I wrote this piece a few days ago. Since then, I have been debating… discerning. Do I publish this, or just share with some friends? What are the pros and cons? Am I afraid of offending? Of hurting people that I care about? Or do I want to hold off because I have not yet worked through all my own obfuscations?
Yes, I readily admit. I am not yet (and will likely never be) the clear channel that speaks for justice without mixing in my own “personal” foibles. But does that mean that this letter will forever remain in the shadows?
Finally, comes today. A day that more and more of my friends prefer calling Indigenous Peoples’ Day, rather than Columbus Day. On top of that, this is a day imbued with the fiery “beginning” or “launching” energy of Full Moon in Aries.
So, even though I am not sure whether this is the best move, or this my most eloquent expression of a subject that is, maybe, too close to my heart, here is what I have to say. And I’m saying it.
First, a clarification
Before I start, I want to ensure that I am heard clearly. This is a letter to my friends. People with whom I can have this conversation. Because even when the subject is uncomfortable, there is love between us. Here I am talking about the kind of fierce, muscular love – that can tolerate the stretches and stresses visited upon it by life.
I believe that I have earned my right to call upon this friendship and this conversation. I grew up in India, and now call New York City my home. I am married to a white man, and am the mother of a biracial child. Most of my closest friends are white. Most of my teachers and mentors are white. Damn it, even many of my dreams (depending on the other characters in the dream) are in English!!
I am beginning to sense that I am immersed in all this whiteness for a reason; so I may speak openly and honestly – and not be perceived as so threatening, so “Other,” that I am not heard at all.
Friends, this is an invitation to a conversation. To an opportunity to look together. This letter is addressed to my friends who will see this as an invitation; may be a critique, but not a criticism of who they are. Because you are my friends, and I love you. I pray that our love is not fragile, but a strong and hearty one. May our love and our commitment to each other’s journey be the ancient, gnarled tree, under whose boughs we may be sheltered during this conversation. May we really hear each other’s heart and soul.
Because like it or not, we are in this together. What hurts some of us, hurts us all.
A Recent Experience
It was a recent Sunday morning in New York City. A crisp morning with that special light and fragrance in the air that signals the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
And I was doing what I love to do on many weekend mornings. I was in a lecture hall – attending a class about the Hindu/Buddhist chakra system, and how this system is similar to, and different from, shamanic traditions of several First Nation tribes from North and South America.
I was among friends. In a place that I consider my spiritual home.
As I sat there, I found myself getting more and more triggered. It was a visceral reaction… of rage… and of deep, deep sadness. It was an experience of absolute heartbreak.
Because the teacher, speaking so authoritatively about these subjects, with such a sense of ownership of the material, was a white man.
Before I go any further, I want to make a disclaimer. This teacher, this man, I have known closely for quite some time. I love him, and I respect him, as a person and as a teacher. It is not him, the person, that I am speaking against. He was in fact very respectful of the traditions the teachings came from, and called upon Pachamama on several occasions. In some ways, my sense is that I am opening my letter with this experience precisely because it happened with this particular teacher, and not someone else where the water may be murkier because of a personal dissonance.
What fueled my rage that morning was the seeming normalcy of the scene. A sense that all was okay. Just another day, just another talk – and life goes on.
What was up for me during this entire time was the resounding absence of the people who actually come from these traditions. Not just in this classroom. But in the entire conversation about indigenous spirituality and traditions.
In the moment, I was too triggered to speak up.
I was shocked that no one in the class thought to pause and ask, “What is wrong with this picture?” “Why is this material not being presented by someone whose bones and sinews were forged in the fire of these philosophical and spiritual systems?”
Indeed, what is the arc of human history that ensures that no representatives from these traditions stand in front of us to speak about their own traditions? Yes, there is the occasional Deepak Chopra, or Malidoma Somé. But for the most part, white men and women are the faces of yoga, of kirtan, of shamanism…
And just to point out, both Chopra and Somé are men. What happened to the powerful women tantriks and mystics and shamans from these cultures?
What happened to those who should have been here, speaking to us, deeply grounded in their ancestral heritage? Why are they so very absent? (In parenthesis, I must say that I celebrate that this is slowly changing. I honor all the voices we are beginning to hear about this missing piece. Please consider my voice here as another instrument joining that orchestra. And I join, because I must. I can no longer be silent.)
I also want to acknowledge that I am able to write this piece today because of my own privileged position. So, I speak here for those who are not present, not able to show up, not able to speak.
My overarching questions today are:
(1) What does it mean that the face in front of the classroom on a subject that comes from indigenous traditions is that of a white man?
(2) What does it mean that this discrepancy is not even noted as odd or problematic?
A second clarification
What I am trying to point to here is not so much whether someone has the right of learn another’s tradition and practices, and even to teach them. Because I think they in fact do. As a practitioner of interspirituality, I believe that the riches from all spiritual traditions should be available to anyone who is seeking.
My point here is more about acknowledging the absence, the loss, the subjugation of the tradition-holders, especially the women, of almost all indigenous cultures.
My Own Lineage
I sometimes refer to myself as a third generation immigrant.
My grandparents from both my parents’ sides had to leave their homes and everything familiar to them – to immigrate to India from what is now Bangladesh – as a response to the impending partition of India. Their flight from home was a response to the violence and the ethnic strife whipped up by the British “divide and rule” policy.
My father’s family settled in Cuttack, Orissa, while my mother’s in Kolkata, West Bengal – both in eastern India. Once my father was old enough to get his first job, he moved to Delhi, the capital of India, over a 1000 miles away from Cuttack. And I, who was born in Calcutta, grew up in Delhi and studied in Madurai and Hyderabad in southern India, finally ended up settling in New York City, over 7000 miles from where I grew up!
What is this rootlessness about? What happened to our sense of home? Our sense of rootedness? What happened to our relationship to our heritage that comes from what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls our “far-back ancestors?”
This story of my far-back ancestors, the pre-Aryan indigenous peoples of the Bengal region, who lived and likely practiced “primitive, animistic spirituality” much before the arrival of the Vedic Aryans, has been a subject of intense passion for me over the past decade. But that subject must wait for another day. It is too close to the bone to be buried in this essay, and likely too raw for sharing at the moment.
This is what I will share, though.
I am ashamed to say that I have deepened my relationship with the spirituality of my own culture through the ambassadorship of white men. The first “spiritual” book I ever read, as an adolescent, was the Tao of Physics, written by a white man, Fritjof Capra. When I was completely alienated from my own cultural tradition later in life, and was searching for something that would speak to my soul, I was reintroduced to the spirituality of my birth culture by Joseph Campbell, another white man. The text book on chakra system that we are using as our text for the class I mentioned at the beginning, comes from a white woman, Anodea Judith.
What is wrong with this picture?
According to some, nothing.
In fact, I was recently told by a “wise” white person that I should be grateful to these people, because they preserved a part of my heritage that would otherwise have been lost. A noble sentiment. And… spoken with utter insensitivity, from a place of privilege and entitlement.
So, what do we do now?
I am not sure how exactly to be with my experience at this time.
I do not want to be a shrill voice, screaming from the sidelines.
But I also know that silence is no longer an option.
I know that for myself, I need to work on forgiveness, which will hopefully bring me, eventually, to a place of “truth and reconciliation.”
But I also think that it is not all on my plate.
I think that there needs to be a conversation about what is present in front of us today. A conversation about the white elephant in the room (pun intended)!
My task, for now, is to grieve. For myself. For those like me. And for my “far-back ancestors.” And to slowly work my way to acceptance.
What I am asking my white friends for – right now – is neither apology, nor reparation. I am not even sure reparation is possible. And apology is hollow. It is not useful to me. To us.
What I am asking for is acknowledgment. I am asking you to stand quietly by the graveside of those that history has decimated. And maybe shed a tear for the injustice that was done.
I am asking for an acknowledgment of a cultural crime that was committed against indigenous people all across the world. One that came from an implicit sense of superiority over “primitive” peoples. Over the “natives.” These were people who could be enslaved. Colonized. “Civilization,” as we know it, is built on the backs of these people! And these are the people whose history and culture and traditions could be, and were, appropriated with impunity.
What hurts most is when we are told that we are making too much noise about something that is just in our heads. When we are told that every culture has had trauma of one kind or another. We are nothing special! And that we should just grow up and be grateful that someone deigned to preserve bits and pieces of our culture!
Please know that it hurts, even when we are grateful for this preservation. It hurts even when we honor you for your ambassadorship and curatorship of what was once ours.
I thank you for listening. And witnessing. May we continue to be each other’s witness. May we walk each other home today, and every day.