activism Interviews

‘It’s about healing’: getting real about racism with Dr. Tiffany Bowden

It’s a strange and humbling feeling — to be able to hear but not see.

This was the sensation I felt in lockdown while looking out the window of a 23rd-story apartment in Hong Kong.

I could hear the haunting chants of pro-democracy protesters echo from the streets below, but their raised umbrellas and pain remained hidden from my view. I wondered, ‘What am I not seeing? What am I not doing?’

At the same time, growing demonstrations against police brutality were gripping my home country, the United States, and I started to ask myself these same questions.

I pensively looked out the window for answers when I saw my white privilege reflecting back at me. It was blinding. It’s like this apartment is an ivory tower, a bubble about to burst. I want to break it like my heart breaks when I think of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and the endless list of black lives lost as a result of racism. There must be more to understand, I thought, because I’ve never feared for my life in that way. I suddenly felt eager to unlearn, to finally see and speak out, but I would need help.

I scrolled through Facebook and found a familiar, beautiful face — Tiffany, my old friend and classmate from the Global Leadership Center, an eloquent, unapologetic black woman with an energy I’ve always loved. She recently earned a Ph.D in Communications with a specialization in Diversity and Inclusion, has given a TEDx talk on racism, is an advocate for the rights and health of minorities, and is now helping white people like me become allies.

Feeling inspired, I reached out in hopes of reuniting and learning from her story. She graciously answered my call and we had a personal and powerful conversation about racism and how it intersects with just about everything, including the environment.

“Racism is a mental health conversation, a spiritual conversation, an environmental conversation, and it’s also just a personal conversation,” she told me. “It is about healing because racism is a symptom of trauma and a mismanagement of emotions.”

These important conversations have changed me for the better, and I’m incredibly proud to share her wisdom with all of you. I trust her words will open your eyes as they have opened mine.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

A Personal Conversation 

Julia: Can you start by telling me about how racism has impacted you personally? 

Tiffany: There are so many different ways that racism impacts one personally. Some that can be articulated and some that can’t be articulated in the sense that you don’t know what you don’t know. When you’re dealing with systemic racism, there are so many different dimensions. You have internalized racism, interpersonal racism, structural racism. All of these things come together for this conversation.

I have experienced what you would call blatant racism. When I went down to school in Florida, some guys had Confederate flags on the back of their truck and they threw bottles at me. In high school, I had the n-word written on my locker in menstrual blood. It was a very interesting bullying situation.

You can even take that back to elementary school, where a little kid essentially said, “Maybe it would be a good idea if the black girl used the black crayon,” which was, by the way, the first moment that I knew I was black. It was a confusing experience because I didn’t know I was black. I just was confronted with this because I looked at the black crayon and I was like, “I’m not this color.” I was completely confused. I did a TED talk about that.

Then there are all these other ways that are more microaggressive. I used to model and I remember getting called for a promo. I showed up, and I had my natural hair. The lady was just looking at me and trying to figure out my hair and she was just like, “I just can’t see how this would translate into elegance or an evening look.” I was just like, “What do you mean?” There are other micro-aggressions even within the black community, where we have colorism. I might get a compliment like, “you’re pretty cute for a dark-skinned girl.” That was the best compliment that I could get from black men at one particular point.

A Mental Health Conversation

Those are just the things that I observe. There are certainly other things that happened that you don’t even really connect with racism and some things that I’m still exploring and understanding for myself. As an example, I don’t know to what extent secondary or vicarious trauma has impacted me. I do know that when George Floyd was murdered and when I had to go through all these different emotions, I had to take a full week off because I was just exhausted. I was only able to be functional for two to three hours a day, and I was just tired. By six o’clock every day, I was in bed. It didn’t matter that there were all these curfews going on because I was already tired and I couldn’t do anything anyway.

That is specifically because of that issue because there can be no other issue. It’s like we’re dealing with Coronavirus, where it’s not like I’m working out at the gym. I’m not running around sitting in traffic. I’m not at work having these crazy hard days out of the office. There’s really nothing else going on. There’s only this. All of a sudden, I’m feeling this deep embodied fatigue to the point that I just couldn’t eat. It brought it into full awareness of how pervasive it is, but not only how pervasive it is, how I feel it in my body. How it creates anxiety, how it creates depression, fatigue.

The outpouring of support from all the new allies that are coming into the space, the people who are ending their silence and are actively saying, “I want to help, I want to do something, what can I do?”  — All of those people have been edifying and giving me strength. Because there have always been black people who have been giving that support and solidarity, but it’s different when you have the people who need to be in this conversation, joining the conversation.

We can now walk down these streets we’ve always frequented and see ourselves reflected for the first time. It’s as uncomfortable as it is empowering and inspiring to watch your invisibility disappear, to look at these murals and to see your face, and to see affirming and loving words spoken about you — an unapologetic blackness not couched in people of color, not couched in something else, but blackness. That was different. I actually broke down a few times crying. I’ve been in this work for years, probably more than 20 years. I’m not a stranger to this, but it’s different to be in an embodied space and to feel love all around you and your community. That is something that is a privilege that is not afforded to black people on a regular everyday basis.

Other people might feel that when they go to festivals and they feel surrounded by love. For black people, even if you show up in these spaces, you feel like “the other.” You don’t see your likeness. It’s been an interesting time for  reflection, but thankfully, we’re moving through it, we’re getting it done. We’re moving into the next dimension of all of this. That’s very, very comforting.

Photos taken in Los Angeles by Dr. Tiffany Bowden

A Spiritual Conversation

Julia: Thank you so much for sharing, my friend. Your story is heartbreaking, yet also full of so much hope. It reminds me of the Buddhist analogy of “the lotus growing out from mud.”

Tiffany: That’s actually one of my symbols. There’s a Japanese garden around here, and I frequently go by this little pond that has these lotuses, and I say to myself, “We’re growing, we’re growing.” It’s such a healing site when I see those lotuses, they just look untouched. You would never know what they came through. It’s the most beautiful thing.

Racism is a mental health conversation, a spiritual conversation, an environmental conversation, and it’s also just a personal conversation. It’s all of these things. It is about healing because racism is a symptom of trauma and a mismanagement of emotions. A lot of it is rooted in fear and not knowing exactly how to respond. There is a calling for healing, and I think that people are starting to answer that call, and I’m glad to see that.

For centuries, several indigenous cultures have had a relationship with nature as a pathway for spiritual connectedness. After colonialism and the enlightenment era, we lost connection with nature as its validity became diminished with the devaluation of spirituality. There are several people seeking to reclaim their roots and utilize ancestral knowledge for healing. Many roads point to nature with that journey, but it is now evident that nature has become gentrified. It’s no coincidence who gets to live by the ocean and who must live in a concrete jungle. It becomes deeply troubling to unpack the fact that for centuries cultures have placed strong spiritual emphasis on oceans and rivers as extensions of deities or sources of spiritual understanding and natural healing. When we understand that whole populations have been cut off from that spiritual ancestry because of environmental racism, things look a lot more sinister.

An Environmental Conversation

Julia: That leads me to my next question. What is your understanding of environmental racism?

Tiffany: Environmental racism is a major deal. It becomes increasingly more urgent to provide restorative justice. We deserve clean air. Fresh water. Water that doesn’t have lead in it. We deserve to see grass and trees on our streets. To be able to feel the sun on our face and experience it unblocked by smog.

We do know that there’s a lot of toxic dumping in communities that tend to be of color. We know that those tend to have health outcomes. We need to be revitalizing these communities so that everybody has equal access to appropriate housing, and we also need to be firm on institutions that dump in inappropriate ways.

There is also a movement advocating for Native Americans to protect their land from the pipeline. These are also environmental issues. You have burial grounds that get airports built on them, and other kinds of disrespectful things that are not often thought about from that lens, but are all worthy of attention.

JuliaI was also reading about the link between police brutality and the environment. What are your thoughts on that?

Tiffany: If you are anticipating more crime in “minority communities,” then you’re going to get more crime within those spaces. You’re going to then have more “criminals.” As these things end up getting documented, property values go down.

People are ultimately depressed and feel anxious within their environments. That ends up creating a different kind of ambiance. It’s not because there’s more crime in these communities, it’s what is created in terms of statistics. If you don’t send police into white communities, you’re not going to have statistics on crime deaths in these communities.

You’re going to build your case of over-policing minority communities by relying on the data that you’ve built with these presumptions that black people are criminals. You basically manufacture criminals, and therefore create whole environments, which then dictates funding. Economic opportunity zones get created because you have these deep socio-economic issues. You end up having redlining, and all sorts of things that are rooted in presumptions about black criminality, or black as being inferior.

All those things coincide with the environment when you start talking about resources and support, where people live, and where the tax dollars go. How do those things flow to help clean up the environment? Where are you going to put your police training? All these things go together.

The Black Lives Matter movement started about police brutality and the disproportionate brutality against black people, as it relates to police. This is an important issue to see to the end. It’s not just about George Floyd. It’s about the way that system is set up.

This means that you can actually impact change with your votes because a lot of it comes down to issues with the District Attorney (DA) and how the police are managed. We need people to be more civically engaged and active in their local elections. We need to diversify from that standpoint.

Photos taken in Los Angeles by Dr. Tiffany Bowden

Julia: You’re talking about what we can do on the ground on a local level, which is so important. What can we do on a more global level to fight racism?

Tiffany: I would say, first, is to educate yourself about history. One of the struggles of understanding racism is that when you’re dealing with intercontinental elements, you’re only getting bits and pieces of the culture. You’re making your judgments based on that. Not all asians are martial arts experts, but when you come to the United States, there are particular kinds of stereotypes that get put up constantly. It will be annoying to be known as only that representation.

It’s similar for black people in terms of the culture that comes across the borders, but we don’t necessarily get to come across the borders. Creating opportunities for black people to come abroad and do this work with you would be amazing. There are a lot of black people who are passionate about the issue of environmental racism, not just locally in their communities, but on a global level. Similarly, Native Americans are passionate about protecting Mother Earth.

We need to bring together people who share this mission and give them the opportunity to go beyond their borders. We need to help remove the systemic barriers, which may be by way of  not being able to afford a plane ticket, not knowing how to navigate getting over there, or not knowing anybody in the space. How can you create an environment where people can come over and do this work with you so that the ideas of others can be in the room?

Julia: Would you say this is an example of why inclusion and diversity are so important? I’ve read that in the environmental movement, there hasn’t been as much representation and accessibility for black people. 

Tiffany: We’re impacted deeply by (the environment), but you don’t see us in the narrative. It’s not because we don’t care, it’s because nobody’s passing us a microphone. I don’t think black people have been brought into the conversation to the extent that they should. There are black people who are doing this work by themselves, but there’s not necessarily a crossover of communication. We don’t necessarily know where to share our perspective, so we’ve ended up speaking in silos. You can be the bridge by passing the mic, and allowing folks to see things differently.

Diversity is not just about skin color. It’s also about a diversity of thought. If you bring people from other cultures around or if you get immersed, you get a diversity of thought. That diversity of thought helps us solve those big problems like environmental racism. We can’t just solve that on a basic whiteboard. We need big minds. We need lots of diversity. We need people to bring different perspectives together.

Julia: Absolutely. I’m guessing that’s where intersectionality can come in? What is your understanding of this concept?

Tiffany: Intersectionality is an important concept in general for diversity inclusion. You’re not just concerned about one element of diversity. You want to be able to see the Venn diagram and where things overlap.

For me, as an example, I educate on anti-racism, but I’m an intersectional anti-racism educator, which means that I also educate and I’m an ally for black trans people. I’m an educator and an ally for black women, but I’m also a diversity scholar and advocate. I can do this from a global and intercultural perspective.

If you only operate from a one-trick pony lens, you can end up making some gains for what you perceive as one community and then sending another community back to the Stone Age, and that’s no good. With an intersectional approach to environmental racism, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary.

There are so many issues. Whatever it is that pulls on your heartstrings, just think about where the intersection of race and racism is and it goes there.

Julia: I would love to know more about your allyship training. I think it would be good for me to participate and learn from you. Can you describe the moment you were like, “I feel like I should do this.” 

Tiffany: What always drives me is where I see a need. I go where there’s a need. My heart is led where I can feel these gaps. I saw that there were so many white people that just wanted to do something. They wanted to help, they wanted to know what to do. They wanted to know how to be appropriate. How to show up. Where to send their resources. There were just a lot of confusion and questions.

The more that people woke up, the more questions. I was like, “Okay, what’s needed is a dedicated time and space so that we can go through this. We can get there with an understanding that you’re never going to be perfect.” That’s going to be one of the most important things that you can get out of training is understanding and accepting your imperfections. The sooner that you own that, the better, because the worst allies are those who think they don’t make mistakes or that they can’t be reached, they can’t be talked to. I want to bring them into their awareness of, “yes, you will make mistakes. There is going to be impact and you can recover.”

It’s as much about your healing space, personally, as it is about how to move with others. We have to start with that self-work first, and then we move into the space of interacting with others. because, ultimately, we’re trying to create a world that works for everyone. It’s centered in love. It’s not about a reversal of power positions that has other people in a space of disadvantage.

It’s not about shaming any particular group of people. It’s about reading shame and effectively coming into the center of a full awakening of love. I wanted to support people in doing that. All of my work and everything I’ve created has always come out of, “people are calling for this, and I will step into that, and answer that call.”

To help answer that call, we created, which is a resource list and a crash course on anti-racism.

Julia: What are some of the questions that you’ve heard? 

Tiffany: A lot of people, they don’t know, for example, where to donate, how to contribute. These are important questions, and it’s not one that’s usually asked. A lot of people are rushing toward supporting national organizations, which is fine, except for when all the resources go to the same organizations, all the foot soldiers and smaller organizations on the ground don’t get any resources.

We need those resources to spread. We need people who are doing the work for free, and tirelessly, and suffering just trying to get things done. We need those people supported. Not just one to two organizations and assuming that everything’s going to trickle down to people. That’s not how it works.

Julia: I think these are good conversations to have in Asia as well.

Tiffany: This is getting to what I was  saying about bringing in diversity. Black people often don’t even feel safe where they live. Once you start thinking about, “Oh, leave here and then go somewhere else that I don’t know, where I don’t speak the language. Am I going to be welcome? What’s going to be what?”

You can assure them with things like, “You’re going to have someone who can speak English and take you around to see this, this and this, give introduction to the food, into the do’s and don’ts, break down some of the fears.” Because people here are terrified of Hong Kong because of all the propaganda.

Julia: You know, it’s interesting. It’s inspiring and surreal hearing about the anti-racism protests all over the world. At the same time, here in Hong Kong, I look out the window and there are protests for different reasons, yet also for some of the same reasons because all people want the same things: respect, equality, freedom and to be given a voice. I felt like I was in this bubble, like I was so separate from what was going on. I was just keenly aware of my white privilege and almost felt guilty like I should be doing more.

Tiffany: You can also take some space and just simply feel blessed. It’s okay to feel blessed. It’s okay to let that love in and feel blessed. Where you can do something for someone who’s struggling, do that. Where you can’t, feel blessed. Yes. It’s okay.

Julia: I do. I do. You’ve helped me with all that. Thank you.

JULIA // Tokyo

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