Ways of Seeing: Understand flaws to move forward
It was a quiet week in Middlebury. The front page of the local paper featured an article about a game called Pokey Stick, invented by adolescent boys at my daughter’s middle school. The fact that two downtown bridges would get emergency replacements was relegated to page three. In the waning days of March, a wet snow fell from the sky. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, 45 and his cronies failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, and former national security advisor Mike Flynn asked for immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony about contact between Russian spies and the Trump campaign.
While having a bowl of soup for lunch at the Middlebury Co-op, I overheard a woman at the next table say something that struck me as quite brilliant: “I think by shining a big spotlight on our flaws, we’ll advance the human race.” This made me put down my spoon and type the words into my phone so I wouldn’t forget them. Middlebury is such a small town — that anonymous smart lady turned out to be my friend Pam Berenbaum. Shine a spotlight on my flaws? I usually try to keep them as well hidden as possible!
And what about our national present day and historical flaws? Should we try to keep them hidden or shine that big spotlight upon them? The recent campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA,” which I found written outside my yoga studio recently, contains a coded wish for a past where things were orderly, prosperous, and easy to understand. The image of our new president at a long table, surrounded by various other white men in suits and ties, busy signing legislation to strip women of rights to healthcare certainly harkens back to a time when women and people of color had no place in the halls of power.
This past February marked the tragic five-year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon was a junior in high school when he was killed by George Zimmerman, an insurance fraud investigator who was patrolling the gated community armed with a semi-automatic pistol. Trayvon’s murder spurred me to educate myself more about racist violence in the United States. I am embarrassed and ashamed that although I am a liberal and reasonably well read activist, until the murder of Trayvon Martin, I had never concerned myself very deeply with racism in America. So here I am, shining a spotlight on my major flaw of white cluelessness and indifference.
The thing is, if you are white in America, you really don’t have to think about race. This is a privilege that people of color do not enjoy. From educational institutions to healthcare facilities, from banks to the criminal justice system, everything has been set up to serve white people and to punish and exclude people of color. These injustices are historic and systemic. Where we live this manifests in the fact that one in every 14 Black men in Vermont is incarcerated, and in Burlington, Black high school students are three times more likely to be suspended from school.
A few days ago some fellow activists and I drove up Route 7 to take part in a Black Lives Matter march that started in downtown Winooski and wound its way through several neighborhoods. In addition to declaring the value of black lives, the march was also timed to call for passage of H.492, a bill that seeks to address bias in the state of Vermont by creating a racial justice oversight committee. “The Board shall conduct management and oversight of the implementation of racial justice reform across the State, including within the criminal justice system, by managing and overseeing the collection of race-based data, ensuring such data are publicly available, and developing policies and trainings to address systemic implicit bias.”
In 1912, James Weldon Johnson, an African American poet and anthologist observed that “The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.”
I am trying to understand myself. I am trying to understand the history of this country where my maternal grandmother was born, and to which my paternal grandmother emigrated. I am trying to understand the history of my spiritual ancestors who marched for civil rights, and who were a thorn in the side of the white men in suits who didn’t want anyone else to sit at their table of power.
We are called to step up now. We are called to make ourselves into those thorns. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, and be willing to make others uncomfortable. Recognizing our personal, communal, national, and historic flaws will require strength, honesty, courage, and love. Let’s shine a spotlight on these flaws so we can begin to make things right.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]
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