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Unblocked: Seeing Clearly Our Structural Racism

A reflection

In a world with two pandemics raging side by side and which are inescapably intertwined, we can’t help but see the social, racial, and health disparities. In our neighborhoods we see circles of compassion beginning to widen.

Franklin Park, Boston MA

June 5, 2020. Journal entry.

It’s hard to know what rush hour is these days when the world has slowed down. Around 5:45pm on a Thursday we parked the old cracked silver Prius on the corner of Ferncroft and Norman, just west of Blue Hill Avenue, where we were headed. My husband Steve and I were carrying the cardboard signs our daughters had created and used on the prior Tuesday at another peaceful protest at Franklin Park. That night I held my breath for several hours as my own implicit biases and fears ignited about the danger of being in large crowds. Sophie and Josie shared their location by cell phone without my not even asking. In fact, I have never tracked my kids like other parents often do. Now they are young women and quite clear about the dangers in the world. It may be too many episodes of Crime Junkies or My Favorite Murder, but nevertheless, I appreciated the gesture.  

On this June evening, it was just white mom and dad with face masks and posters congregating peacefully with others on the Blue Hill Parkway meridian connecting Milton and Mattapan, suburb of the city. As we walked through a neighborhood, people were piling into the streets, with their children in strollers, and middle schoolers on bikes as if this were a Fourth of July parade or an opening scene out of some romantic comedy.

A parent we know from the former track team days was a community captain with her bike in hand, wearing a black shirt, shorts, and a helmet. She explained to those of us on this patch of earth that at 6:15pm people at the Canton Avenue end would take a knee and others would then follow suit.  “Like a human wave?” I asked. She nodded and diligently headed on to the next socially distanced cluster. Across the street stood a group of three Asian American teens in midriff tees and cell phones as their grandmother observed from the front porch with folded arms. Their signs: Defund the Police | Black Lives Matter |Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God #BLM.

Cars in both directions were making their way, honking their horns, holding out their phones videoing the scene. There are many black people in this neighborhood, as were those passing through this stretch in their cars. This diversity has always made me grateful in raising my kids, even though it frustrated me to no end that the blacks kids walked to the high school, while many white kids drove in with their cars at the other side of the campus. 

One car passed by with two girls sitting on the sun roof holding a sign, Different Name, Same Crime.  I saw a blue Amazon Prime delivery van make a right out of a side street. The driver, a young black woman with sunglasses and braids, did not know what she was getting into.  Surprised, she slowly raised her hand to her mouth and started to cry. I saw her about 3 minutes later come from the other direction talking excitedly into her phone to someone describing the scene with her one hand on the steering wheel. Next to us was a man and his daughter, about 4 years old. She was holding up a rainbow lettered sign, My Life Matters.

Poster No. 6 (c) 2020 Josie Cousineau

After some time the crowds began to drop to their knees and all became quiet except for the cars with the unsuspecting drivers who honked as they passed on either side.  8 minutes 46 seconds. George Floyd’s last minutes.

One man driving along peered out his window, looking us in the eye as he slowed down. He kept nodding to people and saying Thank you Thank you. My mask hid my tears. When the long minutes of silence were over people slowly got up and dusted themselves off. The beeps continued. As we turned to walk back across the street there was the Amazon driver making another round, still talking to someone and wiping tears from a cheek.

Now I know these vigils are but meager efforts in the work that needs to be done to eradicate 400 years of structural racism. Meager in the face of our day-to-day lives and forcing many of us to notice who is delivering our packages, bagging the groceries, applying for unemployment, and dying in unequal numbers every day. Yet there is something happening in our neighborhoods and that feels different.

I have more hope. I watched an interview with Reverend Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter. She was asked in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder if anything has really changed in 50 years and about her understanding of the current protests: Is this moment any different? She paused:

“I do think it’s different…There are more circles of people now, in the white community, who are looking at white supremacy… This is a moment of opportunity… People are crying out and this cry is being heard all over this land and all over this world.” 

Rev. Bernice King
Poster No.5 (c) 2020 Josie Cousineau

Awareness, of course is not enough, but it is an essential step in making change. Rev. Bernice King declared that the moment is here to call on white people to challenge other white people. She said white people’s hearts and souls are opening. And there is much work to be done.

I know somewhere in this crowd of neighbors was a spiritual teacher and friend, who creates singing circles to bring people together.  I belong to one of them. She was there with her mixed race kids but I couldn’t find her. The evening before I was among a zoom circle of women, a gathering to care for our hearts and souls by singing. She brought in the work of Joanna Macy, the great spiritual ecologist and founder of the Work That Reconnects (WTR). Macy describes The Great Turning, an awakening to the dis-ease on our planet; and one of the assumptions of the work is our deep connection to one another.

Our experience of moral pain for our world springs from our interconnectedness with all beings, including humans of all cultures, from which also arise our powers to act on their behalf. When we deny or repress our pain for the world, or view it as a private pathology, our power to take part in the healing of our world is diminished. Our capacity to respond to our own and others’ suffering — that is, the feedback loops that weave us into life — can be unblocked.

The Work That Reconnects

Important realities are getting “unblocked” for white people. Finally. Circles of compassion are widening. Block after block we are standing on lawns, sidewalks, street meridians, in parks and streets all over. There is no more turning away — only a turning toward to what has been there all along. Seeing clearly.

Compassion When It’s Not Easy, a meditation (Insight Timer)

#VoteKindness Project. Check it out

On Being Podcast with Krista Tippet, a conversation with Rev. Lucas Johnson: Living the questions when no questions seem big enough

Resources on becoming an anti-racist ally are listed here.

Artwork and photo (c) 2020 Josie Cousineau

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