Today is Martin Luther King, Jr Day and the kids in California are off school. Today we remember one of our brave and imperfect Civil Rights heroes who had a dream that the ancestors of that generation are still fighting to fulfill. When George Floyd was murdered in front of all of our aghast and horrified eyes, I remember having some parts that were so angry that it took something so obviously brutal to actually make white people care about the injustice and oppression of BIPOC. Just like when police water gunned the children in their Civil Rights March in Selma, there are degrees of oppression that even the numb-hearted, the comfortably ignorant, and the willfully defiant can no longer ignore. Unless you’re an out-of-control narcissist or sociopath, there are degrees of dehumanizing brutality that cut to the heart of even the less empathic among us. Martin Luther King, Jr helped pave the way for the heart opening of the privileged classes, to enlist us as allies in the fight for justice for all.
But white people (and people with other privileges MLK also had himself) are at risk of forgetting too easily because we don’t face those injustices Every. Single. Day. right in front of our own experience. We need to keep these memories fresh. It doesn’t take long to scroll through the news cycle and realize that while some things may have improved since MLK, there is still a long way to go, and we can’t relax our laboring for justice until all humans are treated equally, with dignity, with equity, with respect for their sovereign humanity.
Breathe, Then Push
It’s okay to take breaks in our fight for justice. As Sikh Civil Rights lawyer Valarie Kaur preaches, “Breathe, then push,” just like you’re in labor. Rest. Reset your nervous system. Gather your resources and feel your feelings with your fellow activists. But don’t wait too long to push again or your labor will be at risk of being arrested labor, the kind we OB/GYN’s struggle to avoid. We make progress when we find the resilience to keep breathing, then to keep pushing, and not to relax too much until we have justice for all, just because the injustice might not be right in front of us every day the way it is for many BIPOC.
I was recently talking to a BIPOC girlfriend, and she said that part of what needs to happen is that people (BIPOC included) need to quit sucking up to the powers that be. She feels betrayed by some apparently successful BIPOC who have risen to the top of at least the Black privileged class by not triggering white people’s fragility and by enlisting the help of privileged white people who lift them up personally while actually strengthening the systems of oppression, tokenizing the Black person while still throwing others under the bus, without really lifting up the BIPOC masses. She also understands why some people might justify doing so, to get ahead personally, even if it means stepping on the backs of their brothers and sisters.
But white people do this too, even more so than certain privileged BIPOC. We suck up to the powers that be to avoid triggering white fragility and to fulfill self-interested agendas, even in my own industry. During the summer of 2020, I was shocked at how many allegedly progressive and “spiritual” people who I considered colleagues and allies in the mind-body spirit wellness space didn’t say a peep about Black Lives Matters, other than to virtue signal a meme or two.
Silence Is Violence
I watched famous Oprah- endorsed New York Times bestselling author spiritual teachers keep their mouths shut so they didn’t lose fans, so they didn’t rock the boat, so they didn’t sacrifice their income and lose clients, so they didn’t have to deal with the vicious ire of the “spiritual white woman” Layla Saad so courageously called out in her essay “I Need To Talk To Spiritual White Women About White Supremacy,” which turned into her wonderful anti-racism book “Me and White Supremacy.” I had parts that felt disappointed and disillusioned by these people.
I realized their “spirituality” only went as deep as their pocketbooks. I even overheard well-known spiritual teachers you would recognize say they would “Sit this one out” (public health guidelines, Black Lives Matter) during 2020 because “the world is too polarized for non-dual teachings right now.”
But I was not blameless. I also felt an urgency to vigilantly self-inquire about where my own complicity in upholding systemic racism for self-interested or just clueless reasons might still be hidden. I found many, and I just finished writing a book about spirituality without spiritual bypassing, since it became obvious to me that the New Age spiritual belief system is as flagrantly racist as the fundamentalist belief system. I had had no idea, although my BIPOC sister had been onto the oppression in that belief system years earlier.
I then proceeded to breathe and push and take firm stands (and lose clients and income because of it- because I still had food on the table so I had the luxury of making an integrity decision- and because doing the right thing matters more to me than owning a home or having other luxuries.) And every day since then, in my own way, I’ve tried to wake up in the morning, and do what I can, breathing and pushing, and yes, leveraging my privilege to take breaks from time to time, so I can reset my nervous system and then hunker down to do it again.
Be Willing To Take The Heat By Defying The Gentleman’s Agreement
On MLK Day and every day, we need to stop cooperating with “The Gentleman’s Agreement” to uphold the structures of white supremacy and other oppressive structures, even if they benefit some of us with more privileges. We need to be willing to make some sacrifices to lift some people up, even if it feels “unfair” to the ones who may feel like they’re losing privilege as the tables equalize.
As I wrote about the other day in my essay on Facebook about “nervous system privilege,” there are various DEI issues that require us to be very proactive and generous when it comes to creating equity- at both the personal and systemic level. I know there are many who aren’t so happy about the progressive “woke” agenda- and they don’t even try to be civil and decent about this displeasure. (With all due respect for everyone’s unique humanity, I’ve been systematically blocking those vicious racists from my community, so if you’re one of them and you want to lose the privilege of commenting, feel free to make your opinions known- and we WILL block you to create safety for others.)
As Matthew Remski pointed out in the latest Conspirituality podcast brief “Teal Swan’s Satanic Panic To Anti-Woke Pipeline,” it seems to be a short road for some white, wealthy influencers to switch from the “progressive, spiritual” messaging to the anti-woke right-wing agenda. And they don’t even try to apologize for how corrupt, unjust, and unethical this messaging is. (And sadly, many of their followers don’t seem to mind either, since it validates their own racism and desire to cling to the benefits of unearned privilege and coddles their own conflict avoidance and desire for “peace” and “unity” rather than “polarization”(aka taking a firm stand.) As the sign at our local Stinson Beach says, “No justice, no peace.”
But enough ranting from me about white influencers in the mind body spirit wellness space who don’t stand for what MLK did. Instead, let me share my own dream.
I Have A Dream Too
If even the winners of the “accumulate power and privilege game” seem to be unhappy, we might just be playing the wrong game. It seems to me that what many of us lose because of the social injustices and unfairness of unearned privilege is intimacy- intimacy with each other, intimacy with nature, intimacy with ourselves, intimacy with whatever you might call God. What even the winners of the power game lose is too precious, priceless, and beautiful to sacrifice. We trade the benefits of unearned privilege for the intimacy we don’t even realize we’re missing, and it’s a bad trade.
So what’s the alternative to the oppressive/oppressed power over/power under game upon which the “American dream” is built? If the goal is not to accumulate power, wealth, influence, property, fame, graduate degrees, sexual favors, or “success,” what is the other dream of what makes a life worth living?
What I vision is a “power with” culture, one that would require some people with unearned power and privilege to sacrifice some of their power and privilege so those with less could be uplifted and life could become more fair and equitable for more human beings. Why would anyone want to give up power and privilege for the sake of justice and equity? Because doing so would benefit not only the ones being lifted up; it would also benefit the ones stepping down from the heights of unearned power and privilege in ways that are different from what we’re accustomed to thinking makes us happy, ways that might feel unimaginable until you’ve tasted what’s even better than “winning” the power and privilege game.
When I talk about this idea in privileged company, some resonate. Others have a hard time letting go of the idea that a strong work ethic and a merit-based way to climb the power and privilege ladder justly rewards the hard-working and fairly disadvantages those who might be judged as lazy but are usually just burdened with trauma, too frozen to be optimally productive. This kind of “American dream” meritocracy mindset ignores crucial issues, like how severely traumatized individuals with fewer privileges might have a hard time being equally productive if their nervous systems are living perpetually outside what Dan Siegel calls your “window of tolerance.” It doesn’t consider things like social determinants of health and wealth that lie outside anyone’s individual power to overcome them. It also begs the question of why some people feel entitled to own ten Ferraris (and pollute the planet accordingly), while others go hungry, lack the resources to pay for shelter for their families or health care, or live in unsafe conditions.
So if we upset the idea that power and privilege are entirely merit-based and therefore fair, and if we can get on board with the idea that “power with” is a better, more ethical, more just way to live in community with each other than having some people exert “power over” and others living in “power under” dynamics, how would we even begin to move the needle in a shared power/ power with direction?
How could we change the culture into one in which more people get to be genuinely happier? Well, according to happiness researchers, we’d need to redistribute power and privilege such that the gross national product per capita was more equal. We’d have to create structures and policies that offer more social support, so people aren’t so isolated, lonely, and unsupported. We’d have to completely reform the American health care system to address health care inequities and social determinants of health so we could improve life expectancy for more people. We’d have to save democracy from the corrupt sociopaths who are trying to power grab in every possible way so people feel like they have more freedom to make their own life choices and the right to vote in free elections, including the ability to vote for policies that protect those freedoms. We’d have to ensure that people are getting their basic survival and safety needs met so they could be more generous with one another. And we’d have to start holding our corrupt leaders accountable for the flagrantly immoral and often criminally illegal behavior that drives the power game, so people’s perceptions of internal and external corruption levels could shift without delusion or denial.
That’s a lot to consider on MLK Day, but it’s what’s filling my heart and mind on this day of remembering those who have martyred themselves for the Civil Rights cause, a cause that needs us all to care enough to make sacrifices ourselves. On this day, I honor all of our historical Civil Rights leaders, MLK in particular. I also honor those who breathe and push together today, especially Resmaa Menakem, Valarie Kaur, Rebekah Borucki, Kerry Kelly, my sister Keli Rankin, and my aunt and uncle Larry and Trudy Rankin, who inspire me every day.
What’s filling your heart and inspiring you today? What’s your dream?