The Forming of an Anti-Racism Identity
By Christopher Bear-Beam
(A note on the method: the goal is to focus on Eastern Psychology and Western Psychology-each of them uses psychological principles & practices, of which some overlap and some blend into integrated similarities of the two psychologies. Of course, there are also differences between the two.
This article leans heavily on Buddhist Psychology, as well as some of the Dalai Lama’s writings & observations; this isn’t to minimize or deny the effectiveness of Western psychologies, but, rather, to seek to integrate some Buddhist concepts into the mix, in a focused way, so that we may benefit even more from their offerings.
The article’s purpose is to utilize some of these principles, in practical and pragmatic ways, to open up the meaning of empathy in the identity-forming process, particularly in the transition to an anti-racism identity; Buddhism is a philosophy and a set of principles to live out in ordinary ways).
I came to an anti-racism worldview in a series, of what I see as, synchronistic events. In 1996, through a mutual friend, I met Cherry Steinwender, one of the Co-Executive Directors of the Center for the Healing of Racism, Houston, Texas where I was living at the time. The Center was presenting a series of videos on racism, and I volunteered our church as a venue.
First, I was struck by the magnetism & charism of Cherry-she’s a fired up person, an African-American, who’s been through the unhealthy effects of racism, on the “receiving end,” as a black living in the south.
As time went on, we would meet at Cherry’s and do “one-on-ones” where she’d ask me some very deep, “never before asked” questions about Unaware Racism (my main area of conditioning); I’d dig very deep to really see and become aware of not only my racist conditioning, but also my male conditioning.
This was a very intense self-examination of my own racism, thinking about, acting with others to gain more understanding, behaviors, etc. that I was simply unconscious of in my mind. Cherry became my soulmate & mentor in this “brain-washing” & cleansing process.
It was at that time, that I began attending what the Center calls, “the many faces of racism,” dialogues, as well as “training the trainer” sessions for people like me-those who wanted to do this work up front & close-a co-facilitator in training & presentations. I served on the Ally Council whose purpose it was to change to more effective ways to activate volunteers, and to be a liaison to the Center.
Cherry and I would form a “pair-team” and travel to places all over the country, presenting workshops and collaborating with others & groups who had the healing of racism as similar goals. We led trainings for Social Service professionals, educators, volunteers, civic groups, faith communities, business/corporate entities, students, Government Service professionals, Community College staff, and Criminal Justice professionals. As a trainer, I usually learned more about the topic of racism by experiencing the role of a co-facilitator.
When I think of my own forming of an anti-racism identity, it’s analogous to what happens at an “archeological dig.” An archaeologist must go painstaking slowly, methodically, and purposefully, down through each older layer of earth, and with this cycling being an ongoing proposition.
The closer a “digger” gets to a level that’s a goal, the more sensitive she has to be, so as not to harm or damage, the existing artifacts and/or fossils embedded in that layer.
Buddhist Psychology considers our spiritual journey as “returning to our original face,” i.e., the one face we had before it got covered up & hidden, through all the messy vicissitudes of life. Other phrases have been coined to describe this process-‘going back to the True Self,’ from the starting point of the False Self, that comprises all of our previous conditioning we received in our growing up.
My proposition, here, is that we need to clear our heads & lives of the old, sedimented notions we cherish so much, those things we choose to believe in with our whole hearts-thinking+thanking-are not the values we live for in our current, American culture, leavened with Consumerism, Capitalism, & Class.
In his book, Ethics For the New Millennium [(1999). New York: Riverhead Books)], His holiness the Dalai Lama writes in one chapter, about his belief that perhaps the greatest gift that humans can bring to their own consciousness-raising-education, and the identity-forming process, is that of empathy.
But, can empathy really be learned, individuated and integrated by people who’re engaged in hateful acts of violence, for example, towards themselves or others? Can a suicide bomber, or a mass-murderer really have empathy for those who she’s supposed to kill?
We shouldn’t forget, either, that many horrendous doers of evil deeds & acts, have changed to persons of love, justice, and compassion. Maybe you know someone like this? It can occur.
I once heard a story of one “crazy” man, a brutal serial killer, who once went to Buddha, confessed all of his crimes, then asked Buddha if he could follow his way, that, that was all he wanted in life from now on out. He had lost time to make up for.
I’m sure there are many, many more faces and names that could be mentioned who have also had this similar track record. The very fact that their lives testify to their loving reaction (as well as the so-called “crazy” man’s), and that they wanted, in their hearts and minds, to turn from the way of suffering-for (her)himself and the others who suffered by the way S/he used to be and act.
Buddha’s own sense of empathy got fertilized by the notion that he could have the same shortcomings and human desires, as this serial killer prostrated before him-this man could murder in the same manner, if it weren’t for his absolute trust that he should “Do no harm” to any creation, ever again.
If humans have the same approach as Buddha and a whole lot of other people as well, then the first mental set that has to emerge is self-empathy (self-care first then take care of others as on airplanes); if we feel the sufferings of even those we haven’t yet met, or know, it’s due to our own propagation of empathy, in mind and heart, we can only do so in a kind of vicarious sighting of human nature’s suffering, as it speaks often in the Four Noble Truths (a Buddhist quartet of principals).
The Western way of doing business, is generally one of seeing a problem, then diving immediately into the crisis and doing something to alleviate the suffering that comes as a consequence.
For empathy to become more engraved and imbued in our lives, we first must practice it on ourselves. If we can do this habitually, it reinforces our thinking to become more empathic and compassionate. Empathy is at the base of self-love & self-care; and it’s absolutely the bedrock for our spiritual (even if we prefer a different word, it’s OK) or psychological identity-forming within our inner person, speaking outer conversations to the world. Using one’s voice to converse in anti-racism conversations.
Corona Radiata wrote a paper on personal identity and put it up on a website. The author wrote of some salient aspects of our identities, of which we have many. Identity, in its simplest statement, is who we are. It’s also a socially & historically-constructed concept (much like the nature of racism), and we often use physiological markers for what makes-up identity-“I’m an artist, who’s an extrovert, who likes Math, lives in a cabin in the woods, has very thick hair, but loves to socialize with lots of people on the weekends, and loves to get high on weed but keeps a decent, professional job, etc.”
Our identities are composed inextricably of ideas, ideologies, and ways of seeing the world around us-or as General Semantics posits it’s the discipline of how W.I.G.O. emerges; in other words “What’s going on out there (and inside here, me)?”
Our social & cultural identity is generally inherently linked to power, value systems and ideological issues, whereas empathy distinguishes itself as a “an other-oriented” force towards relieving the thwarted needs & pain of others; the focus on power with its accompanying issues, isn’t even taken into account with empathy.
Can empathy, then, one of the pinnacles of humanity, assist us in transforming into more ethical and caring humans in trust for ourselves and other people, in order to do the right thing?
Aren’t both White Privilege & Internalized Oppression pathologies that harm both the perpetrator, and the person (s) on the receiving end of it? Are these good, other-oriented outcomes or consequences? Most of us would agree-“No!”-they distort and change our minds so that we live life less richly & potentially?
Couldn’t we all agree that actualizing empathy within ourselves, would make us less vulnerable, and more humanitarian and altruistic-conscious with healthy drives? Wouldn’t we all want empathy at the center of our own human matrix? Wouldn’t we also want to be listened to by a person whose empathic?
In the Dalai Lama’s same book, he relates that the Tibetan phrase for empathy is shen ngal wa a mi so pa and may be translated into English as “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering” (p. 84).
He also observes that empathy suggests far more than a transient, temporary emotion that comes and goes like most of our feelings, in the facile, changing habitats of emotions; these Tibetan words express both an emotional as well as cognitive dimension to empathy.
The phrase the “inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering,” intimates that all humans may give from a place of empathy for themselves & others-it’s a reciprocal state of need as a part of our human cosmology.
Take one of the most important aspects of compassionate empathy: a mom taking care of her little ones. Although, my memory fails to bring up the exact research study probably (sometime in the Seventies), this study demonstrated that newborns will evoke momma smiles, and went onto show that newborns also initiated smiles themselves, and that empathy could be embedded in the hearts & minds of all people due to the exertion of agency on the infant’s part of the child-momma interaction. I’m not clear whether this study was followed up for more data.
We have many, multi-hued (as segments of the whole) attributes or conditioning factors for various identities, as faces we wear in dialogue with the culture.
We express social & cultural identities; we communicate & behave in identities of sexuality, sexual preference, heterosexual identities, as well as class identities. We could also add feminism, sexism, masculism, human & civil rights issues, Gay Liberation, and other political/economical movements such as Occupy Wall Street.
Some people find activism with their own lives by increasing training opportunities; engaging with a social movements and its rhetoric can be so “insighting” that it spurs us into displaying an “activist” identity, in new ways and circumstances.
All these domains include changes, flows, moving in ‘fits & starts,’ in crescendo & decrescendo, granting us surprising expectations and radical new goals for new identities to craft-in-society, “your new person.”
Unless we have some other psychological (or service) template other than empathy (it’s OK if you do), we can recognize that all these traits may be transferred to other people & other life-forms, where the human connection may spark more effective means to identify our suffering and bring some means to ameliorate it.
Without creating empathy it’s very hard to see where we end the “other” starts; our vision captures suffering within its frame of our “own” lives-we suffer, we hurt, we’re in pain, we’re sick to our stomachs and in our brains, etc., but what about another person who is of the same constitution as us or other air-breathing mammalia, or under-water residents’ and creations’ lives.
Empathy is the identity, in general, that may go beyond our personal walls & boundaries; it includes our will, volition, ambition to reach our goals, longer-term attitudes & emotions & feelings, reason, the cognitive capacity to problem-solve and decision-make.
As we bring these multiple elements together, we create the ongoing dynamic (within our own identities) that may unseat suffering in ways that are healthy & produce happiness.
To summarize the first part of this essay, we, as humans have been gifted to be empathy-bearing beings: first, we have to initiate self-empathic responses-to walk and contemplate what it’s like to live in our own shoes, in our own skin; secondly, we next need to activate empathy in a broader context-for the entire planet. How’s that for big?
This two-part aspect of empathy-1). For self, and 2). For others, the entire Universe, may be learned through our studies, contemplation and self-reflection.
The result is that our identities will grow into more powerful tools, as they’re imagined & practiced, so that we might use the term-“re-habed”-as those who once found a “nil” or a dearth of empathy, we may find a flood of empathy coming our way, as we roil in our new-found confidence, that morphs into a rushing, thrusting river on its way to help someone (us?) in their suffering.
What was your experience when you first began understanding insights into yourself and your personal racism-and maybe when you felt a prompting to form more of an Anti-Racism (AR) identity?
* an almost instantaneous, sort of like an “epiphany,” an immediate “getting it” in your head, you understood its meaning for you.
* You couldn’t let go of the shock in seeing this in yourself, so guilt & shame followed; this process, with its “shocking reality” was the visual “stop & go” light for you to move forward.
* You heard something about “white racism” and absolutely didn’t believe it! It struck your “denial” bull’s eye, so you said to yourself, “This is bull shit! I don’t want to hear anything more about it-that’s it for me!”
* You may have heard the words Anti-Racism, or perhaps you heard the words “White Privilege,” and said to yourself, “Wow, that’s what I really need to live my life fully, more White Privilege!”
* You heard about an AR mindset, or White Privilege (WP), and you went to the Internet to learn more; you went to the library to get more books, magazine articles or journal articles on the subject, to fill in the gaps you had in your head; the more you studied and reflected on your own life, you generally put together the jigsaw puzzle of racism, particularly WP, in a clearer picture, in a clear-eyed view of personal perception.
In whatever way (it’s different & OK for everyone, since we all have unique, personified learning styles) you “got it”, the point is, you got it! It may have changed your worldview, thrown your consciousness upside-down, or blown you away! The fact that I can unlearn old conditioning gives me reason for hope-if this can be changed, what else can I change? It lessens the feeling of being overwhelmed at how huge this problem is, therefore being powerless to do anything at all.
If we move onto the next staging area, we find that support & reinforcement of values & beliefs are highly significant; seeking out other people/groups that support your AR transition; communal discussion/dialogue about AR issues & positions may help us to challenge our “stuck” places while also reinforcing our AR ideas and ideals.
This is a crucial stage in the on-going forming of an AR identity, so try to find the folks who may give you this life-skill–support & reinforcement.
Another phase, after this crucial one, is activism in the context of AR activities & events, putting action/behaviors behind your cognitive worldviews of AR, glues & cements the important meanings & purposes of these events, such as those sponsored by “Stepping Up for Racial Justice. They’ve got monthly meetings as well as other anti-racism events and activities; check out: http://firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Engaging in AR activism puts philosophies & ideologies temporarily on the back burner, but pushes your social justice values-set into actuality.
Advocate when you can: whether this is a one-on-one conversation with someone else or advocacy for larger groups, for AR issues, or corrections or changes in policy, or priorities of groups and for movements in our social culture-advocate, advocate, advocate!
You and I can work at making ourselves a legitimate and well-resourced representative of SURJ; self-advocacy and self-reflection are keys in doing this work.
We can educate ourselves to grow as a competent & true-to-facts facilitator or co-facilitator, using social education models of education in diverse contexts or cultures-team up with a friend or someone else that has similar goals as you do.
Be open, listen for, or read news stories about racism, or any other type of “ism;” keep current to see if positive or negative changes and/or events are still happening; brainstorm about how to correct injustices or cases of discrimination, as well how you might bring just, non-discriminative solutions to the specific issues.
Take up the habit of journaling; make this an AR or Racism journal; make a point of being aware of your own practices & thoughts; are you aware on the outside & inside of how you feel when you see or hear about racist beliefs or actions? What’s going on in your own brain when you intersect with some type of racism or AR? Write about the ‘good, bad, and the ugly’ of what you may be mindfully aware of in the environments where you live & work.
I’ve found journaling one of the best things I can do for myself. It’s purpose is to be intently self-reflective about ourselves and our daily realities; the nature of recorded information allows us to go back to certain points to dig deeper into our awareness or even unconscious predispositions or allies that help ground racism and AR.
Reach out to legislators and other professionals who are invested in Social Justice themes, such as education, social services, health care, and therapy, collaborating for equitable solutions in order to dismantle racism and see that AR balances on a crooked see-saw within a crooked system, that needs to be straightened out, so AR identity can lead us in a greater way “of speaking our truth.”
Copyright: Christopher Bear-Beam August 28, 2017