What Does It Mean To Be White And Have Community?

28 Feb

Celebrating diverse Jewish community at Diana’s Passover Seder

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February 14th marked ten years of writing the Wendy Jane Soul Shake blog. What started as a singular journey to question and explore my strong desire to connect across racial lines, embrace Black arts and culture, and fight against the most overt forms of racism, while knowing some of the subverted systems of oppression, is still a journey for certain. In the last few years, thanks to video recordings, and the realization of how fragile our democracy really is, many of us white folks finally awakened to the racial violence this country was founded on, and continues to perpetuate. We also know many white folks are clinging tightly to their positions of power, privilege, and white comfort. The blog, and my journey, has taken these twists and turns right alongside this living history.

Lately, though, I think about what kinds of things I should be writing about now. Not that there isn’t enough evidence to show us that the work of, not simply being aware of racism, but of working toward a future where we are all liberated from racism, is still needed. In just the last month we learned of the killing of Amir Locke. Amir was a young Black man from Minneapolis, killed by a police officer conducting a no-knock warrant. On February 18th, the convicted police officer that “accidentally” thought her gun was a taser and killed Black teenager, Duante Wright, received the lightest prison sentence of two years for taking Duante’s life.

And not that there’s not still Black people, people of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQ folks, and folks with disabilities, fighting to get a foot in the door, raise the glass ceiling, and merely to feel they are authentically accepted and belong in the majority white work spaces they so often find themselves in. All of this still exists despite the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that every corporation, and non-profit organization hurried to initiate after the murder of George Floyd. DEI is big business now, as evidenced by the many job openings available for DEI Directors.

There is so much more of course which we need to transform, and I feel it’s important to keep documenting these times we are moving through. Yet I’m feeling I need to make some changes too–here on the blog–and in the way I move through this world. In a recent post a friend suggested I bring in other voices–perhaps interview, or be in conversation with others about racism, white body supremacy, and the work of transformation. To write about a future that is for all of us. A future where we exist side-by-side without the weight of a hierarchal oppressive system. To hear from others through their lens, and lived experience, what all of this means to them, and how they see a way to do the work we so sorely need to keep doing.

Got Community?

Which brings me to community. Right before the pandemic I interviewed for an opportunity to be trained as one of a group of Artist/Community Health Workers, who would engage and co-create an arts-based project with a selected community, considered marginalized. During the interview, I was comfortable answering questions, like, “Why are people poor? Is it because they’re lazy, don’t work hard enough?” I was able to plainly answer that I believed it was racism, and structures and laws of oppression, like redlining, urban renewal, inequality in school resources, and not people’s laziness or lack of responsibility. Then I was asked the question, and I’m paraphrasing here, “What community or communities do you consider yourself a part of?” Right away, I became uncomfortable, and blocked. I didn’t have an answer about my community.

I had only recently heard a few Black people, leaders and activists in the racial justice world, say that white people don’t have community. It often takes me quite a while for something to click, to understand the depth of what is being said. During the interview, I stammered. In my head, I thought about how growing up I felt I belonged in a more formal way to my Jewish community. Our family belonged to a local Reform Temple. I went to weekly Hebrew school and Sunday school classes, celebrated the Jewish holidays with my family and relatives, and felt a connection to the small handful of Jewish kids in my elementary school classes. We were way outnumbered by the majority of Catholic and Protestant students. On Mondays when the Christian kids left school early for Catechism class, it was just me and Chucky Handler as the two Jewish kids left in the classroom, along with Nicky DiMerali, the only Muslim kid in the class. Days like those, my sense of our connection, of belonging to each other because we were in the minority, and other, was more pronounced.

Things changed once my sisters and I left home after high school. My family left the Temple. Also, my mother passed away from cancer when I was twenty-six. She was the glue that held together our family’s Jewish holiday celebrations. When she passed, and as our generation of kids grew up and moved away, the honoring of the holidays fell apart. Today, I am still in community with my Jewishness in a more informal way with my great friends, Diana, Marci and Ilira, and my Aunt Jane, who have over the years, included my daughters and me in their Jewish holiday celebrations. And though I don’t now belong to a synagogue or temple, I was invited to join the Racial Justice Committee at a Temple here in Providence, and am again, learning what it means to be in community there.

My mom finding community? Mrs. Handler (Chucky’s mom) (left) and my mom (right), co-chairs of Temple Israel Annual Art Show, Waterbury, CT

I don’t think I mentioned the Jewish community in the interview, but I did mention my artist and writer friends as people I am in community with. Still, I felt the tension in my body arise with the growing knowledge that I could not truthfully name much of a community that I was a part of.

I was painfully shy growing up, and often did, and still do, feel like an outsider in a group setting. When I was younger, I stayed quiet in the ballet and gymnastics classes, and larger social groups I found myself in. I was good when it was me and one friend, or within a small group of people, but for some reason, which I can finally say is most likely some form of social anxiety, I get petrified of sharing anything about myself or my opinions. While getting my morning coffee today, I was pondering all this, and said to myself, it’s part Wendy, and part white supremacy. It rhymed, and the ring of it sounded about right.

We are who we are as individuals, based on our family genes, brain chemistry, and the way we were raised. And being considered white, and growing up under the social norms and structures of white supremacy, and patriarchy, we are conditioned with what we are told are the proper manners, and ways to behave. Times have evolved. But a majority of us are still also taught that good old American dream myth of individualism, of how, if we just work hard enough, and simply pursue our passions, we can achieve whatever we desire. We are told success is having a job where you are paid a lot of money, have a house, get married, and have children, and raise them in the same way. Maybe the actual words aren’t said, but the lessons are learned through the modelling and messages we received in our homes, our schools, and our social groups, which all come from the overarching systems of white supremacy culture.

We aren’t taught the child across the street, or across in another neighborhood, is our child too. If we were, we would all work together to make sure everyone is safe, and every one is cared for and supported, and gets what they need to live and thrive in this life. We would lift one another up, and figure out what we need to fix things for the betterment of all of us.

And if you’re white and you are reading this and saying, but I have community, I will say, Not All White People. This is not personal. This is a system that is entrenched in white American society. Sure, there can be many of us who can name communities we are a part of, whether they are faith-based groups, book clubs, white-led anti-racism activist groups, running groups, parenting groups, and more. I know white people that have elder members of their families moved in with them to care for them. I see many friends who step up when a friend or a friend’s child falls ill, or faces some kind of harsh life event. Yet, even if we are working on cross-racial and cultural community building and engaging with folks that don’t look like us, are we bringing in our white norms of how this work should look? And what of our connection to other white people? Do we live in a web of interconnectedness with one another that serves the greater good of all? What I’m trying to get at is community as Dr. King called it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I am not an academic or social scientist, but I ask myself, and other white folks, have we been raised to truly live the words that some of us latch onto, which are attributed to people of the African diaspora: “it takes a village?”

And I wondered if we did, what then could our country look like?

And, like the first time I started hearing how white people don’t have community, I am now getting in touch with the idea of embodiment. I surprised myself, as someone who has worked in mental health for over twenty-five years, by not knowing until very recently what embodiment work meant. One of the first times I heard of the idea of working through trauma through the body was a few years ago when someone mentioned the book, The Body Keeps The Score. I started the book last year but I admit I didn’t get too far through it. I’ve had trouble focusing to read, and the book felt dry and clinical, and I found it hard to get into, valid as the work may be.

What Does It Mean To Be In Our Bodies?

Embodiment practices use the body as a tool for healing through self-awareness, mindfulness, connection, self-regulation, finding balance, and creating self-acceptance. The work of Embodiment or Somatic therapies believes the way for us to heal our trauma, and to settle our bodies out of the reactionary, fight or flight mode, is through working with our bodies to metabolize the trauma. Yes, it serves the individual. Yet it also serves the collective “us.” When we are embodied, we are present and can interrelate with others, and better serve the moment, have the challenging conversation, and work to make the changes and transformations we seek to see in this world.

Embodiment work, I know is a current buzz topic, and, yet I believe in the work. The way I felt my body respond during that interview when I became uncomfortable because I couldn’t find myself in community, showed me one example of how learning how to be aware and then settle my body in the moment could have opened me up to respond instead of react, and to show up as my authentic, imperfect self.

Another time the seeds of knowledge of embodiment were planted, was when sitting with musician/educator, and Director of Racial Equity and Belonging at the non-profit, Community Music Works, Ashley Frith. I always look forward to meeting up with Ashley, who I collaborate with in my work in mental health, and her work in also using her art as a tool for healing. In our informal planning meetings where we develop content for her artist residencies for patients and staff at the psychiatric hospital I work for, Ashley has said how we so often are not “in our bodies” and how in her work she tries to help people be in their bodies. I would nod my head, hearing this on a surface level, like, I know what you mean…being present, being in the moment, mindfulness…and would even think about how I know I run away from my body, but the real acknowledging or knowing of the depth of what she meant, I did not truly know.

I got deeper into my introduction to embodiment work when reading and doing all of the experiential somatic/body exercises in Resmaa Menakem’s book. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Resmaa, aside from being an author, is also a psychotherapist specializing in the effects of trauma on the human body and relationships in Black families and Black society. He calls his current ant-racism embodiment work, somatic abolitionism.

For keeping up my learning, I now follow Resmaa on social media (look for him on twitter and IG). Also, Ashley informed me about The Embody Lab, “an online hub for embodiment education, connection, and healing, for global transformation.” I just attended their online Embodied Social Justice Summit last weekend. The five-day free summit was packed with many speakers from the field, including a highly,can’t be put in words, impactful session with Resmaa Menakem and the Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams. Only able to attend on the weekend because of work ,I did still get to hear many people speak, some of whom led us through experiential body work. I was also actually able to see the many faces attending on-screen, and to engage in a breakout session during one of the talks. The Summit was educational, inspiring, and overwhelmingly enriching. I feel like I finally get more what embodiment is about, and want to go deeper into the work in service of social justice. At the summit, even though it was online, I felt a sense of community.

I believe I have a very unsettled body, and one that avoids conflict–again, part Wendy, part white supremacy. I believe that embodiment will help me be able to be present instead of reactionary in the midst of the work I am doing with others, in service of the collective transformation necessary to see a better future for all of us. Part of white supremacy culture, too, and part of human nature, can be thinking we can have a quick fix, or we keep searching for something outside of us to ready us for growth, and we can keep waiting for ourselves to be perfect at something before we take action. This sentiment was actually voiced by a Latinx man who was a part of the Summit breakout session I was in. He said that “white people are always waiting to be perfect…and then they don’t act..” He expressed his frustration with this, which led him to currently withdraw some, from the years of activism work he had been a part of. In getting more involved with embodiment work, I vow to myself to not wait to be perfect.

The Building Blocks Of Community

Another recent opportunity to come out of my Wendy and white supremacy conditioned body, and to enter into new communities focused on transforming our future through anti-racism work, was a five-session online Beloved Community group with author, activist, non-profit leader, political leader, and speaker, Shay Stewart-Bouley. Shay is the author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine, which chronicles her life as a Black woman living in the very white state, as well as her experiences with racism, doing anti-racism work, and now includes other writers on race, too.

In her desire to have white people deepen their anti-racism work beyond talking about it, and reading all the right books, Shay created the Beloved Community as a forum for people–everyone was invited, regardless of race or ethnicity–to come together to share our stories of race, share what obstacles come up for us in doing anti-racism work, and to promote us taking concrete actions in service of bringing about equity, true inclusion, accountability, and racial justice in our communities–whether that is with family, friends, our workplaces, our schools, our local businesses, or our neighborhoods.

Throughout our online meet-ups, I held the paradox in my body and mind about being anxious about messing up and saying something ignorant and imperfect, and knowing that I was fully okay with messing up, because that is part of the process, and journey. It’s not about me. It’s about transforming white supremacy culture through community building. While the Wendy DNA that’s meshed with the white supremacy gets in the way in group settings like our Beloved Community, I truly experienced growth by being a part of it. Shay provided the container, and served as facilitator of our monthly meetings with fifteen white woman and one white man, ranging in age from, I believe, our 30’s through 70’s, many living in Maine, and the New England area.

In the Beloved Community I got to hear from everyone else about their lived experiences, how they came to this work, what they are up to now, and the progress and setbacks and challenges they face when doing the work, or block themselves from doing the work. Whether we want to call our blocks fear, or something else, it really is about unlearning our entrenched white supremacy ways of being.

I got to share about my experiences too. During the next-to-last session, Shay also gave us each a “buddy” from the Beloved Community to talk to outside of group. This was great, as I got to talk to a woman where we shared about actual things we are working on in terms of racial justice, supported one another with feedback and ideas, and were vulnerable and honest about who we are as we do this work. We plan, as Shay hopes for all of us in the group, to continue talking beyond the scope of our Beloved Community, which ended last week. I have deep gratitude for Shay and her work, and for convening all of us together in service of moving racial justice work forward, with truth, grace, and accountability.

Let’s Talk!

I am learning about what community means, and what it means to build community. I am working on unlearning the untrenched ways of white supremacy culture which hinder building safe, inclusive, loving communities.

I would love to hear your thoughts about community. What it means to you. What communities you belong to. How you build community. How you use community building to work toward racial justice.

I am highly grateful for this community here–to you who read the blog, who interact with me, and one another, here on the blog, on other social media platforms where the blog is shared, and of course, in live conversation off of social media, I thank you for helping me to realize what community is.

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