11 Aug Svādhyāya & Black Lives Matter: Healing the Wounds of Inequity
By Dr. Claudia Welch
Disclaimer, Introduction and entry into svādhyāya (self-introspection): While certainly Black people and people outside the US are welcome to read this, I am a white woman, and it is generally intended to speak to the perspective and perhaps shared experience of other white people in the US.
In general, I’ve chosen on social media to share voices of Black people. Until now, I have not written much in my own voice. I’ve shared voices of Black, Indigenous or people of color (“BIPOC”) that have studied or lived through the effects of racism way longer, harder and with a greater urgency than I have ever been forced. I needed to read lots of material, hear lots of voices before I felt it was worthwhile to add my particular voice to the chorus. I have been aware of the line between the prudence of listening, and the fact that white silence can serve to maintain a status quo that is damaging and painful.
I have not wanted to make this about me, and yet I recognize the impact of sharing personal experience. And that personal experience of a white person wading through her own ignorance might be able to help someone else mount a learning curve faster than I did. I remember when I was trying to learn Hindi, for example, it was often easier for me to understand and learn certain things from someone that was a non-native Hindi speaker that was more fluent than I in Hindi, than it was for me to understand a native Hindi speaker. Maybe because they spoke slower, or with a more familiar accent, or less colloquially…they were a good stepping stone. If my personal experience trying to get through some of my own ignorance can be a stepping stone for any of my white brothers and sisters to help navigate the (to us) unfamiliar, that’d be great. I’m just sharing my thoughts as of now. They have changed a lot over the last year and are bound to change more. They are bound to reflect my current blind spots; I’m going to say things imperfectly.
I have listened to and reflected on issues of race, racism, cultural differences and white privilege at different times in my life– a lot in India over the years, because it is there where I have spent the most time with people whose skin tones, languages and cultures differ from those into which I was born.
But some of the issues in India are different than the ones in the US. According to the most recent census information I have found, I live in a US state that is 94%, “white alone.” This means it really takes some effort for me to be able to begin to perceive the experiences of Black, indigenous and people of color in the world outside of my bubble. Today, considering the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, I want to specifically consider white ignorance (my own) of Black experience.
Growing up in Northern, very white, mostly rural places, it wasn’t until my family would gather around our 13″ black and white tv that only got ABC (and sometimes CBS), every week and watch Roots–when I was probably around 10 years old, that I learned anything about the history of racism in the US. I was gripped and horrified –and grateful because I thought that horror was in the past. Of course, I learned over the years that the horror is not confined to the past.
In November of 2019 I rather accidentally, and thanks to Denise Barack, stumbled into the week-long event: “The Revolution Within” at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, that Denise had worked towards for almost a year; exploring issues of racism, white privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. (Thanks to Valarie Kaur, Maya Breuer, Zainab Salbi, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Peggy McIntosh, Kate Johnson, Angela Farmer, Seane Corn, Jana Long, and many others that I didn’t get a chance to hear or meet, but that left impressions in my heart–their work is, and spirits are, incredible). I want to share some of my first impressions of the week, as I heard them:
Black people (and I am not speaking for them—I am saying what I heard many of them saying): “you white people are sure ignorant of our experience.”
(Receptive) white people: “okay! Teach us what we need to know!”
Black people: “Sorry. We’re sick (and tired) of doing that for you. Here’s a list of resources (as long as your arm).”
White people (including me—and I am not proud of this): “What?! This list is as long as your arm! Are you kidding me? This is like, if not a college degree syllabus, at least a college course’s worth of reading/watching/listening!”
Black people: “Yes. Yes it is.”
White people (slowly, including me): “Oh. Okay.”
Svādhyāya: I heard the passion, pain, and thoughtfulness of the women at this conference and began to be aware that I had been almost completely ignorant about general experiences of Black people in the US (and elsewhere) in my lifetime. As someone in an anti-racism book club I was in said, “I used to think I was a little ahead.” I learned that I was way behind. I set out to educate and introspect myself on race, racial history and current affairs in the US and my relationship with it and them.
I started on a steep learning curve, and what follows is a little bit of what I have learned so far, especially parts that feel directly related to the healing arts, practices and sciences.
Ignorant Questions, Perceptions & Opinions
“We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant.” Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism”
Like someone saying acupuncture or Ayurveda is quackery but that has never studied it themselves, if I have an opinion on something like the Black Lives Matter movement without having studied almost any of the material, history or philosophies that goes to breathe life into that movement, I have a largely uninformed, uneducated opinion. If I trot it out, I betray my ignorance and tend to distance myself from both the matter at hand and from whoever is connected to it.
I have found myself in this position before. I’ve learned from experience (seriously, do I have to make ALL the mistakes?): there are often questions or statements about a subject that are born of and betray an ignorance and that have the effect of distancing me from someone– and makes that someone tired as he or she is forced to explain or defend him or herself. Probably again. For the manyeth time.
To ease us into looking at some the ignorant questions about race, here are a couple examples of ignorant questions we can ask in other areas of health. They are excerpts from Four Qualities of Effective Physicians and I have added italics to some parts that will apply to ignorant questions and statements about race:
Ignorant questions about sexual assault:
A hurtful question in the case of sexual assault or abuse would be some version of this: “What did you do to invite this?” It might take the form of one of these: “What were you wearing?” “How late were you out?” “Where were you?” “Were you drinking?” “Were you being flirtatious?” Anything that implies or suggests complicity or places responsibility on the woman or man assaulted, instead of the person who violated them, can place more burden on an already burdened spirit. It could be the case that a young woman made a poor choice to get drunk and walk in a bad part of town, but that still doesn’t mean it is her fault that she got molested.
When we encounter things outside our own experience, it may be easy to ask questions borne of ignorance. At best, our patients will have the presence of mind to tolerate our ignorance and the patience to educate us. At worst, doing so will confirm our ignorance, alienate the patient and possibly add more damage, hurt, and loneliness to someone already too familiar with them. —From Chapter 20
Ignorant questions about domestic violence:
As with cases of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, ignorant questions abound when it comes to domestic violence, and they are all too easy to ask. Before becoming more educated on the realities of domestic abuse or battering, I myself asked my patients some version of the No. 1 ignorant question: “Why on earth don’t you leave him?” (Though I am aware that domestic abusers can be women, I am using the pronoun “him” because far more men than women are perpetrators of domestic violence.) It is one thing to sincerely strive to learn about the real barriers and reasons why a woman doesn’t leave an abusive partner. It is another to think it is as easy as walking out the door and suggest that the woman is weak or ignorant if she doesn’t just do it.
There can be many very good reasons a woman will not leave a boyfriend, partner, or husband who is physically or sexually abusive. This woman, passive though she may appear, is an expert on her situation, and she is guaranteed to have thought about those reasons more than her doctor.
… To ask her, “Why don’t you leave him?” in a tone reflecting incredulity that any woman would put up with this treatment, would have simply reflected ignorance of the complexity of her situation and disrespect of the thoughtful, if difficult decision [she] had made. Then she would have felt judged as well as trapped. —From Chapter 24
Ignorant questions or statements about race:
As in the above cases with sexual assault or domestic violence, there are ignorant questions and statements in the modern-day conversation about race: questions that serve to distance ourselves from others. There are many, but here is a top one in terms of its relevance to the healing arts: Some version of: “I see all people as one.” These could include, “I see everybody the same,” “I don’t see color,” “I don’t see differences between people,” “I don’t see race,” “I was raised not to see differences between race”, “we are all One”, “I believe that all lives matter.” On first glance, all these seem very sattvic: pure, clear, loving: coming from a unified perspective. Indeed, when many of us first encountered these ideas or concepts in our lives, they touched us deeply and resonated with a sense of profound truth.
While there may be a perspective from which these things are deeply true, here’s at least one reason why statements like this can be painful to hear, and serve to distance white people from Black people: That deep truth does not play out in the daily experience of many Black people. Many have been treated differently, with hostility, with both small and large aggressions because of the color of their skin, on a regular–often daily– basis their whole lives. If they express the pain of that treatment to me and I respond with one of these statements, I am not inviting the person to share their experience with me. I convey that I do not care to listen further to their experience. I shut down the conversation.
Black Lives Matter movement as an entity: I want to look at this a little more deeply. In order to do so, I would like to adopt the perspective, for the moment, that the Black Lives Matter movement is an entity. I suspect many of us have the ability to perceive this in this way, as many of us are familiar with the concept of an Ayurvidya—a divine embodiment of Ayurveda, that includes the body of knowledge, history and spirit of Ayurveda. Similarly, we could consider the Black Lives Matter movement to be an entity that consists of the multitude of experiences, responses to oppression, history, struggles, triumphs, suffering and studies of Black peoples’ experience in the US. This would include the history of slavery, rebellion, Jim Crow laws, studies and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King jr, the Civil Rights movement, the disproportionate police violence against Black people, the modern-day disproportionate conviction and incarceration of Black people (see the documentary, “13th” on Netflix), the murder of George Floyd and many, many other Black people by police, the responses to that, etc. etc. etc. This is a deep and wide entity.
The Law of Microcosm /macrocosm:
… the person is equal to the universe. Whatever formed entities are found in the universe, they are also found in the person and vice versa. The learned people want to see the phenomena with this angle. Caraka Saṃhitā: Śārīrasthāna:IV:13
This law is accepted in Eastern medicine. If we accept it, it follows that the Black Lives Matter movement or entity is either or both a micro or macrocosm of our reality. To ignore or insult it, is to ignore or insult both.
From the perspective of a health care practitioner, what would be my responsibility to this entity; to this being?
Pratyakṣam (perception): as providers of Complementary or Alternative Medicine (CAM), we do not rely on imaging tests, bloodwork or other tests that we read from a paper. We perceive our patients through our senses—predominantly through observation, listening, and palpation. The more deeply we perceive–we listen to, see and feel our patients, the better our diagnostic ability and the more effective resulting treatment strategies and outcomes. The art of medicine also relies on our ability to deeply hear, see and feel our patients. If our diagnosis is incorrect and treatment strategy faulty, if at least we practice the art of medicine effectively, outcomes improve.
If we claim to be interested in cultivating perception, to practice the science and art of medicine to the best of our abilities, and yet we are unwilling to perceive–to listen, see and feel the Black Lives Matter entity as deeply as we are able?
If a patient walked in to my office and reported back pain, would I shut down the conversation or intake by saying, “We all have some kind of pain,” as if that were a sufficient response? And yet I do not see that responding to, “Black Lives Matter” with some version of, “I believe that all lives matter” serves the same end: it ends the conversation? It does not invite further understanding of the being in front of me.
If a Black woman walked into my office and reported back pain, would I respond by saying, “Well, the Lakota woman that lives in the next town over also has back pain; what about her?” Or, “The refugee from Syria also has back pain,” what purpose does this serve? Yes, everybody else may have back pain, but at the moment, this is this patient I am treating. If I can see this, why can I not see that it also serves to end the conversation if I respond to, “Black Lives Matter” with some version of, “Well, don’t the lives of indigenous people or refugees or Spanish people or battered women or starving children matter?”
Also, what does this approach teach the indigenous, Cuban, or Asian person down the street who also suffers from back pain about me? Doesn’t it teach them that I am not the practitioner to come to if they want healing? If I don’t practice medicine by addressing the back pain of the Black man in front of me, how am I going to develop the skills to address the pain of anyone else with similar pain?
As practitioners, we hopefully are taught to listen deeply to our patients. To see, hear and feel them at the deepest level we are able. We may not fully see, hear, feel or understand their pain, but it is my job, in my experience, to do the best I can.
Tamas (inertia, apathy), masquerading as sattva (purity, clarity): I have come to see that, when I react with statements like, “all are one,” or, “all lives matter” when confronted with the Black Lives Matter entity, what I convey is, “I am comfortable with my world view and not interested in listening to your experience.”
As Melea VanOstrand, writes in her article, “’I’m not racist. I have a black family member!’ I’m that black family member, and yes, you are racist.”, “When someone says they don’t see color, they are attempting to emphasize they are accepting of everyone, no matter their skin color. As a Black woman, when I hear that, I get the impression that you’re dismissing my experiences as a minority in America, ignoring the daily racial biases I face and not celebrating my differences.”
There are other statements I see white people make that at a minimum, ring hollow and, like the above examples betray our ignorance and serve to distance us from those we may wish to support. One of these statements is, “I am not a racist.” There are reasons that rings, at best, hollow. Originally I planned to write a, “Part II” to this article, addressing that, but so many Black people have addressed why this is and the context that influences that, that I am not going to endeavor to address that here. I have listed resources below. It DOES take time to dive into them, and I certainly haven’t read, watched or listened to all of them, but I’m working my way through and they all help me understand more. However, I will say that I have learned: if I have a knee-jerk or negative reaction to any statement about race, it serves me well to stop, breathe and listen as carefully and deeply as I am able (employ pratyakṣam), to take some time to really hear and understand what is being said—not to judge how it it being said—even if it means taking time to read, listen to or watch resources that help me understand the context and depth of the issue.
Questions and statements that reveal ignorance today, might change. Tomorrow or in a decade or two, they might sound different. There might be new questions or statements. My understanding is incomplete. My experience may not be yours. I am not saying it should be. Just sharing mine and putting my shoulder to the wheel for equity and mercy the best I can at the moment.
Thanks for being here.
Here are just a very few resources:
- “13th” Netflix documentary
- “How to Be An Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi
- Stamped From the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson
- So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Author)
- Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander
- Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein
- My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem
- Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, by Desmond Cole
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. by Matthew Desmond
- The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., by Peniel E. Joseph
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. This book is not without its (Black and White) critics; the (white) author is saying a lot of things that have been said by Black authors, and is being financially benefitted from doing so. Also, it has opened many white people’s eyes to our own biases and reactivity.
- Audio recordings or articles:
- How wellness got whitewashed, by Anita Bhagwandas
- Interview with Susanna Barkataki: Ayurveda, Yoga + Cultural Appropriation
- The Case For Reparations, article for the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, narrated. About an hour and a half recording.
- The King Philosophy The King Philosophy includes the Triple Evils, Six Principles Of Nonviolence, Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change and The Beloved Community
- The 1619 Project
- “How to Be Anti-Racist: A Social Worker’s Perspective”
- Appropriation in Ayurveda co-authored by Dr. Ramkumar, Dr. Robert Svoboda and Dr. Claudia Welch. While there are many ways Indian culture has been appropriated– and often selectively evolved –to suit a white, Western culture, and some issues of cultural appropriation may well overlap with those related to the Black experience in the USA, feel urgent, and be important, this paper is not intended to be a comprehensive look at all aspects of cultural appropriation. It is, in fact, only a response to Western students’ requests for us to explore how Ayurveda should be learned, practiced and taught outside of its birthplace–India, if indeed it should.
- People (SUCH a tiny sample of a large pool of incredible humans and activists):
- Valarie Kaur
- Maya Breuer
- Zainab Salbi
- Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams
- Peggy McIntosh
- Seane Corn
- Kate Johnson
- Jana Long
- Anti-racist workshops, trainings, efforts:
- “Understanding and Applying Nonviolence” and the, “Nonviolence365 BE LOVE Virtual Training” (both 3-part series) through The King Center. I understand both these series are offered every month. The King Center was founded by Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King jr’s widow, a mere three months after his assassination. It has been functioning to educate people on the philosophy, principles and steps of nonviolence since then, now under the leadership of Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King jr and Coretta Scott King. I believe this training could be helpful for every person on the planet to take, assimilate and put into action to the best of each of our abilities. I was educated, moved, humbled and inspired by the knowledge and the lived wisdom and example of each of the experienced and wise facilitators of both these training sessions. I may well take these again. Both these series I found helpful in looking at issues of racism, yes, but also poverty, materialism, war, personal conflict and perhaps mainly: love. I found the facilitators to be living examples of a philosophy so deeply embedded that they radiated and generated unity and love and strength. I cannot recommend these trainings more highly. “Love wants to use me.” Dr. Vonnetta West, one of the facilitators.
- Antiracism & Ayurveda includes resources and discussion on Ayurveda and Antiracism efforts.
- The White Ally Toolkit (phenomenal workshops best, I think, if taken after some education from other/above resources).
- Off The Mat, Into the World: Training Leaders Worldwide In Social Change
- “Yoga Jubilee….[is a] collective of yoga instructors who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). We established Yoga Jubilee in response to the violent death of George Floyd in 2020 and the series of tragic deaths at the hands of law enforcement in BIPOC communities around the world. Our organization provides yoga programming, resources, and training focused on the BIPOC community, their allies, dismantling racism, and the decolonization of yoga. Yoga Jubilee is a platform to amplify and represent voices that are often ignored in the spheres of yoga and wellness. We are using an “earn to give” business model while we work toward non-profit status.” Yoga Jubilee is co-founded by practitioner of Yoga, Jyotiṣa and Ayurveda, Frankye Riley, with whom I have the true joy of having spent a little time with. Frankye and co-founder Nya Patrinos offer online courses in, “Decolonizing Yoga and Dismantling Racism Practitioner Training” (which Frankye assured me would be applicable for those of us that are NOT yoga teachers as well) and many other offerings.
Resources specific to Caste:
The book The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan is useful to be aware of for anyone studying or praciticing Indian knowledge systems. It talks about the trauma that, “lower” castes of India endured historically and endure today. Some of this trauma occurs when and if they do things considered outside their station according to parts of some Brahmanical text sources like the dharmasūtras or the manusmṛti. Passages in these texts–and adherents to them– prohibit lower caste-designated people from even listening to Vedic recitation–much less learning to do it themselves.
In the 21 January 2023 Vedic Threads session, Shantala Sriramaiah, Nina Rao, Dr. Ramkumar and Dr. Claudia explore the following questions and ideas:
- Who can practice Veda recitation?
- Who can practice kirtan?
- How important is correct pronunciation in singing kirtan?
- The role of lineage in learning Indian knowledge systems
- What if we don’t belong to any formal lineage?