and hosting the conference at their school next year.
It didn’t take a lot of coaxing for me to volunteer.
I returned to Austin ready to pull together a diverse, multidisciplinary organizing committee to put on the best conference EVER!
I started with people I knew in my department and college. Then I reached out to faculty in other colleges to help me recruit motivated feminists to join the effort. We had a core group and eventually enough people for committees, and I sort of saw myself as the central organizer keeping us all on track. We used this new thing called a “listserv” to stay in communication with each other (it was 1998!!)
I thought things were going pretty well. We had many colleges and departments represented. We had women of color and LGBTQ women on board.
But, somewhere pretty early in the process, the women of color let it be known that they considered the process itself inherently racist, and the white women involved part of the problem.
As the self-appointed leader of the effort, I took this very personally. How could they accuse me of being a racist?!?! I was NOT a racist! It was a complete impossibility!
There were many impassioned emails exchanged—DAILY, for months. There were efforts at teaching. There were efforts at learning. Concessions were made. I was not alone among the white women befuddled by what was happening, but others engaged in dialogue. Chandra Mohanty was going to be our keynote speaker. She took our situation to heart and even worked with us white women to break through our resistance, our defensiveness.
From my perspective at the time, our project of putting on a conference was being sidetracked by conversations about this baseless accusation when we needed to be raising money, sending out calls for papers, inviting speakers, and the other important work to make the conference happen. That was my singular focus. I felt a responsibility to the group from which I had inherited this project. So basically, I pushed through with the logistics and details.
The conference did happen and was actually a pretty great success, in spite of — and looking back, perhaps BECAUSE of — the underlying racial dynamics.
At the time, though, I was simply glad it was over.
As I look back on the experience now, reading these few paragraphs, I can see how my women of color colleagues weren’t wrong.
Think about that. It has been more than 20 years and I am just now beginning to understand what was unthinkable to me at the time—my own role and responsibility in racist structures and processes reflecting unequal power.
The experience pierced the veil of my racial innocence.
It was a critical experience in my life, one that forever changed me because it opened me up to a fundamental Truth that I have been grappling with now for 20 years. This Truth was not that I was or am a racist (although, that is a part of it). The Truth it opened up is that I might be wrong. I might study and be critical of dominant ideologies, but still might not recognize them when they are in play. In essence, I cannot view the system from outside the system. I am inherently in and OF the system. We all are.
Here’s how I work with it.
WHEN I GET DEFENSIVE about something racial, when I feel that I am taking something said about white people personally and defensively, I STOP. I just stop. LISTEN. CONSIDER. They might be onto something. They almost always are.
At the time, and for years after, I interpreted the criticism of my women of color FemConf colleagues as an attack me personally as a racist. And, in a way, it was; but their actual criticism was of the process, which had been shaped by a structure (the university) that was—in fact—functioning as a result of and a perpetuator of systemic racism. I went first to the people I knew. They just happened to be predominantly white. (That wasn’t MY fault.) I started with my own department and college—which happened to have no tenured women of color faculty. (That wasn’t MY fault, either) I created a committee structure that placed me, a white woman, at the center, and “invited” others to “participate.” (How ELSE was I supposed to do it… I brought this conference to Austin.) Etc Etc Etc. There are probably a whole bunch more things I still don’t recognize about how that whole thing went down.
My whole point right now is that EVENTUALLY I learned (am learning) to use my own feelings of defensiveness and discomfort—my own reaction of “NOT ME!”—as a signal to slow down, back off, step aside, listen… and learn. It probably isn’t a personal attack on me. But, it doesn’t mean I am not implicated. I might be. The thing is to figure out HOW I might be implicated and what I can, cannot, should or should not do about it.
All this is coming up right now because once again, a majority of white women voted for Trump, and I’m trying to figure out what I can do about it. I shared a post the other day on Facebook that I had seen on a (white, male) friend’s FB Story:
What I wrote with this post was, “Things to think about. I think she’s right.”
The post got a few reactions… just a few. But I have been thinking about those reactions, and the comments they generated. And the feelings (I imagine have been) aroused by those exchanges.
So, consider THIS little essay Part 1 of my own response to those responses.
I’ll start with why I shared that post on Facebook in the first place: When I first read it, I felt defensive. Just for an instant. but it was there.
I felt she was talking to me. Perhaps the thoughts accompanying the feeling were along the lines of: “But I AM one of the good ones! I am NOT like the women who voted for Trump.”
I stayed with the feeling.
I remembered, she gets to have her own opinion AND she gets to be angry.
And then I decided, she’s not wrong. If white women are perpetuating this thing, white women are part of the problem, and that’s the appropriate target for my own work, even though I am also a white woman.
Do I know what that looks like? Not yet, not exactly.
I don’t need to defend the (white) social workers she called out, or the white teachers in low income schools, or nonprofit professionals. I don’t need to attack them, either. And I really don’t need to defend Trump’s white women voters…
… finish that sentence: For being white?
White women, I believe our defensiveness in these situations (for those of us who feel it) stems in part from the fact that we DO recognize ourselves as part of this category, white. I believe this defensiveness is a reaction that reflects our own confusion around race and racism; around race as a personal characteristic versus a social construct. The defensiveness belies the fact that we do believe it is both. It’s a social construct except when it’s talking about us, so we take is personally… BECAUSE we have mistaken having a race or being part of a race with being racist… BECAUSE we have mistaken NOTICING racism, or ACKNOWLEDGING race and racial difference as being racist. BECAUSE in the status quo, if we notice the difference in power by race, we MUST acknowledge our own place, by virtue of our race, in these systems of unequal racial power. BECAUSE, if we acknowledge our own race and we acknowledge unequal systems of power based on race, then we must be racist.
And we don’t want to be racist!
I could keep going around and around and around.
Put simply, I think a more productive approach is to drop all that and acknowledge that we might actually be racist sometimes, without meaning to, or without knowing it. You can’t fix it if you can’t acknowledge it.
We want racism to be about systems… but these systems are made of people. And we are the people. Our actions, our customs, our beliefs, our rules, our relationships constitute the systems in which we live.
None of us is immune to it — how could we be? It IS the water we are swimming in. Does a fish need to feel shame for swimming in water it didn’t know was there? No. But once you know it is there, you must do something about the quality of that water.
I guess my approach is to accept that I might not always know what all the water looks like. Is this water, too? It might be. Are we swimming in it? Probably.
I FELT defensive.
That’s really all I need to know.
__________________ How to conclude? I don’t know… because I guess I’m not finished. More to learn and do. My hope is that I continue to grapple, and do more good than harm in the process.
I’m talking about LOVE here, not head in the sand denial.
I’m talking about love as the WILL to act, to support the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of ourselves and each other. I’m not talking about unity or forgiveness, and certainly not, forgetting.
This self-love that I am preaching right now is about re-membering. Putting ourselves back together so we have the strength to fight on.
Right now, in THIS moment, I’m calling on you to TRY a practice of radical, revolutionary self-love… BeCause WE NEED YOU!
We need you whole and whole-hearted for the fights ahead. Work with me to heal and be whole, so that you can find what matters to YOU, and pursue it with passion.
The work ahead will look different for each and every one of us. But we need to know who we are. We need to FEEL the pain of the past four years and feel the lightness of this temporary moment and be able to remember BOTH moving forward. Join me!
This challenge uses the principles of neuroplasticity to help us build new neural pathways of self-love and self-compassion. Even just 1 minute a day can make a profound change in your brain, and in your mind. The key is FEELING. Let yourself FEEL love and direct it to yourself. Maybe give this guided meditation a try to prepare:
Four years ago, the day after Trump was elected, I wrote:
“I’m not ok. I am stunned, numb and horrified knowing that many millions of people supported that vile, disgusting creature. That they’ve been surrounding us all this time. That they are now ascendant.”
This past weekend, I was ELATED when the news came in that this year’s election had been called for Biden and Harris!!
We must celebrate this repudiation of Trumpism—even if it wasn’t a landslide. If you’re like me, you’ve been repeatedly stunned, numb and horrified for four years. And now, we have the additional stress of a global pandemic that has isolated us from each other, leaving us to deal with these continuous blows feeling like we’re alone.
My friend, Celeste Derozier shared this quote from May Sarton that expresses the danger of this situation:
Hatred rather than love dominates. How does one handle it? The greatest danger as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence – nature, the arts, human love.
Right now, it’s not just disparate media environments separating “us” from “them” and each other. We have been literally isolated into our own private worlds by the pandemic.
There are two parts to the antidote: keeping a channel open to our pain, and celebrating the true joys that come. Both require love. This is a piece of my thinking right now on the importance of love fueling our fight as we move forward, and why I hope you’ll start with my challenge to practice real self-love for one minute every day this week.
Can you love YOU for 1 whole minute? If you’re journaling and having trouble getting started, try this: Reflect on your three greatest strengths and write down specific examples of actions, behaviors, or accomplishments that demonstrate them. Then try the exercise of writing just for 1 minute: I love you. #iloveyoume
The self-care establishment is always talking about loving yourself and practicing self-love. I hear that and think it’s so obvious. And yet…Over the summer, this idea of actively practicing self LOVE became a recurring theme in the conferences and classes I was taking online. I took it as a sign and tried starting a Self-love Journal.For someone who has never had any trouble cranking out words when putting pen to paper, I found this exercise of simply writing — and FEELING — “I love you” to myself surprisingly challenging, achingly revealing, and ultimately powerful. I could easily tell myself:
“I love how you try.”
“I love how you care about the animals.”
“I love how hard you work.”
But, simply to write and mean, “I love you,” forced me to confront my inner critic in a way I never really had before.I’ve been thinking a lot about love, lately. As we begin to see a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel we’ve been in the last four years, I feel strongly that our continued fight for justice MUST be fueled by love.
I’m talking about the love that works actively to support the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of each other, our community.
I’ve argued in the past that we need to expand the concept of “self” to include our community, otherwise all efforts at personal growth come at the expense of recognizing our place within systems of power.
But if it’s this hard to tell myself, I love you, and mean it, how am I going to fight for the broader community from a place of love? How am I going to overcome the demons of racism and white supremacy that live on in me, that lurk beneath the surface as fear of perceived others?
Perhaps my difficulty saying, I love you, to myself, and meaning it, is in part about my own shame and guilt, the recognition that those OTHER white people I call racist are also me (along with my other shortcomings).
Well, guess what? None of us is perfect. So I figure we could all start by learning to love our own imperfect selves, and support each other in the process. Perhaps through this process we will gain compassion through community.
We’ve all been under a lot of pressure these past 8 months… 4 years… 400 years. We need to heal and move forward with love. There will be many paths forward, different for each of us. But I see the unifying factor as love and compassion for ourselves and each other.
This week, I invite you to join me in the practice of simply saying to yourself —either verbally, looking in the mirror, mentally, or in writing: I love you. Acknowledge all that you are struggling with and give yourself credit for persevering through this crisis. Do this for just 1 minute every day for 5 days. Let’s see how we do. #iloveyoume
Catharsis: an emotional discharge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress.
Once when I was visiting my mom in Katy, I heard her listening to opera late one night. She had been sick with a complex of chronic autoimmune diseases for more than a decade. Her life had been constricted to the walls of her home and her backyard. She made the most of both, creating a glorious garden with something in bloom year round, and filling her house with music. That night I went out to join her and she was sitting on the couch crying, overwhelmed by the extraordinary gift of their voices.
Now, there were probably a lot of other emotions mixed in with that overwhelming sense of wonder. But the tears were like a release valve.
I’ve been moved in this way a few times in my life—blown OPEN and blown away by the magic of seeing Nina Simone from the front row singing songs from Porgy and Bess; exploding with joy at feeling the baritone of Leonard Cohen’s voice singing his exquisite lyrics. I balled my eyes out watching Eddie Vedder, and—not gonna lie, witnessing the completely out of his mind Kris Kristofferson croak out Take the Ribbons from Your Hair. (OK, now you know a lot about me, just from that list.)
We all have something that makes is feel this way. This week I invite you to go to that thing. See it, hear it, play it, cook it, eat it, touch it, do whatever it is.
As Leonard said, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. It’s also how the pressure gets OUT.
A little theory
You can think of that pressure as our own divine creative spark resonating. It pushes back against the oppression of our spirit. Sometimes it feels like righteous anger. Sometimes it feels like love.
In yoga shakti is the divine feminine and creative potential with which we are all endowed, and which must be EXPRESSED.
Our innate desire to create is expressed in a number of ways—one of which is kama, defined by master yogi Rod Stryker as “the desire for pleasure of all kinds, including closeness and intimacy, beauty, family, art, and friendship, as well as sex.”
It’s what Audre Lorde was describing when she spoke of the power of the erotic.
THERE ARE MANY kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.
In the world of science and cultivating the potential of our inherent neuroplasticity, our buddy Rick Hanson discusses the need for excitement and enthusiasm. Excitement is energy plus positive emotion. Enthusiasm is being moved by something extraordinary, even divine. You may find that this is a time where these things feel stifled, tamped down. The principles of neuroplasticity mean that we can create these FEELINGS for ourselves and help rewire our brains and bodies more conducive to these states when they’re possible.
I know it sounds a little like fake it until you make it, but it works!
A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted a challenge to boycott buying all new clothing for a year in the name of the climate crisis. My friend is part of an international movement called Extinction Rebellion. They are artists and activists and parents and regular people who are taking on the climate crisis from the level of culture.
I am taking the challenge! (for the most part… I still want to be able to buy activist t-shirts that support local artists and groups and candidates I support).
According to an article in The Guardian, this effort is about reducing consumption overall. The fashion industry (along with advertising) is an enormous promoter of our culture of waste and over consumption:
100 bn items are produced each year, “far more than we need”;
fashion is a contributor to about 10% of carbon emissions;
it is one of the biggest polluters, responsible for the release of a huge amount of microfibres and plastics into the ocean.”
And, there’s a lot that could be said about the fashion industry’s exploitation of women and children as workers.
But there’s another angle to this that I want to shine a spotlight on: the role of compulsory fashion consumption in body shaming and the development of poor body image and self-esteem. Our clothing becomes a source of comparison for all children very early. I’m inspired by the story of a middle school teacher who wore the same dress for 100 days. Part of her motivation was to demonstrate what could be done with the energy we might otherwise be spending each morning deciding what to wear.
Climate and environmental warriors have been promoting alternatives to “fast fashion” for years. If you’d like to support a Texas-based organization doing great work, AND have a FUN, creative night out (in Austin), check out Texas Campaign for the Environment‘s Trash Makeover! It’s always for much fun, and supports a fantastic group doing the hard work on cleaning up our state. Check out this cool video!
“Their most recent, and possibly most horrific, attempt at a money grab is to launch this app aimed at kids ages 8-17. The app starts with a seven-day free trial, but for kids to continue with their personalized coach, the monthly subscription fee starts at $69 a month. (The adult version of Weight Watchers online with coaching is $54.95/month)“
Emphasis added. This really gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it?
Chastain sites some more scary stats:
95% of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25 (SAMHSA)
40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming overweight. This concern endures through life. (Smolak, 2011)
Among high-school students, 44% of females and 15% of males attempted to lose weight. (Serdula et al., 1993)
35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. (Shisslak & Crago, 1995)
Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors (ex, skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, purging) (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005)
In a decade we saw a 119% increase in eating disorder hospitalizations in kids UNDER TWELVE.
Now, I doubt that most kids who end up subscribing to this app are paying for it themselves. We as the loving adults in children’s lives are implicated in this disease. This app plays to the fears of moms and other adult women that their children might be or become “over” weight, which carries so much more meaning than just having a fuller figure. Do we fear they will be unloved, bullied, unsuccessful, unhappy? Just what WOULD we pay to prevent these outcomes? $69 per month doesn’t sounds so bad.
Or, perhaps even worse, do we fear what it says about us? That we produced or raised a child that is lazy, unhealthy, sloppy, doesn’t care, isn’t good enough—that we somehow failed?
Wow. What a weighty burden for those children to carry!
And they do. Because we do.
I would guess that most people in our culture carry a lot of subconscious assumptions about body size and shape. We apply them to ourselves, and to others. It is PERVASIVE, and often wrapped in a veneer of concern for health (which is challenged rather persuasively by DeAun Nelson, ND in her podcast, Do No Harm). And, as I’m learning, fat phobia and fat oppression are intimately entwined in our other major systems of domination and oppression—and not just sexism/gender oppression, but also racism. There is a LOT to unpack.
As I’ve turned more attention to this issue through my work with Embody Love Movement, I’ve had to confront many of my own ugly unconscious ideas about weight and health. It’s going to be a journey for me, but the first step is catch the thoughts as they arise, question them, and perhaps most importantly, challenge my own rationalizations. I’ll continue to share resources here. Comment or contact me to get involved in this work locally through San Antonio’s own “chapter” of Embody Love Movement.