photo credit Heather Mount – Unsplash.com
Humanity as a whole has already gone through unimaginable suffering, mostly self-inflicted, the culmination of which was the 20th century with its unspeakable horrors. This collective suffering has brought upon a readiness in many human beings for the evolutionary leap that is spiritual awakening.
The greatest achievement of humanity is not its works of art, science, or technology, but the recognition of its own dysfunction.
Social justice means loving people so much that I work to change structures that violate their dignity.
Peter Henriot S.J.
A few years ago, I listened to one of Ekhart Tolle’s audio books on a long drive to one of many Yoga trainings. I vaguely recall a passage that implied humans default to causing suffering to others, whereas love involves a more conscious decision. This was his explanation for the horrendous indignity and loss of life suffered by Jews and other underrepresented populations in Germany during World War II. I couldn’t find that exact quote or book that caused me to ponder this depressing statement, but the two quotes above will do.
The hardship of the Depression and horror of World War II shaped my parent’s early lives. Their generation was the first in their families to get a college education. Both teachers, they provided us with a modest home and instilled in us a sense that life was full of opportunities. For me, I first sensed fear from the “world” in elementary school during Cold War air raid drills. For a 7 year old, learning about fallout shelters and when to hide under desks was a scary feeling. But, it felt somewhat remote because the humans that would put us in danger were geographically far away and spoke a different language.
In 1963, fear hit closer to home. The world started to feel more unsafe. I recall with detail, what I was doing. The elementary classroom I was in, when the Mother Superior announced over our PA system that John Kennedy was assassinated. During that evening, while watching the black and white coverage on our family TV, it was the first time I saw my Dad tear up and express fear for our country’s future.
I entered adolescence during the Civil Rights movement. Our country lost more leaders to assassination – Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I remember each news announcement about their murders – how my heart stopped – where I was – and how my young mind and body filled with sadness and dread. TV views of racial riots in major cities like Detroit and Miami streamed into our family living room. In response to protestors’ chants, my Dad declared, “They are right…Black is beautiful.” As the 60s transitioned to the 70s, images of mounting protests against the Viet Nam War, daily body counts – Kent State killings – streamed into our home. My response was to read Black Like Me, The Autobiography of Malcom X, existential literature, write bad poetry, participate in a few sit-ins and continually question why. I really didn’t know what else I could do to effect change.
As I entered the workforce and my first Corporate job in the late 70s, it seemed like there had been some improvements in the world. Because of equal opportunity laws put into place, there were more opportunities made available in the workplace. I know, that as a woman in a male dominated industry, I benefited. While I had brown and black male colleagues, there were rarely black women and only a handful of white women in the non-secretarial ranks. By the time I started work at GE Aerospace in 1987, diversity was the hiring mantra. Jack Welch, then CEO, encouraged company managers to identify high potential women, multi-cultural and non-white personnel to enter the career path for future management. It was rumored that site leaders got rewarded for how well they met their diversity goals. I was a beneficiary of that policy, as was my husband whose mother was Puerto Rican.
Some male peers would make snide comments, as I was presented with unique job opportunities – “Too bad you’re not black, you’d be a twofer.” I chose not to respond. What they didn’t know is I was a “twofer” in terms of meeting corporate goals. I had 7 years international aerospace business experience prior to joining their ranks and was also considered “diverse.” In addition to creating a “diverse” workforce, Jack Welch wanted all businesses to be more global. Nevertheless, I had entered a white boys club. As a newcomer, I tamed my well-known sarcastic, often humor-laced, quick retorts and cultivated my “silence” to fit in. When I felt too stressed or isolated, I retreated to yoga ashrams or women-only workshops on weekends.
In my 30s, I began to write again. I enrolled in a writing class at an arts center near where I lived in suburban Philadelphia. I wrote about my unique international business experiences. One story I wrote about was a business trip I took to Pakistan in 1985. A white, American, female business traveler to Peshawar, at that time, was a rare sight. My company’s local representative told me the only white people in that area were Russian men crossing the border from the fight in Afghanistan. As I left the baggage claim area at the Peshawar airport, I recall how white I felt. Dressed modestly, I felt naked as dark skinned hands reached out to curiously touch my pale colored skin. In my essay, I used a metaphor about this experience. “I imagined what it must have felt like to be black on an all white bus in the deep South in the 60s”. We shared our writing with our classmates. One indignant white woman chided my work – “How insensitive and arrogant of you! How could you possibly know what it felt like to be black.. And who cares about Pakistan, anyway.” Her comment troubled me. I shared her comment with a male black colleague at work. He assured me that it was not offensive. I edited the metaphor out of future re-writes. I returned to silence and rarely shared my essay.
Back at my job, my boss bounced into my office one evening when I was working late. “How are we doing on diversity?” He asked. I replied, “Are you asking me because I’m the only diverse member of your staff?” I felt badly as I watched his shocked, sheepish reaction and softened my reply. “Seriously, Bob, I feel very fortunate. GE has offered me great opportunities. My observation is, GE doesn’t care if you’re black brown, white or purple as long as you think like everyone else, and perform well.” His grin widened, as he bounded buoyantly out of my office and cheered. “Thanks for all you’re doing!” I shrugged my shoulders recognizing he didn’t catch the irony.
Over the years, outrageous disparaging racist or gender biased comments became less frequent in open discussions as more diverse employees peppered the corporate landscape. I had a handful of black, brown, or gay, mostly male colleagues, who also noticed offensive remarks were less overt. I enjoyed the line-less entrance to the ladies room on meeting breaks. Behind closed doors, I heard whispers of how disadvantaged some white men felt as the world became more diverse. As male colleagues became comfortable with me, the mask of political correctness fell away. In private, sexist, racist and anti-gay comments were common. I continued to be silent.
My company merged often, changed CEOs, and created new company names over the years. Diversity was still a hiring and promotional focus. We had annual trainings and were taught to be on the look out for the leaders of workplace 2020 who would look different than the leaders of the early 2000s. I was reminded by each new initiative that the emphasis was on looks or appearance, not diversity of thought. Most senior leaders came from similar educational backgrounds. I left that corporate world a decade ago.
In semi-retirement, I began to study Yoga. Yoga studios attracted mostly thin, white, female students. There were long lines to the ladies rooms on breaks. Although, I welcomed the uniqueness of being with women, I noticed a sense of “sameness” in the way people looked and dressed, just as I had noticed it in my early corporate days.
A few years ago, I decided to study Reiki. I wasn’t consciously aware of the ethnic and racial diversity of the group until we went to lunch. This lunch discussion, which happened shortly after the murder of Trayvon Martin, was very different than discussions I had with colleagues in my corporate life. Dark skinned women talked about how they feared for their male relatives every time they left the house. This conversation impacted me deeply. To live in fear on a constant basis where you lived, not in some far away place where you briefly traveled for business, was unimaginable to me. All of the women in this conversation had good jobs, maybe like me they benefited from diversity programs. Living in a black body in a “diverse” America was different than being distinctly counted as diverse in corporate life. Diversity initiatives did not mean the world was less racist. I had nothing meaningful or helpful to say. I listened deeply and tried to understand.
Today, with increased awareness of acts against people of color, I try to image the final moments of George Floyd, struggling to breathe as the boot of authority ended his life. I have flash backs to another time, I feel my Dad’s fear about the future of this country. It’s been 10 years since I was silent in corporate America. Recalling racist whispers behind closed doors, I knew racism and other biases were still alive. I discuss my awareness and feelings around world events with contemporary women friends. One retired military officer recently commented, “I remember in the 80’s, in the military, I was thinking we almost became color blind. Now I do not think that was true, we may be closer, but it really breaks my heart so see what is going on.”
Now in another life, I teach yoga part time and hear the echo of diversity initiatives drumming. Yoga organizations struggle with their “whiteness”. Discussions about “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DE&I) and Social Justice abound. I sometimes struggle with the meaning and context in which these words are used today. Click here for a great definition of Social Justice. Another google search lead me to: Diversity refers to the traits and characteristics that make people unique while inclusion refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome.
As I witness the unfolding of increased injustice in 2020, I am sad, heart broken and depressed. Is our country witnessing the dysfunction of our humanity? Will we change for the better as a result of creating initiatives? Is there something meaningful that I can contribute from my insignificant small corner of the world at this later stage of life? These are some of the questions that swirl around my socially distanced head as I engage in the Yoga practice of self-study (Svadhyaya):
Recently a yoga group came together, virtually, to discuss how the organization could implement a (DE&I) initiative. Out of curiosity, I joined in. Several people present mentioned that they didn’t feel they belonged in the organization. In response, I offered, “As a newer member, I sometimes feel like I don’t fit as well. Perhaps, a first start could be for us to consciously be more “welcoming.” ‘ One guy asked, “to who?” I replied, “Everyone, regardless of race, gender, economics status, or training lineage.” No one seemed to understand what I meant. I returned to silence.
I retreat to self-study. I’m reading wonderful books like Between the World and Me by Ta Nishi Coats, My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma by Gail Parker, and Becoming by Michelle Obama. I listen to friends’ Facebook interviews such as Soul Hobby Healing While Black hosted by one of my Reiki teachers, Vicki Anderson Simons. Perhaps in the 21st century, by recognizing our humanity’s “dysfunction”, we will improve quality of life and opportunities for all. I no longer write poetry, bad or otherwise. I have stayed mostly silent, except for this blog. I continue to try to listen and understand. I cultivate “welcoming” behavior in my interactions with others. I strive not to offend. I aim to avoid “Pollyannaish” platitudes to dodge accusations of “spiritual by passing”.
To me, my own self-study and current DE&I initiatives seem like precious little to change society’s pernicious and overt racist behavior. Perhaps, this is another first step in the process of awareness. If we don’t start somewhere, how can we change conditions which lead to senseless murders of people because of their skin color? I encourage others’ comments to help me understand.