I Am Still Racist

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This is a truth that is hard to admit, I have always believed that I am someone that is progressive and that I don’t have an ounce of prejudice in my body. I have identified my whole life as an anti-racist; the poster child of looking beyond prejudice and hate… But the more I look, the more I see that this prejudice is conditioned in me, against my will maybe, but it is still there. I have always said that part of my meditation practice has been to observe how our mind is conditioned and then dismantle these conditionings to break free from our reactions to emotions like fear, anger, etc.

But here I am, still noticing how thoughts and jugements come up, catching me off guard, during my day to day. I would be lying if I said that I have not caught myself feeling more tense passing a group of young people of colour in the street at night (especially if they fit the classic “gangster” or “thug” image that we are fed in the media) than if it was a bunch of white teenagers or checking my wallet in the subway if I enter a subway car with a group of so-called “thugs” already sitting there… I know that my reactions are wrong, that they are micro-agressions, and I understand why it is wrong and why I should not be doing it. So I ask myself, why am I falling into this pattern?

Like I said before, since as long as I can remember, I have always identified as the anti-racist. A little while ago I saw a photo of me speaking at an Anti-Racism Rally and noticing that everyone that was present was white, this image took me back and made me question exactly what was I trying to do with this form of activism? I truly believed that I was fighting white supremacy and to a certain extent I believe that I was, but I think that there definitely some form of white saviour going on… I was endorsing and validating the belief that it was up to me (the white man) to come and help the oppressed; thanks to my work the oppressed would be free from racism. The more I peel away the layers of my conditioning the more I realize that I am not here to saves all the minorities, that it is not my job to do this but my role is to be an ally.

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So what does that mean? That means that I had to start by listening, for once it was not up to me to take the mic, I had to realize that I have been hogging the mic for too long. So I started listening and reading; during this time I let other people talk and I just listened. This is something that I am comfortable with since I started my Buddhist practice (learning to listen to our minds and our bodies to achieve a better understanding of our experience in the world), this is one of the hardest and most rewarding things I have ever done.

By doing this, listening, I was able to see how I live in a culture of white supremacy, I am constantly bombarded by images that can create racial bias,  casual remarks (I constantly hear that people of colour are lazy because it is cultural, here in Quebec that is mostly directed to people of Haitian heritage), and ignored micro agressions (again, I hear a lot of “they” are a “certain way” because of their “culture” and they are normalized for a lot of people). I also work in the prison system which gives me daily examples of blatant racism, but I am also surrounded by subtle and not so obvious racial biases. I am noticing how my whiteness protects me, and with these realizations I am getting more uncomfortable and seeing as how I can be a better ally…

The first step, I admit that there is racial bias in me, as much as I hate to admit it, it is there. The difference is that now, when it does come up, I listen, I see where it is coming from and I work with it to hopefully dismantle it and work towards not reacting to it… This is another form of fear, hatred, anger; I am using my mindfulness practice to work with these difficult realities with kindness and compassion. I am doing the work, and I am working towards becoming the best ally I can be on any given day. This is my starting point, to admit that my mind is conditioned by a system that is deeply engrained in my society; I am slowly waking up. This is a difficult and uncomfortable process but I want to do the work because white supremacy hurts us all… So yes, I am still racist, but at least I am aware of it and I am working towards dismantling it.

Thank you for your time and reading…

Having that uncomfortable discussion

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I started re-reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, if you are not familiar with this book you should definitely check it out. I have been exploring for a while now what it is to be a cis-gendered, heterosexual, white male; one of the ways I find useful is to also be able to place my experience in contrast with other people’s experience of the world. I find that getting a peek into the lives of authors like James Baldwin and Ta Nehisis Coates has helped me to witness a different reality that I am living; it has also made me question and re-evaluate if I am being a good ally? Also, how am I living my privilege?

I was discussing with a colleague, whom I respect enormously, about how the Baldwin book was bringing stuff up and how I could not even imagine what it would have been to be a gay black man in Harlem in the 1960s. I also continued to say that I would never be able to know what it truly means to be a visible minority in any time period let alone the Baldwin combination; I was then replied with a very serious “Well I believe that I can know what it feels like to be a Black man etc.” I have to admit that I was shocked and made very uncomfortable seeing as it was coming from a man that looks exactly like me (red beard and all). He then went on to tell me that when he converted to Islam he felt more welcomed in the Muslim community than he had ever felt in the past, and thus he was able to know what it felt like to be any Muslim in Canada. Also his reading of Malcom X’s biography had let me see the reality of the black man and was thus in tune with the African American experience of the world.

It is here that I really see intersectionality and privilege and how if I am a minority (e.g. – Islam) in one section of my identity, it does not mean that I am allowed to then say I am able to know the reality of a black man in America or even an Arab Muslim in Canada. This also shows how, as white people, we are not aware of the privilege we embody. We are use to being the norm where most people speak from; we are used to only hearing our voice in history etc.  I find that it is important to read about others experience of the world, but it is not our job to speak for them. This is not what an ally does; we have to become aware of this and to act accordingly.

I read a great article on the internet (Dear White People: Your Comfort Makes You Bad Allies by Donyae Coles) that discusses how this comfort makes us bad allies, let me explain a little. It is all great to post stuff on the internet, to share articles, donate money to different causes, etc. These are all things that are comfortable, and I think to a certain extent they are not that effective either.

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If you want to donate money, that is great, but maybe you should go to a community center in an area in your city that you know is serving underprivileged populations, see what they need instead of assuming that you know what might be best for the community. If you are active on social media sites, don’t unfriend people that do not agree with you. If you are scrolling down your feed and you notice that a friend has posted a story about how men are challenging masculine standards with a certain action and then one of his family members/friends puts a really backwards comment, challenge them. It is hard for people to challenge and confront the racists/misogynists/homophobes/islamaphobes/etc  in their lives, seeing as how you are not related or friends with this person gives you maybe the opportunity to say something that they might not be able to.

There are many good actions that we can do as allies, but I believe that the two most important ones are to not be afraid to get uncomfortable and to take care of your shit. If you are white, you have some racial bias in you and that is Ok, it is not your fault (during your whole life you have been a witness to racist imagery in the media, casual remarks, and micro agressions that have been ignored). Your refusal to look into it however, has a totally different view of responsability and what your role is towards it. This exploration has made me get into extremely uncomfortable discussions with some of my friends (I mean these are my peeps and I never thought that our discussions would shift like that); they have been moments where I have been able to check in with myself and realise the work that I have to do. I have met also new people that have helped nudge me in the right direction; their support and knowledge has been so valuable for me.

I think that it is enough for me for now. Life is so strange sometimes, we think that we are having a pleasant discussion and we are suddenly taken into choppy waters with someone we thought was like-minded. We are responsible for being the person that can hopefully nudge others into doing this messy uncomfortable work, it is so necessary and there has never been a better time than now!

Reminder: Take Care Of Yourself

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I has been a little over a month since I have written, I would like to say that it is because I have writer’s block or no inspiration; but I think that what is happening is that I can feel a little overwhelmed with this work and really don’t know where to start sometimes. Privilege is something that is extremely uncomfortable at times and will bring up really real and intense emotions that can seem impossible to process. It can also seem harder to write it down; many of these emotions can be mixed with shame, guilt, anger, sadness, hurt, etc. These emotions and experiences are difficult for us to work through on a one on one basis, so it can really feel like we are drowning when many of them come up at the same time. So what do you do when you just feel like you are drowning and are grasping for air among your emotions?

The classic answer is “Self Care”, but to someone who is new to this, what does that mean? It can mean a lot of things, but I will share with you at least what it has looked for me. I had a really hard time with this at first, I found that I was exercising my privilege even more by taking breaks (something that I told myself others could not have the luxury of doing), but how was I to work towards being a good ally if I was a tornado of difficult emotions festering and ready to explode at the smallest trigger? So, where do we begin?

I have a lot of things that I do for self care, I need to be doing these things to help me, I work in a penitentiary (which is already challenging in the needs for self care) and I am also doing this exploration which can throw me some really big curve balls. My self care regiment is based on one really big element (my spiritual practice) and then many small ones that I can spread out throughout the day. I see self care as a practice and it is something that is crucial to my wellbeing and to ensuring that I will be the best ally that I can be.

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1 – Finding beauty in the world around you: I try to find something I believe to be beautiful everyday on my commute to work. It usually ends up being the sky because I work early and get to usually see the sun rise as I drive. I focus on the colours and how the reflect off the clouds, I am surprised sometimes at some of the beautiful colours I see in front of me. Right now seeing as it is the winter it is more challenging, but I can usually see something: it has even been the lights on the perimeter walls of the penitentiary where I work or a bird’s net in barbwire, there is beauty everywhere if you just take a minute to look around. This gives me a positive start to my day which is so important if I am to continue this work that I am doing.

2 – Morning check-ins: When I do my morning meditation I dedicate a part of the time to simply name without jugement what is coming up; I just sit in the silence and learn to become friends with what is coming up and approaching it with an attitude of friendliness and care. It is hard to not judge sometimes, but I have learned to forgive myself when I get in that mode and chalk it up as a new learning experience.

3 – Have a self-date: Take some time to just be by yourself and do something that makes you happy because it makes you happy. Read, watch a stupid comedy, take a walk, cook, whatever makes you laugh, feeds your heart or soul, etc. Be sure that what you are doing is nourishing you, this is your time to take care of you. It is really important that during this exercise you do you; no need to feel self-conscious, do what really fills your heart and make you feel happy.

4- Develop a spiritual practice: I know that this might not fly with everyone, spirituality can be a dirty word to some and I am not here to tell others what they should believe. I am speaking of my experience and I must admit that this is my most important part of my self care practice. My buddhist practice has made me feel more connected to myself, more than anything else ever has. The more connected we feel to ourselves, the more connected we feel to the world around us. It is thanks to my spiritual practice that I have learned to truly love myself (still working on it, but I am so far from where I was when I started); I also think that I am a nicer person than I used to be and everyone wins with that one. See what works for you, but try and find something that helps you connect with yourself and the world around you. It feels good to connect to something that is bigger than you. Unplug a little, you aren’t really missing anything except opportunities to ignore what you may really need…

There is so much more that you can do: spend time petting your animals (I have a cat and a rabbit) and see your worries and stress melt away for at least a little while, connect with people you don’t know (why can’t you say hi and ask how the barista is doing?) without being creepy about it obviously, take a walk (with or without music depending how you prefer to enjoy the city), plan a holiday in your city (tell everyone you are leaving for the weekend, turn your phone off, and go explore the city you may be taking for granted), make sure to put time aside for you to just be with you (alone time is a way to listen to what you may need and especially a great way to simply work on becoming your own best friend), and so much more…

I no longer feel guilty for doing this, I am not endorsing and perpetuating privilege; I am taking care of myself so I can be the best ally that I can be. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that statement. So you do you, take some time to make sure you are taking care of you, because if you don’t then who will?