I have been struggling to come up with the words to express my anger, frustration, and sadness in response to ongoing and more recent injustices and violence against my black brothers and sisters. Although I know I only have control over how I choose to respond, I can’t help but wonder when will we learn? I don’t just mean us as a country, I mean us as a human race. It’s a never-ending cycle.
As a woman of color from Japanese American descent, sure I have encountered my fair share of racism. Growing up, kids made fun of my eyes and asked, “How can you see?” I have been called derogatory terms such as “Chink” and “Jap.” Men have assumed I am submissive and won’t speak up for myself. I am not Japanese enough because I don’t speak Japanese, but I am also not white enough because I look Asian. And even though I was born in America, people always assume I am foreign because of the way I look. I remember telling my mother when I was younger that I wished I was white because I would fit in and be “beautiful” after a white boy told me I was pretty for being Asian (whatever that means).
Yet, even as a person of color, I acknowledge that I have privilege. I grew up in a middle-class family with parents who are married going on 31 years. I never had to worry about getting a job to financially support my family and was able to get a private college education. Most importantly, I never had to fear for my life because of the color of my skin.
Our world is sick and has been way before the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutionalized racism has even pinned minority groups against one another. Many of my ancestors fed into the idea that Asians are the so-called “Model Minority,” and that has created a divide: the narrative of, “we are not ‘them’ and therefore it is not my problem” has gone on far too long.
I am not telling you about my experiences because I am trying to equate my encounters with racism to those of African Americans. I am sharing my stories because that is what I know, and if I know and experienced racism, chances are you, your neighbors, family, friends, co-workers, and loved ones have as well. That is not okay and should not be normalized. Racism is not dead. It never died. It just evolved and mutated.
This disease of institutionalized racism and implicit bias is wide-spread and so deeply rooted that many of us are completely unaware of it or have become de-sensitized to it. Yet, underneath the surface, there is so much pain that festers among those who are oppressed, threatened, and left behind. So, what happens? We see the fight or flight response in action, which is the natural physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived event, attack, or threat in order to survive.
From the moment we are born we are like sponges soaking in what we hear, see, and how others act around us. We then take all that information and put it into action in order to survive. The challenge is, once we develop habits, opinions, and behaviors, it is really hard to change them. But the only way to see change is to be change. This requires us to sit with what makes us uncomfortable, listen with the intent to understand, acknowledge our wrongdoings, and do something about it.
It’s so easy to look at ourselves and ask, “What can I do? I am just a small fish in a vast ocean and there are bigger fish that have more power than me.” I know I have been guilty of that too. But that way of thinking is small and brings us right back to where we started. I can look at myself and say, “I am just a yoga teacher, what can I do to affect change?” Or, I can say, “I am a yoga teacher who educates the importance of living your yoga not just practicing it.” This means, I have an opportunity to teach myself and others the value in using the yoga practice as a means to start the conversation with ourselves. I don’t mean spiritual bypassing. I mean really sitting with our own attachments, aversions, triggers, judgments, and biases. I mean taking ownership of what we can do as individuals to do better and be better. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Especially those in our community, nation and world who need it most. Because if one person gets left behind, it affects everyone. We may not see it at first, but eventually it all bubbles to the surface like it is now.
So, I challenge myself and you to take action. Sending love and prayers is not enough. Yes call, text, petition, and vote. But also remember that if actions do not carry beyond that then we are simply scratching the surface. Let’s have those difficult conversations with ourselves, our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and those we disagree with. We don’t all have to agree, but we must acknowledge, listen, respect, stand up for, and see one another.
Yes, I am a teacher, but you are too. You are both the teacher and student of your life with the opportunity to observe, learn, grow, communicate, and change. Let’s not throw that gift away. And if you forgot or lost sight of that, let’s start now.