by Thomas Atum O’Kane
This past Easter I was in Bhutan surrounded by incredible sacred Buddhist images and blessed by the people who radiate an atmosphere of loving kindness. Still my heart remembered the vision of Christ I saw in Brasillia, the capital of Brazil, some years ago. St Teresa of Avilla was deeply awakened to her mystical path by passing a familiar statue of Christ on the cross. One day, the statue came alive for her and revealed the profound depths of forgiveness. For me it was a cross with a life-size Christ made out of dark brown wood. As I looked at the face a door opened for me revealing the global suffering of brown- skinned people from discrimination, diminishment and poverty. As a concept I was aware of the plight of brown-skinned people but now it became a reality of the heart.
At age 17 my daughter Rose accompanied me on a pilgrimage to India. Soon after we arrived in Verinasi, the center of the Hindu world, a girl about ten began to follow Rose everywhere. After several days the wide-eyed girl asked Rose if she was a movie star. Rose smiled and said, “No, why do you think so?” The girl responded, “Because you are so beautiful and your skin is so light, just like the movie stars.” The conversation mirrored one I heard in the late sixties at a poor urban middle school in America. Both the Indian and Afro-American girls felt at a young age that they did not meet the cultural image of feminine beauty and success. No matter how much Rose and I tried to reflect their radiance and beauty, they had already internalized the negative judgment with accompanying limitations. To question the validity of such assumptions had painfully never occurred to them since the projections were constantly and consistently mirrored into them.
In Bankok, Thailand, there are three upscale malls in a row. Almost all the stores have American and European expensive brands. In one there is the most amazing food court and store with delicious things from all over the world. While eating I noticed all most all of the shoppers and diners were light-skinned Asians. I mentioned this to my son Emanuel. He was not surprised. This was in sharp contrast to those who do manual labor or drive taxies and tuck-tucks. The latter almost always migrate to the city to support their families living in rural and farming areas. Having spent the last 16 months in Asia, Emmanuel noted how difficult it is to try any skin product in India that does not automatically have whitener in it. Bangkok is filled with signs for dentist who will whiten your teeth.
In Mexico I have listened to a repeated conversation with several people. They comment on the light color of my skin in comparison to their darker brown tone. When I try to explain that many light skinned tourists have spent a lot on money to have skin like theirs, it goes completely unheard. The conditioning is so strong. In Mexico skin color is also reflective of class, like so many other countries. Even describing brothers and sisters a separation has been made between the lighter ones and the darker relatives. What makes it all the more painful is the speaker is usually completely unaware of how they have internalized this prejudice and devalued themselves and others like them.
Thomas Atum O’Kane, PhD, a longstanding and well-loved presenter at Hollyhock, is a graduate of the Guild for Spiritual Guidance. He holds a MA in psychological counseling and a PhD in transpersonal psychology. Atum has been a senior teacher in the Sufi Order International, where he served as secretary general for 12 years. He leads workshops, retreats, and pilgrimages in North America, Europe and the Holy Lands.
Thomas will be at Hollyhock on Cortes Island: