Happy Juneteeth. In Suriname, we call this holiday Keti Koti. Cutting of the chains.
It has been celebrated since the abolition of slavery on July 1, 1863, but has been a national holiday since 1960 (even celebrated in Holland since 2002).
I think it's important to imagine what life could have been like for you and others if this day had been a national US holiday for 60 years. What would it mean to be surrounded by statues, symbols and monuments that celebrate this big day of freedom – instead of still arguing over confederate symbols, flags, names of leaders, and statues that need to be removed from public and prominent spaces.
It sheds light on the claim made by Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, that racism is a public health issue and that public acknowledgment of this harmful legacy of slavery is long overdue.
She goes on to explain that the pandemic alone “is killing black Americans at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. . . As millions of people in the US and globally declare that 'Black Lives Matter' and demand real change, there has never been a more urgent time to address the inequities that rarely make the headlines but nonetheless claim lives every single day.”
As Williams notes, institutionalized racism has diminished the health, wealth, actualization and well-being of all Black Americans, which increases their risks of dying when dealing with added stress and challenges. As a clinical psychologist and shadow-soul worker, I can assure you that racism does far more damage than this. Its oppressive power hurts other POC and marginalized groups, in particular. But this is the hardest truth: racism hurts the integrity of every human being and even non-human life and the planet.
It’s just one symptom of a sickness traceable to soul loss, existential angst, scarcity, greed, competition, exploitation and scapegoating that is pervasive and has deep historical roots that we all need to heal from (in the second part of this article I'll share the long road I've traveled to heal mine).
We hardly examine these psychological and soul roots, because we’re barely on the same page around what’s happening on the surface with the Black community, still dealing with the most basic of human rights violations.
Have you noticed?
Lines are already getting drawn in the sand.
On one side, a critical mass is acknowledging that institutionalized racism is alive and well, and that it’s high-time for us as a society to tackle it to the ground.
On the opposite side, status-quo pushback has started to rear its ugly tail, amplified by its Commander-in-Chief.
I got a few people unsubscribing from my list – fortunately no nasty comments – most likely for taking a clear anti-racist stand, perceived as political (tho I’m not the one conflating these : ), or perhaps because I'm still on the topic.
According to some of my online social entrepeneurial friends, businesses are collapsing for not taking a clear stand. They are being punished mercilessly for not doing the “right thing” – many times by White followers. Harsh and impulsive, when no one seems to have clarity what that is. But no one seems to care. As long as we are doing something that makes us feel better or adds ammunition to the fight, we must be in the right.
That kind of cathartic explosion could unfortunately do more harm than good.
It can sometimes feel like we’re navigating through a minefield and any little thing, what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do, can blow up in your face. I know for sure that this is not transformational or helpful in the long run.
Overnight anti-racist "experts"
This kind of climate breeds overnight anti-racist "experts" who're leading the way and hitching their organization and business to the BLM movement to attract clients and gain support, even if they are total rookies on the subject. They're sometimes not even able to reference a single anti-racist book, podcast or resource – according to both a White client and client of color who’ve been steeped in this work for years.
On the flip side, you can feel all eyes on you, if you're the only POC, and are expected to take on the (often volunteer) role of diversity expert and share your perspectives on paper or in professional settings, on the spot, so we can all learn from you, right? And possibly run off with your best ideas without ever giving you credit . . .
Should you object, you risk getting blamed for not being a team player and part of the problem.
You can almost hear the accusations, “What is it that you people want?” on the tip of someone’s tongue. Perhaps it would have been blurted out if it weren’t for the landmines.
This is what’s hard to get.
There’s no winning because the bar is set so low.
How dare we not be grateful that we’ve finally got a critical mass to agree that losing Black lives due to police brutality is a thing and awful and needs to be stopped?
Where is all this resentment, bitterness, apprehension, demand for more, and mistrust coming from?
Why can’t we all come together and join forces, for a change?
Well . . . Isn’t it a bit twisted for a critical mass to finally agree that murder of Black Americans by excessive police force is wrong – in 2020? That this most basic civil right is the big milestone to celebrate?
And this milestone is by far not set in stone yet. We were starkly reminded of this by yet another cold-blooded police killing of Rayshard Brooks that occurred when protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery had not even died down yet.
Raising the bar with sensitivity that results from deep listening
How about equality in all areas of life? Health, financial security, professional success, representation, compensation, protection, basic and sophisticated respect?
Are we ready to truly level the playing field and play fair?
What stands in the way of our ability to share? Can we truly feel good about giving up some of our privileges, knee jerk assumptions and usual modes of operating - essentially, our usual sense of self - if that benefits a marginalized group?
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what it means to raise the racial equity bar for everyone, including myself.
I've wondered what my slight reservations – in contrast to White leaders who have no qualms to yet again take their comfortable place on top, whether new to a topic or not – are about in sharing my professional experiences and expertise in anti-racist discourse, research and interventions for a good thirty years.
Some of these years involved compulsive rescuing, others involved very fulfilling work at a university counseling center and police department, facilitating multicultural immersion circles, workshops and community-wide violence – hate crime prevention and interventions on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all relevant diversity-related topics.
My intern and post-doc team members and I impacted thousands of students, staff, administrators, faculty, police, and community members, facilitating dialogue in residence halls, churches, classrooms, and student halls. We were first responders during intense times, like right after 9/11, but mostly focused on dismantling institutional and internalized racism day in, day out.
We won several prestigious awards for this work.
So it’s not a lack of confidence or discomfort to shine or stand in my authority.
It’s something deeper that takes me back to my roots and my ancestors, and what inspired this work and journey to begin with.
It’s not humility. It’s about wisdom held in paradox and non-polarizing
I happen to be from a country that has been called South America’s hidden treasure by adventure travelers like Simon Romero in his New York Times article that he concluded by saying, “Though I had been in the country only a few days, I felt as if I had traversed several continents and only now — drinking beer, shaking hands and striking up conversation with these men — was I getting a taste of Suriname’s frontier.”
He does an excellent job giving readers a taste of what it’s like to live in a country that is ranked second (along with Brazil and Belgium) most diverse in the world, following Benin, in a formal study:
“The ranking was based around four overarching categories – cultural diversity, religious diversity, political diversity, and freedom for diversity – that incorporated such factors as the level of ethnic diversity; the number of immigrants; the number of languages spoken, religious beliefs and political parties; the level of religious freedom; LGBT rights and freedoms; and the level of personal freedom.”
I’d say, watch this short clip of Surinamese performers at the 2014 de Fuego festival in Cuba to get a sense yourself what sharing cultural space feels like. Do you get an intuitive sense of what feels different in this space vs the culturally mixed spaces in the US?
I’ll share a sneak preview of some of the writing that’s emerging for my new book – Soul Authority for Sensitive Leaders: 7 Secrets to Transforming Yourself and the World without Getting Lost in Overwhelm, Fear and Self-Doubt.
Why healing requires going back to our racialized and racist roots . . .
As I retrace mine, I make a pitstop at age 27 in 1996. I revisit my headspace as a bushy-tailed 3rd year grad school in clinical psychology, specializing in multicultural psychology.
I‘d just written a scathing paper, “The Psychological Lynching of Multiracial People in the US” and sent it to Maria Root, PhD, leading researcher, writer, and national expert on the topic.
It impressed her enough to agree to join my dissertation committee. My cross-national dissertation - researching historical race relations and the multiracial experiences between mixed people in the US and Suriname - was quickly taking shape.
I’d decided that returning to my roots for strength and grounding was the only way I’d regain my mental health and soul authority.
I’d explored all other options, and nothing was working.
As a highly sensitive person of multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic descent, I’d mastered swimming in and out of cultural streams and fish bowls throughout my childhood – intact and often celebrated. This was thanks to being born and raised in a culture where fluidly entering and exiting different social groups had become the mainstream and the norm (after up to 6 generations of primarily non-White racial mixing since the abolition of slavery in 1863, same year as the US - yet descendants of White colonists make up only 1% of the population).
I’d immigrated to the US in 1983 at almost 14 and had been here a good 13 years. I was a quick learner and was ready to change strategy.
I desperately needed to change strategy, and going back to my roots offered me the most promise.
Like a canary in the coalmines, I had deeply internalized the gravity of White supremacy and race relations in the US. The racist bullying and hatred had started within months after moving to Miami.
Six years later, my burning questions and insightful premonitions had culminated into serious study. For years, I’d proceeded to either conduct my own research or contribute to several award-winning research projects at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology on race, ethnicity, gender, and class in relation to eating disorders, couples communication, emotional expression, suicide among Chinese Americans in SF China town, bullying of Muslim children and effective interventions with Black and Chicano SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) children.
I’d counseled thousands of enlisted military of color at an Airforce Family Support Center, and had guided non-English speaking and undocumented Chicano clients from East San Jose and low income Black clients from East Palo Alto, areas known for lacking culturally-sensitive mental health services. In my 2nd year of grad school, I organized and led my school’s Students of Color graduate group, and created 8 student-run committees to reform our program’s curriculum, enhance student attrition, hire POC faculty, do more community outreach, offer social support, improve communication and more.
I’d organized cutting-edge talks on race and race relations, put on a Color of Fear school-wide workshop, and founded a school newsletter, addressing the school’s Board of Directors faculty, administrators, students and president, Allen Calvin. He was Jewish-American, responsive to my concerns and my biggest ally. He requested that copies of my newsletter be included into all the application packets that were sent out to new prospects.
I was unstoppable and on a mission. But when I started to feel bugs crawl on my skin in bed at night and heard ancestral drumming in my inner ear, like a rally cry that you can’t get out of your head, I realized that even though all of my efforts and energy were making a difference, a big puzzle piece was missing.
Me and my self care.
As an academic, I’d learned that relying on my personal experiences and perspectives, and even using the pronoun “I” was taboo. It meant that we’d lost scientific objectivity.
I’d been so entangled in this catch-22 trap that I couldn’t see my way out of it. I was running in circles like a dog chasing its tail, doing all within my limited power to change a deeply ingrained system from the top down and outside in.
I’d tried to change things from the inside out and bottom up, starting at the soul root level, as I’d learned from my ancestors, but felt repeatedly dismissed. I was perceived as a naive, idealist, and young immigrant who just didn’t get it. In America, only the tangible, physical, and material mattered, preferably in writing, policy, and law.
It created a lot of self-doubt even though I knew darn well that I got the issues through and through. I got the complex racial dynamics that existed in my native Suriname AND I got the complex historical and current race relations and inequities that existed in the US.
And even though I didn’t get the intimately lived experience of every marginalized and racially oppressed person in the US (which BTW is not possible - not even people from our closest inner circle truly get our unique lived experience - it’s their empathic abilities that you may be appreciating and we all know what that feels like when they lack these), I had clear insight into the contextual and historical contributions of the racial mess we were in.
And I also had clear insight into solutions that were so beyond the times and cultural zeitgeist that the possibility of them alone were threatening:
- The idea that few intact white families and the absence of white women dramatically changed the hierarchical dynamics between Blacks and Whites in a plantation colony that had a reputation of being one of the harshest in regard to its treatment of slaves. The growing power of escaped slaves who burned and terrorized plantations, and restored their culture and traditions by forming six separate tribes in the rainforest was significant. They negotiated peace treaties and made Suriname an undesirable treacherous region for future colonists.
- The integration of mixed children and freed black women started in the mid to late 1700’s - recorded in church documents - baptisms, inheritance, land & property distributions, social events, government balls, and a legal marriage between a rich educated free Black woman (daughter of a freed slave, born in 1715) and White colonist in 1767, 200 years before antimiscegenation laws (prohibiting interracial marriage) were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967.
- There were no Jim Crow laws enforced after the abolition of slavery, no KKK or White supremacy groups, no brutal lynchings, hate crimes, and vicious massacres of blacks (close to 4000 total in the US from 1882-1963), and a more equal sharing of culture, music, language, religious values and traditions that set the tone and laid the foundation for future immigrants and contract workers from China, Indonesia, and India who later joined this interdependent fabric and colorful and complex mix.
- Police presence, force and brutality have consistently been very light and unfunded. There are no jails full of Black men and POC. But by no means a utopia, patterns of oppression appeared elsewhere. Military rule and violence peaked during sporadic periods of civil unrest and resistance (when my family left) following a multiethnic coup d'etat in 1980 led by a military commander, turned president. Unsuccessful in his divide-and-conquer politics in regard to the public, he was finally voted out in May 2020 after 40 years of filling pockets, political corruption, economic exploitations and drug trafficking. He was just recently convicted of murder for giving orders to execute 15 multiethnic opposition leaders in 1982.
This shed light into the psychological nature and common denominator underneath racial and institutional oppression (beyond White supremacy), and the way in which racial and gender pecking orders play out in different regions and cultural contexts.
Some of the most striking findings from my dissertation (chapter published by Temple University Press in 2001):
- The greatest racial tension existed between the two largest groups, who call themselves Creole (Black Surinamese) and Hindustani’s (originally from India), even though their skin color is very similar.
- Hierarchical values and cultural / religious superiority, most prominent within Hindustani’s and Chinese Surinamese groups, led to oppressive attitudes and behaviors within in-group members and between groups, portraying similar power plays involving privilege, stereotyping, and bigotry as in the US. I'm part Chinese
Hakka and intimately familiar with racist and oppressive beliefs of this kind aimed at members within and outside of the in-group.
- There is a much larger mixed group who have mastered the art of harmonious horizontal sharing in many social and public spaces, and enjoy the phrase, “we’re all countries, but have no flag” - a sign of humility and giving up patriotic in-group loyalties for the greater good. The new 1975 Surinamese flag merged 5 different stars, representing each of the main groups, into one large yellow star.
- Ironically, Suriname is even among other Caribbean nations heralded for being most diverse and authentic in its expression of these unique ethnic heritages. My dissertation data showed that this was not accidental: participants produced unprecedented research data where they scored EQUALLY HIGH on horizontal individualism and horizontal collectivism scales and low on vertical scales. The US scored the highest on scales measuring vertical individualism (most competitive, win-lose, either-or mentality, illusion of individual effort leading to fair rankings) and Japan, India and China score the highest on vertical collectivism (outright value ranking and worth based on birthright - caste, class, prestige, status, racial purity and roles within and between groups).
- The deep loss of culture and ethnic heritage among many White colonists and their descendants compared to their non-White Surinamese counterparts stood out. The same in the US. The unresolved historical trauma and social oppression (religious crusades, public torture, feudalism, witch hunts, etc) that led to this soul loss are embedded within Eurocentric either-or notions that pro-White = anti non-White, and other polarized notions of reality. This hierarchical pattern is woven in colonialism, imperialism and the exploitation of vulnerable people, their resources and the natural world for one’s own benefit, as if trying to bandaid or balm a deeply impoverished soul.
These tactics miss the point altogether, and are ineffective. To heal an impoverished, hungry soul, it's important to first become aware of it. This is best done by stripping away addictions, privileges, and distractions, one-by-one, and embracing who emerges with curiosity and compassion.
Why is it that many people live in a chronic state of existential angst, fear (of poverty) and scarcity within one of the richest first world countries? Right now, I’m not talking about the many BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) who actually live below the poverty line (but this also an issue). I'm specifically addressing middle-class and upper middle-class White families and POC – of every race, but next in line in terms of prosperity, Asian Americans - who either feel justified to protect their top dog position, or do all that they can to obtain it for an elusive sense of security that no one seems to harness.
Some call it capitalism, but it’s more complex than that. It’s collective soul loss that has deep historical and cultural roots that require digging up and healing, because this one-upping and hierarchical mindset is what drives institutional racism, pecking order anxiety, and White privilege.
The ladder of success in American life is perceived to be fair to the groups and people who benefit the most from its set-up. Rewards and privileges appear to be earned through honest to goodness effort and not the result of one's special status by birth, as is blatantly claimed in some hierarchically collectivistic cultures. This makes it difficult to acknowledge that it still operates in very similar ways, provided that for generations the start lines and obstacles along the way have been drastically different for different group. The ones on top don't see the obstacles that they've been spared, and either truly don't get the problem, or feel relieved, entitled and happy that they are on top and not on the bottom.
It seems nearly impossible to envision a whole different set-up – less compartmentalizing, full of goodwill, abundance and generosity – that's thriving within Suriname, a third world country, a clear indication that it's not about the actual money.
Imagine a coming together of different people, like in a beautiful orchestra, where each musician can play her or his heart out and is heard, and yet, never needs to worry about stepping on others toes. On the contrary, the shining of each one leads to victory celebrated by the whole.
Re-naturing our de-natured selves and disconnection from Source
Liberating ourselves from internalized racism (of both the oppressor and the oppressed) requires that we all dig deep into our ancestral roots and heal our souls with egalitarian and anti-racist tools, knowledge, and consciousness that reconnect us back to a common home, plight, and understanding of wholeness, health and future survival of all. Where we intimately understand that our physical survival AND our spiritual evolution depends on our investment in and alignment with our true nature, our earth mother, and all of her children.
Working with earth wisdom and re-naturing our de-natured selves have proven to be most effective in restoring and healing our painful legacy, no matter where we started along the racial divides. The harmony of nature is a lot like that beautifully synchronized orchestra, and offers us a focal point that we can all agree on. And it's still accessible to all of us in a blink of an eye by just dropping into the body.
Re-connecting to our true nature is also the quickest way to genuinely connect to our human family and feel our similarities in heart and soul.
I honor the courage of my ancestors - West African from Ghana, Hakka Chinese from the Guang Zhuo district, Dutch Jewish originally from Portugal - and their Surinamese comrades who’ve learned to stay true to themselves and expand their understanding of their in-group.
By no means perfect, they are the best rolemodels in transcending the personal and venturing into transpersonal healing dimensions together where they could both fully express and be themselves, and trust that gifting this to another will enhance their personal joy and sense of wholeness.
My holistic healing models and mastery in holding powerful sacred and healing space for very diverse groups are inspired by all the blessings and wisdom that they passed onto to me.
I’m grateful and honored to serve as the vessel for their teachings, first captured in my memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper: a Psychologist’s Memoir of Spiritual Awakening. Highly recommend it if interested in the full story.
Loraine Van Tuyl's debut memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper, weaves personal and political truths with poetic mastery. By daring to break from limiting conventions—in the field as well as writing—Van Tuyl has forged a liberating path for those at the margins just as her ancestors once did. It is an absolute must for psychotherapists and healthcare providers seeking to make conscious social change and expand the purview of traditional psychology through their multidimensional practice.
Tala Khanmalek, PhD, Research Associate, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Princeton University
I’m now raising the anti racism bar and distilling what I’ve learned over the decades into practical applications in my current book, Soul Authority for Sensitive Leaders: 7 Secrets for Transforming Yourself and the World without Getting Lost in Overwhelm, Fear and Self-Doubt.