And So It Starts

This article originally appeared on on September 9, 2016.

I have walked close to 200 km in the last 8 days, through the Spanish towns, villages, fields, mesas, and hills that compose the Camino de Santiago. The juxtaposition of the Camino essence/spirit to the current divisiveness in the USA is as stark as a windless day’s hot noon sun on the occasional paved road we must walk.

Throughout the journey, I have thought about truth and reconciliation which is a significant reason for this over 600 km walk. I have read a couple of books and numerous essays, articles, and blogs on the subject and on racial injustice. The educational process has the same sense of urgency as my footsteps. While I certainly remain present and aware that the journey itself is a crucial element, I know that there are certain goals I am eager to attain, and I have much to learn to reach those destinations.

As I think about truth and reconciliation, I keep coming back to two significant moments that initiated my attention and intention to participate in resolving issues of social injustice in America. The first is all things Bryan Stevenson. His TED talk in 2012, his book Just Mercy, and his many speaking engagements that I have been privileged to hear in person have had a huge impact on my thinking. The most recent speech was in July, at a weeklong seminar I attended. One of his points that day was to get proximate and close to the things we are passionate about changing. In Bryan’s words, “Get close to the things that matter, get close to the places where there is inequality and suffering, get close to the spaces where people feel oppressed, burdened, and abused. See what it does to your capacity to make a difference, see what it does to you.”

I have done exactly that for other causes important to me and I agree with his principle. My work in the Congo, the refugee camps in Greece, the Visitacion Valley neighborhood in San Francisco, my engagement with former California foster youth trying to go to college and with animal advocates (and the animals themselves), my travels to Palestine and India to learn the different perspectives — all of these were my getting proximate. At the moment, being in Spain precludes me from getting proximate in the physical sense thus I find myself trying to get proximate internally.

From previous experiences, I know that my unconscious biases can be obvious or obtuse. I realize with embarrassment of my many judgements and biases and (worse) how many I don’t yet realize. The sources are many for the indoctrination has been decades long and authored by my family, friends, class norms, societal prejudices, etc. I, like so many others, take all this in and deeply internalize it to the point that much of what I think is an unconscious bias of some sort.

The second pinpoint is the echo of a colleague’s statement, “I wake up everyday knowing that I could be killed today and that I am perceived daily as a killer.” Two months later and I still see the scene: a diverse (in many ways) group of thirty plus articulate, educated, professional individuals in an all day intensive session discussing Race in America. The man who stated the duality of his everyday life is all of the previous description and more…a respected leader in many communities and someone whose presence commands attention. He is also African American.

In getting internally proximate, I try to understand how he must feel everyday. The closest I come is only halfway, for I understand how it feels to be daily prey. As a woman, and a survivor of violence, that part I understand.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book, Between The World And Me, writes about the legitimized destruction of the black body in the United States. Our society for hundreds of years has accepted the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. The facts are evident and when learned, the case for Black Lives Matter becomes obvious.

Our society has legitimized the violence against women also for hundreds of years. Again, I concur with Mr. Coates as he writes, “Rape is systemic. And like all systems of brutality it does not exist merely at the pleasure of its most direct actors. It depends on a healthy host-body of people willing to look away.”

I need to circle back to my colleague and that day in July. Another detail that seems innocuous and is anything but in the unraveling of my unconscious bias. He is dressed as many of us are that day, in business casual. I bring up his attire for a reason. What hit me hard was not only hearing this spectacular human being express the heavy burden of thought and reality but how quickly my mind went to a thought something along the lines of “But look at you, how you act, speak, and how you are dressed.”

Bam. There it is. For centuries female victims have had to deal with accusations about their attire as if this was a reason to be raped. And I realize with full-on mortification that a hoodie isn’t any more responsible for one’s murder than a low cut blouse is any more responsible for one’s rape. In fact, my first attacker wore a polo shirt, khakis, docksiders — think Stanford swimmer/rapist type. Yet, I have more anxiety passing a man in a hoodie and low riders? That unconscious bias was taught to me by someone, by something. And that simple discovery is part of getting ‘internally proximate.’ Because the reckoning of how insidious racism is in our society is powerfully evident inside me.

The daily walk on the Camino includes a “mystical path,” designed to encourage the pilgrim (peregrino) to think more on a metaphysical level than the actual physical level of how many miles/kilometers to the day’s destination. Today’s: “We will take 21,000 steps and we can choose to make each one a prayer for peace as we walk through the 21st century. Humanity is coming of age and we hold the key to a new era. The choice is ours as to which way we turn it,but we really only have two choices. We. can add to the problems humanity currently faces or become part of the solution. The choice we make will imbue the millennia with either love or fear. It is time to reawaken to the purpose of our life, time for the long walk,to freedom in the footsteps of Mandiba.” (Source, John Brierly, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago)

So today, I took the 21,000 steps and then another 1,000 (or 2) with the hope and determination to be part of the solution. The learning continues…