We’re halfway through 2020 and breathing is now a luxury. We’re living in a tinderbox, from the infernal flames that have scorched large swaths of the Pacific coast to Covid-19 fever dreams, seething rage against police brutality and city skylines engulfed in smoke. It has already become conventional wisdom that we’re in the throes of a rebirth, but there is a lot of anxiety over whether or not a Phoenix will actually emerge when the carbon monoxide eventually clears. In the last few years, we’ve had the “Me Too” movement, a surge in Climate Change activism and “Black Lives Matter” protests. These movements have all inspired tectonic shifts on their own, but it might be time to consider that they’re all borne of the same karmic fire.
I first learned American mythology as a child, though it was presented as a history lesson. The indoctrination included a trip to the Statue of Liberty, and reading passages from the Declaration of Independence. The expectation was that we would swell with gratitude and pride for the freedoms that the founding fathers bestowed upon all Americans in perpetuity.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
On the surface, it is a beautiful sentiment laid out in positive, life affirming language, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I also remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which reinforced this notion of “equality” and “justice for all,” as cornerstones of our society. But now, reading the phrase “all men are created equal,” against the backdrop of “Black Lives Matter” protests, I recognize another layer of meaning. When it was written, slavery was still legal according to the laws of the newly formed government. Now, I wondered, how did they reconcile this blatant hypocrisy within their own consciences? Racism was so embedded into the core of the American psyche, that having colored skin meant being perceived as not fully human so that exploitation and inequality would prevail. Not only did our black ancestors not have liberty, but they were abused and treated like an inferior species. They were called “savages,” and that was the justification that was used to treat them like property, thus creating the systemic injustice that continues to persist. Language isn’t just a tool for observing reality, but can also manifest a specific intention. The word “savage” was also used to describe the spiritually evolved indigenous population, who were the original conservationists, and therefore an obstacle to developing every inch of the “New World.” In retrospect, the bitter irony is that practicing slavery and genocide is the very definition of savage. Slave owners projected their own sociopathic tendencies onto the people they brutalized, engaging in an astounding feat of mental acrobatics just to feel comfortable with their own barbaric deeds. On July 4th 1776, a great shadow was born alongside the infant nation, and for 244 years, there has been a repression of these uncomfortable truths, a nation born from Native blood, on stolen land and made prosperous with the labor of black bodies that had been looted from the African continent. So while on paper, American history tells the myth of a free and prosperous nation, a psychosis did also flourish, and made a hellscape of our collective unconscious. In 2020, true equality is still a dream, as people of color are consistently paid less, continue to face discrimination, and are more likely to die at the hands of police.
“All Men are Created Equal.”
Women are also omitted from this statement. For a long time, I assumed that “men” referred to mankind, and therefore applied to men AND women, but this was the wishful thinking of a naïve girl. I had so thoroughly bought into the propaganda of the “Pledge of Allegiance,” that I didn’t realize that women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920. It took suffragettes seventy years of a sustained and coordinated effort to accomplish this basic human right. On August 18th 2020, it will be the centennial anniversary of Congress ratifying the 19th Amendment.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by an state on account of sex.”
The systemic abuse of women, “the inferior sex,” has been a little more nuanced. We are taught to fashion ourselves into pretty objects worthy of protection. We are also paid less, and so while it is more of a challenge for us to purchase expensive items, like real estate and cars, we are encouraged to consume items we can afford, like clothing and beauty products. And within the fashion and beauty industries, women of color still do not have adequate representation or employment. Even the world of classical ballet has been exclusionary and it is only within the last few years that it has even been possible to buy point shoes that are brown. When I was a student at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the nineties, every single dancer used spray paint, since the slippers only came in one shade of light peach. Under the right conditions, clothing can be a form of self-expression and designing them is also my profession, but hyper sexualized advertising and fast fashion can promote body dysmorphia and compulsive shopping habits. Single use clothing may offer a temporary fix, but the earth cannot sustain retail as therapy. A watershed moment for the sustainable fashion movement came in 2013, after the Dhaka garment factory disaster in Bangladesh. The building caught fire and collapsed with the workers trapped inside. 2,500 people were injured and 1,134 workers were burned alive, the majority being women. Many of the brands that were manufactured in that facility are sold here in the US and the tragedy inspired the creation of the Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organization that inspires consumers to ask the question “Who Made My Clothes.” And it turns out that companies that are committed to paying fair wages, also have a tendency to consider the environmental impact of their supply chain. In an article for the Washington Post, Dr. Ayana Johnson, “a black climate expert,” explains how climate activism is being handicapped by systemic racism and inequality.
“If we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color… More than 23 million black Americans already care deeply about the environment and could make a huge contribution to the massive amount of climate work that needs doing. People of color disproportionately bear climate impacts, from storms to heat waves to pollution. Fossil-fueled power plants and refineries are disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and putting people at higher risk for coronavirus.”
– Excerpt from “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.” By Dr. Ayana Johnson
It is now 3 ½ years into a stress test of our democracy, three months into the coronavirus pandemic and three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and we have arrived at another watershed moment. The coronavirus lockdown has laid bare all the shortcomings of our country, including our flawed healthcare system, police brutality, hyper partisanship, white privilege and the wage gap. The larger themes of racial inequality, sexism and ecological decay have all breached the surface of our collective unconscious, and are finally being recognized as the Original Sins of America. We are in the midst of a mass awakening to our interconnectedness, which is mobilizing an astonishing number of white allies to the “Black Lives Matter” cause. As individuals begin to recognize and atone for their roles in systemic injustice, a new collective consciousness is being born. As horrible as the coronavirus is, I don’t think this would have been possible without the national quarantine and months of alone time. After years of dealing with countless frenemies, I have come to the realization that the more outwardly judgmental someone is, the more self-loathing that person is likely to be on the inside. If we consider racism as a psychological disorder – the external projection of deep rooted shame – then “Black Lives Matter” is not just a civil rights movement, but a positive affirmation that benefits our entire species. The mantra helps to reclaim the self-sovereignty that African Americans have never fully experienced in this country, as it is often forgotten that black men and women have also risked their lives to protect our “liberty” as members of the military. So while all of our futures are uncertain, we also have a rare opportunity to let go of our delusions and self-limiting beliefs. In terms of tangible goals, this shift will require closing the wage gap for BIPOC and women, criminal justice reform and the normalization of sustainable business practices. In the old paradigm of hyper polarity, it seemed as though you had to choose between doing what is best for yourself or the collective. Going forward, it is not only possible, but imperative that we imagine new systems that will accomplish both.