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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujima

Habari gani, fam?

2020 has made me keenly aware of my place within my community, and how important my relationships are to me. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers and the collective frustration of millions of Americans bubbled over into street protests, it meant a lot that folks checked in on me because that was honestly the one time this year I came close to breaking. When others struggled I tried my best to be there for them however I could — and I had to think of new ways of supporting the people and causes I cared about. Being unable to be physically present with a lot of people made me realize how much I had been taking for granted. I’m walking into next year with gratitude for my support network at top of mind. 

That’s why this year, Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility, feels different. Even though we all went through some pretty heavy stuff, when I look back over 2020 I remember most the ways we became more sensitive to the pain of others and treated one another with more compassion. Maybe it was the fact that our common enemy was a virus, something that transcended borders and most other kinds of division, but most of the time it felt like I was interacting with people who knew we were in the same boat. 

As a culture, we’re far more aware of each others’ problems than we were before. As a cis black man, it was a process for me to learn what women, trans and non-binary folk, other people of color, and people with disabilities have to deal with in this country. There is so much suffering caused by the way our society decides who gets the privilege of being seen as a whole person and who doesn’t. Even though the harm it does takes many forms, the root cause of the problem is the same thing: the curious lack of empathy that allows us to feel a connection to others despite our differences. It can take something like a pandemic to get us to see past that, but it also makes it easier to fight the problem no matter what form it takes. The lack of empathy is the problem; how do we solve it?

Personally, I think we expand our criteria for who gets our empathy, and who we fight for when we see they’re being pushed to the fringes of the community. We can’t leave behind our trans brothers and sisters just because it’s harder for the dominant culture to accept them (or it’s harder for our community to accept them); we fight for them the same way we would fight for anyone else in our family. The problems of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities and mental health issues, American women, QUILTBAG Americans and others are our problems, too — lack of empathy isn’t confined to one specific group or a distinct difference. If we don’t clear it away, it corrodes our connection to other people until we have only the most narrow definitions of who’s within our group. 

I know the fights we’re already engaging in are exhausting. This year has aged me seven for everything that’s happened! And there are so many different fronts that need looking after; it can be easy to feel stretched really thin caring about everything all at once. Enacting this virtue certainly isn’t easy, and I think what it looks like for each of us will be unique to our situation. But, as this year has shown us, we’re all in this together — and we can’t lift ourselves up without lifting up everyone else within our community.

That might mean some difficult self-reflection, checking our own biases and blind spots. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about my less-advanced thoughts on trans people, and I’m glad I’ve gained a better understanding. I have to continually check myself for the deeply-ingrained biases I’ve absorbed about women, and that doesn’t feel great. It’s work to unlearn the bigotry we hold, and it’s almost never pleasant when we learn about it (it’s even worse when it’s pointed out by someone else). But we owe it to each other to do this work. We can’t demand empathy for ourselves and deny that same empathy to others who are different in ways we don’t readily understand. Again, their oppression is our oppression. We can’t be free of it until they are.

This requires introspection, a sense of perspective, and a heart willing to embrace that which it doesn’t always understand. It also requires a measure of trust in the humanity of others; even if it’s not readily visible, or expressed in ways we don’t appreciate, it’s there. We’ve spent a lot of time this year drawing lines in the sand about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and much of that has been long overdue. But let’s not forget our collective responsibility to nurture the best in ourselves and others. That work is valuable, too.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

One of the things I’ll strive to remember in 2018 is that we’re all in this together. We all share the planet we call home and we all share our collective victories and setbacks — from that perspective, there’s just no need to be envious of someone else’s success and there’s no reason to think someone else’s problem isn’t also mine. As much as we might wish otherwise, we are — each and every one of us — part of a community, something greater than ourselves. The things we do affect that community, and we all bear some measure of responsibility for the state of our world and our lives.

Ujima (oo-JEE-muh) is the third principle of the Nguzo Saba, and it means Collective Work and Responsibility. In a nutshell it means that what we do as individuals affect the well-being of our brothers and sisters and we should never forget that. If we want to change our communities for the better, we must change ourselves for the better. We must work to better our brothers and sisters. We must work to create the changes we want to see.

In a land as ruggedly individualistic as the United States, this can be a hard concept to buy into and harder still to enact. We tend to be distrustful of our neighbors and anyone who tries to weave together a social fabric on the local level is a busybody and a nuisance. We’ve taken the idea of choosing our own family to something of an extreme, seeking out only those people who look, think, and act like us to the exclusion of the people we pass by every day leaving our homes. We resist the pressure to conform to certain standards of conduct at every turn, because being an American means being free to do what we want when we want, and screw anyone else who has a problem with that.

In the black community, it can mean ostracizing our brothers and sisters who don’t conform to certain standards of blackness — those of us who are LGBQTIA; those of us who don’t engage in performative blackness; those of us who aren’t Christian, or Muslim; those of us who are anxious, mentally ill, or introverted. We’re all too willing to avoid the people who we don’t want to think of as one of ours, for whatever reason. But you know what? They are, and we have to be responsible for them.

Ujima is a difficult principle to take in because it requires us to look at ourselves and ask what we’re doing to uplift our family, our friends, our community and people. Most of us — myself included — may not like the answer we come to. But that discomfort is important; it’s a signal that we aren’t aligned with the people we’ve chosen to be. If we care enough about ourselves and our people to celebrate Kwanzaa, we have to care enough to be honest about where we fall short and take steps to correct it.

Black American communities all over the country have a number of problems that we cannot expect our government to solve. It’s true that drugs, crime, poverty and homelessness are things we can’t seem to shake. It’s also true that this is the result of a system that has been invested in denying our ability to determine who we are for ourselves, in keeping us from achieving our full potential. It’s a hostile world out there. No one’s coming to save us; we have to work together to save ourselves.

Ujima is where the rubber meets the road for us. We have agreed to unite with our brothers and sisters in our common struggle. We have named into existence the identity we want for ourselves. Now we must realize that work and responsibility is how we take our identity, how we win our struggle. As long as one black person is in trouble, our entire race is in trouble.

This can feel like an enormous burden, but it’s not — not really. Because our brothers and sisters stand with us, sharing this burden. We shoulder it together, we lift it together, we lighten each other’s load when and where we can. If we take care of one another, someone will be there to take care of us when we need it, when we feel we can’t do any more.

That’s the magic of Ujima; we put work in, and we get a community out of it. We help and are saved. We defend our people, and we are shielded from ruin. We are so much stronger putting our backs into the barriers keeping our culture from being what we can be.

I know how this can sound to someone who isn’t part of the African diaspora. It sounds like I’m saying “we look out for our own because no one’s looking out for us”. In a way, that’s true. It can be uncomfortable to hear that I feel like I live in a hostile world, and that my ‘people’ need to band together against that. Isn’t that uniting against something, which is something I warned against in day one?

Well, yes, it can be. However, my goal is not to segregate the black community from the rest of America. In so many ways, it already is. It’s more difficult for black people to climb out of poverty, to receive small business loans, to get jobs that allow us to integrate into the larger economic and social system. Even for those of us that make it, it’s difficult to use that platform to highlight the plight of our brothers and sisters without being accused of making ‘everything about race’. It’s the reality that we face challenges on an individual, communal, and systemic level that makes our experience different. Until that can be recognized and changed, we’re largely on our own. So we have to look out for ourselves.

However, Ujima can be expanded to include everyone — and I invite us to do that when and where we can. Many of the problems we face — income inequality, environmental degradation, totalitarian creep in our political process, hatred and prejudice, injustice, a changing work environment — transcends race. What are we doing to work towards a better world not just for ourselves, but for our fellow human beings? Black, white, Asian, Native American, Hispanic — we’re all in this country together. What do we want the US to be? What are we doing ourselves to make that happen?

I know I could be doing more. Becoming more involved with black geeks, black creatives, and my brothers and sisters with mental health issues are my goals to bring Ujima into my life more concretely. I want to work towards building a world where mental health is understood and taken more seriously in the black community; I want to make sure that the awesome passion and work that my brothers and sisters are doing in science fiction and fantasy is seen and recognized as worthy. I want to work to remove the barriers that exclude LGBQTIA black Americans from acceptance; not just in the black community, but in the queer community as well. I want to help highlight how being black complicates mental health, sexual orientation and gender identity. I want to help find solutions for the people in my community who feel lost, alone and hopeless.

This means putting in the work, and the research. It means listening to experiences outside of my comfort zone to understand what’s needed to succeed. It means making mistakes and making apologies; trying harder to get it right the next time. It means doing the work because the work needs doing, not because there’s any expectation of a breakthrough success, recognition or reward. Knowing that I’m helping, doing my best, and living in line with my principles is what keeps me pushing.

How do you plan to bring Ujima into your life over the next year? What problems do you see in your community that you might be able to help fix, or that you might take responsibility for? Sometimes we have to focus on ourselves and our families for the good of our communities. A successful black diaspora can only make our country more successful, right? We’re in this together. So let’s get our houses in order.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Myth 150The principle we focus on today, this third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima. It’s a word that points to the idea of collective work and responsibility, which is a concept that I feel is missing from so many of our communities. One of the things that binds a society together is this very ideal, that the problems of one of us are the problems of all of us. If just one of our number is struggling to feed themselves, we are all impoverished. If one of our children is having a difficult time in school, we’re all concerned with educating him. If one of our people is misunderstood, rejected, alone, then it’s a failing of our community. Ujima, to me, means that we are our brother’s keeper. His happiness is ours, his sorrows are ours. No one is alone; we’re all in this together.

I think this principle is a little different for me because I’ve been on the outskirts of the black community pretty much all my life. I’ve never felt a sense of kinship with my family or my neighbors growing up, and even now, as I’m making the first tentative steps back towards the community, I feel hesitant about it. I am very different. What if those differences are too great and I find myself pushed to the outside again? One of our blind spots is the treatment of those who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender roles tend to be rigidly defined in our black communities, and transgressions of those roles are not looked upon favorably.

Personally, I struggle with the idea of being my brother’s keeper when that brother has distanced himself from me because of who I love. I find it hard to be a part of a community that spends so much energy ostracizing people like me who don’t “act like a man,” or who still uses “faggot” and “gay” as one of the worst verbal attacks you can make on a guy. How do I take responsibility for the problems of my fellow man when I *am* their problem? How do I embody the concept of Ujima?

Like so many things in life, all we can do is the best we can do. Even though I may be on the fringes of my community — even though I may never be fully accepted — I’m still invested in the problems and issues that face it. I still want to see my fellow black Americans live in a country where they are treated equally, where the institutions of our government and society is working to remove the discriminations that were baked into their foundations, where economic and intellectual poverty is not a default and the full expanse of the American dream is available to us. I want what’s best for my people; if that feeling is not returned, I have no control over that.

This year I’ve learned so much more about the myriad problems facing the black community. Our children tend to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly in our schools; we’re taught from a very young age that the authority structure will come down harder on us than it will for other kids. Our women frequently don’t have a place at any table but their own when it comes to issues of equal pay, sexual liberation and safety, the respect of their colleagues and inclusion in art and entertainment. Our men face the actions of a society that fears and hates them; we’re less likely to get good jobs, more likely to be arrested, brutalized and killed by the police, only see ourselves on TV as criminals, toughs or stereotypical smoothies. There are issues we face in just about every aspect of American society, and even if those issues don’t directly affect me it’s my responsibility to help solve them.

The concept of Ujima can be taken outside of that context, too. In the broader geek space that I inhabit, it’s difficult for us to band together to take care of problems that affect our spaces. So many fandoms have become toxic in-groups that violently reject anything that threatens the mono-culture people insist on maintaining. Women in gaming, sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, costuming and so many other areas have to face down so much bile just for trying to enjoy the same things we do, or demanding the same respect given to others. It’s a serious problem, and as fellow geeks Ujima calls on us to make it ours and fix it already.

Our communities will not cohere unless we learn to have empathy for our own. I talked about how self-determination may lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves yesterday, but we must also understand how that carves out different paths for the people in our community. Not everyone in our group will like the same things, or like the same thing for the same reasons. We have to strive to understand and respect that, to acknowledge the challenges our brothers and sisters face, to reach out and help them overcome them when we can.

But how do we do that? I’m still figuring that part out, to be honest. I feel I’ve taken the first step just by being educated on the work to be done and shouldering some of the responsibility for it. Where do I go from here? Do I become more socially active? Do I join groups that have organized to advance solutions to these problems? Which problems do we focus on first? That requires a lot more thinking, and I’ll do my best to come up with *something* to answer those questions.

For now, I’m in this with all of you. There’s work to do. Let’s pitch in to get it done, yeah? Have a joyous and wonderful Kwanzaa today, and I’ll check in with you all tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in Self-Reflection

 

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