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The Power of Unlearning

by Confluence
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By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.

My Godfather, a preacher extraordinaire, at age 70, always talks about unlearning. He says we must unlearn in order to learn a new. We are continuously taking in information that trains our brain to look at the world in a certain way and we become unaware that we are being programmed to believe a certain way and see the world a certain way. Thus, we must unlearn intentionally. Then we can make room for new learning.

It’s not our fault. We were not in control of the learning environments that shaped what we learned. I am a big advocate for learning. So I am a bigger advocate for intentional relearning.

I have been mulling over issues around human difference and our current socio-political situation which pushes ALL my buttons! I wanted to go back to the drawing board. Often when we talk about difference, we start with gender, race, and religion in this country. Yet in other parts of the world, there are other layers to it.

I was disturbed to find, in my Facebook timeline, that many people are in support of separating children from their parents as they seek asylum in this country. Many believe that this is normative and that incarcerated people in the United States are separated from their children so why should asylum seekers be different. Granted, it is a complex, layered topic and there is no one single smart answer to complicated problems.

Yet, many ignore or do not understand what asylum is. People seeking asylum are not supposed to be locked up. Locking them up is a new law based entirely on prejudice.

Over the past few weeks, I have been dismayed to discover that most Americans are elitists, believing that what this country offers is the best and they alone, the Americans that is, are entitled to the best. No one else is entitled to the best.

Yesterday’s majority ruling by the Supreme Court of The United States of America proves this. Our highest court rubber-stamped the Muslim ban.

As a country today, we took the stand that Islamophobia is one of our core values.

Just let that sink in. Your leadership says it is ok to Muslim hate.  Yet, “‘The United States of America is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty,’ they wrote. Our Founders honored that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment.”

I am a Christian. I wonder when it will be ok to Christian hate. It is just a matter of time. It is all related: Islamophobia, Latinxphobia, Immigrantphobia. I feel anxious and jittery waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I do not deny that I am an immigrant. I had the privilege of coming to this country with no prohibitions. I was born to an American citizen and was thus entitled, yes, entitled, to such citizenship. Yet, I have a heart for the process of migration and the search for a better life. I cannot imagine the horrors of seeking asylum or that drive for a better life causing me to risk my life to travel, without permission, to seek peace, safety, and security in a more stable environment. Whether it is France, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Spain, The United Kingdom or the United States, the world is caving under the strain of people insisting on having an opportunity to just survive.

How do we cope? How do we share resources fairly? How do we understand the huge social problems these people are facing? How do we embrace others that are different and share the responsibility of the great wealth we have?

These are valid questions.

But another valid question is this: How am I complicit in this mass migration? Or another way of putting it is this: How have I contributed to people experiencing such hardships in their own homes that they want to come to this country for a brighter opportunity?

Yes, you! You have contributed to this. As I have also.

We must revisit our assumptions and explore what our prejudices mean when we deny those seeking survival the opportunity to live. My language might sound extreme, but I do believe that this is about basic survival and life. These folks are not trying to come into this country to live luxurious lives. I believe they are seeking refuge in this country because the option is literal death for them.

The sense of superiority I see all around me is learned and we must unlearn it if we want to solve complex problems and become aware of our own role in it. We must lay down this sense of superiority that we have that, in America, we are entitled to what we have and that we worked hard for it and therefore, we must protect it from others.

Beloved, globalization, is a phenomenon where usually, U.S. based corporations reach their tentacles into other parts of the world. This creates untold wealth for this country. For instance, in Nigeria, we are an oil-rich country. Supposedly, we have the best oil to be found on the planet. It is called Bonny Light. Because it is low in Sulphur and environmentally friendly, it is cheaper to refine. Yes, my country was paid for this oil, but Shell and Exxon (and others) created so much environmental damage in extracting the oil that the most vulnerable of those areas were left with nothing. Money for the land went to the government and corrupt leaders. Young people, women, and children, were left with no form of industry. The land has been damaged by oil spills so there is little land to farm. The oceans around the areas are contaminated with oil so the fishing industry is dead. Money is put into Universities and many, especially the younger men, get a fine education, but nationwide in Nigeria, the unemployment rate is extremely high and so there are no jobs. Therefore, people begin to desire to put their lives to good use.

When you have an education and you are coming from a developing country, you feel a sense of responsibility to provide for your entire family and you want to be a productive member of society. Why should you have a college degree and spend four or five years looking for a job? Why would you not risk a couple of months of discomfort to travel across the Sahara Desert and find a ship that will land you on Europe’s shores where you can even become a dishwasher at a restaurant and then begin to carve out a life for yourself? Thirty years of corporate exploitation of a particular part of the world probably yields a hundred years of problems for the indigenes of that land. That is not an exaggeration.

It is the same thing with the US/Mexican border. The US has done a lot to exploit other parts of the world and when people want to migrate here, we punish them, we bar them, and we denigrate them and treat them as less than human.

Have you ever considered how your car that guzzles gas, your need for the hottest sneakers, your need for the latest iPhone, your crazy desire for ripe bananas in the dead of winter and the cocaine you played with over 10 years ago may be directly linked to a life that is risking undocumented entry into this country? Or the war on Muslims?

It is easy to sit back and judge why people would attempt such risk at the border and feel distance from them and how your life intersects with their lives.

Beloved, it is time we unlearn what we take for granted and begin to relearn the truth about our lives. Our privilege is based on the hardship and exclusion of others.

I am selfish. Probably, like you, I don’t want to be threatened by the loss of employment or relevance because there are so many immigrants to this country that I cannot get a job or do the work I want to do. Yet, I have to examine how my life has contributed to the global issues that are affecting real human lives. I have to contribute to maintaining my ability to provide for myself while simultaneously creating an opportunity for others to also prosper, side by side with me.

There are some hard questions we have to ask ourselves and we must be willing to unlearn and lay down what we thought was true. We have to question what we think we know. We have to question our entitlement and we have to question our basic understandings of equity and equality. We have to do right by those we have exploited, and we must continue to engage in dialogue. We are required to embrace justice because “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” If indeed, this is the “greatest” country in the world (whatever that means), then we have to act like it and be leaders.

Part of the problem of being “the greatest” is that we somehow think that we are better than others and we cannot afford to believe that lie. What it means is that right now, in this moment in time, we have the greatest impact. It does not mean that we are better than anyone else.

We have to embrace a moral style of leadership since we have the most and, we have had the most, impact on the world. Moral leadership is always benevolent because it counts the human cost.

I invite you, this week to explore your interaction in terms of race and nationalism this week. Here is why: When you come from a country that has held the status of “Global Empire” for all of your life, you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Imperialism has an ugly underbelly. To maintain the lull of her citizens believing her greatness, Imperialism tells you that you are better than other human beings.

Beloved, you are not. Sorry to break it to you. You are precious. And so are others that do not look like you or belong to the same country as you do.

I invite you to explore and increase your racial and national sensitivity this week. Racial sensitivity is defined as, “the ability to recognize the ways in which race and racism shape reality. It involves using oneself to actively challenge attitudes, behaviors, and conditions that create or reinforce racial (or national or religious) injustices. A salient dimension of achieving racial (or national or religious) sensitivity involves identifying and resisting the pro-racist ideology that is an integral dimension of U.S. society.” This is a definition from an article called “The Dynamics of a Pro-Racist Ideology – Implications for Family Therapists” by Kenneth V. Hardy and Tracey A. Laszloffy. I added the word nationalism and religious as it is relevant to the context of the discussion.

My invitation to you this week is to hold this definition of racial sensitivity close and apply it to racial, national and religious difference that you encounter all week. I also encourage you, especially if you are not a person of color, to embrace the fact that every human is naturally biased. Seek to discover ways that your bias is showing up in the world.

You will find some support at http://www.dismantlingracism.org/ which has a plethora of resources regarding identifying, learning about and unlearning racism.

Let me know how it goes.

Big healing hugs!


More by Iyabo:

Prison, Justice, and Abuse by Power



Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).

Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).

Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com


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