My research is about the subjective dimensions of racism and inequality. To wit, I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing blacks in the U.S. and France about their conceptualizations of ethnic and racial identity, their views on racial history (e.g. slavery and colonization) and their experiences with racism and discrimination. Some of this work has already been published in a variety of scholarly journals, including Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and Poetics as well as chapters in several volumes. I’m currently writing a series of theoretical and empirical articles based on my interviews with French Caribbeans and African Americans as well as a book, which I plan on finishing this year.
On this blog, however, I have very rarely written about race. Partly this is so because I have endeavored to carve out space for the exploration of my spirituality and creativity, in a way that does not constantly foreground my professional life. And while my racial identity has continued to play an important role in how I understand my place in the world, I have also come to see very clearly that I am not defined by any of my identities, nor am I defined by any ideas (good, bad or otherwise) that I or anyone else has about those categories.
For a long time, I struggled with figuring out how to integrate my abiding concern with racial inequality, my interest in social justice and the continuing significance of my ethnoracial heritage with a spiritual path that was leading me further and further away from the confines of particularism. Over the past year, I reached out to many other people – including some other scholars of color – to discuss precisely this question. How do we integrate spiritual universalism with the realities of group-based conflict? How do I make sense of my experiences as a black woman when I am also coming to know and and understand that who I really am cannot be reduced to my skin tone, my ethnicity, my gender, my sexuality – or any aspect of my socialization? I knew that such preoccupations had drawn the interest of others before me, so I had no pretensions of re-inventing the wheel. Through my own meditations, readings and conversing with a variety of people – some black, some brown, some white – about these questions from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish perspectives, something approaching a coherent understanding has begun to reveal itself.
Of particular interest to me has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s lovely book “Together We Are One: Honoring our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection” – a collection of essays that are explicitly about what it means to be a Buddhist and a person of color.
I love that Thich Nhat Hanh – the well known Vietanamese Buddhist monk – has not avoided the issue of race of social justice in his work. Indeed, his major theological contribution is his concept of engaged Buddhism — a kind of practice that emphasizes our need to be involved in actively promoting social justice and compassion through the way we live our lives. It is a Buddhism that is conceived for living in the world – not just meditating in a cave (though, if you feel compelled to meditate in a cave, more power to you).
Anyway, I also love that he not only identifies as a person of color, but he has also organized retreats for other Buddhists of color to explore these issues. More recently I’ve also been intrigued by bell hooks. I’m currently reading her latest: “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice”.
I was informed that hooks describes herself as a “Christian Buddhist”, which (if true) very much resonates with my nondenominational nonduality. Mooji has also been highly influential in reconstructing my understanding of ethnoracial identity and the spiritual path. While he does not often talk about race explicitly, he is Jamaican and his emphasis on accepting one’s ethnic appartenance while also transcending it makes total and complete sense to me.
Over time, the boundaries between my spiritual work and my academic work have slowly eroded. This integration has happened naturally, as I’ve progressively contemplated the various dimensions of my own egoic identifications in the light of my experience with nondual truths in Hinduism and Buddhism. As my scholarship and spirituality increasingly inform each other, I now find myself ready and able to discuss and write about these topics holistically.
What has become clear to me in this time is that the pain of ethnic and racial exclusion is real and must be confronted. But in order to confront it, we must be courageous and brave enough to delve deeply and consciously into the experience of traumatic exclusion, denigration and devaluation. It is only through this sustained attention to the subjective dimensions of our own experiences with feelings of inferiority and superiority that we can begin to untangle the egoic web of delusions and misunderstandings that allow us to remain ignorant to our own unchanging perfection.
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In the beginning, we were whole and we had no doubts about our wholeness. We did not pop out of the womb wondering if we were good enough, pretty or handsome enough, smart enough or worthy of being alive. We did not know anything about “good hair”, colorism or being inferior or superior to anyone else. We felt entitled to love and attention. All of spirituality is about returning to this original state of wholeness–our natural state of freedom.
Over time, through socialization, we began to learn about human difference and ideas about what those differences mean. We became exposed to rankings of inferiority and superiority. As children, we may not have known that these ideas about difference and ideologies of human worth were arbitrary social constructions that vary across cultures and historical eras. We absorbed stereotypes and even developed metastereotypes – expectations about how we imagine others view “people like us”.
If we were lucky, we had parents or members of our community to teach us that all human beings are equal. And yet in everyday life, we are still confronted with a barrage of images telling us that not only are some human beings better than others, all human beings are flawed. Our media industrial complex produces inferiority complexes, constantly informing us that we are not enough. We must look a certain way, have a certain lifestyle, say the right things, gain particular markers of success and conform to the societal mold in order to be accepted. We are fundamentally unworthy – but we can feel a little better, be a little more popular, be a little more happy, if we just buy one more widget or read the latest issue of Oprah magazine.
And so it is that we unconsciously absorb the idea that we must do something to become someone else — someone better. Even if we reject the notion that there is something wrong with being black or brown or Chicana or a woman or gay or trans or working-class or disabled or short or fat, quite often we are only able to generate a kind of self-esteem crutch – a wish – a hope – that we are not inferior. We may think that we have overcome our programming, only to boil with anger when someone says something mean about people like us. We may believe that we have left negative ideas about our self worth behind, because we celebrate our identities. But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.
What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.
When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.
People call racism “ignorance”, but all that matters about any ideology of human ranking is that it isn’t true. It’s a lie and it only works – it only hurts – if you choose to believe it. If someone called you a polar bear, or a giraffe, would you feel hurt? You might find it perplexing, frustrating or amusing. But painful? Probably not – because you know it isn’t true.
We hurt when people think badly of us only in moments when we forget our intrinsic and inalienable worth. But the awesome thing is that even when we forget how worthy we are, we are still infinitely worthy.
Even our own doubt and feelings of inferiority cannot change the fact that we are always and inherently whole. When you remember who you really are, you transcend the sting of racism and other ‘isms’ because you recognize it for the bullshit it really is. It’s just a simple misunderstanding. You think I’m a polar bear. I am not a polar bear.
We sometimes give lip service to rejecting the ideology of racism – yet we are still hurt by it. We’re offended when someone makes a disparaging remark about our group. We are upset when we see unflattering images of people who look like us. We feel angry when someone says that we are less than, unworthy–inferior.
But as soon as you realize that you’re fundamentally whole, then you also understand that any “ism” that defines people as “less than” cannot be true.
Many people who belong to groups that have been historically oppressed have no idea that they think they’re inferior. That’s how racism works–not only do you not realize that your inferiority is untrue, you also fail to recognize the extent to which you’ve internalized this silly belief about your supposed inferiority.
Even people who understand that their “conditioning has been conditioned” nonetheless often find it difficult to step outside of their programming.
There is a difference between hoping to be whole – trying to prove that you’re whole – and knowing that you’re whole. Returning to your natural state of wholeness is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a matter of bolstering your self esteem. It’s not an idea that you can simply latch onto like a magical mantra: “I am whole. I am great. I am wonderful.” No, it is something you must directly experience in the marrow of your bones. In this way, encountering your wholeness is a lot like encountering God. When you have experienced the Self beyond the egoic-self, the Consciousness that abides in and through you, this knowing becomes a certitude. It’s no longer a matter of faith. It’s your existential reality. With wholeness, as with God, we can’t simply talk about it. We must be about it. And the good news is that we are already It. Becoming grounded in our Beingness – in what we already are – is the path to transcending the fiction of our inferiority. This is why meditation is so useful: it allows us to create moments of stillness in our lives so that we can directly experience our wholeness. Meditation and conscious breathing allow us to know who we are beyond the mind, beyond thoughts, beyond conditioning.
Wholeness means understanding that you are not defined by what anyone thinks about you. And the incredible thing is that you’re not even defined by your own thoughts about yourself. When we are pained by another’s denigration, it is only because we slip into believing that our value depends on their approval. It doesn’t. We’re programmed to think we need social acceptance. That’s what thousands of years of evolution has produced. But biology is not destiny.
The pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and ableism must first be acknowledged before it can be transcended. There are no shortcuts. As long as we operate with faux-self esteem and false group pride, the wounds fester. The pain transmutes into stress, anxiety, fear and anger.
When we live mindfully, we pay attention to our thoughts and emotions. We notice the moment when we begin believing that we are inferior. We don’t feel bad about feeling inferior. We simply notice it. We observe. And in the witnessing itself, we realize the lie of inferiority cannot be true. We find freedom in the truth of our inherent worth.
Every human being, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or body type must confront their own self loathing. It is the universal human condition. You are taught to believe that there is something wrong with you. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to realize that this is a lie.
But basking in your beautiful wholeness requires deeply experiencing and accepting the part of you that feels inadequate, flawed and ugly. Most people are too afraid to closely examine the painful self loathing that lurks beneath the surface of their egoic personas. But the dirty little secret is that seeing your wounded self clearly is the gateway to healing.
Embrace, accept and acknowledge your wounded self with compassion. We embrace our wounds with non-judgment and love because we understand they stem from a misunderstanding–a kind of spiritual amnesia. There’s nothing wrong with feeling inferior. Of course you feel inferior at times. You have an ego. Welcome to planet Earth.
The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.
Superiority is as much a fiction as inferiority. Both complexes produce a hell of our own making. Whenever I see someone who thinks they are better than others, I know that in this particular moment, they don’t really love themselves. And they do not love themselves because they do not know themselves. To know the Self is to love the Self and to love the Self is to love all-there-is. When you move in love, you cannot feel inferior or superior to anyone else.
Love is the great equalizer.