June 19, 2020
During the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s and into the 70s, my husband was an attorney in San Francisco and Oakland. He specialized in civil rights law mainly representing the black community. These were the days of cocktail parties and lavish dinners where people were taking the “masks off” in an attempt to reveal their authentic selves. It was in the pre-dawn era of computers and cell phones when typewriters still reigned supreme. It was a time when socialization was face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder in crowded gatherings that were so noisy that one had to shout when in any meaningful conversation.
It was one of these gatherings that I found myself immersed in. It was brimming with lawyers of every political persuasion and I found myself paddling through the headwaters of the unknown. I sensed we were in a time of societal change. Even though civil rights were considered a controversial topic at the time, I found myself steeped in conversation with an anti-civil rights activist who today we might call a “white supremacist.” His missionary zeal extolled the virtues of segregation and the intellectual superiority of whites over blacks. “Well, look at it in this way,” he said as his face took on a look of smugness, “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” I replied innocently, “My daughter IS one!” He staggered backwards spilling his drink all over his white starched, ruffled shirt. From a distance, he raised his empty glass as if to toast me, signaling the end of our conversation or was it a monologue?
My husband and I had a son with white blond hair and blue eyes. We felt that even at that time, the world was over-crowded and why bring one more child into it? Instead of adopting another blond, blue-eyed baby that most parents wanted, why not apply for a hard to adopt child? We were a very physically active family, backpacking the High Sierra, sailing, and playing tennis each morning. It would be difficult to adopt a child who was physically handicapped.
The social worker happened to mention that the most difficult children to adopt were the racially mixed children. Black or white families did not want to adopt them, and they were considered “the forgotten ones.” It felt perfect for us especially since we lived in East Oakland, the most integrated of Bay Area communities. We did not realize that we were an experiment, as one of the first families to adopt a racially mixed child. There were no guidelines.
The social worker was Celtic looking with her long blond hair and ultra-white skin who was married to a black man from Africa. Typically, racially mixed children were not given to a white home, but she made an exception for us, knowing that a racially mixed child could be her own. After several visits and interviews she selected a little girl who she thought would fit into our family. We were ecstatic when we drove across the bay bridge to San Francisco to finally meet this little one who was only 18 months old. We fell in love with her instantly and soon she entered our home.
We didn’t realize how much she would change our lives and we hers. When we picked her up to give her a hug, her arms just hung by her side. She did not know how to put her little arms around our necks. She had not been touched in the foster home where she was placed. It was apparent she had not been held or shown any semblance of affection.
She was not even fed meals by the hands of her foster parents. Instead a bottle and food were stashed in various corners of the home for her to find if she was hungry. Not only did she learn how to wrap her little arms around our necks, but she grew up to become a day care provider for 20 years, giving love to so many children who found the way to her door.
When we adopted her though, we began to see the prejudice arise in those around us, even in good friends who advised us to give her back. The head of my husband’s law firm who after meeting our daughter, asked him to leave the firm. This was a blessing as my husband formed his own private practice where he could more freely practice civil rights law.
Our neighbors tried to have her taken away from us because they were afraid our daughter would grow up and marry their son who was only two years old at the time!
As a child our daughter loved all the satsang gatherings we held in our home for the early, expanding Yoga community in the Bay Area. She would sing the kirtan songs to God clapping and swaying from side to side as if in ecstasy. She was given the name “Eureka”, meaning “I have found it,” by a living saint of India. People loved her and she loved all people.
Over the years, my husband and I continued to observe how our daughter elicited prejudice in people, prejudice they did not even know they had within them. It was the prejudice ingrained in our country and culture that knowingly or unknowingly infuses into the deeper and deepest layers of our individual and collective psyche. If Eureka went into a grocery store, attendants would follow her around to make sure she didn’t steal anything. Her friends of color were fearful of the police because of what could happen to them if stopped for a minor traffic infraction such as a broken taillight or driving two miles over the speed limit. Once in the 1980s, I was meeting with my travel agent in Seattle and my daughter came to pick me up. When the agent saw her walking up the stairs, she immediately reached into her desk drawer for her gun.
In Yoga, we call the impressions we have accumulated this lifetime samskaras, meaning mental impressions that have embedded in varying layers of our psyche. The deeper impressions are known as vasanas, and they are said to be so deeply embedded it may take more than one lifetime for them to surface.
Prejudice which means “pre-judgement” is based on stereotypes that may already lie within various layers of our subconscious psyche and arise when triggered by external events. Apparently, as we found, the adoption of our daughter brought up to the surface whatever prejudices people held or didn’t know they held. We lost a few friends and gained new ones. Even my family struggled with prejudices unknown to them. Over the years, through interaction with our daughter and her growing family, they were able to overcome earlier stereotypes.
These stereotypes can be found in life and the Yoga Sutras. In the Sutras, they belong to the family of vrittis, or the mind waves. When we get further away from our own experiences and take on the belief system of others we slide from correct perception (manas) into incorrect perception (viparyaya). It is this incorrect perception that forms stereotypes and prejudices that distort accurate perception.
After we adopted our daughter, we planned to adopt a Muslim child from India when I got pregnant with my middle daughter, Andrea. She loved her older sister with all her heart and saw her as part of herself. Our adopted daughter married a man who was a mixture of several races and cultures but would still be considered black in this culture. My love for her was so great that at times I would think that I looked just like her and that she came from my womb. She too thought she looked like me and was my own biological child. Her circle of friends, mostly of racially mixed ancestry became like family as we watched them grow into adulthood.
One day, my blond, green-eyed daughter, Andrea, at age 18 asked, “Mom, what would you say if I told you that I wanted to marry a black man.” I was stunned and silent remembering my conversation with the “pro-segregationist” attorney. I mumbled a few superficial platitudes such as, “think of your future children and what they will have to go through,” but Andrea, didn’t buy it and with a loud voice of disbelief asked, “Mom, are you prejudiced?”
This question ripped through my heart. I had to dive even more deeply into my soul. How could I have prejudice after living with my daughter, loving her and all the black people and families that she brought into our lives? I had a black grandson, a black granddaughter, a black son-in-law and now a black great granddaughter, all who I loved deeply. But unbeknownst to me, I still held the inherited samskaras of prejudice. If I held this, what would it be like for those who don’t co-mingle with people of a different color or culture? How can we create change in the collective society when these deep subconscious impressions that create separation and division exist in the societal psyche? Is this something we have to come to individually, or can it be realized through the collective?
I finally asked my daughter why she wanted to marry a black man? She replied with tears in her voice, “Because of my sister. Every time I see a black person, I think of them as family.”
Now, several decades later, we are marching again in cities and towns throughout this nation. We are marching to affirm that black lives do matter but this time people of all colors, races and cultures are marching in solidarity as if to say, “this time is different, this time there will be lasting change, this time, we are with you…you are my brother and sister of the one source.” Large placards are carried through the streets of many cities that say what we say in Yoga, “We Are One.” Some of us march not with our feet, but with our hearts. We march within our souls to transcend the illusion of separation of avidya (not seeing the nature of our oneness). We march to honor differences in color, culture, religion and ideologies. We march in the remembrance that, “We are one family and, We Are One!”