Justice

Trauma, Peace, Persistence, Grace, Integrity by Robyn Rapske

 Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

This weekend I attended an event titled Spiritual Trauma, led by therapist, researcher, speaker and writer, Hillary McBride. Hillary is at the forefront of studying trauma, amongst other things, and I’ve heard her speak on the Liturgists podcast regarding Spiritual Trauma before. This blog post addresses mostly how Trauma impacts the work I do, but if you’d like more extensive information on Spiritual Trauma specifically, I’d recommend the podcast episode, if you can’t make it to one of her talks.

Talking about trauma can bring up difficult emotions for those who have experienced it, so if this post is making your body freak out, then I’d say not to bother reading it. I really don’t want to invoke a panic attack. Try these calming techniques if you're needing a moment of peace.


Due to working with women and families on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), I encounter a lot of people with some pretty intense responses to their past and current traumatic experiences. As a general outreach worker here, my job is to offer support during various crises that women and families go through. This means I step directly into moments where they might be coping with real-time trauma, being reminded of a traumatic time in their lives, or trying to manage a new crises when they’ve already got Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder going on.

 My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

Because of this, despite having a basis of education in Social Work, I continue to find ways to expand on my understanding of it--hence attending this weekend seminar.

What is "trauma"? Well, that’s a huge topic on its own. I’m not an expert in the research and study of that topic. So instead, I will throw down a few points from my recent experience hearing Hillary teach on it.

Trauma, she pointed out, means “wound” in Greek. In our understanding of trauma, that “wound” can refer to something harming the body (eg. concussion), it can refer to something harming the mind (eg. emotional, verbal, financial abuse etc), or to the mingling of those two (eg. emotionally and physically abusive relationship leading to a concussion).

The brain is a leading factor in our response to trauma, and it’s a confusing but amazing thing.

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One of its many attributes is that it has an intense survival instinct, with a variety of tools to support that instinct.

When something within the body is harmed (from a broken bone, to abusive language tearing at your concept of self), one of those tools jumps into gear without our conscious effort.

This, as Hillary taught us, is a form of intense “Sensory Memory”. When a traumatic event happens, the brain’s sensory system will memorize what exactly is happening in that moment. In the future, if anything similar begins to happen, the brain has remembered that it’s time to activate fight/flight/freeze modes without consulting your conscious decision-making skills.

For instance, if you’re in a cycling accident with a car that ran a red light, next time you’re cycling and a car is coming up to another red light, regardless of whether it is properly stopping, your brain may send out signals to tense up and prepare to react quickly just in case it doesn’t. It wants to keep you alive and well, and regardless of your opinion on the matter, it will probably start an adrenaline rush in case it’s needed to keep you safe.

This is a great survival instinct, and it’s probably why we survive longer than age 6.

This is an unconscious action, and not something you can easily stop from happening. It is fantastic in this circumstance, as cycling can be dangerous if you’re not alert to dangers that are always quite real.

However, what if you were verbally abused by someone over time, and your brain imprints a survival instinct to tense up any time you’re around a person who resembles the one who verbally abused you? You can end up tense, anxious, and frightened whenever someone reminds you of that person, and it can be frustrating because those people may not actually be dangerous.

Just as the brain creates this imprint without consulting your conscious brain, likewise it won’t easily be changed by your conscious choices. Only with some intentional therapies, certain ongoing practices, and lots of time can we change our unconscious survival reactions.

It’s my experience that these are part of what we sometimes call “Triggers”. Being ‘triggered’ by an enclosed space, by the presence of a white male in power at a church, by hearing loud noises close by, by human touch, it’s all part of those learned survival tactics of the brain that may be frustrating, but they’re trying to keep you alive, and it’s hard to change them.


Pausing a moment for what may seem like an irrelevant story but I swear, it’s not:

Recently my supervisor asked our team to read the books of the bible Ezra and Nehemiah. She is also a Reverend so she likes to refocus on the Bible when we're doing our work, which is nice.

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I believe this is the relevant summary of what I got from those books (feel free to correct any historical inaccuracies):

In Ezra, God’s temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, but there are immense barriers to them completing it. People in power nearby created systemic pressures because they didn’t like how the Judeans’ God inspired people to be less subordinate to the kings. They stalled it and made everything harder in this pursuit given by God. Eventually, however, through persistence, the Judean people build the temple back up.

In Nehemiah, the Judeans begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and this time they have the power of a wealthy king on their side giving them construction materials. However, they are still being discouraged from this task by others. The enemies of Judah plan violent surprise attacks. The people rebuilding the walls had to hold a sword in their hands to fight, as well as continue their efforts to build.

Our supervisor asked us to think about what we are 'building up' in our lives, and what our 'swords' are, which we use to fight off those things trying to prevent us from building.


I’ve decided that what I’m trying to “Build” is Peace.

Peace in someone’s painful, chaotic moments
Peace between myself and others
Peace in everything and anything I have any influence over

I think of Peace as the opposite of trauma. If we have experienced trauma, aren't we always trying to find our way back to Peace?

As for what I have to “Battle” back at, I think that involves anything that threatens Peace.

In order to pursue Peace, and at the same time battle back against what discourages Peace, I use these three “swords”:

Persistence, Grace, Integrity

Persistence

It takes time, energy, supports, and commitment in order to heal from trauma. Studies in “Neuroplasticity” (the brain's ability to heal itself) show that it is possible to heal from trauma, but it can take a long time, and it involves dedicated supportive systems and significant helpful contributions to that healing. Hillary pointed out how, if we say the phrase ”Just get over it!” that we don’t understand how the brain works. It’s a long process and it has less to do with conscious decisions of ‘being over it’ and more to do with ongoing support, practice, and time to rewire the brain.

In my work--this means that I can show love, support, and care for someone over and over for the next 5 years, and might only see gradual changes, but I shouldn’t get discouraged, because it’s normal to take a long time to build back peace. The building of the temple in Jerusalem was interrupted for 15 years, and they must have been so tempted to be discouraged and give up--but they didn’t. So I shouldn’t.

Intergenerational Trauma is also a real thing which extends the time it takes to heal on a larger scale.

Intergenerational Trauma can be a result of environmental re-traumatizing--if the environment doesn’t change much, obviously the traumas just keep going. For example: Residential Schools happened in Canada beginning in the 1870’s, and then governments altered their policies, but continued the trend of separating kids from their families and cultures via the 60’s Scoop. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, massive amounts of Indigenous children were moved from their families into foster care or adoption. As of 2016, 52% of kids in the foster care system in Canada were Indigenous, but across Canada, Indigenous children only represented 7.7% of the population. There’s not much chance to get out of the trauma of family separation, if it keeps continuing.

Scientifically they’re also discovering that, even if the environment changes, the brain and body can pass along genetic markers helping their offspring avoid certain traumatic experiences.

There is an experiment ongoing, which Hillary described, (if you’re an animal rights activist I’m sorry, you’ll hate this experiment), where mice are being given the scent of cherry blossoms right before receiving an electric shock in the foot. These mice developed a fear of the scent of cherry blossoms. When they inseminated female mice with the sperm of these fearful mice and baby mice were born--despite the mother and baby never being exposed to electric shocks or to the 'father' mouse, the baby hated the scent of cherry blossom scents! They’re still continuing the study--they’ve already confirmed that the genetic marker that creates a fear of cherry blossoms has been passed at least 2 generations.

This study is new, so we’ll learn much more about the reasons for this as science progresses, but it is beginning to create a scientific defence for what so many people have already known--that the learned responses to traumatic events can be passed along generations.

So for example, integrating this information into my own life; I work with a lot of Residential School survivors, 60’s Scoop Survivors, and the children and grandchildren of these survivors. Indigenous people and Settler people in Canada will have to keep working for many generations before things will be fully peaceful. It will take a long time for people to “get over” the fear of white people separating their families, and the distrust of government and churches.

This leads to my next important weapon:

Grace.

Just as God had Grace and sent Jesus to redeem us, save us, and make us whole, despite our inability to be ‘deserving’ of these gifts--I see Grace as an important part of loving, supporting, understanding, and being kind to people who may be acting out their responses to trauma in unhelpful ways in relationship with me.

If “Sensory Memories” can be created by trauma, and those memories can become “triggers” for people, this can mean that someone may have a horrible reaction to me without realizing that's why they are upset. It could be because of how I look, the way I speak, where I work, the religion I hold to, the way I pray, the power I am unaware I have--simply because one or some of these things resemble someone who has traumatized them or their family. The past trauma may not be my fault, but their reaction to who I am is overwhelming for them, and it is their brain’s learned response to protect themselves from someone like me.

Their biology is protecting them without them even realizing it.

Due to the nature of the community that I work within, I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at, I have been called a F***ing C***, I have been threatened, I have been called racist, I have been told I’m a bad Christian, I have had women throw very clever guilt-trips my way.

I don’t like being treated this way, but when I understand trauma, I am less concerned with feeling offended and indignant, and more concerned with what led them to need this survival tactic.

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I still put in boundaries, such as saying “I believe your situation, and I want to hear more, but I’m feeling unsafe, so go take a break and cool off”. Or it can look like a physical barrier, when a man is unable to handle his emotions and starts smashing his fist against our door so we keep it closed.

It’s less about me, and more about their past, so I don’t take it as personally anymore. I have grace for their situation. I want to see them heal, rather than scold and judge them for their behaviours which are uncomfortable for me.

Integrity

Integrity can be meant in many ways, but I understand that integrity means that one's words match one's actions.

If I know how trauma is a huge part of everyone’s lived experiences, and I say I care about fostering Peace for others, then it only makes sense that I take action to create that Peace.

One example of how I’m trying to match my beliefs to my actions, is through my use of words.

I try not to use words that others identify as ‘triggers’ when I know what they are. Not only for individual traumas, but for collective traumas.

After understanding our body’s response to trauma, I don’t see avoiding “taboo” words as being “Politically Correct”, I see it as understanding the instinctive reaction that someone’s brain is going through, and doing my best to help avoid triggering it. Hillary didn’t relate her teaching on trauma to this concept, but I think it can be applied.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book "So You Want To Talk About Race?":

“The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt”.

I would say that this history of trauma associated with a word will probably be felt until the environment changes and the generational trauma is given a chance to heal.

Indigenous people still feel racism, so the word “Indian” matters. It was used in ideologies such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” to justify cultural genocide (Richard Pratt, as cited in Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book). It was used in racial slurs and still is. So I won’t use it outside of explaining why it’s inappropriate. I don’t want to trigger the trauma that is associated with that word.

Maybe Indigenous people themselves will use that word, but I’m part of the group of people that wielded it in terrible ways, so my use of it can be very triggering.

If I say I care about not triggering the historical and ongoing trauma in people, this is one example of how my behaviour matters in order to create that.


I know it sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it can be.

But honestly, it’s quite helpful.

Not only can I personally cope a lot better with the trauma I see in the world if I find something to do about it, but it also really impacts people around me for the better.

I have heard and seen miraculous things when women and families are given the safety of a place that makes efforts not to re-traumatize them. They may not be able to express it all the time, but I see it in their trust of me, in how they know that we will always be there for them.

Change flourishes in those places. I’ve seen women grow so much stronger than they thought they could, because they were given opportunities to be safe, and to rewire their brains slowly towards more Peace. They did hard work of healing, but the context is a huge help.

People sometimes talk about my job like I’m willingly doing the most painful work in the world.

But actually, this job gives me more hope than I thought I could have in a world full of trauma and pain. Women have a much better chance to heal in a place full of safety, peace, love, and non-judgemental care, so if we can help create more of that, there is hope.

Peace

Perseverance

Grace

Integrity

Some of What I Got Wrong, Some of What I’m Trying to Get Right (or The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life. Part 2) by Robyn Rapske

I care about the well being of other people. I think many people say they care about others’ well being, too. For sure every church I’ve been in claims that as a value and a goal.

Since my early 20’s I’ve tried to expand my care for others by widening my perspective on how to do this well. This has meant trying to learn a lot. Who others are, why they are struggling with life, how they would like to be treated by me, what structures are in place that are harming them, etc

It’s not easy to get better at caring for others, and I struggle to do it, especially when I’m tired, when I’m commuting, when I harbour resentment towards someone, when I just feel like I can’t read or learn more about the pains that people suffer, etc. And of course there are limits--I do not have to put myself into situations with someone who is speaking or acting abusively towards me. I also can’t care for everyone all the time, (due to being tired and stuff!) so I have to figure out what setting those ‘healthy boundaries’ means. But still, I keep trying.

One of those things that I’ve been trying to learn more about and widen my perspective on is:

Racism

That big, confusing, dark, painful thing

Historically, currently, and most likely into the future, racism hurts the well being of people all over the world. It’s hurting my closest friends, my coworkers, my fellow church congregants. Many of the people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside whom I meet are suffering from it, the authors of many books I’m reading are harmed by it. It touches unbelievably large amounts of people I will never meet.

I've made this post also Part 2 of The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life series because in my home country of Canada, racism also harms Indigenous people in very painful ways, and this post ended up talking a lot about how this can contribute to my clumsy efforts of reconciliation.

I am just one person talking about my one experience as a white person. If you would like to learn a lot more than what I can offer, and from the lips of people who are my teachers in all of this, I think highly of these books from my recent readings:

“So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
“I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown
“Introduction to First Nations Ministry” by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson

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The hardest thing about trying to battle back the racism for my loved ones, is that it is so multifaceted in my life;

I’m white (very, very white).
I grew up without consciously realizing I was embodying racist beliefs.
I didn’t realize for a long time that systems of my country and other western countries were supporting racism and sustaining structures to keep racism in place.
When I realized that racism was bigger and closer to my life than previously thought, I tried to improve, and ended up being slow and sluggish at improving.
I’m currently doing my best, and I am still so, so behind.

But,

I care about the well being of others.

So even if I can’t perfect these efforts, they're worth working at.


Sometimes, it’s nice to learn from other people’s mistakes. If you can watch someone else’s mistake before you make it, there’s that freeing possibility of not having to make the mistake yourself.

In a vulnerable moment, I’m going to air out some of my mistakes as I’ve begun to realize them.

At a recent event I attended, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Hillary McBride, pointed out that shame, which keeps us from loving ourselves, doesn’t actually change us, and in fact it drives us into even more dysfunctional behaviour. So I share these things with as little shame as I can manage for myself. 

Oh, also, if you’re not white, you’ve probably heard/experienced enough racism, so feel free to skip these confessions if you don’t want to have to deal with some of this racist history of mine.

 

Mistake #1

From high school into my early 20’s, I genuinely used to think that I was better, and elevated, and 'above' racism because I had a Congolese friend, a Persian friend, a Nigerian friend, a few Chinese friends, and a Phillipino friend.

What I've Learned:

Just because I have valued, and became friends with people who are part of a group that has historically suffered oppression due to their skin colour, did not make me immune to racism. It’s not like a vaccine, I was not protected from the many unrealized misdeeds I probably did, unaware of how racist they were. I cringe at wondering what I've said and done without realizing the racism that inspired me to act that way.

This belief also had the even more troubling effect of preventing me from making further efforts to see what racist behaviours I had. Like a false-negative test for cancer, I couldn’t treat the thing that existed because I thought I didn’t have it (except in this case the cancer would harm someone else other than me). I'm very grateful for the teaching of professors, authors, film directors, etc that led me to realize I had deeper problems going on.

 

Mistake #2

I didn’t see Indigenous people until my early 20's.

I grew up in Canada, so I obviously must have seen Indigenous people around, but what I mean is that I did not really see them. If an Indigenous person walked past me, my brain categorized them as Filipino, or Hawaiian, or some other ethnicity that I didn’t fully recognize and didn’t bother finding out about.

What I've Learned:

This blindness is probably because I learned about Indigenous people in the context of the incomplete history given to me by my schools. In textbooks and stories, Indigenous people were wearing regalia, associated with longhouses or teepees, occupying themselves with tanning hides, etc. This is obviously part of many Indigenous cultures, but that’s where it stopped for me. I didn’t see Indigenous people as someone shopping at the mall with me, participating in choir competitions like me, owning cell phones, eating next to me at the McDonald's. They were firmly stationed in my brain as a historical people no longer rooted in current Canada.

I knew nothing of the complex and painful history leading up to where Indigenous people are now, and also could not see that we were living in the same culture, with all that our society entails. It wasn’t until my I attended UVic’s Social Work program where I learned about the history more in-depth and learned from Indigenous teachers themselves, that I began to finally see. Thank God for the learning I received there.

 

Mistake #3

Even as I began to see Indigenous people, I still feared their traditional cultural practices. I thought they were dangerous, full of idolatry. It was entrenched within me, this fear, and who knows how it came out in my words and actions and general lack of support for Indigenous people's cultural practices.

What I've Learned:

Well, I’ve learned a lot about Christianity and Indigenous beliefs. First of all, I did not grow up understanding that I lived in a particular, man-made culture. And I did not see that this culture was just one unique way of expressing one’s life. I didn’t know that my western style of worshipping God, honouring God, and communing with God was not the only way to do so. Second of all, I was either fed misinformation about Indigenous cultural practices, or not taught about them at all.

To illustrate with a few examples; Smudging freaked me out. I didn't understand it, and it felt like a spooky, strange, 'savage' practice. What I found, once properly taught, is that it's quite multifaceted and wonderful. Smudging can just be another practice to use in connection with God (Creator). It can be used as a physical act of preparation for praying with God. It can also be used to dedicate a new home or an important room to God, just as I've seen oil used to anoint a new home while Christians pray over it. Another example: I thought that Indigenous people worshipped animals and nature and ‘mother earth’ in idolatry. I didn’t remember that Christian scriptures are absolutely full of talk that animals and nature are innately tied to God. When traditional Indigenous practices respect and honour creation with a variety of ceremonies or prayers, the ultimate goal is to respect and honour God. How beautiful!

As the author of “Introduction to First Nations Ministry”, Cheryl Bear-Barnetson of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, said in her book:

“A question that burns in the mind of every non-Native Christian when thinking about Indians: ‘Is Indian religion evil?” That is a valid question for American or Canadian people to ask, however it is very offensive for a Native person to hear. Please do not think that indigenous people are overly sensitive, they are not. After five hundred years of being scrutinized, stereotyped, and misunderstood, indigenous people often feel overly exposed. Christians react in a similar fashion when radical Islamists state that Christianity is a false, polytheistic religion.” 

In her book, Cheryl provided much more information about Indigenous beliefs, which helped chip further and further away at that ignorant fear of mine. Again, if you're Christian and Canadian and not Indigenous, please consider reading it. It's not even very expensive on Amazon


These are just some examples of how I’ve accidentally done wrong, and some of what I’ve learned. I have spent a lot of mental energy trying not to say and do the wrong things, expanding my knowledge on how to be less racist.

However, what I’ve been learning through the wisdom of others, including in the books I’ve recently read, is that this still isn’t enough.

Racism exists in systems, in people, and in culture. With what efforts I can muster, I’ve been shown that, aside from talking about racism here, and changing the thoughts inside my own head, I should also be seeking ways to actively battle back at racism in larger society.

It’s not just about me keeping my ‘street cred’ as a ‘nice person’--coming off as someone not actively doing racist stuff. It’s about going out of my way to try changing the systems that people with my skin colour have been benefited from on the backs of people without my skin colour.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book:

“We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it….But understanding, on its own, will never equal action.”
“Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate….We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society”

But what to do? The anxiety of feeling overwhelmed with how many problems there are is real.

Well, Ijeoma provides some good examples in her book, which I encourage you to get ahold of. I won’t list all of her suggestions here, as that would make this post even longer than it already is!

My husband Thomas suggested to me that I pick one of Ijeoma's ideas, and commit to doing it, using the accountability of writing it here to get it done. It’s a fair point; my inner integrity won’t be satisfied if I don’t commit to doing what I said I would here.

One of Ijeoma’s suggestions is:

Vote for diverse government representatives. Help put people of color into the positions of power where they can self-advocate for the change that their communities need. Support candidates of color, and support platforms that make diversity, inclusion, and racial justice a priority.”

She also suggests:

Get in schools. Do you know what the racial achievement gap is in your school district?”

Well, we have an election coming up in Vancouver for mayor, city councillors, park board commissioners, and school board trustees. This seems like a great opportunity to use voting powers that I don’t use as much as I could. Although I’ve participated in local elections more in my adult years, I haven’t really put the energy I could into influencing it with my vote. And not just in researching the candidates to vote for the 'best' option, but rather making my voice heard in all of the candidates offices.

For example, I clearly like writing, so why am I not writing letters and emails to candidates in elections? I can make my desires quite clear, pointing out that if they want my vote, this is what I will care about and vote for. This can address those in power as well as the ones making significant decisions in Vancouver schools.

If I find someone I really support, then would I consider volunteering for them? Giving them donations? I suppose we’ll have to see.

Nominations are in September, but already there is a lot of talk around who is running, and that gives me plenty of time to get some letters ready.


Again, the imperfections of my attempts are going to continue being so real, but I shouldn’t get disheartened. The efforts are worth it. Some may even say that it's very 'Christian' to keep trying to provide relief in society from racism.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
Mark 12:30-31

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Article: "Poverty Has No Easy Answers" by Robyn Rapske

"“What is the root of poverty for women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?”

I was asked this question recently, because I am an outreach worker in this Vancouver neighbourhood. I have some pretty strong feelings about being asked this. It’s similar to how I feel when I am asked these other common questions:

Why do addicts keep using drugs when they know the risk of dying from fentanyl overdose?

Why don’t women leave their abusive partners?

Why don’t people just get a job?

Sometimes I’m glad people ask these questions—it’s an act of acknowledging they don’t have the answers and are seeking them out. However, whether it’s because I’m burning out, or because I am experiencing what everyone goes through when they work in social services, below are my honest feelings when I’m asked these types of questions...."

Read on here

Being white, and thinking about racism, as I travel through NYC and Philly by Robyn Rapske

Disclaimer: There are lots of books, articles, and other multimedia which explain and point out the experience of black people, and other non-white folks. I may write more on what I’ve learned from those resources at a later time. This post is more about my own experience, as racism is really more of a white person problem than a non-white person problem. Whiteness has been and currently is the thing that keeps non-whiteness in painful positions. So I thought I’d talk about my own whiteness a bit here. Perhaps you’ll relate, my fellow white friends, and to my non-white friends, feel free to laugh about my ignorance and silliness as I fumble along. And as always, all are welcome to respond in respectful ways to challenge what I say, encourage it, or point out what I’ve missed.


My husband has been working on his Masters of Urban Studies out of Eastern University, Philadelphia, for three and a half years. In this time, he’s done on-campus classes, travelling to Philly six times, each time for about a week. I’ve joined him only twice, last year to do some touristy things, and this past week to celebrate his graduation.

We are not excessively frugal people, but for some reason we feel Airbnb’s, public transit, and the occasional hostel is a better option than hotels and renting cars. Transit is less hassle (no need for parking), and Airbnb’s are more home-like than hotels, and are cheaper.

I think a byproduct of this, however, is that we also enjoy getting to feel more like a part of the city while we visit places.

Sitting on a bus, we hang out with commuters on their day-to-day business.

On trains in NYC and Philly, we interact with an actual person who is punching tickets for all passengers.

In Airbnb’s, we chat with the homeowners as they garden, as they head off to their night-shifts, or text them to ask questions about the local area.

We enjoy it.

It can also be a bit uncomfortable too.

Transit can be crowded during rush hour, and there’s always the stress of ‘will we miss the bus?’ ‘where is the station?’ ‘what did the announcement say about our train being delayed?’ 

Airbnb’s can be awkward, because we sometimes have to make small talk with owners when we don’t really want to. 

But we like it still.

While visiting NYC and Philly, the combination of staying in someone’s home outside of the city-centre, and taking public transit, has provided me an interesting, uncomfortable, illuminating experience as we’ve sometimes stayed communities that have mostly black residents.

I’ll share just a few things that I’ve processed here. These are my own reflections, and they are so very imperfect. But I think they are still important to acknowledge, so that I can build on them in the future.

My first time in Philadelphia, we stayed in an area just outside of the city-centre, and about 10 blocks away from one of the local universities. When we first arrived downtown, I felt overwhelmed by the sights and sounds after a long day of flying. I wasn’t scared of a new city, but just very tired and groggy. We had a dinner at Chili’s, and made our way to a bus.

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The city-centre had been made up of a mixture of black, white, latino, and asian people. I barely noticed a difference in racial mixing comparing to my home city in Vancouver. But that changed when we stepped onto a bus. I became extremely aware of being white as I saw that every person on the bus was black. Our west-coast Blundstones contrasted to the feet of everyone else on that bus, which were shod in Timberland-style boots. In Vancouver, my boots were iconic of our location. They did not feel like they belonged here.

A strange tingling of fear rippled through my body as we sat down, and I tried to not to make eye contact with anyone.

Fear? Where was this fear coming from? I felt it throughout my body, in a visceral way. Tension, heightened awareness, and shallow breathing.

I was so confused. I work on the downtown eastside of Vancouver, rife with drug use, stabbings, prostitution, street-fights, and people wandering around during their psychotic episodes. I never feel fear down there. Why on this bus did I feel fear, when nothing fearful was going on?

I tried to analyse this fear over the next few days. When I went back into the city centre the next day and felt an easing of tension in my body as I saw more white people and white symbols of wealth again, I wondered why that was. When we walked to the nearby university to watch an NFL game at a bar at night and walked through the black community, I wondered why fear bubbled up every time I walked by a black man. When I walked alone to a tourist attraction, but had to go through an area of the black suburbs before getting there, I wondered why I was so aware of eye contact I did or didn’t make with black people I walked by.

There were a few things that I contemplated:

I had a fear that black Americans might hate me because of my skin colour. Were they angry for me existing in their town? Did I carry with me a reminder of all of the racism they’ve experienced over the years?

I was afraid I might be wandering into a part of town that I shouldn’t be in.

I wondered: Did people really carry guns everywhere in the states, like the media told me?

I thought: were there really gangs and violence everywhere in black communities, like hip-hip music and Save the Last Dance implied?

I couldn’t believe how much of my body carried the fears that had been bred into me from the media. 

I had never been in this place before, so none of this was from my personal experience of black communities. This was purely because I’d been listening to stereotypes in the media all my life about ‘dangerous black communities’.

Fresh Prince of Bel Air told me that ‘West Philadelphia’ was terrifying enough to move your child away from.

Movies and TV shows and Documentaries and News.... all teaching me to fear.

This community had not yet actually proven that it was, in fact, a place with people to fear. But I instinctively feared it anyways

So while visiting, I tried to push through the discomfort and let my body learn that the area had not proven to me that it was a place to be feared. I tried to remember that my body was basing it’s cognitive response on a stereotype. We visited the pub, we walked to a coffee shop, we kept using transit to get back to our place.

I didn’t really learn much from the experience beyond self-reflection. And I didn’t know what to do with it except keep being brave enough to let the communities show me what they really were, not be ruled what my brain’s learned biases thought they were.


Now I am back, a year later, and I’m experiencing it again.

After celebrating Thomas's graduation in Philadelphia, we’re now in NYC for a one-night stay before heading off to our next destination. We chose an Airbnb nearby the airport, in Queens.

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We walked to our place from the train station, walked to a grocery store for dinner, walked around the very busy store for a while, and walked to get coffee. I have only seen only one other white person in passing. 

It seems like a very nice neighbourhood. It was Sunday when we arrived, and I saw what looked like a cute older couple who were heading back home in their church outfits, perhaps after eating a luncheon with their church community. There are adorable houses adorned with brick, and little gardens. Kids were playing basketball in the alley beside a big house. Lots of people sat on their porches enjoying the warmth of spring.

And yet. There it is again. That tense feeling coming with being the only white person. A beacon of wealthy white skin, adorned in a Patagonia jacket and hipster glasses.

Not fear this time, but still that ongoing discomfort.

I tried a new approach this time.

I tried to smile at people as I passed them by.

Why? Well, it made me feel like I was showing each person that this white female wanted to be kind. I wanted to represent a white person who was not cruel/racist towards her temporary neighbours.

It felt like my small contribution to reversing racism in America (LOL. giving myself a hearty *eye roll* as I write this in reflection)

As I smiled at people, I was confused. Nobody really looked at me. They seemed quite aloof to my efforts. (those grande efforts, LOL)

Why? I wondered. Are they mad that I’m white? Are they angry that I’m in their community? Am I unwelcome?

Then the words filtered back to my mind from the first few chapters of a book I’m reading by Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk About Race”.

 Read more  here

Read more here

Firstly, she asks: when I, as a white person, am talking about race in conversation, how many times do I use the word “I”?

Hmmm…

Yep.

Most of the above conversation was about myself. How I was able to help. How I experienced this situation. How black people interacted with ME.

Goodness. How incredibly self-centred I’ve been.

These were Ijeoma’s other words regarding race in America, which I was reminded of, that helped illuminate the situation further:

Black people just want to go about their lives, with all the ups and downs of it, just like everybody else.

Black people are tired. Tired of explaining things to white people. Tired of racist systems. Tired of doing more work than white people to get the same benefits out of Western Society.

Black people would rather the systemic racism be reversed, than to have people just be more ‘nice’ to them. (Ahhh....)

My individual presence, for a few days, in a black community, is more important to my own experience than it is to the black community’s experience.

I carry whiteness with me for sure, and that does sometimes mean I need to act in a more humble, listening way, within interactions one-on-one, and that’s important to be aware of.  

But my small presence visiting these black neighbourhoods is just not that important.

So, if I'm not superhero with grande powers, what do I do with this desire for justice, to do good, and to feel like I’m helping, rather than hurting?

I’ve thought of some things that can have good impact. Rather than stressing out about if I’m going to get shot, or thinking I can reverse racism by being ‘nice’ to people.

  1. Let people go about their business, just like I do for others in my own community. Be humble, listen more, and learn more about racism on my own time, through reading articles, books, etc, so black people (and other non-white people) don’t have to keep putting in so much efforts to educate me. They’re so very tired.

    1. I’ve heard this from books and words of friends. Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book “Introduction to First Nations Ministry” points out that Native people are tired of explaining their experience of racism. Ijeoma Oluo’s book (referenced above) talks about the fatigue of black people in the USA, who just want to live their lives, but have to work harder than white people, explain to white people their own whiteness, and teach white people about racism. Friends have also told me that they’re tired of explaining to white people that, yes, racism exists, and convincing them to see how it exists.

  2. Acknowledge what good things I actually can do in my very small interaction at this moment, my very brief time in these two communities:

    1. Keep paying for Airbnb’s in the areas that are less visited by tourists. Hotels will be fine without my money, but homeowners could use the extra cash if they’re living in a large city. I know only so well how expensive it is to live nearby a popular tourist town.

    2. If it’s a nice place, write a good review! Then other people will continue to want to stay at this person’s home, and in this community.

    3. Buy food at local places nearby. That’s always something we, as a couple, like to do, because it invests in the communities we visit. I feel like that’s just always a good idea.

  3. Continue to be mindful of my subconscious reactions to situations like this--what stereotype is deep rooted in my body that makes it so tense and fearful? Is that a legitimate reaction? How much is legitimate and how much is just based on biased media? Explore it. Find out why. See if it can be changed. Accept my whiteness. Accept that it is awkward to figure out my own whiteness. Sit in the discomfort for a while, slowly knead out the knots of tension in my experience.

  4. Let this experience teach me a bit about what non-white people experience. I’ve heard from friends, that this sort of experience of discomfort is similar to the discomfort that black people and any other non-white race feels in this world. I am just experiencing a brief moment of what their entire lives have been in this white-dominated culture feels like. It’s for different reasons that we both feel discomfort, fear, confusion, etc. But maybe this can help me grow my empathy for what non-white people go through on a daily basis.


A last thought:

White Supremacy is not just the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, Residential Schools, and other big, nasty pieces of history. What I just described above is part of White Supremacy. A lot of my life is about White Supremacy. I am still learning how every facet of my life is influenced by a White Supremacist society. I'll be kneading out that truth over time.

Also:

I’ve been thinking about going to local Indigenous Reservations near Vancouver and Coquitlam to somehow acknowledge to these nations that land that I’ve grown up on and live on is their unceded territory, in efforts of reconciliation. I now have two things to process around that:

1. What grande feelings about my importance do I have going on here? Do I need to humble myself again? Chip further away at the white saviour/power complex again?

2. If I do feel it is still a good idea, the discomfort should not stop me. It will be uncomfortable for me, because I am white and not native, and that’s just a reality for me. I will have reactions of awkwardness, fear, confusion, etc. That is just part of the experience. That’s okay.

When We Dehumanize Others While Fighting for Justice by Robyn Rapske

"The natural/easy way of fighting for equality/justice is to dehumanize dehumanizers. But perhaps we could find a way to transcend that cycle"
Michael Gungor, May 2, 2016, Twitter

I regularly listen to Michael Gungor on a podcast he runs with three other podcasters, called The Liturgists. Having listened to most of their podcasts, I’ve seen that Michael is not always super great at what he suggested on May 2, 2016. He reacts to ‘dehumanizers’ in a somewhat unhelpful way, teetering over the line of grace and into unkind words.

However, he has surrounded himself, at least on that podcast, with people who see beyond his human instincts of dehumanizing the dehumanizers. The other podcasters, as well as guests they invite to speak, generally keep each other in line. Within friendship and accountability, they always come to a more gracious point together.

I see that in many people, including myself. Blind to how we dehumanize others on our unique journeys towards justice and equality for the oppressed.

I began to notice this in myself more when I started to get involved in the lives of people from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

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In my fourth year of university, I volunteered with a group of women who came down to the DTES to offer hot chocolate and prayer to women in the survival/street sex trade industry. I don’t know how helpful we were in anything we did, but maybe God used us anyways.

One time I felt shattered as I saw a fancy car driven by a man, pick up a woman, so he could pay her for the use of her body. I seethed with anger and hatred against that man, and all men who would ask a vulnerable woman to dehumanize herself to distract himself from his own sick soul. All I could see was a woman struggling to survive amidst trauma and pain, and a man taking advantage of her struggle to use her as an object.

At that time, this event solidified my hatred for men who would do this, rich or poor. I could only see them as an oppressor. I could not see their humanness at all.

Luckily God works well into the depths of our sins, and he gradually showed me how my dehumanizing of the ‘oppressor’ was not in his will. It’s not even helpful for my goals of bettering lives for vulnerable women.

This happened in many ways, but a major influencing factor was learning the stories of men in the recovery program attached to the organization I now work at. The organization I work at is on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, where every street corner nearby has vulnerable women selling the use of their bodies. The recovery program attached to our program works with many of the men in the area who were previously the pimps to vulnerable women, or who paid for women to have sex with them.

These men were coming into our recovery program and revealing the horrid sickness they had been hiding within their souls, and how much pain they were in. They were in severe addiction to substances, and their relationships were devoid of health and goodness. The solution? Love, Acceptance, and New Life. Their remorse and apologies for previous hurtful behaviours, including paying vulnerable women for sexual services, slowly had the opportunity to heal them, as they were shown such grace and love in our program. Listening to their stories has chipped away at my hard heart towards men like them.

I was waiting at a bus stop sometime after just getting a job at the organization I’m now at, when a man who had gone through recovery started talking to me. I don’t think he knew that I worked in the same organization that he had found this recovery through, but he struck up a conversation with me about his freedom from addiction anyways. He included the fact that he used to think it was fine to treat women like objects, and said he regularly paid women for sex. Now, through his recovery, he realized it was hurtful both to the woman and to himself, and was finding freedom from that realization.

I still get the gut instinct of hatred towards those cars stopping by, or the men who strike up a conversation about sex with a woman in street prostitution. But when that fades, I also see a man who is sick, and in pain. He may not admit it, but I know that God sees his pain, loneliness, and/or anxiety, and if I do as well, maybe I can be more useful in helping him stop the dehumanizing behaviours.

It doesn’t mean that I have to condone behaviours I disagree with, but it does mean that I can see the humanity in all, not just in the people I’m defending.

Not only is this a relational, healing way of approaching dehumanizers, but in a more pragmatic way, it seems like it could be more useful for the goals of those wishing to bring forward justice.

Have you ever been dehumanized by someone because they disagree with your behaviour? It sucks! Even if you secretly agree with the behaviour being wrong, being treated that way hurts.

I remember a conversation with a Greenpeace advocate in California many years ago. It was a conversation full of judgement towards me, hatred of my choices, and zero care for my well-being in that moment. It brought absolute stubbornness in my soul to their message, out of self-preservation instincts against their attacks.

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However, a few years later, I unexpectedly won a book at a justice conference, called “Planted”, written by a wonderful woman, Leah Kostamo, who runs environmental work in BC. In the book, she was gracious, honest, kind, and she understood, even related to, the conflict many of us have with environmental decisions, and how hard it is to involve a better earth into the daily, practical needs of our lives. And what was my response to her love, respect, and her efforts to see the best in her readers? I was inspired to make changes in my life.

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I gradually went from driving to work, to then bussing to work, and then to cycling (rain or shine!). I cycled for two whole years to work and back, and when I became ill, I went back to bussing to work for a further eight months. I directly attribute this decision to the words of Leah Kostamo. Her kind, understanding, realistic words. I continue to make better efforts of what food I buy, what clothing I buy, and other small efforts towards environmentalism because of her kindness. What a vast difference to how I responded to the Californian Greenpeace woman who could only see me as an unjust object against the environment. To Leah Kostamo, I was a human who was worth love and respect, and she offered me non-judgemental inspiration to be a better human.

It may not work to cause change and growth instantly in everyone’s life, and we don’t have continue to be in the company of those who hurt us if it’s too traumatizing, but still, I think we can have much more hope in our future if we treat the person we disagree with more humanely. Whether in our person-to-person interactions, our posts on social media, or our conversations with others about them.

Questions to consider:

Have you ever felt dehumanized by someone else for your life’s decisions and felt defensiveness or stubbornness?

Have you dehumanized someone else because they do something you disagree with? Does it actually work in changing that person’s decisions?