***WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO ENGAGE IN A DISCUSSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR THE VOICE OF A PERSON OF COLOR. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH THE STATUS QUO. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE TOO EXHAUSTED AND FEEL THAT THE WORLD IS CONDEMNING ALL WHITE PEOPLE***
Please note: If you are able to choose not to read this because of the warnings above, then you are lucky that you have the choice not to face this every day, and I would encourage you to come back and read it at another time. Because you need to.
It’s been an exceptionally tough week. In the midst of the global pandemic, the witnessing of yet another incident of police brutality has ignited a fire storm of reactions around the world. The death of George Floyd was a horrific example of institutionalized racism. But let’s not forget the equally disturbing and calculated racism aimed at Christian Cooper, when a white woman banked on the knowledge that she could weaponize this institutionalized racism. The insidiousness of that incident somehow leaves me feeling more spooked than the blatant disregard for humanity for George Floyd. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that what happened to Christian Cooper was worse, only that it affected me differently.
Since moving to the States almost a decade ago, I have lived in three different states and experienced the vast differences in regional attitudes and reactions when people meet me. As a British Chinese woman who drives a truck, listens to country music, and works with horses, I’m aware that I’m a bit of an anomaly. My expectation and experience of blatant racism follows me from a lifetime of living in predominately white spaces. What does it say that it no longer surprises me that black and brown communities experience institutionalized racism every day? That people of color have been brought up to expect to be treated with such disregard? What does it mean to you, that in some ways I’m more comfortable with knowing that, because at least we know what we’re dealing with and what to look out for?
But what Christian Cooper was met with chills me to the bone. The worst kind of racism comes from those who don’t think that they are racist. It comes from folks who think they are color blind, or folks who think they don’t have biases. As part of The HERD Institute® certification programs, students are introduced to Project Implicit, a pioneering force behind challenging attitudes, stereotypes, and hidden biases that impact the way we perceive others. By partnering with Harvard University, they have created online assessment tools to highlight areas of implicit bias. The assessments they offer are free and I highly recommend you take a look if you haven’t come across them before. What always surprises me is when students enter into our training believing that they don’t hold any biases, or when doing the assessments admit to trying to give the “correct answers”, or those who react defensively against the results given by criticizing the format of the tests. I’m not saying that the test designs are critique proof, but the interesting thing for me in all this is the underlying idea that if we hold any biases at all, it means that we are not evolved enough as human beings, so we have to defend ourselves from that notion and aim to be completely bias free.
I am a person of color and I am racist. I am sexist. I am homophobic. I am politically incorrect. In short, I am prejudiced and biased, and have been complicit in the oppression for those who I stand in solidarity with in so many ways. Why? Because I live in a society that has conditioned me to be that way. Institutionalized racism, heteronormativity, and misogyny have shaped me by osmosis, and continues to influence me through the media and my lived experiences in everyday life. While I make every effort to be mindful of some deeply embedded prejudices, and fight for equality and equanimity, and stand as an ally to all who are misrepresented and oppressed, I know that I will always have my blind spots. I say all this, as a person of color, to alert my well-intentioned white friends that it is okay to acknowledge our inherent biases and privilege. What we do with the awareness of these is more important than spending our energy being defensive and denying their existence.
Taking a stand against bigotry and hate requires us all to examine our own prejudice. It’s uncomfortable, and often deeply unsettling, to admit to the judgments that we hold. The act of being an ally begins with working through these ourselves, before we even enter into the dialogue. Within the current political climate, it is imperative for us all to take action, speak with compassion, be clear in our intention, and acknowledge that prejudice resides in us all. In doing so, we can step away from the defensiveness that arises when someone points out our privilege. Somehow, in the current discourse, the term privilege invokes anger and denial, as if admitting to having privilege in any way makes us a bad person. If that has been your understanding, let me be clear: having privilege doesn’t mean it’s your fault that people are oppressed, but denying that you are privileged makes you part of the problem. This isn’t a process of privilege shaming; it’s an opportunity to reflect on what we have been blessed with and find compassion for those who are less fortunate. Privilege shows up in a multitude of ways, every day, and allows us to seek to understand the experiences of those without. The aim is not to erase all of our biases, but instead, for us to acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases, and that we need to work to raise our awareness of them. By bringing these biases to light, we can actively choose, and reflect on our thoughts and actions from a different lens. We ALL have biases as a result of being alive in a relational space; our environment, our culture, our upbringing, our experiences, and our own choices speak volumes about how we have become who we are. Stepping into an equine-facilitated setting with the intention to be aware of our biases so that we can interact with our participants and horses with intentional non-judgment helps us to provide a safe space for all.
This week, we opened registration for our upcoming HERD Virtual Summit: Resilience, Recovery, & Reconnection. The theme was chosen at the beginning of the global pandemic, thinking ahead to July with hopes that we would be through the worst of it by then. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much more relevant the theme is when we take into consideration this past week. In writing this piece, my hope is that we can find ways to bolster our resilience in times of discomfort, look for opportunities to lift each other up as we recover from this collective trauma, and in doing so reconnect with ourselves and one another. Putting together this summit is hard work, with a lot of moving pieces. But I’m doing it because I believe in hope. I hope that we can come together as a community and address the disparities within our field. I hope that we can build bridges towards increasing diversity so that all our voices can be heard. I hope that you will join us in this quest and in doing so find resilience, recovery, and reconnection in your life.
Dr. Veronica Lac