Thursday, July 20, 2017

Responding to White Fragility When White Folks Face Their Privilege

On July 4th this year, I posted this video "No Country For Me" from The Root. The caption reads, "Being Black on July 4th. What's a national celebration of freedom to people who don't feel free?"

That afternoon, I received the following in a private message:

"Regarding the video today: I’m sorry, Beni, but this video just rubbed me the wrong way. I would never embarrass you or call you out in a public forum, but today I’ve just had enough of some of these posts. I am so sick and tired of hearing all this USA bashing, identity politics, white privilege bullshit. Yes, bullshit. I’m white. I went to school with all different kinds of people, including Hispanics and people of color. We all had the same chance to do something with our lives. Privileged? Hell no. My ancestors came here from Ireland. Back in those days the Irish were treated like trash. “Irish need not apply” could be found in many shop windows. They didn’t whine and cry and complain about discrimination. They found a way to survive and thrive. My grandparents and my parents worked their asses off to provide a better life for their children. We never got welfare or any other kind of handouts. We were taught a work ethic. If people find this country so “bad” why the hell are they here? I had nothing to do with slavery. My family didn’t own slaves nor would they ever have. People alive today were not slaves either. So that doesn’t wash with me. The past is past. I don’t think anyone is proud of it, but it ain’t happenin’ today. So no, I don’t think I owe anyone any kind of retribution. I did nothing to them. Throughout our short history, the US has helped the world by sharing our innovations, advancement in science and technology, medicine, defended other countries and then helped rebuild them after wars, provided billions upon billions of our tax dollars to foreign countries year after year (and we continue to), usually the first country to help others during crises. I truly wonder where the world would be without the US. So to those who are not proud of their country and don’t feel safe here, perhaps another country would be a better fit. I love you Beni, but I just had to vent. đŸ’•"

I share this because I feel the exchange can be instructive. 
This message was hard to read. Hard to take from someone who has been in my life for many years, though at a distance. And yet, it was important. Because I got insight into how folks on the other side.
As difficult as this exchange was, I decided to take on the challenge of explaining a few of the misconceptions they expressed in their message. 

So below is my response...

Dear, WW--

It has been hard to figure out how to respond to your message. But I certainly wanted to respond for various reasons. Firstly, I do not want you to think I was ignoring you because I certainly wasn’t. Especially because you are someone I have known for so long.

Unfortunately, these are just not easy conversations to have and I want to make sure to be thoughtful, careful, and measured in my response. 

I am grateful to you, WW, for trusting me to share your thoughts.
If you would allow, I’d like to respond to them.

While I understand where some of your frustrations are coming from, there’s a lot I feel is not being seen. “Identity politics” and “white privilege” are not just “bullshit” concepts folks have come up with to whine and complain. It is freeing language that many have fought for so we can describe our experiences. Yes, it is hard to talk about. For some reason, we have these associations with privilege as if we are dirty for having it. We are not bad because there is privilege that has been afforded to us because of the color of our skin. However, it is critically important that we own it. We must acknowledge it. But to be able to do this, we have to understand it and how having this privilege has made our lives better and easier compared to others. 

Identity politics is not, in my opinion, a fad. It is a life-giving language that allows me to exist, gives me language for my existence and the freedom so many fight for in this country. Denying me and others the language to openly talk about our identities is painful and frustrating--and something folks have access to do because of their privilege. White folks can ignore color. People of color can’t. People of color are constantly reminded of their color by society--by police, by the justice system, by the stares on the street, by the attendant at the DMV that looks down on my mother--the biochemist and immunologist--just because she has an accent. We may want to pretend that we are post-racial and that we no longer discriminate based on color or ethnicity, but there are stories like those of Dylann Roof, who after killing nine people, is still alive and got his fair trial. Meanwhile, Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed following a traffic stop. Why does a murderer get taken into custody alive while an unarmed black man gets killed for not crime? No questions. No fairness. No day in court.

That is what white privilege looks like. It is not your fault, it is just what we own as white and white-passing people.

You mention going to school with People of Color and Latinos and that you all had the same chance. While that is fair and true of your experience, it does not apply for every black or brown person--and potentially does not apply to every brown and black person you went to school with. Not every black or brown person can go to [a private school]. Not every black or brown person can get a good public education, even. Not every black or brown person can take the time to study--and it’s not because of laziness or lack of a work ethic. Oftentimes, black families, brown families, low-income families--they have to work extra to make it. It isn’t necessarily lack of will power to get the education they need and want, but a lack of access because of financial limits. This is an experience that impacts all low-income families of any color, true.
What’s difficult is that there are systems in place--like the examples I mentioned above depict--in our country that benefit some while hurting others.
We are white and white passing people that don’t need to teach our children how to engage with police to diminish the chances of getting shot. We do not have to teach them how to walk on the street so as to not seem dangerous. White folks do not have to teach their children that they must work 3 times as hard to get half the chance that others have.

This is not a fiction, WW. I wish it was. This is the reality.

For a black person to be seen as smart, intelligent, accomplished, they have to work twice as hard or more to be seen half as worthy as a mediocre white politician, for example.
Much the same way that women have to work harder than men to be taken seriously. I have seen this in my own places of employment. A man may be half as good at a job as a woman, and yet he will be taken more seriously. As a culture and a society, we take white male with more weight and seriousness than we do women or people of color.

I understand how you mention your family’s immigrant experience and I appreciate and understand that. What I read implies that black folks are complaining, getting handouts, and have little work ethic. I would challenge you to consider what gives you that impression.
Unlike other immigrants who, as you mentioned, also struggled when they first arrived in this country, brown and black folks didn’t have access to loans from banks, or to get elected into office without fear of being lynched. Upward mobility for white immigrants was accessible and made acceptable. Meanwhile, in 2017, we still have to applaud “the first Black…” X or “the first Latina …” We don’t have to say that for Irish Americans because they’ve been doing it for centuries.

You also mention slavery. Yes, slavery ended in 1860 with the Civil War. I get that. However, the Civil Rights movement happened in the 1960s because black folks were still treated as second class citizens. That is in our lifetimes. And those things were not magically erased after the Civil Rights movement. The unfair treatment of black folks continues. So, yes, while slavery is over and no one alive today was likely a slave at any point, they are often still subjects to unnecessary, unfair violence, unjust systems that keep them down--with limited access to education, continually in a system that feeds prisons.
So, no, no one is blaming you or saying you did any of these horrible, bad things. However, as a nation, we are all complicit in the fact that systems of oppression continue. And you are blessed that you have not had to be aware of them.

I would like to point out that your language towards the end was painful… and for various different reasons.
Black folks --many-- did not choose to be here. But this is the country that chose them--in fact, it bought, sold, raped, and killed them. I wonder how we would feel if we could trace our lineage to a mother that was raped by a slave-owner, or a father that was left to rot from a tree.

And despite that history, they LOVE this country. And this is their country, too. They do not have to leave. But it is our freedom as Americans that we can criticize it because in that critique, we are moving us toward betterment. WW, this is our country. The black, brown, poor, middle class, rich, educated, homeless--ALL of it. We get to love it and critique it and constantly improve it.
I hope that just because you see I am constantly critical of what I find to be morally wrong does not mean then that I, too, should leave. I love living in the United States and being an American citizen and getting to make this country even better. That is why I do stay.

Just because this country has done some good in the world doesn’t mean we don’t get to criticize it when it’s failing some of its citizens. (As a sidenote, especially because some of that good as been as a way to make amends of the messes we have created in other nations through our uninvited involvement. My home country of Chile is a prime example of this).

I am sorry that you felt so offended by my post. And given what seems to be clearly different standpoints, I expect that may continue to happen. But in a way I am glad it did in this case because it has opened up the opportunity both for you to express this frustration, and for me to explain this perspective.

I hope you were able to remain open to it and receive this. 

Thank you and have a wonderful weekend,



This was a lot. It was a lot to write, and I am grateful for a couple of friends who encouraged, supported, and gave me constructed feedback as I drafted this. This was emotional and mental labor. It was important, but I can't lie that I've been a little emotionally tapped out from writing it. 

I don't have the answers. I don't know how we fix the discrepancy between folks' different world views. Well, I do--it takes communicating and helping folks see each others' humanity. I just don't know how easily accessible that task is for us. 
So I continue to fight the battles. I choose them carefully before engaging them. But I also know the spaces where I can make a difference are sometimes small. It's all I've got to work on.
So I share it here with you in the hopes that this can serve you, too, as you try to take on the work of dismantling white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and patriarchical values that keeps us down and divided.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

THIS is why I love teaching: I teach to empower. I teach to show love.

This fall semester, I finally went back to teaching. If you've followed my posts on facebook or twitter, you've seen my posts about how much I love teaching. But I wonder if I've explained well WHY I love it so much.

Teaching is a gift. I get to share a space with my students where we get to explore the world we live in, find ways to challenge the information we receive, and constantly engage with each other and ourselves, question our realities, and embrace our agency in creating change in our new world.

My students are brilliant. No, they are not perfect, but it is not my job to judge their perfection. My job is to see their brilliance and reflect it back to them. My job is to give them the space to explore their own intelligence, curiosities, and wisdom. To think about their own lives, to explore their own identities, to realize they ARE a bigger deal than they are told, and to OWN that power for themselves and learn about how to be responsible to the rest of the world for this knowledge, this wisdom, and this critical role in our creation. No, I'm not stroking their ego. I am hoping to open a space where we face the world we live in realistically--both accepting the faults and chips in the painting, and understanding we can shape it. We hold the pen that writes it, we hold the brush that paints it.

So my biggest hope after my course is that my students understand that their words have value, their voice is power, and their thoughts are important.

Yes, I teach the mechanics of writing. But the reason I teach that is so my students will have the tools to go out into the world and make their voices heard and their spirits soar.
Teaching is an exercise in exponentially growing strength of heart and mind.

THIS is why I love teaching.

Today, (thank you,​), I showed this video in class. We discussed it and opened our eyes to the power and influence that writers have in the world we see and live in. Today, I told my students, "one day, you will be writing those Hollywood shows. Now we understand these truths. Now we can make change."

For a version of that potential change, check out Julio Salgado's version of some favorite TV sitcoms if people of color were more present in the writers' rooms.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'

In the years since my last blog post, I have done a lot of living. I moved from Miami to our nation’s capital. I worked at my favorite organization for 8 months, and at another great organization now for over 9 months. I have grown and learned and hustled and enjoyed so much living and so much love and so much fun. There have been struggles, there have been joys. It’s been a full almost-two-years. As always, I am grateful for the living I’ve done—both the good and the bad. Like Allan Gurganus said,

"Know something, sugar? Stories only happen to people who can tell them."

One of the things I am most grateful for is finding All Souls Unitarian Church here in D.C. At All Souls, I’ve found what I didn’t know I was looking for. It has contextualized my spiritual path and put my whole life into a meaningful story. While struggling, things still make sense. While suffering, there is still hope.

At All Souls, I’ve participated in a variety of activities in the last 8 months. One that was particularly poignant and eerily relevant was an Adult Spiritual Development class on Vocation that I took in May. Not only did I meet an incredible, loving, supportive group of people in that class, but it also spoke to me at a critical time about my own path to find a vocation.

In those conversations, we read and discussed Parker J. Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. This is a small book, barely noticeable at a bookshop, but earth rattling if you give it the chance. In it, Palmer tells the story of living in a Quaker living-learning community and a conversation he had with a woman named Ruth. Palmer kept receiving the same advice in this community regarding his vocational path: “have faith and way will open.” Then he spoke with Ruth and she got real with him:

"' sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.' She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: 'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'"

The concept of “Way Closing” is challenging and freeing. What I learned in these conversations is that when we face difficult situations in life (and not just in work-related circumstances), these can be seen as challenges to overcome and grow from, or as life showing you a way closing that you can leave behind.

As I said, in my almost-30-years of life, I have done my fair share of living. Fear lurks at times that committing is difficult for me. Judgmental voices in my head tell me that the way I have chosen to lead my life might sometimes be considered “running away” and “quitting when things get tough.” But Parker—and this class—showed me a different truth. The truth that sometimes, the courageous and frightening thing to do is to step aside and let a moment go. Sometimes, the leaving is the brave deed.

I have now lived three full decades. Minimal in comparison to some, and a lifetime in comparison to others. But undoubtedly enough time to have learned, to have failed, to have fallen, and hopefully most importantly to have gotten up time and again. What this quote and this way of thinking says to me is… it’s all ok. In BrenĂ© Brown’s truthful words, “I am enough” however I am. In fact, the failing, the misstep, the quitting may actually be serving us a much deeper purpose. It may be shielding us from a path that would only hurt us and/or those around us. It may be guiding us to the bigger and better we are meant to do.

Way closing—it's a cheat sheet! Life’s way of giving us the answers.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Loss, and Longing, and other L words…

Life deals us many hands and we go through many changes, whether by choice or by predetermined circumstances. Due to these various changes, I've come to realize that in life we face what I call "people turnover." People come into our lives and leave our lives. In a discussion about death with a spiritual group, one insightful individual stated that death is hard to deal with because "we were never meant to experience such loss," a perspective I appreciate because it helps me feel as though my disfunction has a rhyme and reason. In order to explain my personal experience facing loss, another dear friend tells me it is because I care so much and so strongly about the relationships in my life that it becomes so difficult to accept when people leave my life for one reason or another. All of this helps me to understand my experience better, but the struggle of dealing with loss remains. I do understand that the bottom line is: people will come, and people will go, and my little heart will have to accept that.

Of course there are deep spiritual thoughts that can help us face and understand these issues. Yet, I can't help but feel frustrated. I watch as relationships that once sustained me end, in which we were in some form for each other, and as people who were in my everyday life just vanish, slowly dissipating into the past. I attempt to fight it, and reach out and sustain them. Yet as texts go without response, phone calls unreturned, my little heart tugs with disappointment, and sometimes a crushing sadness at the loss of friendships, even whilst understanding that "life gets in the way."

And those are the losses we experience in living. There is also the coming to grips with loss that is no one's doing. I've experienced death in my life more times than I care to count, each one a painful blow and a deep struggle to understand how we move on. This person who was once in our life, who graced us with love and laughter, who cradled us and supported us, or who simply brightened our days, now gone forever. Conversations gone. Their touch forever a memory. We --unfortunately-- constantly face death and the final separation from those we grew to love. How do we encounter that? How do we understand it? How do we surpass it?

Last week I read The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He defined Emotional Styles as a part-genetic, part-environmentally influenced, more stable definition of our emotional beings than personalities and moods. There are six dimensions that define how we think, feel, and react, that create your unique emotional style. While there is no right or wrong emotional style, through reflection and introspection, we can learn more about our own styles and decide if we feel we need to alter these in order to help ourselves along, be healthier, happier, or whatever the need may be. You can read more about that in the links below and in his book.

What I learned through this book was that in the Resilience dimension, I fall towards the "Slow to Recover" end of the spectrum. Resilience in this context is briefly defined as how long it takes you to rebound after adversity and is determined by signals between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. I had already acknowledged and learned through my 27 years of living that I struggle with adverse situations, but particularly with facing loss--loss of certain circumstances, but most importantly loss of people in my life, whether through break ups, relocation, or death. There is something comforting in being able to place what I saw as an inability to deal with one of life's most universal truths to something physical (neurological) and not just that I am emotionally and psychologically broken or damaged. I am literally wired in such a way that makes it difficult for me to face these changes. My attachments to the people I love in my life are neurologically explained. Hooray!

Through tips from Davidson's book and other practices, like mindfulness meditation, journaling and introspection, I can work with myself to move down the spectrum to a healthier (or what I consider healthier) way of facing and reacting to adversity--more towards the "Quick to Recover" side of the spectrum. This is the welcomed challenge I now face to learn to help myself along. It has also helped me to understand myself and accept who/how I am, to understand I have a particular emotional signature that helps me deal with life's ways. This book was a challenge to read in some ways, but ultimately an empowering declaration of our own agency within our bodies. Yes, we are emotional creatures, as Eve Ensler states in her book, but we are not determined or frozen by our emotional character. The human brain is a mighty creature, and while it can define us, it is brilliant enough to adjust as needed so we can be enriched and live more wholesomely. But this adjustment can only occur if we work on it.

So while yes, I am emotional, loving and attached, and death and separation make absolutely no sense to me, I now have new hope that I can learn to face these adversities in healthier ways, to fully experience them while not letting them diminish me.

To read more about Richard J. Davidson's work and learn about your own Emotional Style, read The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and click here for a quick summary of Emotional Styles.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

For the Mommas

To give back.  To say thanks.  To our mommas.

Check out the Strong Families Blog and my personal post about my mother.

Strong Families celebrates's Mama's Day by highlighting the real lives and experiences of the mamas in our lives.  Enjoy!

Many blessings of love and light to all the Mothers in your lives.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Squishy. Come on, Squishy..." ~ Dory, Finding Nemo, 2003

"Perhaps we have an obsession with naming ourselves because for most of our lives we have been named by other people."
~ Angela Davis on Identity

There is power in naming something.  Naming something acknowledges its existence.  Naming is creation. So when others name us, they create us, our identity, the reality of us. Reclaiming that power is critical.

People may wonder and think I am being difficult in reclaiming my first name. But seventeen years ago, I took on the nickname Beni (misspelled at that) because I felt people could not say my name. I didn't want to be mocked. I wanted to fit in as best I could.  I wanted to make things easier on everybody.  So I became Beni.
I don't hate this person I became, nor do I cringe or wish it had been different.  At the time, it is who I needed to be. I love that person. I am mentally kind to that person because it was a young, frail, scared child who did not want to suffer and found strategies to avoid pain. That was my way of doing it and there's nothing innately wrong with that. Self-preservation is human.

But I am happy that, thanks to Front Line Leaders Academy and Joel Silberman in 2008, I realized that I am beautiful.  The person I am is beautiful.  And unique.  And I have a unique contribution to the world.  And nothing represents that better than my name--my real name. Especially because in the US, Bernardita is painfully unique name.

Yes, it is the name my parents gave me… and upon moving here I made the choice--forced by circumstance--to become Beni.  But there is something quite powerful in reclaiming my name… and all that it speaks with its ten long letters. Reclaiming my name is me taking ownership of myself, my life, my person. Reclaiming me is to reframe me… I am creating myself anew. And I am the one who defines me, not others, not those who can't say my name or a world that finds me strange.

Reclaiming Bernardita shows the world "here is this long-named, curious person," and I am imparting upon others great respect because I no longer think my name is too strange for them to say it.  Instead, I give people credit for their ability to learn it.

I am not making things difficult--sharing who I am should not be a difficulty for anybody.  I am sharing myself. I am being truthful to who I am. I am telling you, "this is me--no alterations."

Naming is critical. It creates realities. In 2008, I acknowledged I have power over the reality of myself that I present to others. Obviously, I knew I had it back in 1996, but what I didn't know is that I could expect the world to understand me as I am without making changes to fit the world's mold.  Instead, I could value the world's ability to value … me.

And so I introduce myself to you.  I am Bernardita. And we can now begin the business of sharing.

"The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing." 
~ Pierre Bonnard 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Steubenville: on Education and Social Responsibility

This Steubenville situation has me real fired up. The incredible disconnect of these boys and the witnesses to the violent sexual act is disturbing, at best. How can people be so disconnected from others' humanity that they don't see they are harming, violating, disrespecting, and abusing another human being?  Are we that self-involved and desensitized to humanity?  Are all human beings no longer worthy of respect? What is going on in our world? Are parents, teachers, leaders, no longer teaching the value of a person to our children?

This just bleeds into the broken education system in which we live. We need to nurture people's spirits, feed into children's souls, allow for their ultimate expression and care for it.  Let them be as they are and allow them to feel loved and appreciated, wholly. 

Demonstrate that appreciation so they can pass that on to others and see the value in each individual's contributions. 

We don't have that anymore.  Each person needs to de-"self"-themselves. Lose who they are to become a piece, an equal soldier in an army of conscious-less, spirit-less drones. (Teaching to the test? Pass/Fail to rate the quality of our schools and educators?)

Maybe this is the intersection, this disconnect, between artistic endeavors (our soul) and education and policy.  We remove passion and love and expression from our children's lives by not funding arts education, and by doing so, we tell our children that art is unimportant, that their soul dancing is irregular, unnatural, unacceptable, and their spirit soaring is an acrimonious violation of the social order. Their spark is diminished for the sake of conformity to a system… a well-oiled machine that needs to continue running, requiring its little workers to be one and the same, not alter the system so as to prevent it breaking. We can't handle change, difference, dissonance. We can't see the beauty in it.

But this system is already broken.  We teach children to remove their uniqueness, to learn to pass uniform exams, and we remove music and arts, the things that nurture their spirits and emotional intelligence, and replace them with basic, formulaic education, lacking creativity. Children no longer play with free minds, but rather desensitize through computers and gaming, numbing the frustration of an education that bores and discriminates. The system creates individuals so hardened that their hearts no longer see the hearts of others as beating, bleeding muscles of love and pain. They do not see that their touch, even their words, create gashes in the tissue… They do not see that it is life that exists around us and it is life they take through their coldness and disconnect.
Is empathy dead?

The reality is that we are socially responsible for each other. We are socially responsible to teach our children they are responsible for each other, that they exist in unison with their brothers and sisters. We are socially responsible to create a society with a living, beating, bleeding heart. This is our duty and where our responsibility lies.

The children in Steubenville that committed these horrific acts need to understand their actions for the harm they caused their sister, not for the negative consequences they receive themselves. Children need to learn of the humanity of others, awaken their hearts to their connection with this other person, and understand more deeply that the pain they feel about the status of their lives is tiny particle of a much greater pain, a drop in the ocean of pain suffered by the young woman they violated, and a mere hint of the pain experienced by the thousands of youth who suffer sexual violence every day. What they feel, others feel, and that can be their bridge to sharing in others' humanity. What she felt and feels today is an experience we all share in.

When one suffers, the whole suffers. We can't numb ourselves to this because in that numbness is where we lose our hearts, the heart of whole world, and we lose sight of our relationship and connectedness with every individual around us. We are one part of the whole. We cannot divorce that.

We are responsible for one another. We are all at fault here. And we are all empowered to change.