Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
Seven years ago, I left India, the land that birthed me, and embarked on an epic adventure. I crossed the large pond we call the Pacific Ocean to nestle myself into the grassroots sustainability movement in Portland, Oregon. I chose to travel halfway across the world to help shift the story fueling the world’s destructive aspirations. The theme of this magazine edition is very dear to me. Writing about it for you, dear reader, someone I have not and possibly will never meet, is both terrifying and exciting. The written word: it has destroyed as much as it has enlivened. Know that these are my personal opinions that can not represent any of the groups I identify with. I entrust you with my words on the condition that you use them for peace and justice. May they help you transmute your grief into gratitude that we may walk this life as the wounded warriors we are. Broken and beautiful.
I grew up in a middle class Catholic family in a suburban house in south India. English was both my first language, and a class marker. As a young teenager, I found it excruciatingly difficult to translate the values my dear parents nourished within me into my life as a young adult as I was being pushed into an increasingly globalized and industrialized market culture. Back then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, my world was changing rapidly as unbridled development deformed my beloved garden city, Bangalore, into the half-hideous silicon city it is today. I neither knew what forces drove this perversion nor where it emanated from, much less what to do in its wake. Instead, I watched it, the Information Technology (IT) and Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) industry-driven development in Bangalore, burn furiously like an uncontrolled forest fire. Of course, at the time, I knew it was not entirely evil. There were diverse outcomes ranging from the commodification of everything, life itself, to the increased agency for women with their newfound financial independence. In the process, I forever lost my sense of home in that place.
While most of my good friends went underground, continuing to sedate themselves to dull the pain, I ran away. In 2005, I left to study Journalism in a nearby city, Chennai. I brought with me a burning desire to uncover deeper truths. As I learned about neoliberalism and globalization, my rage turned towards the United States and my intention shifted to leveraging the unpopular and potent stories of resistance to the toxic American dream we were being force-fed. I believe that 9/11 was a turning point globally. For me, when I saw those twin towers ablaze, slowly realizing it was on the news and not Hollywood’s latest white-male-savior-oriented sensation, I felt a sense of guilty elation. I didn’t admit it to anyone but for me, 9/11 symbolized retribution. I hated the US and the lifestyles it justified at the cost of so much dear to me. Being inherently a peace-loving and compassionate human being, I was horrified by my reaction to 9/11, knowing that the victims of this terrible crime did not deserve to die. And yet, there it was: the ugly truth of my deep-seated rage-filled hate for people I had never met. If that were true for me, then how easy it must be to resort to violence as a victim of violence oneself.
And yet, I also knew that I had found solace in its cultural products like Nirvana and Led Zeppelin. These were my songs of resistance against the deep-rooted patriarchy and internalized racism in my own culture. Journalism school overwhelmed me with its endless sea of news events like 9/11, sowing in me a healthy distrust for the written word. But it also helped me disentangle people both from their governments, and from ideological dogma. In a remote and impoverished village in southern India, an illiterate shepherd taught me that I had no right to assume that the financially poor were intellectually and emotionally poor. As I gazed up at the stars that night, and felt the separation between this shepherd and me dissolve, I realized that humanity is so much more complicated and unpredictable than I wanted to believe. I discovered that the truth I was searching for was neither singular nor static. And to uncover more of it was to face my own prejudices and privileges.
Participatory Media and Natural Building
Fueled by the shocking revelations of my own class and caste privilege, I spent a couple of years in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, working with some of our most vulnerable. I used participatory media to contest my privilege as the storyteller, and offered platforms for street youth and the children of sex workers to tell their own stories. In Mumbai, I met my own limitations, burning myself out, as many of us do, learning painfully to revision my well-intentioned martyr complex for a deeper-rooted sense of self-worth, capacity, and calling. When I came undone, my only memory of anything healthy was the feeling I had as a child while playing in the mud. My crisis had finally gotten me to stop distracting myself. Shortly after, I found out about earthen building and its Indian corollary, vernacular architecture. I quickly fell in love with this lifeway, as it awakened a cellular memory and the visceral possibility of building my own home, my own safe space, with my own two hands.
Sustainability in India
After dabbling in various sustainability-oriented projects in India, ranging from our vernacular adobe building to hosting ecotourists at a family-owned wildlife resort in the UNESCO heritage site, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, I once again found the toxic influence of Western thought choking our homegrown ways of being, criminalizing our vulnerable forest-dwelling tribal people and itinerant animal herders. Enraged at the overpowering influence of Eurocentrism in driving profit-oriented “progress” and in advancing a sterile, de-peopled notion of “wilderness,” I finally decided to listen to my father, a beloved mentor of mine. I chose to pursue a master’s degree in the United States—but in the field of Sociocultural Anthropology. He was not happy about that focus, mostly because he did not at the time understand that it would become the legitimized intellectual foundation upon which I built my practice of walking in this world with the very values that he and my dear mama had gifted me.
My dual purpose in moving to the US was first, to search deep within myself to find compassion for those I associate with the root causes of our current path of violence, and second, to find communion with those working to make obsolete the system that feeds this violence to people and place. In my heart, I know that if we do not do this work here, on this land, then the “Work” is so much more challenging the rest of the world over. Such is the power of the American “dream,” the American story.
A Second Home in Portland
I moved to Portland in Fall 2010 and aligned my graduate work with elevating the perspectives of Native Americans within public land management and supporting the creation of opportunities for their place-based lifeways. Grad school was hard. I often found I was the only “person of color” (POC) in the room. I often caught myself feeling out of place. However, I also felt a deep sense of belonging at times. It was here that I realized I would never really truly fit in anywhere. I allowed myself to grieve and then celebrate the sense of liberation it eventually filled me with as I more fully embraced my own brokenness and the healing potential for building bridges it provided. In the bureaus of government, I was crafting mechanisms for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” In the academy, I was learning social theories of power, culture, nature, and identity. With my Native collaborators and grassroots sustainability organizers, I learned the language of social and environmental justice. On this continent, I bring my vulnerabilities, strengths, and learnings from the wretched and blessed place I never quite fit into either: my beloved original home, India.
This finally brings me to where I am now, in time and space, my current positioning as a change agent working in liminal spaces, along the edges, in between things, trying to smooth out the frayed edges of our torn cultural fabric. Formally, I work with a Portland-based nonprofit, City Repair, as one of three POC co-Executive Directors. We are dedicatedly steering our organizational path from placemaking towards place justice. I am propelling myself forward in increasingly uncertain times as our segregated spaces begin to entangle in uncomfortable and volatile ways. For me, placemaking is peacemaking and the creative reclamation of public space must ensure potential thrivability for all creatures, especially our most vulnerable.
You would think that as a woman of color from the “global south,” I have had a hard life. And in some ways I have. Also in many ways I know I am incredibly blessed. I am surrounded by people who care about me and each other, and who are deeply interested in learning from each other. I have faced incessant sexual harassment on the streets in India, so I know a small fraction of what it is to feel unsafe in public space. My middle class privilege afforded me a car so I could try to insulate myself from my harassment. I was even privileged enough to afford to cross the Pacific pond to participate in the different flavor of patriarchy on this continent. Knowing the beauty and brokennesness I do, I deem it necessary to unpack my privileges to leverage them for justice.
Privilege and Allyship
Allyship is not a state of being to achieve after supporting the marginalized. Allyship is a state of doing. You cultivate it; it takes practice. Similarly, none of the isms we strive to dismantle are conditions that exist outside of our ability to unmake them. Racism is our support of an institutionally sanctioned crime against first POC and then “white” folks too. It is a crime against all humanity that disproportionately affects people of color and especially black folks with deathly consequences. I am not interested in oppression Olympics. We all have our traumas to work on. But we must set our shame-riddled defense mechanisms aside to integrate the painful experiences of those more vulnerable than us.
For this to be possible, “white” folks, especially, I plead with you, cultivate your practice of holding space for POC. Witness us without your ego. Acknowledge our trauma. Listen and listen deeply. I know you can empathise because you have also experienced injustice. But now is not the time to center this conversation around yourself. Allow, for this moment, the voices and stories of those oppressed and criminalized most severely at the hands of “whiteness.” This is time for acknowledging the truths you, hopefully, will not have to directly experience. Truths you are being called to acknowledge. Truths that will hopefully yield ways for you to leverage your privileges for our collective liberation.
For your own ancestral healing, I urge you, don’t run from it. Gather with people who similarly identify with their white skin privilege to help you metabolize your grief into gratitude. And perhaps even more importantly, have compassion for yourself and for those around you who are only beginning their journey. Call them in, instead of calling them out. Actively work on forgiving yourself, and your ancestors, as you cultivate your allyship. Be gentle but firm. And when a POC “calls you in,” I invite you to respond not with the need to absolve yourself of our collective history, but rather to accept the invitation to grow. It is a gift. Treat it with respect even if it appears disguised as grief and rage. Some of this work we can do in mixed groups, across intersectional lines. But some of it we must do within our politically prescribed identities because despite their invisibility they constrain our lives in very real ways.
Stories of Struggle
POC folks, I am assuming most of you do not read this because we are such a minority in the new sustainability movement. But if I am wrong, and you are reading this, then know that I am here in this continent to amplify your work to make it easier to then amplify our voices in places like India. It has enriched me so deeply to talk to illiterate shepherds in India to uncover my own ignorance of their profound cosmological awareness. It has enriched me so incredibly deeply to walk alongside my Native collaborators and learn the stories of their families brutalized, locked up in boarding schools, and then sitting across the table from me smiling about the delicious salmon and berry soup we are sharing at a celebration. I would LOVE to amplify your good work. I would love to learn with you and from you. Thank you for sharing your grief and demonstrating your resiliency. It will help the voices of the geopolitically disenfranchised across the globe to rise up with you. I am deeply grateful.
For moving forward, I leave you with the metaphor of a river. We are shifting from “sustainable” to “regenerative,” from “racism” to “racist behaviors and systems,” from identities to “identification“—and also returning from a static, reductionist noun-based worldview back to a dynamic, living-systems-inspired verb-based culture. This ensures that we acknowledge our responsibility to all our relations. The oppression alive today is not just the context we inherited. It lives off of our choices. When people ask me about cultural appropriation, I say, think of the cultural practice as a river of knowledge, a tributary enriching your life. I don’t find it problematic that the river enriches your life as long as it also enriches the lives of others, that you are sharing the water and fertility of life as fairly as you can and that you are reciprocating this generous gift to ensure that future generations will also be blessed with this life-giving water.
If any of these conditions are untrue in your context, then I urge you to consider ways to align yourself with the regenerative cycles of life, rather than the broken feedback loops of isolation and destruction. Remember that you are at choice and that you can choose to embrace the full spectrum of our humanity and humbly discern the best way you can engage with it. We will most definitely and gloriously fail at “solving,” “fixing,” and “saving” anything. Oppression will surely continue to exist, for it seems to be an inherent part of life. But rather than depressing, I find it relieving that I don’t have to try to do anything other than walk my own path with integrity, in relation to all things sacred to me. What an incredibly special gift it is to know that I have you all in my heart leading me forward, holding me in alignment. It is an incredible privilege to be gifted the opportunity to share this life and embrace our brokenness and beauty. Blessings to your journey, dear friend, wherever you are. Walk well.
Ridhi D’Cruz is one of the co-Executive Directors of City Repair. As an intercontinental cross-pollinator, sociocultural anthropologist, and permaculture educator who has been living in Portland since 2010, Ridhi participates, facilitates, and supports various initiatives in the areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Placemaking, Capacity Building, Houseless Advocacy, Native American Allyship, Cultural Sustainability, and Social Permaculture. She is also a passionate herbalist, urban wildcrafter, natural building and participatory technology enthusiast, animal lover, and urban permaculture homesteader. You can reach her at ridhi [AT] cityrepair.org and cityrepair.org.
Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.