Svādhyāya & Black Lives Matter: Healing the Wounds of Inequity, Part I*

Svādhyāya & Black Lives Matter: Healing the Wounds of Inequity, Part I*

*Aware of possible eye-rolling over the suggestion that this is just the beginning…

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 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’m 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 basis their whole lives. Often on a daily basis. 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 experience in the US. This would include the history of slavery, rebellion, Jim Crow laws, studies and teachings of Martin Luther King, 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, the responses to that, etc. etc. etc. This is a deep and wide entity.

The Law of Microcosm /macrocosm:

Thus 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.”

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.

In Love,

cw

Here are just a very few resources:



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