A truth about hard feelings: Truth is to be found in hard feelings

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.

First, a poem:

(This Line Intentionally Left Blank)

BY J. ALLYN ROSSER

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.

Celebrate your inner strength on Hanuman’s birthday

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A beautiful interpretation of Hanumanasana from the book Metamorphosis, by Emanuele Scanziani.

Tomorrow, March 31, marks Hanuman Jayanti, an important Hindu religious festival honoring Hanuman. Half monkey, half man, Hanuman is a pivotal character in the Hindu epic Ramayana, known for his bravery and selfless devotion to Lord Rama, whom he served throughout most of his life. As a symbol within the faith tradition, Hanuman stands for the power of devotion to discipline the unruly “monkey” mind and guide us into right action.

Tomorrow, in my Noon Body Strong Flow class at MBS Yoga, we will honor the spirit of Hanuman Jayanti with a strong practice focused on building the strengths that Hanuman represents: focus, determination and strength. We’ll hear some of Hanuman’s stories and learn a little more about this important figure while we practice the yoga pose named for him. We are in no way even approximating a true Hanuman Jayanti celebration, but we can acknowledge the celebration and offer in our own way something to the intention of the day.

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Focus is the reward

 

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Benny was my mom’s dog. He came to me with some pretty bad habits: peeing wherever he wanted, barking at everyone, and biting people, mainly the ones with red hair! So when I got him, I took him to obedience school. He was already 7 years old, but I was sure we could break him of these lifelong behaviors.

We both learned a lot at obedience school. One thing I learned was that Benny’s obedience was pretty much up to me — I was the one that was going to have to learn and practice how to be a dog’s master. Seven years later, Benny is just as bad as ever.

I failed obedience school, but Benny did learn one thing: how to focus. The game was for me to hide a treat in one hand and reach my arms out to each side. Benny’s job was to keep his eyes on ME, not the treat in my hand. If he could, he got the treat. He was really good at it! In no other task could he focus his attention and concentrate like he could in this one.

In yoga, you may find yourself going for the treat, the calendar pose reward at the end of all that work. But the real reward comes from learning how to stay centered and focus.

Yoga offers a complete set of practices to help you do that. What I love about the asana practice we do in class is that it anchors the mental effort in the physical body. In balancing poses, and in transitions from one pose to another, you’ve got to activate and fix your mind to your core, to the deep muscles that stabilize and ground you while all the “action” is going on in the periphery. Physically, energetically with your muscles, you have to pull yourself IN. In the body, you draw the abdominal muscles IN. You gently retract the limbs INto the sockets that connect to the torso—hips and shoulders. Plugged into your center, you can make any transition, from a strong, side stretching backbend to a twisted, forward bending balancing pose.

Here’s a little clip of a sequence that requires a LOT of focus. It’s speeded up to double-time, and I still falter, but you’ll see what I mean.

Focus on the breath

Meditate copyYoga teachers often instruct our students to “focus on your breath.” But what does that mean exactly? This guided meditation walks you through observing several different qualities of the breath. Learning how to notice these fine qualities helps attune your perception of your own physical self right here, right now. Plugging into how you actually feel physically in your body opens the door to deeper inquiry into the self.

Fall into abundance

I love Fall. It’s a time of year when it’s hard not to notice the turning of the earth, the days getting shorter, sometimes cooler. As the prelude to winter, I think Fall can trigger melancholy in people. But I associate fall with my garden. Here in hot South Texas, Fall is the most abundant growing season for root veggies, greens of all kinds broccoli, cauliflower. I look forward to fall for planting seeds. When summer’s flowers have fallen, my garden keeps giving. 

This year I started helping manage a community garden on the East Side. The Eastpoint S.O.U.L Garden (SOUL stands for Sutton Oaks Urban Learning) has 17 raised beds serving residents in what has traditionally been a food desert in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The garden gives me many opportunities to pay attention. Here are some images from the past few weeks.

Tonglen: Giving and receiving to develop compassion

Meditate copyReturning to the topic of compassion and cultivating our capacity to give and receive it… I recorded this guided tonglen meditation earlier in September, in the wake of Charlottesville, after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, but before Irma, Maria, and two major earthquakes in Mexico. The earth trembles for our compassion. Tonglen is a powerful practice that uses conscious breath work and imagery to inspire empathy and compassion, something we all need to practice. Give it a try.

 

 

 

 

Giving and receiving compassion

One of the first meditation techniques I learned was tonglen, a buddhist practice of giving and receiving compassion. One of my favorite buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, describes tonglen this way:

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

This traditional practice involves breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion. As you inhale, you imagine that you are inhaling suffering — it can be your own suffering, the suffering of someone you know, or the suffering of the world. You take it in and then exhale imagining compassion and well-being emanating from your breath, the suffering having been transformed.

In his book,  Just One Thing, Rick Hanson explains that practicing compassion helps strengthen those neural pathways, making them more accessible and automatic when you need them. Moreover, practicing receiving compassion primes you to give it, and vice versa.

This week’s video meditation plays with Hanson’s prescription for practicing compassion. Do it for yourself. Give it a try!

Two women to support this month!

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Janelle Renee Matous is the exclusive photographer for all my yoga portraits. I trust her completely to make me look beautiful and strong. Janelle is moving to San Antonio this month! Tell her I referred you and get a 10% discount. She is wonderful!

 

 

 

il_fullxfull.648347380_9630Kori Jones is the brilliant yogini and artist behind Irok Gems. Kori specializes in restorative yoga and has applied her gifts to the military veterans and to the widowed spouses through the American Widow Project. I own four of her pieces, two malas and two bracelets. I love wearing them and knowing I am supporting her.

 

Practice Makes… Progress!

Practice copyLast month I introduced a feature called “Practice,” in which I will share with you video documentation of my own practice on a particular pose. For July, I chose Urdva Danurasana, or full wheel pose. I used to do backbends a lot more than I do now. Somewhere along the way they started hurting my shoulder, so I have sort of avoided them. But I miss the exhilaration of a big heart-opening backbend. Backbends make your heart beat and give you an adrenaline rush. So as I worked on this pose, I focused on the shoulders. My goal was to strengthen the top part of the back bend, get the arm bones plugged into the shoulder sockets so they are protected and then open the upper back so that my arms would be vertical in the “final” posture. When you can get your shoulders aligned straight up over your hands, and your knees aligned over your feet, you are ready to try to stand up! After a month of practice, I did it! Many thanks to MBS Yoga for allowing me to use their beautiful space!