Finding Union Within the Divide in Gender and Race

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

Buddhism and Races Conference at Harvard Divinity School on International Women's Day

“When I was young I was taught to fear big forces of nature - tornadoes, thunderstorms, snowstorms, hurricanes. Taught they cause destruction and devastation. Taught to hide under desks, in basements, stay close to home. For me, somatic work has been about relearning and reconnecting to the wisdom and life in natural forces. That what is most alive leads to opening, creating change. That in the destruction of something lies a whole new world of possibility- a place where patterns can finally become unhinged and there’s space for something new to take it place. Not that this doesn’t come without loss, gief, devastation, it often does. But to see that there’s also resilience, the beauty of survival, the move to create and thrive despite what surrounds us. To me that’s the essence of our fight for liberation.”

-Spenta Kandawalla

“Dii Nvwati (Cherokee). Translation: Skunk medicine. The skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict. Self-protection but do no harm. Gangsterish peace-making. That is the kind of masculinity that I try to embody. With my leadership, with my poise, with my privileges. As my body continues on a journey of thickening, muscle hardening, limbs lengthening, Ayurvedic drying, shorter synapse pathways, fuzzier intuition and choppier verbal articulation all facilitated by weekly testosterone injections these are poignant lessons to forward. The objective is for men and masculine people to not yield our power to others . . . Women and femme people don’t need our paternalistic sickle to swath as we ‘tap out.’ We must figure out power without domination.

“Just as our body mass of people of color in the US continues to grow and we inch near the time of outnumbering the current White majority in population numbers it will be imperative that we use our people power strategically. Numbers alone won’t ensure justice and liberation. The skunk asks us to use our powers effectively, without wiping ourselves out. WIthout recapitulating top down, give-less-to-get-more social structures. Just as the skunk does not seek to be the bear, let us not attempt to trade places with the oppressor. Let us navigate a road of paradigm shifting that seeks to salve both current social and economic injuries, but also prepare a sustainable method of being for seven generations to come.”

-Holiday Simmons

“And then there is the butterfly, a most magical creature. The wings of the butterfly are already held inside the caterpillar, and as it breaks down its old self into goo the wings emerge ready to go. That process is amazing and teaches me that as we change and transform, we also have everything we need already right inside of us. So my organizing and healing work becomes about building the cocoon that can hold the goo so that the wings can emerge.”

-Micah Hobbes Frazier

How do we face the reality of race and gender inequality both within us and outside of us? This is a huge question and I’m not up to the task to answer it for you. I am here asking myself that question with some ideas that I plan to share because it feels important to share. I also know that many UU congregations are addressing this issue more directly lately and it’s definitely on my mind and hearts these days as I’m sure it is for many of you. You up for that?

Hi, I’m Hilary and I’m introducing myself again because these are intimate questions and I want to feel a little more connected to you all. I consider myself an expressive arts community minister and am branching out more recently to do more preaching and connecting with church communities like your own. I’ve been asking myself questions around race and gender for a while now and I want to be in dialogue with others as well. It feels important for me to situate myself in the conversation, so here’s a bit about me and where I’m coming from.

I grew up white upper middle class in the suburbs of Detroit and went to a half white, half black Methodist church downtown. I was always wanting to join the kids of color who were often singing and dancing together and yet I didn’t feel free enough within me to know how to join them. I wondered why they seemed to be having so much more fun than us white kids. I didn’t realize what their lives were like back at home and to be honest I still don’t really know. I grew up with a Polish American mother who became a lawyer in the early 70s and a British father who immigrated to the US as an engineer to get a better paying job and experience the American dream. They married in ‘69 and I came around in ‘84 when they were stable and secure. We lived in Taiwan for a year and half when I was 1-3 years old and I happened to have a nanny who carried me around all day while she cleaned and taught me her indigenous language. When we left I didn’t want to speak English for a while from what my parents told me.

We became UU when I was 12 and I rediscovered my connection to Asia when I started to read about Buddhism in my mid teens and attended holiday gatherings at the Thai Buddhist temple in Detroit at which my mom was the pro-bono lawyer. That led me to study Buddhism and comparative religion in college and to study sustainable development and Buddhism in Thailand for a year. I stayed in indigenous villages, farming communities, Muslim fishing villages, temples and much more. I saw beyond the ideals of success that my family, educational communities and the media had formed for me and I was able to feel back into the depth of connection with the Earth and how heart-felt love were much more important to me. That said, I didn’t know how to translate the connections I had with the indigenous women in the jungle into my life back in Western Michigan. I called in experience with community and found myself living in a cooperative house and applying for divinity school when the jobs were scarce and very unexpectedly received a full ride scholarship to go to Harvard Divinity School. The day I was accepted I was unable to speak and returned home to explode what felt like at least a decade of not sharing my emotions onto my mother. My heart opened. Through my journey in divinity school studying both UU and Buddhist ministry and afterwards while living at Earthdance, a dance and artist residency retreat center in Western Mass, I continued to open more and more to feeling and sensation as I practiced yoga and meditation nearly daily, danced feverishly, listened to nature and learned about shamanism. Teachers came and yet none of them felt like they fit for long. Yet I continued to practice and receive practices as I needed them. I helped to start the UU Community Cooperatives in Roxbury and we did deep thinking about our privilege and yet we bought a house that displaced a few people of color and recreated colonization unconsciously. I thought I was an empowered woman and yet I recreated one abusive relationship after another. I thought I could do anything that I put my mind to and yet I felt so terrified and alone most of the time even when around others in a center for contact improvisation that is about human connection. What was I missing? Where did I go wrong? Who am I and how can I heal myself to find out? These questions emerged and even with therapy there were no answers. I felt called to deepen my practice and travel to India and Nepal to immerse myself in tantric Tibetan Buddhist practice that seems to have so many ways to look at the masculine and feminine and the divine in general. I knew I needed a practice that would be about diversity and could hold great complexity and address duality because that’s what I felt within myself.

The practice I received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, called the Kalachakra or the ‘wheel of time,’ happens to involve imagining oneself as both the feminine and the masculine deity in sexual union, both with many multiple hands, heads and implements, bedecked with jewels and scarves. I spent a month in retreat visualising myself this way reciting nearly 2 million mantras. I wondered what the heck I was doing the most time and yet I could feel the layers of separation and isolation peeling off of me. I found myself opening from the inside and a deeper sense of self love than I’d ever known. I felt whole and connected beyond the conceptions of myself. I’m sure many of you have had experiences like this as well with loved ones or in nature possibly. When I returned I moved into a transformational retreat center and there just happened to be Western tantra retreats happening there. I was given the opportunity to practice exploring gender through embodiment in relationship with others now in the physical form and through our sexuality. This was both extremely terrifying and empowering to face my own trauma and know that I have the power to release it and cultivate loving connection and intimacy by asking for what I want and need to feel good in my body.

In this community we explore gender deeply through touch, movement, play, conversation and even eye contact. What is it to be masculine? What is it to be feminine? Is masculine penetrative and feminine invaginating? Meaning to turn inward and deeply receive the fullness of experience. Are there other experiences of being masculine and feminine? Can we experience them at the same time both within ourselves and with others? My experience is yes. Yes to it all. While there is great complexity in this experience, there is also great freedom and possibility. When I am able to choose how I respond to my inner experience and how I interact with others there is great freedom. It is through mindful embodiment and movement practices that I’ve found this freedom and simplicity emerging out of the complexity of duality as I learn to stay aligned within myself in connection with the Earth below and the sky above that are always in union. That has been my way of awakening and I’m continuing to learn more and cultivate it each day. There is a reconciliation within myself and with others of the opposite sex that as a woman who is a sexual assault survivor, these deeply embodied practices have allowed for me to experience and I am deeply grateful for the freedom that I am now able to experience..

The reality is that there are many people who have a lot less privilege than I do and than most of us here today. It requires an immense amount of privilege to even consider doing practices like these. I do not know the experience of people of color and I never will. I have heard and read stories and watched young men getting beaten by the police on my computer screen. I do not know what it’s like to wonder if I might be attacked by the system that is supposed to be keeping me safe. I don’t know what it’s like to feel like I’m not seen as a full human being. I do know what it’s like to be seen as prey by men. I do know that there are stories in my ancestral history of my ancestors being dominant over people of color that created tension that led to lives ending, including my paternal grandfathers. How he died exactly is a mystery, he may have committed suicide or he may have been killed by a Jamaican mercenary that he was in charge of at the end of WWII in Northern England. When I faced this story and felt the terror inside of it inside of me, and I was able to express and release it, I felt much better. My life began to get clearer and I was able to face the reality of racism and that I could do something about it. My life also fell apart and I needed a lot more rest and time to integrate and just be with myself.

I share all of this not because I need to share my story with you to be heard although that does help. I share all of this because I believe that my experience is not just my experience. We are all connected and I don’t need to prove that to you. We are beyond the time of making proofs for beliefs, we are in a time of rapid transformation that is needed and we are either allowing it or resisting it. We all have complex intergenerational trauma that we carry on our bodies and we are all able to drop into experiencing the simplicity of the present moment. It is from the present moment that we can decide what our future will be with each choice. We can resist allowing for change to happen or we can open to the greater complexity and cultivate the capacity to play with it all!

I’m not saying that everyone should go out there and start doing the practices that I have done. That’s certainly not everyone’s path. What I am suggesting is that if we begin to feel more we can awaken to the truth of who we are and look at the hard stories, feel the feelings that have been stuck for decades or generations and become more present and engaged in the reality of the our own truth. Then we are much more able to show up to witness and possibly learn from another’s truth. We can show up to help with much more ease without the guilt and grace can show up through us without having to feel like we have to do anything. We are good enough simply by just showing up and sharing that we care, especially for ourselves. The rest will happen if we open, trust the process with the right motivation.

I found myself trusting more deeply in the inner and outer process of reconciliation when after speaking in an online summit called Feminine Emergence, I had a woman of color from Trinidad, named Ann reach out to me back in October. She thought she wanted to do online sessions with me and when I asked her what is is like for her as a woman of color to ask me a white woman for healing, this conversation became our focus. We continued it on a weekly basis and developed a facebook group called GraceBetweenRaces for raw, honest conversations about race issues and reconciliation within a ritual container. We have an online gathering every other week with a new guest each time who shares about their life experience and expertise. It has facilitated incredible learning and growth for me to see my supremacist patterns of whiteness and to witness Ann and other friends as they step forward as teachers and leaders to share their stories and wisdom.

This initiative has shifted how I look at activism and I now see it as a way of creating space for what wants to emerge, on the personal, relational and collective levels. I invite you to join us and to watch the recorded conversations that we’ve already had. This Monday, tomorrow from 6-8pm a friend of mine Lolly Bee who is mixed race will join us to share about her experiences with native peoples across the US as an activist, traveler and healer who integrates teachings from indigenous and western approaches to wellness and spiritual awareness. She'll be talking with us about cultural appropriation of indigenous culture in relation to white new age culture. Please join us!

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