“There is some sickness in this world that cannot be helped by medicine, diet or exercise – I’m talking about hatred, fear and ignorance. Hatred and fear, in particular, are like “kerosene” on our central nervous system and there is only one cure …”
Tuesday was a day when I felt a surge of hope to see that white “People of Privilege” are paying a small amount of attention to the struggles of People of Colour (POC). But it is not enough to put a black square on your Instagram feed; we all need to understand the history and the issues in more comprehensive detail so we are able to recognise all the subtleties of racism and speak out when we hear/see it.
#blacklivesmatter has, however, opened up a space for POC to be more open – reading their stories is a great place to start learning. I could not put a black square on my feed this week but I have taken the chance to read so many of these insightful posts and blogs – all of which have helped me make more sense of my own experiences.
You don’t need to be from an ethnic minority group to get an inkling of what racial abuse feels like. I’m pretty sure that most people have experienced being treated unfairly, for no apparent reason, at some point in their life. The thing is that this is often the norm when your skin is darker. And, unlike those oppressed by poverty, for example, there’s no way to educate your way out!
My Own Experiences
Most of the overt racism I’ve experienced in my life happened in my childhood. I believe I’ve had more than my fair share of body searches, when going through airports, and even a humiliating strip search – but I can’t be sure it was racism as it is possible that I just fitted the drug-mule stereotype!
But I have no doubt about the experiences through my school years; sending us to an almost all-white, middle class school for “young ladies”, my Mum certainly did not expect us to experience abuse, especially as we looked white to her. However, we did; our olive skin arose suspicion, and okay, I only got physical attacked once but this was a violent and frightening episode. Abuse at a more passive aggressive level was constant though – I struggled to make sense of it but there was no-one to get advice from or offer explanation.
So instead I tried to learn from my Mum – she was hard working, fiercely determined, single-minded and incredibly positive. These attributes are undoubtedly what made her successful. She always told us we would have to be way better than a man if we wanted to succeed. The wisdom she imparted focussed on gender inequality and totally glossed over the issues of race, which I found quite bewildering; if she was so much darker than us, and didn’t seem to experience any racism why did we? This week I’ve been educating myself a little more. I’ve taken time to listen to some black role models and I’ve started to see where my Mum was coming from; I’ve realised that it’s not that she did not experience racism but she chose to ignore it, as much as possible. And she wanted us to do the same; she wanted to make sure we didn’t go looking for racism or use it as an excuse. I know she hoped that our lighter skin tone would escape notice and that if we mixed with educated folk we would be fine.
But I am a deep empath – I live through my senses and I have always navigated my way through life led by my heart, my observations and my feelings. So those early experiences, watching behaviour that was, at best, “tone-deaf”, totally shaped my outlook. And, whilst my Mum never said it, I learnt that being mediocre and “of colour” is a road to nowhere.
It was not until I moved to Chile in my twenties that I felt more at ease; there I was totally accepted. No-one noticed my skin colour and, by then, I’d chopped off my wild hair (this was before amazing hair-taming products were accessible!) Some people noticed my attitude was different but they simply assumed I was from Brazil; pequeña Brasileña they called me with affection.
Obstacles Carve Out Our Character
My Dad always talked about character building experiences and a favourite mantra of mine is “what doesn’t break you makes you stronger”. It has been true for me, and I returned to the UK feeling quite free from the worries of wanting to be accepted or even liked. I’d started to understand that there are lots of reasons why any of us may have an intense, visceral dislike of someone but this is not racism; it is not personal because racism means you’ve been dismissed before anyone ever got a chance to know who you are or what you stand for. As the word suggests, it is against an entire race. It doesn’t matter if you are kind, generous, talented, smart, funny – this is all irrelevant if someone is against your race, per-se.
I had also become a little tougher; Chile had dealt me some “body blows” and the only way forward was to emulate some of that positivity, strong work ethic and indomitable spirit I’d seen so often in my Mum. “Fake it till you make it”, they say, so I tried. And these days I don’t dwell on any racist behaviour but it saddens me so much to know that it is still all around. In fact, since it has become less socially acceptable I feel it is more insidious.
Just as a small aside, I was semi-laughing the other day when I asked Nik if he remembered Golly Wog badges or the Black and White Minstrel Show; I mean really, how could anyone think these were okay? Overt racism was fair game for entertainment and stick-pins for children so is it any surprise kids at my school figured it was absolutely fine to deride me for my colour? Whilst obstacles do help carve out our character, racism, for many, can be a lifelong obstacle course!
I’ve written a lot now, and maybe you are wondering what this has to do with my business of teaching yoga or nutritional therapy so I’ll get to the point:
Negative Emotions Make You Sick
There is some sickness in this world that cannot be helped by medicine, diet or exercise – I’m talking about hatred, fear and ignorance. Hatred and fear, in particular, are like “kerosene” on our central nervous system and there is only one cure; to become more compassionate. Great for those around us, but it is also such a healer for our own internal world, because these negative emotions are toxic and actually leave a residue of self-loathing. So it is win-win.
Of course, I know that it is not possible to conjure up compassion out of nowhere but I do know that self-knowledge and self-awareness are great tools for checking our behaviour and holding ourselves to account. Learning to be the observer rather than reacting in an unconscious way gives us time to stop unacceptable thoughts in their tracks. Without these thoughts there will be no ugly actions; our behaviour becomes mindful instead of mindless. Yoga is the most powerful tool I know for becoming conscious; for helping us to wake up and not sleep walk through this life accepting beliefs and prejudices that we don’t even understand. If we are continually “running away” from ourselves how will we ever find out who we are and how we can make a difference to those around us?
Finally, the more we educate ourselves, the more we understand, the more we understand the more we can empathise. When this goes full circle we can see we are all the same and with this realisation it is not difficult to embrace diversity. There’s just one race – it’s human – love it!