December 13, 2016

The Reluctant Activist: How I Care for Myself & What keeps me Fighting when I want to Stay in my Bubble Instead.

*Author’s note: These are my reflections post-election. You may or may not agree with my politics, and we may arrive at different conclusions. Either way, I hope that reading this might deepen and support your own discernment process. 


Unlike previous elections, I’m not simply disappointed that my candidate didn’t win.

Instead, I am flat-out terrified.

I am terrified of Trump’s rhetoric, his proposed policies, many of his cabinet appointments and his lack of depth, knowledge and self-control.

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, the non-profit founded in 1971 that tracks hate crimes nationally:

“In ‘Ten Days After,’ the SPLC documents 867 bias-related incidents in the 10 days following the presidential election. Among them: multiple reports of black children being told to ride in the back of school buses; the words ‘Trump Nation’ and ‘Whites Only’ being painted on a church with a large immigrant population; and a gay man being pulled from his car and beaten by an assailant who said the ‘president says we can kill all you faggots now.'”

“In ‘After the Election, The Trump Effect,’ the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project details the findings of an online survey of more than 10,000 educators since the election. Ninety percent reported that their school’s climate has been negatively affected, and 80 percent described heightened anxiety and concern among minority students worried about the impact of the election on their families.”

I teach and practice hatha yoga primarily as a contemplative practice, and only secondarily as an exercise regimen. In hatha yoga, we use our bodies and breath as vehicles through which to work with our minds. And we work with our minds not only to benefit ourselves, but also to discern how to live ethically, in integrity with our highest values.

To stay in integrity with my values, I must stand up for what I believe in.

There is significant volunteer work, political action and self-education that I feel I must take on during these next four years.

This will be challenging for me.

I am by nature a deep introvert, and prefer solitude to being with people. I do not like to complain or argue. I like to follow the rules. Big angry white men scare me. Police scare me. I would not do well in jail.

How do I move through my grief and fear, and strengthen my resolve and courage so that I can, as Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis says, “Get in the way and get in some good trouble?”

Self-care is the first step.

Here’s my list of essential self-care practices for the reluctant activist:

>> Take refuge in your contemplative practices. (We practice regularly, year in and year out, so that in hard times, we can fall back on our steady habits: yoga, meditation, prayer, exercise, study, being in nature.)

>> Be with your people.

>> Drink lots of water. Don’t forget to eat.

>> Expect to feel unmoored. You may find that you need more sleep than usual. Allow yourself extra time to complete tasks, and time to just sit quietly. Be extra careful when driving and when using tools, including stoves and kitchen knives.

>> Keep making art. Creative expression is the juicy fun part, so don’t give that up.

>> Notice if your coping strategies include avoidance and numbing out, such as by taking in too much alcohol, drugs, junk food, media…Here’s a little test: in the mornings, do you wake up regretting anything you did—ate, drank, smoked, watched, bought, slept with—the night before? If so, first offer radical compassion to yourself, then consider other coping strategies, including asking for help.

While self-care and contemplative practices are important, they are only the foundations from which to take action, not ends in themselves. I’m reminded of the Edmund Burke quote, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

In learning how to be an effective ally to those who have been targeted for harassment, it is important to examine the nature of my own privileges.

Because of unearned privileges that I acquired by the sheer accident of being born white, straight, middle class and able-bodied, I have the option of staying in my comfortable little bubble during this rise of white nationalism and of hate crimes. I have the option of doing nothing—of fading into the background.

However, my extended family, friends, neighbors, students and colleagues who are LGTBQ, of color, Muslim and/or immigrants do not have that choice.

Inspired by “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh, I am naming some of the unearned privileges that I carry with me during this dangerous time:

>> I can send my 6’1″ teenage son out into the world and not fear for his safety because of his skin color, sexual orientation or religion.

>> I can go out in public spaces without increased fear that I will be insulted, threatened, or hurt because of my skin color, sexual orientation or religion.

>> When I attend protests, I can be pretty sure that police won’t assume that I or my family pose a threat because of our skin color,sexual orientation, accent or appearance.

>> I can choose polite avoidance. For instance, I can cross the street if I see a woman being harassed because of her skin color, accent, hijab…because the situation doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me, and I don’t want to interfere.

>> I can choose to be around people who look and think like I do, most of the time. I have the option of arranging my life so that I stay in my comfort zone.

>> I can avoid listening to the news when it becomes too much to take, because I don’t feel immediately impacted by the policies and practices being discussed.

>> I can choose not to do the uncomfortable work of thinking about my complicity in, and how I benefit from, institutionalized racism.

>> I can “go along to get along” and blend in with other white people if I sense that I am alarming them by talking about my own internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia.

>> I can still “pass” as being an ally to targeted groups by taking actions that don’t inconvenience me, such as wearing a safety pin, posting comments on Facebook, signing petitions, calling and writing my elected officials, donating money, watching and reading media about activism or progressive politics, and talking with other like-minded white people.

(While I am taking all of these important actions, none of them are outside of my comfort zone nor do they require me to give up any of my privilege or safety, or interact with anyone different than me.)

>> I can give this list to like-minded folks and anticipate a polite, even admiring, response.

Why is it important to name these uncomfortable truths?

For me, it’s a way to call myself out in advance.

I do not want to sink back into complacency.

I do not want to accept that the rise in hate crimes and white nationalism is the new normal.

I do not want to excuse myself from doing what is right.

It’s also a way for me to see myself clearly. Rather than seeing white nationalists as “deplorables” with whom I have nothing in common, the truth is, my invisible privileges come from the racism that is an integral part of our country’s history, laws, and culture.

I find white nationalism despicable and repugnant, but the fact is, I benefit from institutionalized racism every day. And simply labeling Trump supporters as racists is dismissive of them as human beings.

All of us bear the responsibility for the racist aspects of our culture.

Further, it is possible to see Trump’s election not just as an expression of racism, misogyny and intolerance in general, but as a result of the ever-widening economic gap between those of us with class privilege (adequate income, access to education…) and those who believe that they have been ignored by the elites who hold power and make policy in Washington.

Without self-awareness and contemplation, I’m more likely to respond simply out of habit, fear or ignorance when I’m in challenging circumstances.

By cultivating self-awareness and by educating myself,  I begin to have some choice in how I respond to challenging circumstances.

And I hope to choose, again and again, to be a committed, fierce and effective ally.


Author: Lisa Holtby

Image: @elephantjournal on Instagram

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

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