I live in a beautiful, affluent little town infused with the legacy of 60s-era hippie activism and a uniquely Northern Californian hodge-podge of spiritual traditions. While I can’t say what an entire town of people believe about themselves, the impression I have is that most of these kind, good-hearted people believe that they are living a life of integrity and spiritual rightness, and thus manifesting a world in accord with their beliefs and practices.
It is possible to cynically point out the contradictions—the cars with “no blood for oil” stickers on them, the whiteness of a place that so deeply and flagrantly believes in multiculturalism, the ex-San Franciscans that deplore the gentrification of their former city as they open up high-end restaurants and vacation rentals here. It is possible to go down this path of “calling-out.” But to do so would not be helpful and to do so would be to temp my own hypocrisy into the spotlight. I would self-righteously be denying my own contradictions as I sit in the newest high-end coffee shop writing this essay against privilege before I go shop at the local organic market that prices poor people out of access to healthy food. In other words, we are together in this suffering. We are all at once victims of larger systems, seemingly (though not) out of our control. There is a good case to be made for compassion when we all are participating, through the very act of living, in a world of so much inequality and forgetfulness.
So our job perhaps, is to remember, and to act in accord with our remembering. To remember the many origins of the situation in which we find ourselves. To take some account of the history that we all live out on a daily basis. And it is perhaps our job as well to temper our urge to be redeemed by the relative nature of oppression. Yes we are all suffering under larger systems, but it’s also true that suffering comes in degrees. Yes, we are all oppressors and we are all oppressed, however, this relativism is not pure and for many it is more heavily weighted on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, the degrees of suffering with which I must contend (as a white, cis-gendered, hetero, able-bodied man) are far fewer than the degrees to which those who have made my life possible may suffer.
There are so many origins to remember because our forgetting is not so much a series of acts, laced together like a pearl necklace—each act a type of theft, but rather, our forgetting is a lifestyle, deeply embedded inside of our culture. It is a dirty ocean in which we all swim. So let us begin with something small and seemingly benign.
The coffee in front of me: the beans come from the Indonesian island of Flores. Coffee production in this region was a direct result of a highly exploitative Dutch colonization. While there are no longer slave-like coffee plantations as we might think of them, there is still a great divide between traditional Indonesian cultures and the global market. Assuming that the Indonesian farmers want to participate in a global market (though history tells us this may not be a business decision as much as a decision for survival), efforts are being made to create a more ethical coffee trade. Nonetheless, as I sip this ridiculously delicious cup of coffee, I am left with an acrid aftertaste of grief, knowing that some of the coffee farmers (without whom the cup of coffee and the price I paid for it would not have been possible) have received very little for their work. This inequity is a direct result from a colonial history that I had nothing to do with but from which I, even now in 2016, benefit.
And that’s just the farmers. Not to mention the boxers (and the trees that made the boxes), the transporters (and the incredible resources extracted to make the vehicle, highways, the fuel…), the grocers, the resource-heavy roasting and processing equipment, the roasters themselves, and the baristas; all of which had some part in bringing me this little cup of coffee. And of course the coffee shop I sit in is made mostly of wood, concrete and metal, all of which were extracted most likely without any permission from, consideration of, or offerings to Nature herself. I do not make this roll-call of origins to suggest that we shouldn’t go to coffee shops. Nor do I suggest that we should all begin growing our own coffee and killing our own meat. We can’t go back and just be “indigenous” (that very word deserves its own essay to unpack and understand) at least not without a huge amount of cultural baggage that would likely undermine the process anyway. I applaud anyone who does make efforts to be less reliant on harmful economic systems. But my intention in bringing all this up is to draw attention to the fact that our lives, even down to a cup of coffee, are constructed around a hierarchy of taking and the privilege of forgetting about all that from whom we have taken (mother earth being a part of that “whom”).
There is even more than just the inequity of the global market that makes my little excursion to the coffee shop so comfortable. Not only can I afford this cup of coffee but I find myself in a coffee shop where everyone looks like me, thinks generally the way I do, and where music of the dominant culture (of which I am a part) is playing. On my way to the coffee shop I had no encounters with police and if I would have it’s not likely that they would have resulted in jail or death, regardless of my guilt or innocence.
This is one example of how I benefit from oppression on a daily basis and the benefits accrued from this systemic oppression are what can be short-handedly referred to as privilege.
Many people understand that they are privileged but fall short when asked to describe their privilege. Others can describe it but get stuck in the guilt of what that means. And I should be clear that the guilt, while it can be crippling, is also a completely valid response to realizing how unfair our systems are for people with less privilege. Guilt can also be useful, but only if it is used as a launching point and not an endpoint. As one person told me at the White Privilege Conference (yes, there is a conference on white privilege!), “I don’t give a damn if you feel guilty about your privilege, but I care a lot about if you’re gonna do something about it.” So what is to be done about our privilege?
To truly answer this question would require another essay, if not an entire book. So let us start small, as we did with the coffee cup. Let us begin by remembering the origins of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Since people can fall in many places on the oppressor/oppressed continuum (and can, almost quantum physically, be at more than one place at any given moment depending on the context), I am reticent to describe how one should go about their own remembering. So instead, I will simply tell you about my re-membering.
I recently took two ten-day workshops with author and cultural steward Martín Prechtel. It was here that the importance of remembering origins deepened for me. Whereas before, I’d been vigilant in remembering that I have privilege and that it has consequences, I had yet to adequately consider the origins and consequences of this privilege. I had considered the relatively recent history of slavery and genocide on which the country in which I grew up had been founded. I had considered the many historical factors that had resulted in huge benefits for me: how my family had immigrated under favorable conditions (for example, unlike many Africans, my ancestors emigrated by choice), the benefits of the Homestead Act (free land for white settlers, land off of which Native Americans were pushed or killed), free labor from slavery, and housing laws that disqualified black people from buying houses and thus accruing equity and centralizing wealth with white people. I had considered how in my own life, my hard work was greatly augmented by class, race and gender privilege. Yes I went to college and yes I worked hard, but to get there I didn’t have to take out as many loans and I had a large base of community work and volunteerism to show the college application committees. Those jobs and that volunteerism was made possible by social connections that were isolated within the white middle-upper class communities and by the fact that I could drive, thanks to a car bought for me by my parents. Furthermore, in elementary and high school, my teachers assumed I was naturally capable of learning. And despite frequently disruptive and bad behavior, I was given opportunity after opportunity to continue my education. My fellow students of color did not get such allowances.
So I went to college and I got a good job. This allowed me to be able to afford the time-time off, travel expenses, workshop fees, and lodging to go and study with Martín. Those workshops empowered my own sense of spirituality and deepened my worldview immensely. I began to see spirituality and life very differently. While I wholeheartedly believe that spirituality is not a commodity to be bought, I cannot escape the fact that many of my own opportunities for spiritual awakening were made possible by my privilege.
While studying with Martín I also began to notice how entitled I act. For example, one morning Martín had played us a series of songs. One in particular was very moving and I had to know what that song was and who sang it. At the break I made a bee-line to the young man who was acting as Martín’s DJ and asked, “What was that third song you played, it was amazing, what was that?” He looked at me, bright eyed and kind. He paused, took a breath and the said, “Good Morning!”
I felt a wave of shame come over me. He could sense my need to have the answer given to me in a quick, tidy package, as if I was ordering fast food. He could sense my need to know and consume the song, to objectify the song and to objectify him. I hadn’t even the courtesy to say hello or good morning. I just wanted to know the name of that damn song and I wanted it now. In that moment, he was just a vehicle to get me what I wanted. He was not a human being, and if I am completely honest, neither was I.
What does this have to do with privilege? This interaction was no different than twenty other interactions I have in a given day. I need, I want, I need. I can feel that same anxious entitlement gnawing at me in the car, at work, in the supermarket. It says, “I have a life to live, I deserve to have this thing or that, in fact, I need to have this because I have a life to live. Dammit! Don’t you understand?! Let’s go already!”
And so it goes. It’s an entitlement sprouted and nurtured by privilege itself. It is an entitlement that subtly and sometimes not so subtly says, “this world is made for me. It is my needs, desires, and dreams that are most important.” And in an individualistic culture my spirituality becomes truncated and warped. It becomes more about manifesting my individual life into some sort of spiritual achievement than about bringing something holy, sacred and healing to the community.
Coming from a more compassionate place, I realize that this is how I’ve been trained. This is how we have all been trained. We are all born in dirty water. How though, has this water become so adulterated? I mentioned the more recent history of our country but how was it that the Europeans as a people were capable of such atrocities? Martín helped me deepen this inquiry as well.
Origins: History and The Cost of Privilege
Without going into a long, anthropological history, it is important to spend some time considering that so-called “white people” were also once indigenous, as simplified as this examination may be. Just as they colonized the Americas, my ancestors were themselves colonized by Greece, Rome, the Christians, etc. That process continues to this day as we lose our souls to the new religions of science and capitalism, neither of which have much respect for indigenous ways of knowing and loving the earth. It was some of the colonized European ancestors who decided that only light skinned people were worthy enough to be considered citizens, to own land, etc. It was the more privileged of them who, in order to break up solidarity between white indentured servants and black slaves, decided that race was something to be considered as a value judgment. Before that, the social hierarchy was determined by geography, familial backgrounds, tribal ranks, and other cultural factors. But over time those Europeans who were tribal became Christians, or serfs, or lords or kings and then eventually entrepreneurs, emigrants, and indentured servants. And in order to get out of their servitude and get a piece of the privilege in this new land, the servants became “white.”
Not dissimilarly, women leaders, seers and priestesses became witches, burned and buried, or they renounced their spiritual powers and survived as good Christians, housewives, or concubines. And with that, Mother Earth herself lost her most capable allies.
What we are talking about is the same thing that the local Pomo and other indigenous tribes across the country and worldwide have been talking about for hundreds of years: generation after generation of loss. And with each generation came a degeneration of what it meant to be a human being. The stories that came out of the earth, which our current culture short-changes as “mythology,” were replaced by stories of industry, progress, war and death.
As I considered all of this, my disconnection from this history and my own indigenous background came painfully into view. For years I have flirted with the grief of this but was often mollified by the demands of surviving modern life, or by my own desire to escape the grief through alcohol, computers, television, yoga, anger, and depression (or what Martín calls “the lack of grief”). So I began to see that, despite what my old therapist Francis Weller calls our “culture of ascension,” the only way out is in fact down. The answer to how to deal with one’s privilege must include the willingness to grieve the losses of what has been traded- materially, culturally and spiritually—in order to gain that privilege. Otherwise, I believe we are destined to not just perpetuate the inhumane inequity through non-action, but we will likely cause further harm by capitalizing on our privilege and/or trying to take even more from other people’s and cultures in order to fill the hole caused by our un-grieved losses.
The loss of our own ancestral wisdom and the loss of our indigenous connection to the earth is huge, but it is not the totality of the loss. For myself, I also count the rigid economic systems that objectify and dehumanize us into mere workers whilst separating families and communities in the name of capital and accumulation. I count the false sense of safety I have knowing my local police department is seeing more danger in the black man who is my neighbor than in the white man who might be planning to shoot up another campus or grocery store or theater and who may also be my neighbor. I count the fear and apprehension on each side of some of my relationships with people of color. I count the alienating suburban sprawl that allowed my parents and myself, in our white flight, to live quite separate lives from those suffering the systems that were benefiting us. I count the many elitist art scenes, poisoned by capitalism and Eurocentrism, and that get passed off as community. I count the loss of true community, based not in similarity of dress or thought, but in love and struggle of how hard it is to be human; a community that would gather for survival and ritual, but always feed the life from which they constantly take so that they can be alive in this world. Lastly, I count the loss of my own humanity that becomes gravely compromised by the ways I consciously or unconsciously perpetuate privilege and oppression.
It is important to note that acknowledging the loss privilege engenders does not in anyway negate the benefits afforded to us by our privilege. It is simply a deepening of understanding how our privilege hurts not just others, but ourselves as well. This understanding is not an endgame. To the contrary, this understanding is a call to further action. The work of challenging the effects of privilege and the dismantling of the systems that create it must be done. However, how we go about that work will be enriched by our grief, because it will be informed by a sense of loss and our own truest desires for a better world, a tighter community, a more complete understanding of our history and more possibilities of how to be a human being and how to organize our communities in the future. Our grief takes us beyond superficial multiculturalism and into working for a collective liberation.
Grief , Disconnection, and Cultural Appropriation
Francis and Martín, my sweet and fierce teachers, also advocate the act of courting. Courting is an act of courteously and respectfully inviting someone or something into connection. Courting is in opposition to seduction, which is putting on a false pretense in order to take or otherwise dominate someone or something. Courting is offering fertile soil for a seed to arise on it’s own terms, while seduction is modifying that seed to meet your own needs. To court means not just making space and time in your life for grief but to actually invite it through acts of prayer, offering, journaling, meditation, or other communal and cultural practices. Among our many losses and forgettings, we no longer know how to adequately grieve, except maybe individually, alone in the late hours of night, which often only serves to perpetuate our isolation. In fact, as I write this I can say that I still have not fully experienced the grief of all of this. But I can see what I do with that grief, or rather, what it does with me when it is not embodied and processed.
Aside from the aforementioned addictive behaviors, there is another side effect of grief avoidance. It’s a longing, sometimes innocent, and sometimes intrusive. It is the inexplicable ache I felt when seeing the bucolic scenes of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings movies. It’s my attraction to the now fashionable aesthetic of so-called “tribal” tattoos, piercings, hairstyles and clothing. It’s in the huge amount of time I’ve spent trying to uncover the so-called Indian part of my ancestry, and it’s conversely in the lack of time I have spent in trying to uncover the more prominent European sides of my ancestry. It is in my disgust of whiteness and thus at times myself. The result is a denial of not just what I have lost but a denial of who I am, of who history has made me. This longing is my grief displaced. It’s me trying to fill that cultural void with the shards of what were once more intact cultures around me, my unconscious volition towards enacting cultural practices and customs that I don’t really understand or even if I do, practices and customs that I have not been given permission to enact. This is also known as cultural appropriation. I should be clear about what I mean by cultural appropriation. It’s not just the enacting of cultural practices that one has not been given permission to enact, it is when this is done to the benefit of the appropriator and to the detriment of the culture from which it is taken.
One hallmark of cultural appropriation is when those that created a particular cultural practice are not involved in its propagation. For example, Native American Art galleries in which very little, if any, of the art is done by Native peoples or even if it is, they are paid little for their contributions. Another local example is yoga. Yoga has become a staple of spiritual and non-spiritual communities across the country. While some studios maintain a fidelity to the spiritual traditions and even specific lineages of the teachings, most do not and millions of dollars have been made from this reworking, to put it nicely, of another cultures practices. Just looking at the average yoga advertisement will tell you that this 5000 year-old austere spiritual practice from India is now a fitness fad for the middle class, mostly white, able-bodied, (and according to the ads which adhere to current standards of beauty: thin) North American women. Has this harmed the Indus-Sarasvati people from which this tradition was taken? Arguably yes. One person who has considered this deeply is Yogi Nisha Ahuja who gets deep into the problematic nature of yoga in the West. Her work can be found here.
Many argue against this reality by stating that every culture is influenced by another culture and the history of humans is but a million mergings of peoples and their customs. True as that may be, this argument is a just a few short steps away from saying that violence and colonization is human nature, which an honest and detailed examination of history would not support. It also suggests that we should accept the power differentials that exist in society because that’s just how it’s always been. What is also true is that in every act of brutal oppression or quiet colonization, there were resisters. People who were pathologized as “traditionalists,” “savages,” “rebels,” or “terrorists” who fought against the violence of the privileged in order to preserve their way of life. Another wonderful piece about cultural appropriation and what ethical and fair cultural collaboration can look like can be found here.
Not only does cultural appropriation serve to anger people from whose cultures from which we take (and making them feel again violated, colonized and exploited) but it also robs us of an opportunity to grieve and heal and in doing so realize that our privilege has both helped and harmed us.
I would contend that no spirituality in today’s United States can escape or transcend issues of power and privilege and to try to do so will only diminish one’s spirit. If one function of spirituality is to navigate what it means to be human, then no functional spirituality can lack a practice of grief. And if one function of spirituality is to enable a community to care for itself, then no functional spirituality can avoid the grief created by oppression and violence, however subtle that violence may be. In other words, if we truly believe in love, compassion, and healing, then it is simply not enough to meditate. To be in accord with our own sense of humanity and spirit, we must actively resist practices of colonization by, among other things, dealing with privilege, entitlement, and appropriation
The Fruits of our Grief: Re-membering
We often hear the maxim: “To change the world, we must first change ourselves.” It’s usually attributed to Eastern religions like Taoism or Buddhism. What’s not considered is how those cultures and our own culture may interpret that idea differently. In our highly individualistic culture this is often a reasoning against community involvement and social activism, as if one day, after much meditation and yoga and eating right, we will arrive at this perfect place in which we can then begin to change the world. What is never considered is how engaging with the pain and injustice around us (read: trying to change the world!) may actually change us as individuals- for the better! In other words, changing ourselves and changing the world are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. In going beyond Euro-centric “either/or” thinking, we are invited to think more holistically using “both/and” thinking. We can change ourselves and change the world and both efforts will accentuate one another.
Re-membering practices are multifaceted. They include re-membering ourselves as a member of a human family with huge power differentials that have at times had grave consequences. It is re-membering ourselves as members of a spiritual community that is trying to deal with the disaster of history that has put us at such odds with others in our own human family. But remembering takes time and effort. It takes courting. We must seek out alternative stories to the ones we’ve been told—find those buried and bludgeoned histories that were banished from light. We must start to understand our own familial and cultural histories and invite both celebration and mourning for all the beauty and loss we may find. We must court grief and make a place for it in our lives. Grief is powerful and can liberate us from guilt and shame. Grief teaches us that other people’s lives and liberation is tied up in our own. We must sooth our guilt with our tears and our resolve. And we must do better. Liberated from guilt and shame, we are free to move into action.
While I would not want to mandate the process by which all of this grief and re-membering should occur, I will offer up seven things that have been useful on my own path. These things may also be very useful in courting grief and as well as giving us a way to process it.
- Journaling: make an effort to notice moments when you feel privileged, guilty, scared, or frustrated in relation to your social positioning (your gender, your race, etc…). Write about it. Ask yourself: What does this say about me? What does it say about my community? Why does this make me so uncomfortable?
- Privilege Inventory: Simply make a list of all the privileges you have and/or a list of all the ways your privilege affects your life. You can also make an inventory of all the difficult or uncomfortable racial or gender or class interactions you have had and ask yourself how your privilege was operating in those moments and what you could have done differently. This is not supposed to be an exercise in shame, but rather an exercise in accountability.
- Ethnoautobiography: The internet has a lot that can be useful in writing your own ethnoautobiography. This entails doing your own familial and cultural background research that may include genetics, family stories, country of origin research, and trying to get a solid grasp of your cultural heritage. This may also include imaginal intuition such as dreams or art. The point is to begin to understand ourselves as cultural beings (not just some white norm or non-white, non-norm). We all have long and complicated histories about how we became who we are and how we ended up where we are geographically, politically, culturally and spiritually. An ethnoautobiography is an opportunity to explore this! It is possible that you may also learn about long-lost cultural traditions from your ancestors which may then find a home in your life, thus replacing practices you have borrowed from other cultures (even with the best of intentions).
- Vigilant Mindfulness: Where ever you are throughout the day, ask yourself: Do I have privilege in this situation? Will my words or actions in this moment be interpreted differently because of my social positioning (race, gender, class, etc.)? Will I interpret what others are saying or doing differently because of my own cultural background? Am I feeling entitled to what I hope for or want, and how might that sense of entitlement affect others?
- Find Allies: This is not a path that should be tread in isolation. Where I live, in Sonoma County, California, there’s a group called Racial Justice Allies that holds monthly dialogues, movies, and events about whiteness, privilege, and anti-racism skill building. The Heru Network is a local group holding monthly events and dialogues about black culture and history. Ask around for groups local to your area. Even if you don’t want to be involved in a social justice group, it’s important to have support. By that I don’t mean just your best friend or your partner, but people who are currently on a path of examining and dealing with racial or gender dynamics in their community or who have done this kind of work before. More specifically, I mean people who can hold you accountable but also remind you of your own goodness. I have been lucky to have several of these people in my life.
- Do the homework: It’s good to find allies, but it’s also important that we not expect people from marginalized groups to be our teachers about oppression. There are ample articles, books, movies, poems, and podcasts from which we can learn and deepen our understanding.
Find a way to confront privilege and oppression in the community
- This could be working with a social justice group or starting your own project. But remember that it doesn’t have to be difficult or overwhelming. The horrible thing about oppression and privilege is that it operates in every aspect of our lives. However, this means there is ample opportunity to address these issues right where you are at: in your family, in your job, in your class, in your spiritual community. Many organizations and spiritual groups have diversity committees, bring in trainers around undoing racism, or have other creative ways of addressing these issues in the moment.
We are tasked with fixing the human quilt by tenderly sewing together the historical rips made by violence, patriarchy and white supremacy. So if we have developed a vigilant practice of noticing our social positioning, particularly the place in which we find ourselves privileged, and we have begun to study the origins of this privilege, and we have begun to see not only how we benefit but also how we lose, then we can begin to deal with this emotionally. We can offer ourselves kindness, forgiveness and a commitment to do better. This, in turn will inform how we can deal with these matters strategically, together and accountable to our friends, our loved ones, and our adversaries (who also are sometimes our friends and loved ones). We can re-member ourselves as members of a vibrant community, with many different kinds of hearts beating, beating, beating.