No. 9: Conditioning

Our past experiences have conditioned us to respond in the way that we currently do – to others, to events, and to our own thoughts and feelings. Why? Our experiences are us, really. Moment after moment, our brains log events and their consequences, and that makes up our version – and our vision – of the world.

That concept blew my mind a little bit when I learned it a few years ago at Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. If you look at it one way, it’s disempowering – we are just a product of what's happened to us, and we have no control over that. But if you look at it another way, it’s extremely empowering. If I am eyes-wide-open aware of my conditioning, then moving forward, I can consciously choose how I respond to people, situations, and my own thoughts, rather than just letting my brain auto-respond.

I've been thinking about this a lot this past week. So many people have made great resources available to illuminate the experience and history of Black people. And many of the resources designed by Black people for white people also emphasize introspection into one's own experience. What are the beliefs I hold, what are the values that have been passed down to me, what are the stories that were told around the dinner table and how did I respond, how have I wittingly or unwittingly contributed to a system that has oppressed others?

I've found Anti-Racism Daily – a daily newsletter by wellness entrepreneur Nicole Cardoza – really helpful as I work through these questions. Each issue recommends a specific action to take to work against racism. One issue recommends to "call your loved one and talk about white supremacy." And I'll admit, my initial reaction was surprise when I read that one of the keys to this phone call is to center on "whiteness, not blackness:"

"This is not a conversation about validating blackness. This is a conversation about deconstructing whiteness. This means that your conversation needs to address the harm that white people and the systems that protect whiteness harm Black people. Centering the harmful actions of your loved one and the systems they support give them a starting place to change those actions."

Building our awareness of our conditioning by reflecting, asking questions to learn more about the parts of our conditioning that were passed down to us, and acknowledging our conditioning out loud, I think, are first steps to taking action over the long term.

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