Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reflections on Whiteness and the Ecospiritual Movement

I consider myself somewhat of a veteran of the Northern California counterculture, or at least the Ecospiritual aspect of it. I graduated from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I studied, among other things, the history of the modern worldview as it has developed in politics, economics, philosophy, and especially science. My own research examined the roots of mechanism and vitalism in biology and the alternative paradigm that is now taking shape at the intersection of evolutionary and developmental genetics. Yet, some of my deepest learning took place well beyond the academy, at places like Esalen and at workshops and retreats, where practices such as talking circles, ceremonies, and encounters with nature were employed to cultivate deep personal and full-bodied integration of the alternative paradigm to which the movement is committed. Indeed, this integral approach comprises the true heart of the Ecospiritual movement.

The reason the Ecospiritual movement emphasizes the integration of personal/spiritual growth and intellectual development derives from the way knowledge itself is understood within the new paradigm. The dominant worldview, which sees the universe as a collection of essentially disconnected things moving in space and interacting according to fixed laws, tends to imagine the human mind in terms of a disembodied rationality, passively receiving information and analyzing it to arrive at an objective representation of the world. The last hundred years of science, however, has revealed that the universe consists of an intricate web of interdependent relationships and processes. Science has demonstrated the embeddedness of human cognition in that web and is reconceiving knowledge itself as a profoundly participatory process, inseparable from the lived body and its milieu. For the Ecospiritual movement, therefore, knowing involves embodiment, rather than merely memorization, and education is part of a much larger agenda, namely, the creative transformation of our civilization.

What, you may be thinking, does any of this have to do with the cosmology of whiteness? Well, it is an open secret that the Ecospiritual movement is overwhelmingly white. In the decade I spent in graduate school in San Francisco, my classmates were almost exclusively people of Anglo-European descent. Outside of the academy, the situation is better, but only slightly. When this lack of racial diversity is pointed out, folks often express some regret, but, in my experience, their attitude is just as often characterized by bewilderment and defensiveness. After all, their reasoning goes, everyone is welcome. It would be nice if there were more people of color around, but we can’t be blamed for who shows up and who doesn’t.

So why does it really matter that there are so few people of color in this movement? Given that the goal of the movement is to transform our civilization in order to head off the catastrophic human and ecological consequences of unsustainable industrial growth, it matters for a couple key reasons. First, never in the history of humanity has a social movement led by the people who benefit from the prevailing order succeeded in bringing about real change.[i] Every major advance in human liberation has been won through the struggle of those seeking to liberate themselves. Second, there already is a massive global liberation movement underway, which is responding to the ongoing catastrophes wrought by the industrial expansion. This unnamed and leaderless movement, documented by Paul Hawken in his book Blessed Unrest, is comprised of and led by those people and communities of color directly impacted by the hyper-exploitation of the Earth and the large scale ecological instabilities generated by these practices. Can the Ecospiritual movement be relevant if it fails to align itself with this larger revolutionary force?

The question remains: what is it about the Ecospiritual movement that makes it appealing predominantly to white people? How might it be expressing itself in ways that reproduce the cosmology of whiteness? I think part of an answer can be found by looking at the Human Potential Movement, which has had a foundational influence on the Ecospiritual movement. The Human Potential Movement (HPM) emerged in Northern California in the mid 1960s based largely on the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. HPM is rooted in the conviction that people are inherently good and endowed with much greater potential than they ever realize. Our highest capacities usually remain unrealized because we are, in various ways, conditioned to accept a limiting story about who we are and what we are capable of. Once we recognize the ways in which we have been mistaken about our limitations, we can become empowered to transcend our self-limiting stories, take responsibility for our lives and, most importantly, begin to make a positive difference in the world.

This sounds pretty good, but there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, I want to suggest that the presumption of individual self-determination, central to HPM, depends crucially on white privilege. The right to determine one’s life conditions has not, by and large, been something people of color in this country can take for granted. From slavery and genocide, to Jim Crow and Native American boarding schools, to Japanese American internment, to the war on drugs and racist anti-immigrant laws, people of color in the U.S. have been and continue to be denied the sort of control over their lives to which those of us who identify as white often feel entitled. The assumption that genuine personal power is equally available to anyone with sufficient self-awareness reflects an obliviousness I encounter all too often among my Ecospiritual co-travelers.  

Another potentially problematic tendency within HPM is the emphasis it often places on sudden and dramatic personal change, due to some revelation about one's personal history. I have heard seemingly countless stories of individuals experiencing remarkable transformations after coming to see the self-limiting ways in which they had been interpreting their lives. My point is not that these sorts of personal shifts never happen. I’ve had a breakthrough or two of my own, after all. Rather, it’s the exaggerated way that these personal transformations tend to be characterized. I too often hear these personal breakthroughs described in transcendent terms, as if one’s personal and collective history can simply be sloughed off as so much dead skin. Though rhetorically compelling, the discourse of radical personal renewal tends to discount the very real power of social and structural influences and the dependence of those influences on legacies of oppression and privilege. Of course, everyone can benefit from less fear and greater self-awareness, but I suspect that people of color suffering real daily oppression might feel less than supported by white people telling them that their problems are self-imposed.

The Ecospiritual movement inherits these tendencies from HPM, but it goes a step further, imagining that transforming individuals is sufficient to transform society at large. Having blamed Descartes and Newton for the mind-body dualism and mechanistic materialism that characterize modern thought, we Ecospiritual types seem to think that once everyone understands the new paradigm of self-organization and interdependence, social change will somehow just follow. Once everyone sees how the universe works, and how everything and everyone is interconnected, we’ll be able bring forth the equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world we all want. Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the people I know actually believe it’s this simple. But whether we believe it or not, its logic still haunts our conversations.[ii] This attitude, however, exemplifies the individualism and habitual innocence that characterizes the white American psyche. Like colorblindness, it denies the momentum of history and disregards the immense institutional power invested in the prevailing order.

Finally, while it might plausibly be argued that the foregoing tendencies are distortions of valid HPM principles, there is a deeper problem, I think, which goes to HPM's philosophical underpinnings. Recall that one of the main forebears of HPM is Abraham Maslow. According to Maslow’s theory, the pinnacle of human potential, self-actualization, exists atop a hierarchy of human needs. Before people experience higher needs, such as the need for self-actualization, they are expected to have met what he called their “deficiency needs,” which begin with food and shelter, and culminate in esteem and respect. Given this structure, the fact that HPM, and, by extension, the Ecospiritual movement, attracts a relatively privileged population should surprise no one. Personal growth workshops must seem pretty extravagant to someone struggling just to keep themselves and their kids safe and fed. 

Needless to say (if you read my previous post or any of the many other accounts of  institutional and systemic white privilege) people of color in the U.S. continue to face significant extra burdens in trying to meet their most basic needs. Besides this obvious fact, Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t necessarily even work the same way for people of color in this country. It may not be possible for black and brown folks in the contemporary U.S. to have their deficiency needs reliably met. Being elected to the highest office in the land was not enough to garner President Obama sufficient respect that he could escape the humiliation of having to show his papers. And, as the recent murder of two Sikh men in Sacramento demonstrates, not even physical safety can be taken for granted when you are perceived as different than the white norm. 

So where does all this leave us? Clearly, if my analysis is correct, white privilege is practically written into the charter of the Ecospiritual movement. But I want to be clear that it is not my intention simply to critique the movement. I consider myself hopelessly committed to it, and I think it has a valuable role to play. I do believe, however, that in order to have the impact we wish to have in the world, we must build genuine alliances with the wider movement for human liberation and justice, which is lead primarily by people of color. And this cannot happen unless the white folks in the Ecospiritual movement are willing to confront our own racial privileges. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am convinced that the Ecospiritual movement is going to be rendered irrelevant unless challenging racism and white privilege becomes a basic premise of our work.  

[i] I have no research to support this negative claim, but if anyone has an example to disprove it, I’d love to hear it. BTW, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that individuals cannot be committed, to the point of risking their lives, to causes that do not serve their personal or collective interests. The Civil Rights movement provides plenty of counterexamples to that, and the US military is one big counterexample.
[ii] This habit of thought draws its psychic sustenance, I suppose, from the millennialism that continues to characterize Western thinking about the future.