Freeing the tatas

About two months ago I was doing some time-sensitive freelance work, and, as per usual, waited until the last minute to pack my suitcase for my extended six-week stay in Berlin. I travel so much that I’m a pro at packing. And I also tell myself that it doesn’t matter anyway. If I have my wallet and my passport, everything else is taken care of.

Well this pro-packer conveniently forgot to pack bras, panties, and socks. Of course she did! Those things aren’t next to my wardrobe, and I had 30 minutes. I walked out of my door on the way to the airport and felt that I was forgetting something but wasn’t sure what. It was when I arrived in Berlin that it hit me. I had the one pair of panties that I was wearing. I had no socks, because – summer. And I wasn’t wearing a bra, as I had on one of those cute tank tops with the built-in support. Since I landed so late, there was nothing that could be done until the next day.

Pantie and bra

A fan of going commando, especially in the summer, I didn’t feel rushed to get to the department store. But once I did, I decided to go for the inexpensive variety pack of undies. Finding the nice panties takes me a lot of time and a lot of patience, both of which I was lacking that day, so I bought the panties that you wear when you know no one else is going to get a peek. And I threw in a pack of grannies too; I like to call them moon panties: for the cycle not for my backside. Bras, the more daunting purchase, would have to wait.

Later that day I had a meeting in a feminist art gallery, my reason for being in Berlin. I co-curated an art exhibition and event series dedicated to Black women artists and women artists of color, all to be held and hosted in this gallery. Feminist is not a label with which I clothe myself, mostly because I find it restrictive and exclusive to a certain appearance of woman, but most people would consider me one. While at the gallery I had the brilliant idea to make this whole accident a conscious act: no bra for the duration of my stay and no shaving as the cherry on top. Feminism: Here my roar! Or something like that.

Shaving, or the lack thereof, felt like it would be easy. My legs don’t get shaved but a few times a year anyway. The fine hair on my legs and my dry skin prevent more of that. Bikini waxing is something I’ve scaled back recently so that the march of the ingrown hairs could be defeated once and for all. But the pits. As a cheerleader in middle school it was requested of me to shave, and I’ve happily done so ever since. Not shaving my armpits during summer temps was actually a challenge. The straight hair of all of my nether regions and the salt crystal as deodorant meant that really nothing stood in the way. After three weeks, my hair reached its maximum fluff, and I proudly held my arms up, whether in front of a packed yoga class at Burning Man or in front of an audience at the gallery events. Proudly, consciously, but also aware that it could be a thing. So many of my white feminist friends, especially in Berlin, don’t shave anything. It’s almost like the membership card to the white feminist club. But I don’t know any Black women in Berlin who don’t, at the very least, shave their pits. Or do I?

My assumption was that going without a bra would be easier, require less thought or second guessing. I was wrong. With the help of athleticism and broad shoulders my breasts appear petite yet still large enough that I consider a bra necessary. (Yes, I read the French study on the subject.) I only had two of those nifty support tank tops. But I had a bunch of other tank tops that I wore under blouses and thinner tops in order to round the shape of my breasts so that one might assume I have on a bra. They’re luckily perky all on their own. Some of you might be wondering about nipples. Nipple prints don’t bother me; mine were pierced for eight years. When practicing yoga I use sport tanks that include the built-in support. And in everyday bike riding and general movement, I didn’t miss bras. When I got back to London and my full wardrobe, I even needed a couple of days to remember that I could wear a bra again, if I so desired. I haven’t yet. And I also haven’t shaved yet. I’m trying to remind myself of the cost-benefit-analysis of doing either of those things, regularly and unquestioningly.

Admittedly, there are some fancy outfits that I slay with the help of supported breasts, and I will use bras as accessories as well. The reason it takes me so long to buy them is, because I look for the ones that are perfect for my body’s attitude. But aesthetically I no longer see a difference between my hairless and my hairy arm pits. Some may see this as political, some may not. That’s a luxury of the privileged. Every time I walk out the house, my decisions of going out in a hoodie or heels, locs up or down, bra on or off, pits shaved or not is interpreted by someone somewhere as a statement. Let the statement be this: I decide for me and no one else.

Black Rock City: A Black Queer Woman’s Perspective

For several years I have been seriously planning my first Burn. While attending Fusion, a festival outside of Berlin, I was introduced to some of Burning Man’s core principles. My experience at Fusion remains one of my fondest festival memories, even though it is also darkened by receiving the news of Michael Jackson’s death, and it left me wanting to venture to the “source”. For the last three years, I have been planning my trip to Black Rock City (BRC). I subscribed to the newsletter and let Jack Rabbit speak to me about everything from employment opportunities to art grants. I watched Spark, a documentary on the gathering; I enjoyed many a conversation with so-called Burners, my friends who maintain community all across the globe; and I even created a private Facebook group for close friends who might be interested in attending with me with a clearly stated purpose of queerifying and colorizing BRC that much more.

For whatever reason 2015 was my year. Sitting across from a veteran, I entered the madness of ticket sales in February and successfully bought two tickets. I danced a jig and shouted happily before knowing that the veteran wouldn’t be so lucky (he, of course, was able to find tickets later). I started to connect with even more Burners in London and discuss the best way to “do” Burning Man (BM) when traveling from across the pond to get there. I asked a close Black girlfriend if she wanted to attend with me. She knew from the previous year that she would be eligible for a low-income ticket. But just as in the previous year, she still felt like she wouldn’t be able to afford all the other costs that come together. I asked a white male queer friend, one of my closest friends whom I can trust in any environment, if he wanted to go. He said that he couldn’t afford it. I asked another white gay friend, who also would be eligible for a low-income ticket, and he declined as well due to costs. So I asked someone who identifies neither as Black/POC nor queer. She said yes. To later pull out just four weeks before our planned arrival in San Francisco. After not seeing me for several weeks, she decided she couldn’t trust me to ‘take care of her’ in the desert. All of my friends saw this as a blessing in disguise. No one should expect to be taken care of, and I certainly wasn’t going to the desert to coddle fragile white femininity.

After all of these pre-event ups and downs, I was close to giving up. I sold my tickets and wanted nothing to do with it. But two Burner friends, who hadn’t given up on the idea or me, helped me find a way. I bought a ticket, at a slightly higher rate due to improper currency conversions, found an RV to share, and off I flew to SFO.

It is impossible and also tedious to write a blow-by-blow summary of my time on the playa. In the following, I will address, however, the things (experiences, encounters, exchanges, etc.) that most affected me and my space in BRC.

Day 1

After a great flight and a great sleep at an Airbnb in the middle of Berkeley, I spent hours buying stuff in Target in San Leandro where I would meet most of my RV crew. The last thing I had imagined myself doing was going to BM with an entirely straight, white crew, but that’s exactly what happened. It was not only not ideal, it was uncomfortable. Two guys, both originally from England though one currently lives in Chicago, and a woman from Cali who works in NYC. From our written communication, I recognized red flags with the woman but was determined to make it work. Also, I knew I wouldn’t spend that much time in the RV anyway. Immediately I hit it off with the guys which put me at ease a bit. The first ignorant comment came from the woman, who acted as my co-pilot as I drove us from Reno to Gerlach. A literary agent, who felt it necessary to describe her clients by their identifying characteristics that align best to my politics (a Black transgender blablabla, a Black woman blablabla), she spoke of her interest in working in certain areas. However, she couldn’t pronounce the name of the NYT bestselling author, who is currently to be found on everyone’s newsfeed. When I corrected her pronunciation of his name, while also explaining that I could put her in touch with him, she blurted out that she can’t pronounce his name and that doesn’t matter anyway. This coming from the daughter of Russian immigrants. Nothing new, nothing worth discussing further, because I know how the conversation ends. But I took note and understood not to take her masquerade politics seriously, if she wasn’t even interested in properly pronouncing the name of someone currently touted as one of the most important contemporary authors.

Day 2

Arriving at sunrise was beautiful. I got to see the sunrise every morning on the playa, and each one was breathtaking. Since I was scheduled to teach yoga at 10:45am, I didn’t bother going to sleep. I went and found some friends at their camp and chatted about the adventures of just getting to BRC. I left their camp and walked to my class. On my way there, an older white man shouted out to me from across the way that I had on a decent costume, but […]. I cut him off to say that I wasn’t in costume rather I was about to teach a yoga class. He then asked why I would want to teach yoga and “get all hot and sweaty” and questioned why I wasn’t more concerned with “Black Lives Matter”. Instantly I asked him what he knew about it, which left him silent. I had no desire to engage this person, who apparently was not only ignorant but even more so interested in provoking. I didn’t want to bring that negative energy into my yoga class. Furthermore, I had already been really clear about the fact that, no matter the ignorance, I wasn’t wasting my time at BM educating folks. My first encounter with non-greeter strangers in BRC was one marked by ignorance; I felt targeted due to my race. Later while leading my class in savasana, the final pose of class, I saw a Black man walking to his bike. He had on a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I tried to silently tiptoe to the exit and, at the same time, not disturb anyone, but to no avail. He was gone before I got there, and he didn’t see me waving. I hoped to run into him somewhere else on the playa.

Later in the day, while having a good time with the two guys from my RV crew, I happened upon one of the most beautiful and meaningful camps in BRC, Que Viva! camp. Laura Diamond describes her purpose for this camp as follows “It is my goal to introduce a program to provide greater inclusion for underrepresented artists at Burning Man, those trapped in poverty, especially artists of color.” At my first visit, I didn’t meet Laura, but I did meet and chat with her husband, Oh Tony. I gave him a huge hug and told him how finding this camp meant everything to me that day. Seeing “Justice for Mike Brown” and “Black Lives Matter” banners helped me to feel less isolated. I knew there was at least one place for me to go to find like-minded people who care about the things that I care about. I vowed to return. And I did.


Day 3

After teaching an early-morning yoga class at 7am, I was approached by a participant who writes for the Daily Beast. She asked me how I was enjoying the event. I told her that I came with a critical eye. Without missing a beat, she asked if that critical eye had to do with the fact that BM is a white middle-class (male) event. This observation from an older white woman from the US felt spot on.

I spent the entire day re-connecting with a special friend, who invited me to a small celebration that evening. At this intimate gathering, I was mis-identified several times. Two white men assumed I was my friend’s playa partner, as she is also a Black woman with locs. A white woman grabbed my braided hair after greeting me, because she wanted to feel the texture of my locs. I was surprised that this still happens in the States. I was under the impression that we had moved past such primitive behavior from which I have had to defend my hair in Germany. But apparently I was mistaken. I politely took my hair back out of her hands, but she avoided speaking to me the rest of the night. I know from her friend, who identifies as a woman of color, that she felt uncomfortable with the situation and didn’t know how to apologize. Yet another person thought I was the Black woman from his camp. I don’t know what she looks like, but I do know she was the only Black woman staying at his camp. When I kindly explained that he couldn’t possibly know me, because we hadn’t met yet, he became upset with me, defending himself even after I had already moved on. The worst comments came from a white Australian guy with locs no less, who stated that he, as a skilled tradesman, can’t find work in the States because of the Mexicans, who are all unskilled tradesmen and willing to work for less than he is. I gave him a moment to correct himself but to no avail. He continued down this racist trail for a bit. When I asked him to refrain from assumptions, he hunkered down and swore that 80% of the brown people in California were Mexicans and none of them had training. He said that I needn’t be offended, because he is also a tradesman; he wasn’t looking down on the work. I tried at all costs to avoid him the rest of the night, but he continually approached me, and rather than calling me by my name, called me “Soul Sistah”, presumably to show me just how down he was. I was someone’s +1 to this intimate gathering, and I felt completely alienated.

A true highlight was the long conversation I had with a woman artist of color, especially because of my current art project for Black women artists and women artists of color, and the mini-coaching session I was able to offer her. We both left that conversation feeling uplifted and have vowed to stay in touch (which we have already begun to do).

Some might think these are isolated events, but over the course of the entire week, I was – from behind, from the side, from the front – called by other people’s names and even engaged in conversations by people, who assumed I was another Black woman. There is more that defines my appearance than my race and my hair.

Day 4

This day was meant to be catch-up-on-sleep-day, which I did a bit, before hanging out with the guys from my RV and their new friends. Unfortunately, we lost each other pretty early in the evening on the playa. I lucked out and discovered Camp Questionmark )?(, where beats were heavy, on the same night that Major Lazer and the likes of Diplo performed on that very stage. I was thrilled to find the spaces where rap/hip hop/beats were the main attraction. I am a fan of most music, but the EDM spaces were becoming monotonous. I later danced to Prince and MJ at Planet Earth before riding into deep playa, which is a task at night with all the deep sand! I eventually found another spot with some chill yet heavy beats where I danced for a while and ran into a dude, first-timer, from Oakland (turned out he was actually from New England but has been living in Oakland for about a year and a half). We decided to move on together and wound up at an art car playing funk and soul (NOT Disco Fish!). We jammed there for a while and were joined by a woman, first-timer, from Santa Barbara. She asked us when did we actually – rather than physically – arrive on the playa. I told the story of my encounter on the way to yoga class. That’s when I felt like I arrived. After everything felt magical with the beautiful BM greeter staff and finding people important to me quite quickly, that encounter felt like a true arriving. A reminder that BRC doesn’t offer equal magical or even surreal playaland to its entire population. She was deeply moved by my story and asked if she could share it with others. I said yes. She also told me a story of a friend’s encounter with a racist BM ranger. I was shocked. Eventually, the guy from Oakland offered his 2 cents by saying that there are always assholes in the world, BRC or not. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Because, in the end, all people want to be good. I turned to watch sunrise.

Day 5

With my new friend from Santa Barbara I ventured to Bubbles and Bass for some early morning beats and bubbly. And met all the people I would’ve met, if I would’ve gone through with my original plan and attended the drag show the night before. I also met one of the organizers of one of my favorite gender questioning camps on the playa. Later that evening I went to their smoothie party and met loads of great men, women, trans+ and no label folks of all races. I enjoyed great conversation with one of the organizers. And I found myself finally able to articulate some questions that had been on my mind since arriving. This particular organizer and activist has been going to BM for over a decade and, in that time, has always been provided a low-income ticket. However, as noted above, a lot of costs come together on top of the ticket price, especially if organizing an entire camp. In art and activism, as a member of underrepresented or minority groups, one must ask oneself when does protest and when does resistance have a greater effect. On the one hand, this camp and the many others in the gay-/queerborhood offer home to the many queer-identified citizens of BRC. And that is something to be celebrated. At the same time, many more such people can’t or choose not to attend BM. In a comprehensive cost-benefit-sustainability analysis, does it make sense to spend the time/money/effort on building these camps at BM, where only a select few can experience and reap the benefits, or does it make more sense to create a new space where a larger portion of the targeted population can attend, enjoy and radically self-express with like-minded folk, not as outliers but in the center?

Day 6 til the end

From time to time I also engaged people I saw wearing mock Native American headdresses. Besides the fact that they are super MOOP-y, why would anyone choose to wear a mock something on sacred land as a non-Native American? I have no idea. Some people responded positively and even took it off. Others cursed me out. Either way it was just that important to me.

For the rest of my time in BRC, I tried to find a balance between connection and solitude. I enjoyed sunrises from the playa alone, early morning dance dates, teaching yoga, practicing partner yoga at Center Camp, jamming to a Prince cover band, and so much more.


The core principles that I began and ended contemplating the most are radical self-expression, immediacy, radical inclusion, gifting and leave no trace. In general, I feel that the core principles should be re-written as principles that BRC aspires to, not as states of being.

Radical self-expression

With the population composition of BRC, this does not feel possible to me in my body as I present. Regularly burdened with questions around my hair, my gender, my sexuality, which acted as reminders of my being othered, I found it was not possible to feel completely free in my self-expression. I cannot radically self-express if my self-expression is constantly called into question or seen as an educational opportunity to strangers.

 

Immediacy

This core principle, one I aspire to daily in my mindfulness practice and in each exchange, is what allowed me to recognize people’s intentions and their hearts. But this is my life everyday. As a minority – yet member of the global majority- it is constantly demanded of me to have understanding and compassion for the ignorance of the privileged majority. So many conversations I engage in leave me drained, because white-straight-cis fragility doesn’t want to put in the work to understand truths that have been made clear to me since birth. My wish is for a shift. If the citizens of BRC don’t understand everything they see, then at least just let it be.

Radical inclusion

Most people I talk with seem really concerned with what they call an epidemic of plug & play / turnkey camps. I met someone who was hired to build a plug & play camp. He is a music video director and producer and one of the nicest people I met on the playa. He told me what it is like to work for the super rich folks. It isn’t any different than what I imagined it to be. In my pre-event planning I met someone who is financially comfortable and perfectly happy with using turnkey camps, that offer him a full package of ticket, food, water, and camp. He’s also a nice guy. While I understand the conversation around these types of camps and why they are problematic, in my personal opinion more for other core principles like radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort and participation, I find it interesting that these camps evoke more of an uproar than the fact that BM, even with a low-income ticket, is not affordable to a large portion of the potential BRC population. Moreover, as census data shows, the racial/ethnic makeup of BRC is predominantly white with 87% identifying as such. But looking at the racial composition of permanent staff, this isn’t surprising. And when Larry Harvey, the face of BM in the media, believes he can speak for Black people simply because he lives in a Black neighborhood, was married to a Black woman and has Black (step)children, it is obvious to those of us who are actually Black why this isn’t going to change much any time soon. Instead of seeking out Black diversity consultants, he could seek contact with Black Burners.

Gifting & Leave No Trace

As an economist, these two principles were very intriguing to me. But I’ve left the experience disappointed. While I love the fact that I went home with amazing schwag from beautiful people, mostly artists!, I wasn’t able to observe a gifting economy that would be reproducible without money. For reasons that are well-known in the “real world”, Center Camp offers coffee and ice with the exchange of hard currency. (I’m not really clear on why it’s offered at all; plenty of folks make their own.) And all of the donations to the camps offering drinks and food are made by people, such as myself, who have spent money somewhere else to acquire/purchase said donated items. Unlike in Ricardo’s model in BRC most people didn’t produce the paper plates, juice and bottles of booze that they gifted to the camps needing those items.

While BRC stayed cleaner than any event (mostly festivals) I’ve attended on this scale (or even smaller), people seemed to become less mindful as the days went on, or perhaps as the city filled to capacity. I have to wonder if this principle would even be as propagated and emphasized, if it weren’t one of the main criteria of getting to come back every year. BRC has its own airport; that must certainly leave a trace. Items, such as feathers, glitter and sequins, that used to be banned were in full effect this year, and I haven’t heard one report of someone being asked to change or remove an item. It’s up to the hundreds of volunteers to remove the leftover MOOP.

BRC shouldn’t be a police state; we have enough of that in the “default world”, but it could act more authentically in realizing its core principles.

These are my thoughts, my opinions, my experiences. This is my process.

AFROPUNK: Paris Edition

I wasn’t able to attend AFROPUNK, which took place from 23 – 24 May, but I was able to live vicariously through some good friends of mine.

For those of you who might not know what AFROPUNK Festival is (is that even possible?), know that it celebrated its tenth year of live music, art and good peoples last year in Brooklyn. You can expect open-minded, non-conforming and unconventional people and all that comes with them. The festival stages are filled with alternative music artists and the atmosphere is all about an exchange of thought and positivity. Truly an uplifting experience that you have the opportunity to experience all over the US and now in Paris too. For more details check out the official AFROPUNK website.

Here is an impromptu conversation that my friends had with some folks concerning living as Black Americans in Europe. Some people might want to take notes!

I feel, therefore I can be free

I traveled to Peru for two months. I knew that the time had come for me to travel to South America. And I knew that I only had two months, so I would probably only choose to travel one country. I chose Peru for many reasons. The history, pre-Columbian / pre-Incan / Incan, fascinates me; the majority of the population is POC; an indigenous president was elected for the first time this century; there is an Afro-Peruvian population, albeit only a small fraction of the general population, and so on.

At the same time, South America’s colonial history and that lingering legacy is highly problematic. From my point of view based on things I have read, friends from the region and now my own personal experience, there seems to have been great emphasis on a decolonization of the “land”, but a process of decolonizing the mind has yet to follow. I kept a travelogue at a different link but chose to keep that light and left out most of the racist and sexist incidents with which I was confronted throughout my trip. It is important to me, however, to document at least some of them. So I’ve decided to do that here. Rather than listing them in some trivial and analytical way, I’ve decided to only use some that were representative of my personal experience, irrespective of what part of the country I was in.

“Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.”

1. Many European and North American tourists travel to South America and want to take pictures of “the natives”. We live in a capitalist world, in which people are constantly looking for a way to make that paper. “The natives” have recognized the market for picture taking and, in some of the main tourist cities, use traditional dress and animals to make money by charging for their picture to be taken. And tourists who find the practice appealing happily oblige and pay a small fee. However, there are some (typically hard-to-reach) places where “the natives” do not want to be photographed and make that known. And the highly entitled tourists find themselves disgruntled by the fact that they are being prohibited in their right to invade other people’s private sphere. They then proceed to complain loudly about it, any chance that they get. It does not matter that these places are even described in travel guides as not welcoming to such tourism, the entitlement trumps all other feelings.

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”

2. As many Europeans and North Americans like to point out, machismo is alive and well in South America. And that is true. What many neglect to mention is that many European and North American men are happy to partake in that culture when given the opportunity (and not only in SA). In Cuzco I observed a very drunk British man harass a Peruvian woman of color. I stayed close to the sidelines but chose to wait to see if the woman needed support. The story became clear in very little time. Drunk man wanted to take beautiful “native” woman home to conquer. She was not interested and declined. Drunk man would not accept no, and instead went on to insult her with the following belligerent monologue: I don’t believe that you don’t want to go home with me. You know what I think. I think you are actually married, you have a child, and you’re  just out here being a slut tonight. At this point I was ready to engage, but the Peruvian woc made eye contact with me and smiled. She was going to handle things differently. She escorted him back up to his hotel, stayed there for perhaps two to three minutes (I couldn’t see this part), and then came running down the street, waving at me as she passed and disappeared. Drunk man couldn’t walk a straight line, making running even more difficult, and was lost almost immediately. So his night ended.

3. I stayed at a community house that offers intentional long-term stays for travelers. Courses in yoga, meditation, dance etc. were offered on a daily basis. The majority of these travelers were women and, with the exception of myself and one other person, white women. All of the classes were taught by white women from North America, Europe and Australia, with the exception of my classes and two other dance/yoga classes. The house had typical community rules for cleaning up behind oneself, but the place just doesn’t stay clean without the support of a cleaner. The cleaner was a “native”. A beautiful Peruvian woc with a huge heart and a warm smile. She befriended me on my first day already, even though my Spanish was weak and my inhibition to speak high. She understood my situation and I understood hers. Little did most of these women know, “the native” owned her own shop and did not struggle financially in the way that most of them assumed (why else would a person clean?). The white women demanded to know why “the native” could touch my hair and they couldn’t; how we could be so close and understand each other without exchanging many words; why this circle couldn’t be expanded. We never bothered to give them answers, because we knew that no answer exists that they could or would ever accept.

“What other human being absorbs so much virulent hostility and still functions?”

4. I traveled alone through Peru, my preferred way to travel, and as a solo woman traveler, a solo Black woman traveler, I heard it all, the good and the bad. Most Peruvians assumed I was from Colombia, before and after hearing me speak. I must assume that Colombia is the go-to choice for Black skin in South America. Interestingly, I met Colombians along the way who also presumed that I might be from Colombia. Peruvian men of the lighter shade assumed I would be easy to take home and often disrespected me. Peruvian men of the darker shade bought me drinks, told me jokes, taught me how to dance salsa, and never asked for more. As far as women are concerned, I found it difficult to connect with women, but when I had the opportunity to stay in a place for an extended period of time, I was able to talk to women (usually indigenous), and after a conversation or two they opened up and talked to me about their lives and their experiences or just made simple conversation. I know that most of the skepticism stems from my country of origin and the rest from my complexion. I know, because some of them told me.

Alone but never lonely I traveled through many parts of a beautiful country; I met a lot of people, some pleasant others unpleasant. Sometimes more open than others to new experiences, I met kind-hearted people who made me feel welcome. Guarding myself from vulnerability I encountered numerous people who have yet to question their way of thinking, their (self-) hatred, self-righteousness, and desires. Yet here I am.

*All quotes from Audre Lorde.*

The Problem with New Age Spirituality 

I participated in a training this weekend. I’ll leave it unnamed so as to not get into a discussion about the merit or quality of the particular training. That is not the point of this post. I want to discuss a more general theme that I see in many “new age” communities: lack of responsibility. 

I personally see little difference between the rhetoric of Calvinism and that of many new age spiritual communities. In Calvinist-based belief systems, a person is made to think that they can do anything they put their mind to simply through hard work, great effort and determination. No matter what conditions a person is born into, no matter their current circumstances, they can rise above all struggles to live a prosperous life, which is normally defined by material wealth. 

What I learned this weekend is that everything that happens in my external world is a reflection of my internal disposition. If I am confounded to an inferior consciousness, I wil not be prosperous and my relationships will be negative. I have to elevate myself to a superior consciousness in order to find prosperity and sustained happiness. 

At first glance this makes a lot of sense to many. However, I would hope that, at the very latest, at second glance the neglect and lack of accountability and responsibility in this line of reasoning become clear to everyone. Where are oppression, marginalization, violence and abuse and the people perpetuating these horrors accounted for? They aren’t. Instead, as is the case in so many faulty interpretations, victims are left to blame themselves for abuses against them. 

In the last two weeks I have heard stories of women, who were sexually violated and/or assaulted. And these women were in very different situations yet shared the thought process of blaming themselves for the violation/assault. They wanted so badly to believe in the good of mankind that they concluded it better to blame themselves for their situation. According to what I learned this weekend, these women were sexually assaulted and/or violated because they have yet to reach a superior consciousness. What about their violators?

I enjoyed a walking tour of Cuzco last week, and I learned a lot from a really knowledgable tour guide. He was born in a tiny village in the Peruvian Amazon which can only be reached by small boats. He began working -cleaning shoes – at the early age of eight. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and now lives in Cuzco, speaks at least five languages and lives a decent life. A classic story that everyone loves to tell. However, every statement he made during that tour was an example of internalized oppression. He pled the case for the Incas. I cannot count how many times he used the word savage while begging the tourists not to believe such false things about a grand Incan empire that was destroyed by the Spanish in the name of greed and desire. 

I really liked this tour guide and I know that he felt a sense of connection with me, the only non-white on the tour that day. Without judging him as a person, I would have to say that he still suffers from a state of inferior consciousness. How so though, if he has been able to change his situation to one of greatly increased material prosperity?

The thing about ideas and definitions of states of consciousness is that they heavily depend on the states of consciousness of the people doing the preaching. 

I do not regret doing the training; I learned a great deal and can find my own truth in the teachings. 

The greatest lesson of all though is that, as a member of traditionally, centuries-long marginalized and oppressed groups, it is my duty to serve those communities so that I can contribute to a positive external experience, allowing them the room to heal internally. 

Feeling Conflicted While Traveling

I am currently traveling in South America and feel conflicted in how to deal with “good white people” on my journey. 

I have always been quite interested in the history of the Americas, and I am thankful to now be here and experience at least a small part of the continent for myself. My first stop was Lima. That’s where I landed so I decided to stay a few days. I did a great bike tour with a very knowledgable tour guide. At the outset of the tour, he made a statement about Pizarro ‘founding’ Peru. I apparently, without noticing it, reacted very strongly to the statement. From that point onwards the tour guide told us a different history and differentiated between pre- and postcolonial speech. I am very clear that the Incan empire was also violent and built on expansion and power. But it does not compare to the greed, conquest and destruction that ensued under the Spanish conquistadores. In the words of DuVernay, I am not here to argue history, though I could. 

What bothered me was the fact that no one else seemed concerned with this aspect of the storytelling. 

Back at the hostel where I stayed, I was surrounded by mostly white Europeans, all of whom were on long journeys through South America, all of whom were content with consuming and not giving back, all of whom were simply traveling from beach town to beach town with the exception of World UNESCO sites like Machu Picchu. 

Now I have arrived in Cusco where I will stay at least a month. I found a non-profit place to stay where I can also offer things like yoga, meditation and possibly work with local kids. I knew the place was owned by an American, a white woman, but she has a Peruvian partner. And I assumed that the make up would be different. But I am again surrounded by an all white crowd, mostly women, all from Northern American and European countries, Australia and South Africa ::: the great oppressive nation states. And they all offer “their own forms of yoga” and other energy and healing approaches originating from POCs. 

It is impossible to forget the devastation this city endured in the 16th century as it is the main attraction of tourists today. The large churches of the main squares built on top of temples with stolen bricks. And today the destruction is still steeped in greed and consumption. 

My conflict derives from the fact that I have chosen to be here, to live with these people who consider themselves good white people. They mean well. But do they? Do they question these things that I question. From what I can tell, not diligently. They see their contributions positively and aren’t interested in a great deal of digging. They give back in a way that feels good to them, self-congratulatory, nursing their white guilt away on the teets of organic superfood smoothies and quinoa, staples that the locals can barely afford anymore. 

I seek something else. The only other brown bodies I’ve seen here at the house thus far are the cleaner and the Spanish teacher, both very kind women with big hearts and a lot to offer. And I have already made a point of befriending both of them. I have my first Spanish class tomorrow. Not so that I can feel good about myself, not to feel less an outsider, but in hopes of true connection. I want to know their stories. I want to understand why the cleaner’s three daughters have moved to Chicago. I hope to understand my suffering better by learning about theirs. 

To mean well is nothing more than a pass to perpetuate exploitive behavior. 

Why do I do what I do

This is just a quick note. One that might help me reflect at a later date.

This past weekend I facilitated a panel discussion on intersectionality and inclusivity. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with three really amazing panelists:

  • One cis-woman originally from the Philippines, raised in Chicago and now based in London. She confronts tough subjects head on and with a level of straightforwardness that I rarely encounter and continually yearn for. She is a filmmaker and journalists and uses her different channels and mediums to give the so-called minority more visibility.
  • One mixed-race cis-man who identifies as queer, born and raised in the UK to a white British mother and Moroccan father. He runs events and a pub that are all diverse, and some specifically queer.
  • One white non-cis-man (who doesn’t identify as trans*, rather as a man) who earned the first university degree in his family and makes conscious choices in everyday life situations.

I began the discussion by explaining the origins of the term intersectionality. What many people seem to forget is that Kimberlé Crenshaw did frame her ground-breaking paper from 1989 as the perspective of a Black feminist woman, but she also introduced the significance of inclusivity in that paper. Further, she did not limit her arguments to race and gender. She extended them to class, sexual preference, and (dis-)ability. All of this in 1989.

Holding such a panel in a very white setting was a challenge, but the audience listened and was open and there to learn. At the same time I was very clear with my panelists that they were not there to educate. They were there to have a public discussion about their own personal experiences. And that’s exactly what we did. We touched on subjects of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homo- and transphobia and so forth. Genuinely, authentically, unapologetically.

Of course the question often arises why I do what I do. Many Blacks and POCs feel the need to remind me that it is not my obligation to educate the ignorant. I know that and really don’t need reminding of it. I also don’t see the many things that I do as following one purpose of educating ignorant people. I do what I do because I can. Up until now I have been blessed with the capacity, tenacity and endurance to have these discussions. And after each such event I receive feedback from at least one person that it has moved them towards a place of reflection or change. Sometimes those people are Black or POC. And sometimes those people are white. Either way I find it rewarding. If I have been able to give a Black or POC person something that positively reinforces their life experience, then I have positively contributed to the revolution. And if one of my events leads a white person to acting less oppressively, then I have perhaps prevented a future trauma, large or small, in someone else’s life. The same goes for people ignorant to sexual preference, patriarchy, and so forth. That notion alone fuels my energy to keep going.

The panel was an amazing experience for me to connect with all three of these beautiful people, and I somehow feel like I’ve made new friends that will accompany me a lifetime.