Last week I finished my summer semester of classes at St. Edwards’ University in Austin, Texas, as part of a Master’s Program for Mental Health Counseling; this week I started a (virtual) New Student Orientation at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, where I’ll be earning my Master’s in Somatic Psychology. For the final project of a class titled “Counseling Diverse Populations” at St. Edward’s, I was given the prompt to write an essay about “A personal exploration of the student’s cultural identity… Including themes and experiences of power, privilege, microaggressions, macroaggressions, stereotyping and discrimination.” The timing of this essay could not have been more appropriate, given the context of how explosive and charged race issues are as a topic around the world, and particularly in America right now.
I was born to a French-English-German (“White”) mother from Ohio, and a Polish-Ashkenazi-Jew from Brooklyn, New York, whose great-great Grandfather immigrated from Poland by way of Ellis Island off the coast of New York. I was raised (mostly) in the progressive hippie mecca of Corvallis, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, nestled between Portland to the North and Eugene to the South. Since leaving Oregon for college at 18, I’ve lived, worked, and “grown up” in the full gamut of locations and cultures, from Maine to Los Angeles to Missoula, Montana, Phuket, Thailand to Paia, Maui. These particular identities and cultural experiences have undoubtedly shaped both my world views, and how the world views me when I move through it. In a sense I have become “detribalized” through all of my travels–unmoored from the shackles and blindspots of cultural myopia–in the way Joseph Campbell talked about. My aim here is to unpack and examine my cultural identities so that I may bring a high degree of self-awareness and cultural sensitivity, intelligence, and compassion into whatever cultural contexts I find myself within in the future, as a therapist, a citizen, and a human being relating to other human beings. The goal is soul to soul relating; not being color-blind, per se, but being far more tuned into the essence of the living, breathing, sensing & feeling being or beings around me without projecting too many stories, expectations, or limitations onto them.
Macroaggressions are culturally-based expressions of violence. Despite enjoying the privileges of being considered, for all intents and purposes, a member of the majority culture for most of my life, I have encountered macroaggressions nonetheless, which I now see from the silver-lining perspective of helping me have more compassion for others who have experienced similar culturally-based violence. What comes to mind first is the time my Thai girlfriend and I were maliciously attacked while having breakfast in an open-air restaurant by a group of four local Thai in Phuket, Thailand, simply for my being a Farang (White person) sitting with a Thai girl. This experience was deeply traumatic and unsettling, and I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to be a Black man in the South only a few short decades ago, when that kind of violence in response to intercultural relationships was common-place. Hell, I can’t even fully imagine what it must be like being a Black man in America in 2020, with outlandish police behavior STILL being perpetrated on a weekly basis, and with white supremecist groups being re-energized with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Even though I am darker skinned than truly “White” people because of my Ashkenazi ancestry, and have never felt especially identified with “White Culture,” I get lumped into the ethnic category for better, and as my experience in Thailand exemplified, for worse. Of course, it has mostly been to my advantage being “White,” and a straight man, I’m sure. I have a relatively trauma and discrimination free relationship with authority figures like police officers. My dialect, body odor, clothing style, hair, etc. have neither been subtly nor overtly teased or threatened in any serious manner for racist reasons (they’ve been teased for occasional lapses in “good taste” and “style,” but I digress …;)
In my judgment, when we consciously or passively perpetuate a culture of looks-based discrimination and capitalistic media-based values, it sets us all up to lose. What has always been one of America’s most redeeming ideals has been the promise of a fair shot at rising above the legacies of our ancestors; at living in a meritocracy, where hard work, intelligence, and being a decent human being were all that was needed to live good lives, like the happy people we saw in daytime comedy sitcoms or during Tide commercials on television. As Chuck Palahniuk captured so well in that famous Tyler Durden monologue from Fight Club, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” This sentiment is all the more true for those who have never had a level playing field; most poignantly in 2020, for Black Americans. Of course, the discrimination hasn’t focused solely on Blacks in America; all people of color, and even “White” Americans who weren’t born into upper socio-economic status (SES) families, who weren’t born fully able-bodied or able-minded, who weren’t born into families with good mental health, who weren’t born with fully-functioning immune systems or neurological circuitry, can be, and have been, subject to discrimination, stereotyping, and even systemic murder (“genocide”). In my judgment, it is the job of a cohesive and supportive society to help those who have been systematically disenfranchised due to the way they were born or the culture they are part of, to consider ways to be more inclusive and loving towards everyone. The Black Lives Matter movement is just the most recent push towards this larger initiative.
According to Wikipedia.org, “Microaggressions have been defined as brief and common daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental communications, whether intentional or unintentional, that transmit hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to a target person because they belong to a stigmatized group.” By this definition, a couple instances of personally experiencing microaggressions come to mind. In 8th grade, a boy pointed out that I had some wisps of hair growing between my eyebrows; a “unibrow.” As a person of Jewish Ashkenazi (Middle Eastern) descent, having more hair than Anglo-Saxon (White) people is and was to be expected. However, the teasing unsettled me as I looked around at the non-unibrows of my mostly white classmates, and as I unconsciously compared myself to the media figures I was most exposed to. I became increasingly self-conscious. I shaved off the hair shortly thereafter, and began tweezing it regularly starting in 9th grade. At one point, I over-plucked the brow hair to the point where kids started noticing, and then teased me for having feminine eyebrows, going so far as to call me “Eyebrows.” The irony was that the kid who originally teased me for having a “unibrow” himself had a hairier-than-white-people patch between his eyebrows (he was Hispanic). This might sound like a trivial example of it, but this is the insidious nature of majority-culture oppressiveness; it turns minority groups against one another, all in a tooth-and-nail fight to assimilate into the mainstream–a fool’s errand if ever there was one.
Once some of my “friends” in Middle School found out that I was ethnically if not culturally Jewish, they poked fun at my “Jew nose” and made inappropriate holocaust jokes. Now, I have a pretty dark sense of humor and believe in the importance of being able to laugh in the face of all the heaviness and sorrow in the world, especially in times like these, but this kind of racially-based humor that’s laced with body-shaming and a belittling energy is and was toxic and served to highlight differences in a shame-based manner. So yes, even as a “mostly-White” cis-gendered straight man, I’ve experienced plenty of microaggressions in my life. And though some may find the word itself to be politicized and associate it with airy-fairy snowflake liberals, just from doing this basic exercise in examining my own life and how I’ve experienced little acts of microaggression, I see that this kind of cultural awareness is what is needed for us to make a macro-scale change and create a more just future for the generations to come.
George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, 2020, is just the latest (or not even the latest, as I write this) in a string of heinous tragedies that just didn’t need to happen, but were bound to happen because of systemic racist tendencies woven into the fabric of American culture, and American police culture and its anachronistic legal structures in particular. It is the tip of the iceberg, and it can be overwhelming to consider the full extent of the systematic oppression, discrimination, trauma, and injustice that has been perpetrated against Black Americans for hundreds of years, since the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Even as the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, those early settlers were already busy dominating, subjugating, and dislocating another people whose lives also matter; Native Americans. The history of racism woven into the fabric of America is nauseating for a country which prides itself on being the “home of the free.” The contradictions and hypocrisy within American history and American culture have always been there; it’s just that as a whole, we’re becoming more and more aware of it and fed up with it, in no small part due to our increased interconnectivity via modern computing networks and always available high definition video recording and publishing devices that fit into our back pockets.
And this, though extremely painful, is a good thing, as I see it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I do love that quote, because it suggests an inevitable improvement in social and racial equity–if only it were that simple. Yes, we have made massive strides in the direction of justice for all since this country’s founding, and that is undeniable. But there is much progress to be made, and that progress is anything but assured. As I see it, we have to take an active role in realizing a more just and equitable culture; we have to make it happen. We can do this by examining our own biases, by speaking out when we witness racism in any form rather than just passively supporting equality, by changing the systemic policy levers and gears which perpetuate racial inequality, and yes, by protesting and engaging with social justice movements, in the ways which will actually create meaningful change.
When I watched the George Floyd murder video, captured by bystanders on smartphones, I felt a pit grow in my stomach. I felt a little traumatized just watching that happen and feeling powerless to do anything; the crime was already done. Then I watched protesters march, unified in disgust, grief, and outrage, and rioters (an important distinction) wreaking havoc on that Minneapolis PD precinct, and God help me, I felt a vicarious catharsis. Violence usually perpetuates violence, and I’m not diving into a discussion of the morality of looting and vandalism right now, but goddamn it, when I saw footage of people of all races and ethnicities and backgrounds putting their lives on the front line to make a stand and say enough is enough, it hit me deep, and I couldn’t hold back the tears.
Someone said to me recently that they consciously choose anger over sadness, because sadness leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness to depression. I agreed with them then and I agree with them now. But there’s a place for both emotions at the table right now. My intuition tells me that if we channel our justified anger in productive ways we’ll achieve far more than we would if we collectively give into hatred and violence, however justified it may feel in the moment. That intuition also tells me that it’s more important than ever to lean on each other for support; we are, after all, all in this thing together, whether we like to admit it or not. We need to make safe, intentional spaces for the full spectrum of emotions that are arising to be expressed and processed.
One thing I know for sure is that EXpression is the antidote to DEpression. When I drove to Portland in July to add my voice and presence to the protest efforts there, what I saw through the lens of a somatically-oriented therapist-in-training was a group of people who were empowered to express themselves, rather than give into the hopelessness and despair that might have otherwise overcome them. So when we talk, we cry, we scream, we write, we make art, we kick the heavy bag, we lift heavy shit, we march, we grieve, we share our journeys on social media–we are not just making noise–we’re taking an active part in our own collective healing and transformation. To make any movement successful, we have to move, together. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s how we’re going to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. It won’t bend itself; we bend it with our voices, our embodied emotions, and our collective self-inquiry.
In tumultuous times like we’re living in now, I am sometimes moved to burn some sage and pray to whatever Higher Powers may be listening, and I’m reminded of the words from St. Francis’s Prayer;“Lord, please make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; injury, pardon; despair, hope; darkness, light, sorrow;joy.” I would add some of my own words to this prayer: “When I leave this plane of existence, let all those whose lives I’ve touched feel the true essence of my soul’s desire: to be a force of love, and light, and inspiration, and provocative personal evolution. God, take my indignance at the injustices of my life and this man-made mess in the world within which I’ve incarnated. Take my laziness, take my indifference, take my hatred, and replace it all with love, and kindness, and strength in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds. Let it be. AHO, mitakuye oyasin.”