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Ways of Seeing: Our nation as cancer — please help

On the second Saturday in June, a gathering will take place in New York City called “NYC Loves Muslims.” This is a response to a hateful “Anti-Sharia” rally that is being planned for that same day in New York. Apparently there are a number of these racist and Islamaphobic gatherings planned around the country on that day.
One might think that in the wake of the brutal attack on a train in Portland, Oregon, in which a 35 year old white man yelled racial slurs against a Muslim teenager and her friend, and then stabbed two people to death who were defending the young women, and grievously injured a third heroic bystander, you might think that these hateful rallies would be canceled. But if you thought that, you would be seriously underestimating the racist attitudes that permeate our society at every level.
For the past several years, I’ve been trying to use my monthly column to nudge our community toward a clearer vision of America, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This comes from my commitment to Satya, the Sanskrit word for truth. The truth hurts. We sometimes act like a person who goes to the pharmacy looking for throat lozenges when they have an oozing tumor bulging out of their neck. The pharmacist’s eyes widen in alarm, “Um, Sir, have you made an appointment with your medical provider?”
The oozing tumor is racism and white supremacy. It is ugly and it is killing us. It is not going to dissolve without serious, targeted treatment. If you don’t see it everywhere you look, your eyes are not open. 
Driving over the Cross Street bridge, on my way to Middlebury College graduation, I saw someone’s relatives, walking to the ceremony from wherever they were staying. She wore an Indian sari, sapphire hued and shimmering in the morning sun. The man wore a brimless hat, also made of a dazzling fabric. My first thought was, “What a beautiful couple.” My second thought was, “God, I hope no one shouted anything racist out their car window at these guests in our town.” 
I shared these thoughts with my husband as we parked the car. He thought it unlikely that they would encounter hostility here, but I am not so sure about that. I know for a fact that women with hijab (or even winter scarves worn in a vaguely hijab-like manner) have experienced hate speech in Middlebury.
So now the question we must all ask ourselves: What Are We Going To Do? If you are a white person who has never thought much about race, recognize that that is a privilege and a luxury that people of color do not enjoy. Whether it’s worrying for the safety of teenage kids outside, doing normal teenage things, or knowing when you apply for a job that you are half as likely to get it if your name is Jamal and not John, people of color are constantly aware of the disadvantages society hurls their way.
My profession as a yoga teacher requires me to be highly attuned to people’s stress levels and the way that trauma impacts our mental and physical health. My spiritual path as a yoga practitioner and ongoing attempt to be a decent human being show me the truth of everyone’s humanity. We are all related to one another, if you look far enough back. How should we treat our relatives?
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” It’s such a beautiful aspiration! I think so many of the good things about our national history are the words and actions of courageous people pushing against the original, narrow meaning of “all men.” It’s obvious they didn’t mean women, but the founding fathers didn’t even mean “all men.” They meant all white, land-owning men! From the very beginning, even before the Revolutionary War was won, a fierce debate raged. Who gets to be considered equal? Whose life has value? Who gets to vote? 
A quick glance at the daily news shows us that these questions are far from resolved, even as we approach our country’s 250th birthday. The knife wielding bigot in Portland, Oregon claims he is a patriot, defending “White America.” We can look at him, and Dylan Roof, and George Zimmerman, and countless others and say, “That’s not the real America. That’s not MY America.” But we can’t heal from our cancer by pretending it’s not there. 
White supremacy is not only the weapon toting maniac with the swastika tattoo, it is also the mild mannered politician who enacts voter ID laws that end up keeping thousands of people away from the voting booth. White supremacy is Attorney General Jeff Sessions telling U.S. prosecutors to push for harsher sentencing, and white ladies like author and speaker Heather MacDonald who say things like “There is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than the police.” 
If we truly believe that EVERYONE is created equal, we’ve got to do more than read the news and wring our hands. Look around and figure out where you have influence. If you have racist family members, educate them. If you have some money, donate to a people of color led organization working for change. Show up at the rally. Sign the petition. Challenge yourself to learn more. Talk to your friends. Be willing to be uncomfortable.  
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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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