I start writing this having just returned from a community discussion hosted by the Lower Columbia Diversity Project. Facilitated by historian, author and activist Walidah Imarisha, and featuring a panel of Adrienne Cabouet, from Black Lives Matter Portland, and Leila Holstein, co-director of the Portland PFLAG Black Chapter. There were roughly 40-50 people in attendance. (Click here to learn more about the movement: Black Lives Matter.)
In preparation for attending we read the excellent article, “Oregon was founded as a Racist Utopia”, sent to me by my friend Carol in the meeting announcement for today’s event. Ms. Imarisha put the conversation into context by speaking to this long history of racist legislation and culture within Oregon that persists to the present. Did you know that police and vigilante violence kills a black person every 28 hours in this country? I did not before today’s talk. I am feeling very stirred up with feelings, and the need for taking action of some kind.
Ms. Cabouet spoke to the truth that the system is likely so broken that there is no way to fix it- we need to reinvent everything, particularly our dying economic system. We need to replace Capitalism, a system birthed with a premise of exploitation of the people and resources of Africa. Holstein talked about the intersection of cumulative layers of oppression, being black layered over with being queer, and being a woman and being disabled. They both spoke of the need for creating safe space for people to gather, to explore these issues.
When I was 19 I lived in a house in a predominantly black neighborhood in Lansing Michigan. Just a few miles from where Malcolm X spent part of his childhood. I had great neighbors who were very welcoming to our household of three young white working students. I never feared my neighbors- The police were another matter. I do not exaggerate when I say that police helicopters flew low over our neighborhood with search lights at least three nights a week, usually more. On two separate occasions we were awakened by police prowling around our yard at night, shining their flashlights into our windows. Upon calling the police to ask why there were officers in our yard, we were told it wasn’t our concern. As the only whites living on the street we experienced the same treatment as our neighbors- treatment that would have been hidden from us if we had lived a few blocks away in a white neighborhood. Where incidentally I did live the year prior, and surprise surprise no helicopters.
I have essentially been living in the “white neighborhood” ever since I moved to Oregon in 1990. This has allowed me to keep my head in the sand, to believe that there was little work for me to do on racism from where I live. I rationalized it by thinking that I was working towards a better world in my own way- Making baby slings to promote mother baby bonding- or feeding people.
It isn’t enough. Believing that all beings are eligible for compassion, while not addressing both my own privilege and the systemic oppression happening all around me, is just another way of looking the other way. Like averting my eyes at the scene of an accident rather than going over to offer help. Cultivating a deliberate ignorance to maintain my own comfort. This is named white fragility- the unwillingness to look at the hard facts about power, privilege and how I benefit from the oppression of others.
As a homeschool family we have sought out the hidden history of our nation. My boys know about social change movements, of workers movements, of the disciplined promoters of nonviolence. Of why Martin Luther King is such an important role model. Raising them to value all people, and to believe in equivalence, has been part of the work, but by not taking a more active role in addressing oppression in our community we have not gone far enough. In any system those with less power within the system have the best vantage point to see the shadows of that system. The more privilege the more blindness. Today’s talk was an opportunity to explore my blindspots around race.
Why for instance have I never mentioned the fact that breast cancering outcomes for African American women are worse than for white women. This is true regardless of economic situation. Cortisol, the stress hormone, levels are predictable higher if you are in danger – To be Black in America is to be in danger. Oppression is a public health disaster- it contributes to poor outcomes for everything from birth weights of babies to diabetes and heart disease. Oppression is a huge contributing factor in the state of health of any person of color in our society. If you are interested you can read about the breast cancer facts for black women here.
Standing here today, the discussion of the day swirling around in my head, I ask myself, What action can I take? What is one thing I can do to step forward in greater solidarity? I want to start with something I can do right now. Not next week – Now. If making a safe place to talk about this issue is the road to solving it than let this be that safe place.
One thing mentioned at the talk today was a project started to write stories imagining what the world would look like if Black Lives truly mattered. I’ve decided to start with my vision of a future without racism. The next action will come after I cool my head a bit. I will look to some of the resources put forth today, for instance the social justice organization Western States Center, which has many tools on their website.
This story is just the first step for me, a white women living on the upper left edge of a state with a long history of hate and violence against anyone who isn’t white like me. I think it is important to hold the idea of a future in which black men and women are free from oppression. I know I won’t be free until they are.
Here is my story, a report from a future where Black Lives Matter:
Looking back it is sobering to see how long we took to wake up. There was so much trauma and fear floating around it was like a thick fog obscuring the road forward. If not for those brave ones who spoke truth to power again and again I shudder to think about where the world would have ended up. As it turned out the economic collapse was the catalyst for positive change- when it so easily could have been the impetuous for never-ending violence.
I am so so deeply grateful that we are living in this beautiful world we have created. Where we value what we can give more than what we can hoard. The switch to Contributionism from the old capitalism has freed us all. That the system came out of the Ubuntu tradition of Africa is just so perfect, we started the new Earth on a foundation of valuing Africans. It started in small groups, banding together to meet their needs, becoming interdependent with other small groups doing the same thing. Once it got going it couldn’t be stopped. The old powers no longer had any hold over us.
It happened so much more easily than anyone could possibly have imagined. It was a revolution that happened within individuals. The more people awakened, the more people awakened. We somehow reached the tipping point of consciousness that turned the whole world over. Music of course played a huge role. It truly is the common language of the heart. People with open hearts have great power. We all have started to play together.
We had a lot of cleaning up to do. The lessons learned in the twentieth century Reconciliation tribunals in South Africa and Ireland provided models of how to deeply listen that we applied on a wide scale for healing the wounds of racism in particular. Learning to listen has helped us to build trust with each other. Basically once we understood that nothing was what we thought it was, we were eager to learn what we could do differently. The exposure of the deep corruption at the root of our society was very motivating. Even many of those who had been beneficiaries of the corruption were so disgusted at how they had contributed that they made radical changes.
The best part is seeing the incredible flowering of creativity set loose from within people. The new economic system gives people the freedom of time to devote to our passions and art. Plus the community art that is happening everywhere draws us together. Group Identity is more frequently based on common goals, rather than race, or sexual preference. Not that there is not still much to celebrate about our ancestors and where we have come from- but it is something that can draw us together rather than be used to divide us. Just like an ecosystem we have learned to appreciate our diversity and it makes us stronger.
We needed to let go of the whole melting pot idea- it never was true- except perhaps in that the scum did rise to the top.
The old ideas were so sticky, that some folks never could accept the changes. They tried to form little pockets to “protect themselves from the madness.” Of course that didn’t work out so well. They were trying to live on stored food from the old world and we were all feasting on fresh deliciousness grown in the new world. Eventually we won over most, and those we didn’t, well they have mostly died. Who could resist singing people? Who could resist yummy food? The key to the heart is through the belly too.
We work for ourselves now- and for each other. Learning how to make decisions collectively was taught first by the folks who had been practicing in churches and cooperatives, then peer to peer. It really has felt more like remembering than learning. What a relief to let go of all the bureaucratic busywork- that alone freed up millions of people to work on the community projects that take care of our needs so well. The decisions of planning and carrying out the work is in the hands of those who are doing it. Tiny circles and circles and circles all overlapping like raindrop ripples on a pond. Some people belong to 8 different circles, others to just one or two. When you think about how much less output is required in the new economy based on meeting our needs, vs the old one based on consolidation of wealth for the few it makes sense. It is so obvious how did we miss it for hundreds, or even thousands of years?
We knew we had succeeded when we noticed that the death rates were evening out. People aren’t dying earlier just because they are African, or Latino anymore. All People are so much healthier now.
The barriers to living in this golden age were never about not being creative enough to come up with solutions. As long as we believed in the enemy stories that were blasted everywhere we couldn’t embrace our own power to co-create a world we actually wanted to live in. As long as anyone flourished at the expense of anyone else we were all limited.
The bodhisattva were right. The seed for it all was the courage of those who stepped into the center and spoke their truth, and were listened to. It took both, the courage to speak and the courage to listen. Once that happened how could anyone deny the amazing beautiful humanity looking back from every face, no matter what color.
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Thanks for sharing what you have learned, Iris. A poet I am following right now is speaking to this issue, Nayirah Waheed.