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Raising the anti-racism bar

Isn’t it a bit twisted for a critical mass to finally agree that murder of Black Americans by excessive police force is wrong – in 2020? That this most basic civil right is the big milestone to celebrate?

Unsplash - Mario Purisic
Unsplash - Mario Purisic

Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently declared that racism is a public health issue and that public acknowledgment of this harmful legacy of slavery is  long overdue.

She goes on to explain that the pandemic alone “is killing black Americans at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. . . As millions of people in the US and globally declare that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and demand real change, there has never been a more urgent time to address the inequities that rarely make the headlines but nonetheless claim lives every single day.”

As Williams notes, institutionalized racism has diminished the health, wealth, actualization and well-being of all Black Americans, which increases their risks of dying when dealing with added stress and challenges.

As a clinical psychologist and shadow-soul worker, I can assure you that racism does far more damage than this. Its oppressive power hurts other POC and marginalized groups, in particular. But this is the hardest truth: racism hurts the integrity of every human being and even non-human life and the planet.

It’s just one symptom of a sickness traceable to soul loss, existential angst, scarcity, greed, competition, exploitation and scapegoating that is pervasive and has deep historical roots that we all need to heal from.

We hardly examine these psychological and soul roots, because we’re barely on the same page around what’s happening on the surface with the Black community, still dealing with the most basic of human rights violations.

Have you noticed?

Lines are already getting drawn in the sand.

On one side, a critical mass is acknowledging that institutionalized racism is alive and well, and that it’s high-time for us as a society to tackle it to the ground.

On the opposite side, status-quo pushback has started to rear its ugly tail, amplified by its Commander-in-Chief.

I got a few people unsubscribing from my list – fortunately no nasty comments – most likely for taking a clear anti-racist stand, perceived as political (tho I’m not the one conflating these : ), or perhaps because I’m still on the topic.

According to some of my online social entrepeneurial friends, businesses are collapsing for not taking a clear stand. They are being punished mercilessly for not doing the “right thing” – many times by White followers. Harsh and impulsive, when no one seems to have clarity what that is. But no one seems to care. As long as we are doing something that makes us feel better or adds ammunition to the fight, we must be in the right.

That kind of cathartic explosion could unfortunately do more harm than good.

It can sometimes feel like we’re navigating through a minefield and any little thing, what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do, can blow up in your face. I know for sure that this is not transformational or helpful in the long run.

Overnight anti-racist “experts” 

This kind of climate breeds overnight anti-racist “experts” who’re leading the way and hitching their organization and business to the BLM movement to attract clients and gain support, even if they are total rookies on the subject. They’re sometimes not even able to reference a single anti-racist book, podcast or resource – according to both a White client and client of color who’ve been steeped in this work for years.

On the flip side, you can feel all eyes on you, if you’re the only POC, and are expected to take on the (often volunteer) role of diversity expert and share your perspectives on paper or in professional settings, on the spot, so we can all learn from you, right? And possibly run off with your best ideas without ever giving you credit . . .

Should you object, you risk getting blamed for not being a team player and part of the problem. 

You can almost hear the accusations, “What is it that you people want?” on the tip of someone’s tongue. Perhaps it would have been blurted out if it weren’t for the landmines.

This is what’s hard to get.

There’s no winning because the bar is set so low.

How dare we not be grateful that we’ve finally got a critical mass to agree that losing Black lives due to police brutality is a thing and awful and needs to be stopped?

Where is all this resentment, bitterness, apprehension, demand for more, and mistrust coming from?  

Why can’t we all come together and join forces, for a change?

Well . . . Isn’t it a bit twisted for a critical mass to finally agree that murder of Black Americans by excessive police force is wrong – in 2020? That this most basic civil right is the big milestone to celebrate?  

And this milestone is by far not set in stone yet. We were starkly reminded of this by yet another cold-blooded police killing of Rayshard Brooks that occurred when protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery had not even died down yet.

Raising the bar with sensitivity that results from deep listening

How about equality in all areas of life? Health, financial security, professional success, representation, compensation, protection, basic and sophisticated respect?

Are we ready to truly level the playing field and play fair?

What stands in the way of our ability to share? Can we truly feel good about giving up some of our privileges, knee jerk assumptions and usual modes of operating – essentially, our usual sense of self – if that benefits a marginalized group?

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what it means to raise the racial equity bar for everyone, including myself.

I’ve wondered what my slight reservations – in contrast to White leaders who have no qualms to yet again take their comfortable place on top, whether new to a topic or not – are about in sharing my professional experiences and expertise in anti-racist discourse, research and interventions for a good thirty years. 

Some of these years involved compulsive rescuing, others involved very fulfilling work at a university counseling center and police department, facilitating multicultural immersion circles, workshops and community-wide violence – hate crime prevention and interventions on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all relevant diversity-related topics.

My intern and post-doc team members and I impacted thousands of students, staff, administrators, faculty, police, and community members, facilitating dialogue in residence halls, churches, classrooms, and student halls. We were first responders during intense times, like right after 9/11, but mostly focused on dismantling institutional and internalized racism day in, day out.

We won several prestigious awards for this work.

So it’s not a lack of confidence or discomfort to shine or stand in my authority.

It’s something deeper that takes me back to my roots and my ancestors, and what inspired this work and journey to begin with. 

It’s not humility. It’s about wisdom held in paradox and non-polarizing

I happen to be from a country that has been called South America’s hidden treasure by adventure travelers like Simon Romero in his New York Times article that he concluded by saying, “Though I had been in the country only a few days, I felt as if I had traversed several continents and only now — drinking beer, shaking hands and striking up conversation with these men — was I getting a taste of Suriname’s frontier.”

He does an excellent job giving readers a taste of what it’s like to live in a country that is ranked second (along with Brazil and Belgium) most diverse in the world, following Benin, in a formal study: 

“The ranking was based around four overarching categories – cultural diversity, religious diversity, political diversity, and freedom for diversity – that incorporated such factors as the level of ethnic diversity; the number of immigrants; the number of languages spoken, religious beliefs and political parties; the level of religious freedom; LGBT rights and freedoms; and the level of personal freedom.”

I’d say, watch this short clip of Surinamese performers at the 2014 de Fuego festival in Cuba to get a sense yourself what sharing cultural space feels like. Do you get an intuitive sense of what feels different in this space vs the culturally mixed spaces in the US? 

These two countries share similar deplorable histories as slave plantations but the divergent paths that led to the stark differences between these two countries now were already visible 300 years ago. For more info about the fascinating history of race relations in Suriname and how I traced my roots, first as an academic, then as a healer, read part 2: Juneteenth – Tracing our racist roots for root solutions

I’m grateful and honored to serve as the vessel for the blessings and teachings of my ancestors, first captured in my award-winning memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper: a Psychologist’s Memoir of Spiritual Awakening

Loraine Van Tuyl’s debut memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper, weaves personal and political truths with poetic mastery. By daring to break from limiting conventions—in the field as well as writing—Van Tuyl has forged a liberating path for those at the margins just as her ancestors once did. It is an absolute must for psychotherapists and healthcare providers seeking to make conscious social change and expand the purview of traditional psychology through their multidimensional practice. 

Tala Khanmalek, PhD, Research Associate, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Princeton University

I’m now raising the bar and distilling what I’ve learned over the decades into practical applications in my current book, Freedom from Oppression: Know your worth, speak your clarity, and transform resistance to change within yourself, at home and in society.

Stay tuned – my hope is to get it out by the end of the year!

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