I ran into an old college buddy one week after graduating from Kundalini Yoga teacher training. It had been years since we had seen each other, so we decided to grab a beer. My friend had become very successful working in finance, and was visiting New York City on a business trip. Meanwhile, I had taken a different path, a creative path. I was an author now, and a creative director, successful in my own way, but not in the stereotypical model of success (big salary, big house, big muscles) valued by my old friend.
When I told him that I meditate and practice yoga, my friend seemed perplexed. "That's cool," he said. "There probably aren't many straight white guys doing that."
He had no ill intent, but I could not help but feel like my masculinity was being called into question, the implication being that "real men" have a macho mandate to live up to, one that includes beer and football but has no room for prayer beads and savasana.
Aren't we supposed to be past these stereotypes? I thought.
The year is 2016. Since the 1960's there has been growing momentum toward a world that openly accepts the spectrum of race, gender, and sexuality without judgement. But despite our progress, we still live in a world of distinctions. We are not a colorless society. Women do not have equal pay. Blacks and gays cannot feel safe in their own country. Love, while winning, has not yet won.
Being a straight white male in our society means something, especially in the age of Black Lives Matter, in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, and during the racist undertones of the Donald Trump campaign. The questions is what does it mean? In the eyes of some, the straight white male signifies the norm, the status quo, and the American ideal. To the billions of disenfranchised groups around the world, the straight white male signifies the oppressor, the occupier, and a system of governance that is both outdated and dangerous.
Of course, extreme perspectives rarely tell an accurate story. In truth - and now I speak from personal experience - being a straight white male, like every identity, is more complex than any one-sided stereotype. Am I racist? Homophobic? Sexist? The answer is not "yes". But it's more complicated than a clear cut "no".
Being a straight white male has absolutely given me huge advantages, and more benefits than I have the awareness to acknowledge, and too often I take this luck for granted. I rarely think about race, gender, or sexuality, and maybe that's part of the problem. The question for straight white males to ask ourselves is this: if we fail to actively correct the social imbalance that we were born into - born on the lucky side of - then do we, by default, become complicit in the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the power structure?
I am not guilty, I tell myself, but I know I am not innocent either. To be clear, I am not, and have never been, sexist, homophobic, or racist. And still, if I am being honest with myself, when I pause to reflect on the subtleties of my self-perception and my worldview, I can not help but notice pockets of resistance when it comes to weighing the needs of minority groups against my own.
This is not a white-first thing, or a man-first thing. It's a me-first thing.
The ego is our shadow personality, the part of us that values immediate personal gratification over the holism between ourselves and others that benefits us more greatly in the long run. Straight white males are not unique in having an ego. Everybody has one. But straight white males are unique in that our ego have been given the green light to operate more or less without consequence. The straight white male's ego is expected, even celebrated, while the ego's of minorities and women are systematically kept in check.
The privilege of our ego's free reign is a double-edged sword. When the ego flourishes, there is great self-esteem and opportunity for power. Yet the ego, like an AI technology that has advanced beyond our ability to control it, has a mind of its own. On the surface, we appear to be in a desirable position. But when we view the human race as one collective whole, no single body part can benefit from the destruction of others. When cancer enters a body and spreads, nobody would envy the position of the cancer. It succeeds by throwing the system out of harmony. In such a situation, there is no winner. Everybody loses.
The ego's drive for wealth and power is a social cancer. It has clouded the soul and we have become spiritual victims of our own privilege.
To be honest my identity is suffocating me.
"Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." - Walt Whitman
At our essence, all people are the same. I do not mean to say that we are similar, or share the same core tendencies. I mean we are the same. The energetic life force that animates me is the same energetic life force that animates you. But we are made separate by the social identities we are assigned at birth. All my life I have identified with the label of being a straight white male. You might identify with the label of a gay black woman, or a latin transexual. Society loves to label things and put people into boxes. But these boxes become problematic when we begin evaluating each other by what separates us rather than what connects us.
How do we transcend labels when everywhere we look (media, police, employment, etc.) society reinforces them? I do not feel like the average white person, whatever that means, nor do I fit the standard definition of a straight male. I prefer jazz and hip hop to rock 'n' roll and country music. I trust my intuition and emotions in addition to, as they say a man should, my rational mind. Whatever society expects a straight white male to be, I am probably not that, nor are most of the straight white males I know. The same is true, I'm sure, of all social labels. Almost nobody - woman, black, gay, straight - actually is the stereotype assigned to them, although they may behave in such a way because they are expected to do so. Instead of living free from labels and defining ourselves for ourselves, more often than not, because we want to fit in, we fake it. We perpetuate stereotypes because we are afraid of being exposed as different.
Even worse, in some cases, because the ego wants every advantage it can get, we project and enforce social roles on others, especially those less fortunate than us. When others are down, we have a better chance of staying up. This "keep them in their place" mentality has a domino effect. Each social group - held down themselves by those in a better position - fights to hold down lower social groups. The top doesn't need to control everything. The pyramid reinforces itself the whole way down.
The truth is that I am not my race. I am not my sexuality. My essence, like yours, is a consciousness that exists beyond the temporary mask of identity. This consciousness accepts and includes all labels, for it knows that beneath our genetic boxes the difference between us is a matter of false perception. The atoms in my straight white male body are eventually recycled into the atoms of women, homosexuals, and races across the globe. Only fear and greed from the ego makes us forget this.
The unspoken conspiracy.
Power is equally addictive to all. And all are equally loyal to that which helps to retain their power. This happens both consciously and subconsciously. We form alliances. We seek advantages. We support those who support our personal agenda. Resources are limited (we are told) so everyone, rich and poor alike, fights to protect what they have. In the case of a poor family fighting foreclosure on their home, this fighting is morally justified; in the case of a banker feeding off the debt records so he can afford a more enviable private jet, this fighting is pure insanity, the ego's survival instinct spiraling out of control.
We are living in a world that is crying out - from its people, its forests, its water, its air - for equilibrium. We, as a planet, are out of whack. Racism, pollution, police murder, war, political corruption, greed, hate, fear. A solution requires more than simply acknowledging the equality of people. Moments of clarity come often, even to junkies, are quickly forgotten. In order to restore equilibrium to the world, humanity must go deeper and heal the neediness and the ego within ourselves.
It is human nature, based on millions of years of fighting to keep our basic needs met, to protect what we have. I am no exception. While I am not wealthy, upper class, or Ivy League educated, the idea of redistributing wealth and upsetting the social order does, to a degree, scare me, and it scares others much more. "WE are doing fine the way things are," many say, many more only think. "Why change?" This fear leads to protection, and protection leads to hate. This mentality will not change until the privileged elite understand the benefits of changing. Goodwill, while it should be, does not seem to be motivation enough.
Moving from me-first to we-first.
Enlightened teachers across centuries have agreed upon a number of things, one of them being our relationship to attachment. "Desire causes suffering," they say. "What we own holds us down, and when we limit others we limit ourselves."
It's true. When we only think about ourselves we create a personal prison. When we harm others we harm ourselves. Ending racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and persecution of any kind is, therefore, not only an act of goodwill, it is an act of self-healing and mutual benefit. No man is an island; we win when others win.
The economy is already taking small strides in this direction. The top-down model of authoritarian business is quickly being replaced by decentralized peer-to-peer networks. The internet has paved the way for a flatter world. Sharing is the new buying. Things are no longer as important as experiences and information. Ownership is becoming passé. We are slowly opening up, becoming more transparent, and soon racism and sexism will have no place to hide. Think of how ignorant your friend's racist grandfather appears today. Now think of the ways you might look similar in 50 years.
Human nature does not go gently into that good night, but the time has come to evolve past the outdated impulses that no longer serve us. We have passed a threshold in our collective evolution where a we-first reality is not only possible; it is, after we recognize the hopelessness of me-first thinking, I believe, inevitable. Only once we recognize that we are not our ego identities - we are the shared consciousness beneath the surface of the ego - will Africa regain its rightful place as a continent of kings, the divine feminine will hold true, all love will be lawful and proud, and united we will stand.
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