I grew up in New York, a city filled with people of every nationality and ethnicity. I identified myself as being progressive and valuing difference, but I understood those things conceptually, as if from a distance. I was aware of some systemic inequities that occurred due to race and class, and was sure I stood on the right side of the equation, toward justice, as my parents had taught me I should. But my heart wasn’t engaged. The problems of racial, class and gender-based injustice were ethical realities I had wrapped my mind around intellectually. My unconscious distance prevented me from feeling them in my heart, and from truly grasping the profound pain that these social contradictions inflict on so many people each minute of every day.
An incident that felt as though it pierced the shell of my privilege occurred during a Cultivating Women’s Leadership workshop, one I co-facilitated in a rural retreat site in Northern New Mexico. Two primary goals of these gatherings are seeking to connect across the differences that often divide us—and experiencing how powerfully women in intentional alliance can accelerate each other’s learning.
Our time together included a collective dive into the pain of racial wounding. We heard about the Chinese grandmother whose bound feet hurt so much she had to be carried, the great uncle who had been lynched in the South, the Peruvian indigenous grandmother who had been forced to leave her ancestral lands, the woman of mixed ancestry who had grown up ashamed and targeted because she was the darkest skinned of her siblings. A white woman spoke of her slave-owner lineage, and acknowledged the shame and guilt she feels, alongside of her privilege.
We listened deeply, and held each other tenderly. We noted how darkness is widely demonized. We named positive associations for Black and darkness, to reclaim their value. We collaborated to create and enact embodied healing rituals.
On the last night, my co-facilitator and I were awakened at 3am. One of the women was having an asthma attack, and she had forgotten to bring her inhaler. We rushed to her room, uncertain what to do. We were in a rural setting at high altitude, hours away from a hospital or medical care. Arriving, I sensed the woman’s panic, heard her gasping desperately for breath, trying to fill her lungs. I saw the terror in her eyes.
My mind had no previous experience, and was of no help at all. I dropped into a place where I could receive my body’s instructions. With her permission, I wrapped my arms around her. I breathed slowly and deeply, hoping she might entrain her breathing with mine. As I stroked her head, I began to sway, rocking her in time with my breath. To comfort her, I began humming a wordless tune, like a lullaby.
I had come to love and admire this woman, and to care deeply about her leadership. She was doing environmental justice work, and her asthma was likely a product of growing up in a low-income, toxic neighborhood. Every particle of my being willed her to live, and I poured my love and desire for her wellness into her, hoping she would relax, yearning for her to recover and be able to breathe. I don’t have any illusion that I healed her. But thankfully, after what seemed an endless time, her breathing steadied and slowed.
As she calmed, I laid her body back down on the pillows. I sat beside her, stroking her head and face, still humming. When she’d closed her eyes and was breathing normally, I sank down to the floor beside her bed. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Wondering about the source of my sadness, I knew this was about more than relief. I knew that the shell of my separateness had cracked open.
I sensed that the barrier that my privilege had created between my head and heart had been pierced. I felt the pain of this woman’s asthma and the profound injustice of her having to live with it acutely. I knew that it was caused due to racial bias, redlining and corporate malfeasance, and my heart ached even as my anger was kindled to change it. In that instant, I also knew my own complicity and accountability for it.
No matter how many years I’d known about the most toxic industries being sited in poor inner-city neighborhoods, no matter how long I’d known about the elevated rates of asthma and diabetes, of heart disease and cancer in these communities, I had known them from the distance my privilege afforded me. I had known them as statistics that shocked and saddened me, but I had never before felt so personally their direct impacts the way I did that night.
After holding her in my arms, rocking her and breathing with her, summoning every bit of love and will I could muster, I’d felt no difference between us. The mother bear within me had been whole-heartedly engaged, and my desire to stand with her fully, to see her live and thrive had broken my heart wide open. Ever since, I have a new and deepened commitment to racial justice, and a greater sense of the suffering that results from the toxic inequities, corruption and corporate abuses of our current systems.
This experience changed me, as others have continued to, since. They have not only widened the scope of what – and who – I feel in service to. They have deepened my compassion and commitment toward justice in ways I could not previously have imagined. Justice has become personal, for me. As Dr. Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”[i] These experiences remind me to invest in my heart’s experience when witnessing another’s suffering, and to focus on feeling injustice, not just thinking about it. They remind me to encourage others to deepen their own capacity for empathy, to engage with co-creating beloved community.
[i] West, “A Love Supreme.”
This is an excerpt from Nina Simons' larger essay:Piercing the Shell of Privilege, which is included in the bookEcological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women’s Voices,edited byJeanine Canty.Transforming the World from the Inside Out