Wake Up: This is Naropa, and You’re Missing It.

I wanted to start this post by saying “I’m sorry, this is a departure from my other posts” and other things.  But you know what?  I’m not sorry.  This needs to be said.

In the past few weeks, I have come to feel markedly less safe here at Naropa.  I don’t need people to agree with me in order to feel safe, or even to accept me necessarily, but I do need people believe in the integrity of my own experiences, even if they don’t understand where I’m coming from.  And I need to know that, if someone uses a power dynamic or a privilege against me, that someone will stand up for me if I’m feeling too ashamed, or fearful, or dissociated to do it myself.  We were taught in Helping Relationships that even if we are the “authority” on mental well-being in therapeutic relationships, our clients are the “authorities” on their own experiences.  No matter how much we understand, no matter what we learn or how long we practice or how many clients we’ve seen over the years, we will never be more of an expert on a person’s experience than that individual is.  This is because, regardless of how much we empathize, we can never actually know what it is like to be another person. 

I fully believe this.  Unfortunately, this belief does not only come from the classroom.  It comes from a long history of misunderstanding and judgment from people who did not understand me.  While I have become accustomed to this, it is a lonely and painful way to live.  I’ve outgrown most of the people I’ve loved.  I’ve stood up for my beliefs, even when they were different than everyone else’s.  I’ve been ignored, teased, threatened, and even physically attacked for disagreeing.  I’ve had to quit jobs, withdraw from classes, and seek out resources for myself because nobody offered any.  I’ve had to advocate for myself quite a bit, and while I suppose I never really expect this to end, I had hoped that maybe I wouldn’t need to do this quite so much at Naropa.  Unfortunately, I’ve found the opposite to be true.  I’ve had to advocate for myself here, as well as for others, more than almost anywhere else I’ve been because Naropa asks us to be so incredibly vulnerable.  And while I’ve had a lot of practice advocating for myself, many others have not.  I’m starting to recognize more and more the incredible damage that can occur when vulnerability and misunderstanding are mixed.

Because that’s what we do here.  We’re vulnerable.  We break ourselves open and ooze onto the floor and hope that nobody minds the mess too much until we put ourselves back together.  And in our deepest hearts, we hope that people will understand.  Or, even if they don’t, that they’ll step up and say:

“Wow, I really have never known what it’s like to experience that.  I won’t pretend that I have…I know pretending would be meaningless, and wouldn’t help you.  It would only be to make myself feel better.  But I want you to know that I heard you.  I didn’t ignore your pain, and I’m not going to drop the ball.  I’m going to sit here with you and help you hold your fragile pieces together until you’re okay to hold them by yourself.  I’ll listen to what you have to say, really listen, and I won’t judge you for your perceived ineptness.  And I’ll help make sure this space is safe for us to do just that.”

But for all those hopes, I’ve noticed something in our classes.  I noticed that I am almost always the one who steps up when the space isn’t held.  When microaggressions happen, when people express powerful, scary things that are summarily ignored, when people express a need that the group can’t meet.  When issues of privilege and oppression come up.  When someone forgets, and slips in a prejudicial stereotype.  When someone makes an insensitive joke.  When someone’s real and honest feelings are labeled as “projections” because those feelings too scary for someone else to deal with.  When that happens, I step up.  And almost NOBODY ELSE DOES.

I routinely sit in classes of up to 45 people, who know and care for each other, who have been together through intense emotional and academic rigor, and who claim to feel deeply the suffering of their peers.  And it is ludicrous how rarely someone else steps up, ignoring the anxiety and fear of speaking the uncomfortable words that are needed to advocate for those who have been marginalized.  And every time I step up, a couple of classmates (and not just the same people over and over) come up to me after class and say, “Thank you so much for saying something, Mari.  It was totally unfair what that person was saying.” 

And I just have to wonder if what they’re really saying is “thank you for saying something, because I didn’t want to, and now I don’t have to feel guilty for not speaking up.”

There are people in this program who have experienced such withdrawal, such mass ignoring, such utter lack of support and understanding and empathy from us that they have stopped speaking about their deepest feelings altogether.

Let me repeat that: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO FEEL SO UNSUPPORTED BY US THAT THEY HAVE STOPPED SPEAKING.

We are here to learn to be therapists.  How are we going to do that if we can’t even stand up and say something when our own classmates are marginalized???

What would you do if your therapist couldn’t handle your pain?  I know what I’d do, because I’ve had to do it with therapists who couldn’t handle my pain.  Who changed the subject automatically.  Who asked if maybe I was really dealing with some other issue, and that the issue I’d brought up was in fact just *hiding* something more important (so let’s not deal with the it please).  Who were so unable to tolerate their own anxiety that they wouldn’t let our sessions go deep even when I was ready.

You know what I did?  I left and never went back.

We can’t become good therapists if we can’t address our own problems, and most of us can’t address our own problems without a supporting relationship in which to process.  Naropa offers an opportunity the likes of which most of us will never have again.  We will probably never again have an entire community full of professionals and peers whose sole purpose is to instruct and support us in our personal and professional development in this way.  This is the best possible opportunity that we have to learn to advocate for others who are being marginalized.  And we simply cannot utilize this opportunity if someone else is always coming to our rescue.  Yes, it’s scary, and we’re afraid of confrontation, and we were yelled at as children, and we were never taught to handle anger.  So what?  Do you think our clients are going to care about that? At best you’ll lose your client.  At worst, you’ll re-traumatize them and set their healing back years.  

So think about that the next time someone says something oppressive, or microaggressive, or dismissing.  Think about that when you’re waiting for me, or one of the handful of other people who regularly step up to challenge inequities. Maybe next time, I’ll just stay silent, and see if anyone steps up.  Maybe next time, you’ll step up instead.

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The Elephant in the Classroom: Addressing the Issue of Ethnic Diversity at Naropa

During my time at Naropa I’ve become increasingly aware of how incredibly tolerant everyone wants to be.  It’s almost impossible to find someone who will adamantly disagree with you on a touchy subject; instead, most of them will respectfully allow space for both of your respective views to coexist simultaneously, even if they seem to contradict each other.  While this is a Buddhist-inspired university, there are members of a variety of religious backgrounds here, and long classroom discussions about worldview and religion often occur with minimal conflict.  However, there seems to be one issue that will always be touchy at Naropa: the issue of ethnic diversity and racism.

Bear in mind, Naropa tries very hard to address this issue.  Both undergraduate and graduate students are required to take courses relating to diversity and multiculturalism, and instructors often try to include the topic of racial discrimination in classroom discussions.  But somehow, when all is said and done, there’s not enough that anyone can say or do.  I’m sure there are a lot of people with varying opinions on this issue, but I’m going to go ahead and state my thoughts on why this seems to be the case.

Naropa, like many private universities, is predominantly white.

According to Naropa’s “Facts at a Glance Page,” the breakdown is as follows:

  • Caucasian: 60%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 7%
  • Asian American: 1%
  • Black/African American: 2%
  • Native American/Alaska Native: 0%
  • Multiracial: 4%
  • Other: 24%

This data is particularly interesting, because it isn’t representative of the United States as a whole.  The U.S. Census Bureau lists the 2011 U.S. demographics as follows:

  • White Persons: 78.1%
  • Black Persons: 13.1%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native persons: 1.2%
  • Asian Persons: 5.0%
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders: 0.2%
  • Multiracial: 2.3%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 16.7%

Boulder is also Predominantly white.  While it’s impossible to know how the 24% “other” Naropa students identify, it’s easy to see that the representation of the African American, Asian American, and Hispanic/Latino populations of this country are incredibly underrepresented here.  And while these numbers are uncomfortable on paper, they’re even more uncomfortable in person.  Because let’s face it.  Being a white person, enrolled in a predominately white university, in a predominately white city, allows people to turn a “colorblind” eye to issues of diversity.  And while I cannot understand what individuals of minority ethnic backgrounds experience, because I myself am white, I have heard a great deal of frustration from some of them.

It seems like Naropa students get this idea that because they are open and accepting of others, race and ethnicity no longer matter.  I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve heard people here claim that they don’t see any difference between themselves and minority groups, that they see everyone as equal.  And honestly, in some ways it would be nice if that’s how the world worked.  But it doesn’t.  Racial prejudice is ingrained in our culture, our government, our educational system–basically anything regulated or accepted on an institutional or majority level.  The fact that “racism” is a word is a testament to its existence.  But, more importantly, we know it exists because individuals of minority backgrounds  feel it.  They experience it on a day-to-day basis, in many different forms.

I know that it’s hard for us white folk to hear that racism still runs rampant, that it’s ingrained into our society, and that our privilege blinds us.  I know it’s simpler, more comfortable, and seems more “fair” to think that because we try to actively include non-white individuals in our lives that we are, in fact, not racist.  But, to use the old adage, “the proof is in the pudding.”  The above statistics alone indicate that.  What are a few things about Naropa that could contribute to this?

It’s expensive to attend a private school.  It’s expensive to live in Boulder.  When you consider the statistical correlation between race and poverty in light of the high cost of attending Naropa and living in Boulder, it’s not that surprising that Naropa is so whitewashed.  But it’s also more than that.  While I cannot speak for the ethnic minority students here, they can speak for themselves, and most of the ones that I have spoken to have mentioned being decidedly uncomfortable here.  Somehow, many Naropa students haven’t been exposed to that much ethnic diversity.  I’ve heard white students claim that they’ve only “seen black people on TV.”  I’ve heard African American students say that they’ve been labeled “sassy” or “sexy” by individuals who had barely spoken to them.  I’ve heard of ethnically diverse students being ignored in classrooms, of people cutting in front of them in lines, and then claiming that they hadn’t even seen them there.  Time after time, I’ve heard wealthy, white students cite “reverse racism” as a counteraction to claims of racist experiences.  I’ve even heard of students being called liars, or being laughed at, when they shed light on the racist experiences that they’ve encountered.

These aren’t isolated incidents.  They’re also not exclusive to Naropa.  This is an international problem, and when we ignore it, we only perpetuate its effects.

Sounds like a pretty impossible issue, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m a fan of “thinking globally, acting locally.”  If you are a non-white student or interested applicant, please know this: we need you here.  It is not your job to educate us and point out our prejudice, but it is so much harder for us to see and address these issues when we are lost in a sea of white.  I myself am nervous about even posting this, because I’m very much expecting both white and non-white individuals to jump down my throat about what I’ve said here.

But at least I’m saying it.  I’m getting it out in the open.  This is what I think of racism and ethnic diversity at Naropa.  This is how it looks to me, through my skewed white perception of the world.  Am I racist?  Probably; I don’t think anyone can help being racist on some level.  It’s ingrained in our language, our customs, and just about everything else.  By sharing a commonality with a particular group, it seems like we often exclude others by default.  I don’t claim to be an exception to this.  But I hope I can be involved in making positive strides towards changing it.