A few days ago, a friend of mine softly admitted that she’s never suffered racism. I was stunned, even though this shouldn’t have surprised me. She’s white, and I’m Asian. However, it was a moment of stark realization that having racist experiences was part of my life being a person of color—despite whatever similarities we may share in our education, field of work, travels, age, and income.
Many years ago, I went to a country-that-shall-not-be-named* and ended up traveling with a girl that I met at my hostel. Like me, she was American. Unlike me, she was white. More than once, we would be walking together when a local would approach us. He’d start shouting racist remarks at me, ridiculing me for my physical (Asian) features, and follow us around. Meanwhile, the same local would be friendly, smiling, and polite to my friend, promoting his restaurant where they had a "wonderful menu with good prices." It was bizarre seeing this man alternate his behavior so quickly, depending on whether he was talking to me or my friend. The first time this happened, my friend was completely shaken up, disturbed by such a raw display of hate, and confused why anyone would do such a thing. It was her first racist experience, secondhand. I remember her gently asking me, “Does that happen to you a lot?” I felt embarrassed. Not ashamed that I was Asian, but embarrassed that she saw something that I managed to keep hidden. She was seen as superior because she was white.
With Black Lives Matter being at our global attention, this has been one of several upsetting memories that has re-surfaced for me. When the racism was by people that I knew (close friends and my own students as a former elementary school teacher), I felt betrayed. When it was by complete strangers, there was fear and uneasiness in how far the racism would go. As the suppressed wounds come up from 5, 10, 20 years ago, my hurt, anger, and confusion are still all there.
It’s an odd feeling being somewhere in the middle of blind white privilege and racism at its cruelest level. My racist incidents have been on a much, much smaller scale than blacks, and never to the point of brutality. Yet, I know what it’s like when that racist moment happens on a particular level. I also know what it’s like to have my race or ethnic background be treated as superior compared to other races or Asian ethnicities.
Whatever identity we come with, Black Lives Matter is giving ALL OF US an opportunity to WAKE UP, or in softer spiritual terms, to awaken. For the past few weeks, I’ve read and listened to various articles, talks, and videos to educate myself more on systemic racism and white privilege in the US. I’ve donated money to the black rights movement, attended a memorial for George Floyd in San Francisco, and bought a BLM t-shirt. Maybe you have done similar, and I’m sure it’s been appreciated by those on the receiving end.
However, awakening is deeper than awareness or being supportive. It’s the inner process of dismantling the ego, the excuses, and the divide. It can feel like a lot of work— self-examining, questioning, taking responsibility, being vulnerable, admitting to guilt or feeling shame. It may disrupt your beliefs, emotions, your lifestyle, and your relationships. To add to "the Awakening Challenge," there’s so much shaming in our society that it often stops us from even admitting to truths. That we have stereotypes. That we have biases. That we didn’t stop racism when it was happening to others. That maybe we have had a thought, feeling or acted out of superiority based on our race.
We can’t awaken, atone, heal, or move forward if we don’t do the work. Keep the mind and heart open. May we all find our freedom.
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*I didn't name the country in my story since racism exists all over the world, whether it's done by locals, tourists, expats, or residents.
Tammy is a location independent yogi.