How do you define success? There are many external indicators of success for which we are socially trained to judge ourselves and others. Many of these result in stress and anxiety as we try to live up to benchmarks that don’t always align with our values. Today, let’s take a look at what happens when you define success in your own words.
How I measure my success has changed since I started focusing more on what I value; however, it wasn’t until I came across this quote from Brene Brown, that I realized that it wasn’t just my value system that had changed, but my definition of success.
“Defining success is one of the most powerful things you can do as a family, as a couple, individually. There is a default definition that is, ‘money, materialism, accomplishment, and achievement.’ So if you don’t come up with your own subversive definition, there is a default.”
A Little Back Story
Earlier this year, I found myself sitting in a Starbucks at the Flatirons Mall, in Broomfield, CO. Originally from Colorado, I now live in France. I’d popped home for a short trip to see my family and to consider moving my 9-year-old son back to Colorado to live with his father and step-mom.
My aunt and my cousin are two women I admire immensely. I felt especially grateful for the chance to meet with them on this cold Colorado Day. My aunt came, as she often does, with a new book for me to read. My cousin arrived with a smile on her face, despite living for over a decade with the daily trials and pains of cancer.
As we sat chatting, I mentioned that as I turned 40 this year, I’d set the intention to be a success, finally. To stop failing at things and get IT done. My family tends to be pretty good at hiding our emotions and playing it cool, but when I mentioned that I’d not been successful, both my aunt and my cousin couldn’t help but momentarily lose their composure. I instantly felt silly.
Wait. A. Minute.
I had to stop and ask, what is success to me? Just as we say that “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder, often, so is our success. And so began my investigation into my evidently unfounded feelings of failure. Why did I not see the successes that other people saw? Why is it that some of us see success where others see failure? Why did I not understand this before?
The Definition of Success in Life
In April of this year I turned 40, and as I’ve done every year since I turned 33, I took the time to reflect on the last year and to set goals for my coming year. Consciously reflecting on my past through the filter of “what is an authentic indicator of success?” I began to realize that just because life can be messy and unpredictable, doesn’t mean that we are not successful.
I now recognize my success not as a chart of achievements to fill out a professional resume, but rather as living life by my values. Taking the time to look within and check-in with myself, but also taking the time to connect with my fellow humans. I accept that being vulnerable to life is being successful, because it means that I am alive and am living, breathing, learning and connecting. I understand that I need to work less at doing it all on my own, and surrender some of my control to a higher power, the universe and my community.
The definition of success in life is not a one-woman show — that is just lonely and hard.
Unexpectedly, a few days ago, while working on this piece, I received an email from Rob Hatch titled “We Never Do it Alone,” in which he proposes precisely this, that success is a community effort. Although I’d already been going down this path, reading Rob’s story, I had another revelation. We often hear that success is measured by the lives you touch, but Rob’s experience and my experience take this a step further. Our success does not happen in a vacuum; it occurs in a community.
Our success does not happen in a vacuum; it occurs in a community.
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We never do it alone!
Success is Sweeter Together
No matter how hard you work, your success is not only yours, it is also that of everyone that supported you, be it your mother or your mentor, your priest or the guy that took a chance on you at your first job. Yes, we must take responsibility for our actions, and we must set goals for success, but we don’t achieve progress alone, it appears in the form of community.
In the spirit of community, I decided to ask my peer network of Xennial Women for their definition of success in life. I sent them some background and then asked: “define success in your own words.” Each interpretation of success is valid and whole as it stands alone, it is enough.
Living a Purposeful Life: 9 Inspiring Definitions of Success by 9 Xennial Women
#1 – Malia
Success for us is living a life in line with our core values. Our daily choices and habits reflect our values and help us to live out our life and interactions without feelings of dissonance. We have decided our family’s general core values include spending time together, promoting environmental stewardship, and maintaining an active/healthy lifestyle, and supporting our independent passion projects.
We (my husband and I) have worked very hard to live in harmonious accord with these values. We have both selected to be self-employed, so we can attend our kid’s performances and school events. We purchased a home within a mile of the kids’ school, and everything Lafayette has to offer and make it a habit of biking to as many of these places as possible.
We also have made it a habit to select kids activities that are within biking distance, to continue our environmental stewardship (right now we bike to school, piano practice, kung fu, dance lessons, trivia, Spanish class, and the library on a weekly basis). Our healthy lifestyles are evident in the hiking we do with our kids and their relationship with exercise. At ages 10 and 8, they already have over 300 miles of backpacking and lots more of hiking under their belts.
As for passion projects, my husband enjoys music and is starting to get back into the DJing scene for non-profit galas in Lafayette, and I am trying to determine if there is anything that could compete with real estate in making me excited to get up in the morning. We have worked hard, and saved money, and will be financially independent by next summer, and will have more time and opportunities to continue to craft a life in line with our values, living our version of Success daily.
#2 – Sarah
Two years ago, at age 35, I was in a depression after a minor surgery turned into proof that I was unable to have children. In the aftermath, I also found myself unable to sustain the endless cycle of increasing hours and accomplishments I had set up for myself in my career.
I needed physical therapy, long-term hormone replacement options, and time to grieve. I found I had built a false narrative about how I could prove my worth by earning accomplishments and being the best at whatever I was doing. But the best was always just out of my reach.
The big achievement I craved as something I could point to and say “I am worthy because I did that” was always a fleeting mirage, something I couldn’t catch. I had no proof of my worth, and now I wouldn’t be able to have a child of my own and say, “This is the value I have given to the world.”
Fortunately, I had my faith. God’s message is that He doesn’t require results, only faithfulness. And grace is called grace because you can’t earn it – it’s a gift. Success is a worldly imitation of grace; it looks like a distant oasis where you “achieve” all the things you think you wanted. But just when you think you’re about to arrive, it moves. Frankly, I found it exhausting.
Grace is counter-intuitive, you can’t chase it because it’s already there. You can’t earn it by being worthy – grace IS what makes you worthy. You can only accept it. Radical acceptance. And so, I come to success by riding on the coattails of grace.
Now, my measure of success is not feeling the need to explain or prove myself to the world. I show up every day; I try to accept the condition of my body on good days and bad. I try to count the number of times I belly-laugh. I let myself feel what I need to feel, grief or gladness or pain. And I work on accepting the grace given to me.
#3 – Anna
Defining success does not feel challenging for me. Perhaps that’s because I was raised by parents who didn’t suggest I use their definitions and encouraged me to ask questions and pursue my own interests. (I was also fortunate not to feel the need to strive for a hefty salary, which I believe – right or not – was partially a function of growing up feeling financially sound and partially a function of being a woman, which meant I felt less pressured to support my family). Or, perhaps it’s because I landed upon a path that feels good and suits my personality well.
In my twenties, the word ‘success’ would conjure up images associated with money. At forty, that definition strikes me as unsatisfying. Successful people aren’t always wealthy, and the rich aren’t always shining models of success. To that point, I’ve come to largely disassociate the word wealth from success (though I think an individual’s basic financial needs have to be met to fulfill the journey of pursuing broader goals).
In my mind, success is finding a role that provides deep personal satisfaction, serves a purpose beyond one’s self (this often heightens the feeling of personal satisfaction), and fits squarely within an individual’s nature.
After recognizing that I had an affinity for the outdoors, and paying particular attention to the fact that human health is directly affected by the state of the environment, I began dabbling in the field of “environmental health.” Down a winding road I went – starting with an introduction to environmental health through the world of nonprofit grant-making, followed by a Master in Public Health, and then working with several nonprofits.
When I became a mother, my concern for the future health of my children amplified my desire to protect the environment. One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had yet was having grown into the role of an environmental activist. After recognizing a local threat (an outdated, dangerous nuclear power plant), I dug deep and extricated personality skills I didn’t know I had. Because of this, I was able to organize communities toward action.
Now, though my work as the Manager of the Speakers’ Bureau for Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility is only part-time, it is entirely fulfilling because the goal of the organization is also a goal of mine: limiting the threats of large-scale environmental catastrophes on the human population. How fortunate I am to be able to tie my life goals into my work goals.
#4 – Afsheen
Growing up in the East and completing my education and then settling down in the West, I am amazed at the fact that even with opposing end goals, the measure of success is universal and always a value judgment by others. How the world perceives us and our accomplishments is somehow more important than what we think and feel about ourselves.
My definition of success has evolved over the years, and the current version is that “success is how we value ourselves.” Being content is bliss to me and contentment comes from inside. We are so used to viewing ourselves through the filters of society and judge our successes via these filters as well that we forget who we are, and the discontentment causes a sense of failure.
We all have different callings in our lives and only if we follow what our heart desires are we able to be successful. The idea is to be happy with whatever you are doing and taking pride in doing it. This idea about following your passion has been out there for a while, but we still fall into the trap of the default definition of success which relates to materialism and accomplishments. I’m certainly not against any of these things and hope to accomplish my goals in life, but I strive to have this sense of validation from within because if I start to look at others there are twice as many opinions and reasons to doubt myself.
The most challenging thing for me at this point in my life is how to teach my kids to be content. In this ever-growing world of digital and social media where the success is measured in ‘likes’ and ‘number of followers,’ how do I teach my kids to be happy with themselves. The only way I can think of doing this is to be a role model for them, and it’s not easy. Like most people, I’ve had many challenges in my life. To start each day with this sense that it’s going to be better than yesterday is an uphill task but I am adamant about making it work to the best of my abilities and satisfaction, and that to me is a success.
#5 – Elly
To me, success is about living a purpose driven life. It’s about actively striving to make a positive difference in the world, making conscious decisions, and enjoying the journey along the way. If I can learn and grow, and make a positive impact on the lives of others, I’m meeting my definition of success.
Living a life without regrets or ‘what if’s’ is an integral part of my philosophy. Seeking opportunities and adventure are key components of my life, and I love to inspire others to follow their dreams. For me, it’s not about having a nice car or a big house, and I’ve consciously opted out of that lifestyle in pursuit of freedom. Instead, it’s about feeling fulfilled, excited and happy about the choices I am making each day.
In our family, we’ve set the values of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘meaningful relationships.’ When we make decisions, we try to ask ourselves whether those decisions fit with both of our family values. This ‘freedom of choice’ helps us to work together as a unit and decide whether to move forward with a decision or think of an alternative.
As a holistic health and fitness coach my goal is to inspire people to make positive, sustainable changes to their health, fitness, and lifestyle. By empowering someone to take control of their health and step by step make decisions that support their goal of a healthy lifestyle, I’m achieving a small milestone in my overall picture of success.
As a family, our current focus is on building a location independent lifestyle. We didn’t wait to make it happen: we simply packed up and took a one-way ticket from our home in New Zealand to South East Asia. We’re working on making our dream a reality and have launched two new websites this year to support our vision. We still have a way to go, but we are super excited to see it all unfold. We’re enjoying the new adventure just because we allowed ourselves to take that first step and go for it.
#6 – Amy
My definition of success revolves around a handful of things in my life: my family, my mental and physical health, my marriage, and my creativity/business.
When I think about my definition of success, the family immediately comes to mind. As a mother of two kids ages 10 & 13, my life has revolved around these now not-so-little people since they were born. Raising healthy, adjusted, happy kids has been my biggest priority, and often my biggest challenge. I feel successful when I know that I’m helping my children navigate their way through this complicated and sometimes scary thing we call life.
Having open and positive relationships with my kids and my husband is of great importance to me. Interpersonal communication has never been my strong suit, so it’s something I have to work at regularly.
Spending time together as a family is important to me. We all have our own things that we enjoy in life, but, especially as my children get older, making sure that we come together regularly is a goal.
In addition to family, my personal health (physical and mental), as well as feeling fulfilled creatively also defines my view of success. It is very important to me to take time almost every day to exercise, spend time outside (even if it’s in my own yard), and work on my jewelry business. Making earrings, which is in large part my creative outlet, also helps me contribute a bit financially to our family.
My biggest current challenge is a bit personal in nature as it involves helping one of my children with their mental/emotional health. I also have the ongoing challenge of working on my communication with my husband. In addition, I am always trying to expand my earring business — by making more designs, reaching out to local businesses and growing my online presence via Etsy and social media.
#7 – Natalie
Success for me means the freedom to follow my professional passions while also creating a fulfilling personal life. I have always been a creative thinker who yearned for wide open spaces, fresh writing pads, and the ability to share my voice with the world, so it’s no wonder that I didn’t go down the traditional college-business suit-retirement track.
In my early 20s, I wanted to be a lawyer, so I enrolled in law school, and promptly realized that it was not the career for me. Ten months (and lots of soul searching) later, I enrolled in an English master’s degree program and fell in love. From there, I honed my skills as a college adjunct professor, a job that I loved and one that gave me the flexibility to still travel and spend plenty of time with my husband.
After I found out that I was pregnant with our first child, I wanted something that was even more flexible: I’d always considered working for myself, but making that transition was tough without a motivating factor. Tentatively, I began to look for freelance writing work and was able to start bringing in a few jobs here and there. After my daughter was born, I began to focus on ways to include my then-hobby blog into my writing portfolio and spent countless hours reading about how to build and grow a blog.
I now have two young kids, a growing travel blog, and more work than I can generally handle on a daily basis, both from a parenting perspective and from a business standpoint. The struggle to balance these two portions of my life are my biggest focus in my quest for true personal success: I ultimately would love to have a career that allows my family and I to travel around the world together. Having the financial security to give those experiences to my kids, my husband, and I while simultaneously writing about it would be the ultimate way that I would define success.
#8 – Amanda
Success, to me, is not measured by a bank balance, or by becoming Prime Minister or the head of a huge company. It’s much more complicated, and something that changes form pretty regularly.
On the whole, however, success to me is a feeling that I’m making a difference with my work. I like to juggle a few hats – it keeps me enthusiastic – so I tilt into several differences over time. In my job as social media and blogging consultant and trainer, success means I help the clients I work with to feel confident about sharing their business online and doing it in a way that is a win-win for everyone. As a travel podcaster and blogger, success means I encourage people to travel more and to reflect on the many amazing personal development benefits that traveling can give you.
While I might find it hard to define precisely what success means, I know how it feels. When I’m successful, I get so excited inside, and sometimes outside, and I jump and squeal. I’m not kidding. When I finish putting together a great podcast episode that I know will help change someone’s attitudes to travel, I hop and skip around the house with genuine glee.
When I wrap up a workshop where I can tell that I’ve reached someone in a way that will completely change how their business goes, I hop in my car and scream with joy. I really do! If I don’t get this feeling for a while, I know it’s time to adjust my goals. I guess if I can continue finding and reaching for goals that give me this ecstatic feeling of success, then that will be a life well-lived.
#9 – Daisha
My definition of success began with learning the hard way that I couldn’t let others define it for me. At the time in my life when I was most “successful” by external standards, I had a job related to my degree that paid more money than I’d ever made before and included a fancy “director” title. What it did not include was joy, not for me or anyone I cared about.
In the middle of all that, a friend died after a long illness. She didn’t have a prestigious career that paid well, but hundreds of us showed up to her funeral because of how deeply she’d impacted our lives. It was jarring to realize that so much of what I was investing in didn’t matter too much when it was held up to the light of something that did.
Shortly after her funeral, I gave up my job with no idea what was next. It was humiliating and hard, and I felt like a failure for tearing it all down. Ultimately, though, tearing it all down has made room for other things to grow, including a new way of defining success. Success, now, is when I am well and when I contribute to the wellness of others. Success is nurturing, success is generosity, success is practice, success is continuing to grow. Success is still hard work, but many of my old metrics (e.g., completing projects or achieving goals) now seem like side effects of success rather than its essence.
This has been fertile ground for some good things. One of my current projects is helping to fund a land preservation project that will permanently protect 300+ acres of historic farmland, forest, and wetlands for generations to come. Another thing I’m doing is putting time each day toward writing a book, and all those words are finally adding up! Perhaps most importantly, I’m actively supporting each of my three kids in reaching a goal they have. Just touching these things counts as success for me; and they all include joy, which is a pretty great bonus.
GRIT VERSUS COMMUNITY
Of the many things that I find so satisfying about these nine insider looks at success, are the common threads of environment, health, and community. Especially, community. Be it an inner circle of family and friends or the broader circle of spirituality and the world.
When we see our success as part of a community effort, we feel greater happiness and connection. We connect with each other, and we contribute to our collective success. Stronger together. Community success is something that not only women but that our world desperately needs.
As an American, my upbringing taught me to value rugged individualism. And as a parent, I am infatuated with the concept of GRIT, because I want my kids to be successful. But let’s look at this idea of success a bit further. You may have heard of the marshmallow test. When first carried out the researchers decided that kids that could wait for a second marshmallow already had the personality traits that led to success.
The Marshmallow Test In Community
More recently they redid the study in Germany and Cameroon. Do you know what the new results show? The kids that could wait for a second marshmallow grew up in environments that taught them to trust their community — to trust the adults in their lives. The kids that ate the marshmallow right away? They didn’t believe they’d get a second one. In other words, by the age of 3 or 5 years old, kids’ success is already influenced not just by their GRIT, but rather by their faith in their community.
Humans are social animals and from birth we rely on other humans to succeed, while also contributing to the success of our family. We never do it totally alone. And so, when you are feeling down and out, and wondering how you can do it ALONE, find a way to reach out to your community instead. In community, in service to others, you will receive the support and the strength to find and define success. No one should have to “go it alone.”
And so, my dear friends, I’ll confess that this has been a bit of a deceptive exercise because our “personal” success is not truly personal, is it? Our success relies upon our community of support and we contribute to the success of those around us.
Success is an inclusive, not an individual experience.
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Success is an inclusive, not an individual experience.
I am aching to know, after reading this has your definition of success changed? Do you see yourself in a better light? Do you now envision ways that you can increase your sense of self-contentment by cultivating your community?
For more on these amazing Xennial women follow the links:
<h1><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>The Complicit Generation</span></h1><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>As a Xennial White Woman, I am obligated to write about white privilege. My generation grew up post Civil Rights Movement. We grew up with Sesame Street, Different Strokes, Dr. Huxtable and Oprah. As a white woman with friends from varied ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, I once called myself color blind, because I did not personally see or experience racism. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Born in 1977 on a morning supposedly graced by a late spring snow and seven rainbows I am a quintessential Xennial Woman. We ate organic before it was hip and I could watch 30 minutes of TV before being sent outside to play (unsupervised). And, my mom brought home the very first Mac, so she could write her doctorate. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>I attended a magnet school (public) for international and ESL students, so my classmates were actually pretty diverse given the whiteness of Boulder. My fourth and fifth-grade teachers proudly attended the Peace Circles leading up to the shutdown of the Rocky Flats Nuclear plant. </span> <span style=”font-weight: 400;”>My classmates were either the children of hippies or professors (sometimes not a mutually exclusive state), with names like Rainbow, Forest, and Destiny. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>My 7th-grade teacher had a composting toilet. And my school held “Diversity Days.” </span> <span style=”font-weight: 400;”>As a university freshman, I recall sitting in a philosophy class where a student who grew up in D.C. professed that CU Boulder “was too white.” I proudly claimed that “Boulder might be white, but we are colorblind.” No one even whispered a word of surprise or discontent at this statement.</span></p><p><em><strong>I am part of the complicit generation.</strong></em></p><h2><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>I Once Was Blind But Now I Can See</span></h2><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>In 2010 I happened to be watching CNN when a program with Anderson Cooper came on. The show presented the findings of a recently released study on perceptions of race in kindergarten-aged children. If you haven’t seen the show go </span><a draggable=”false” href=”http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html”><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>watch it.</span></a><span style=”font-weight: 400;”> </span><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>The frightening take away from the show is that white kindergartners have the luxury of being colorblind. At age 5 they are already recipients of white privilege. On the flip side, black kindergartners already know about race. Society does not give them the privilege of being ignorant about the implications of skin color. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Awareness of race and skin color is evidence that already, white children benefit from white privilege. White children don’t need to worry about race, they have the privilege of being colorblind. If you are a parent of white children think about that for a minute. Maybe you read your kids books about people of different races, colors, and backgrounds. The children’s book, <em>10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes</em>, is a great example. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>You may teach your children to be colorblind, but do you also teach your children that these different backgrounds, mean we also have different life experiences? Do you teach your children to stand for right and wrong? Do you role play with them what they might do if they <br /></span></p><h3><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>An Even Deeper Problem</span></h3><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”><br />For a variety of reasons, some discussed in the study, black families feel the need to make sure their children understand perceptions of race. Some of this is to protect them from racism and some of it is to prepare them for the inevitable. This reality is perhaps surprising to a white person who may not actively see or practice racism; however, it shouldn’t be. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>The most disruptive take away from the study, in my opinion, has to do with self-perception. Not only did the study find that black children knew they were black, but that both black and white kindergartners have already taken on societal norms of beauty. Norms that embrace white as beautiful and black as ugly. As a mother, this makes my heart break and my emotions rise up in anger and in sadness. As a human, it disgusts me. </span></p><p><b><i>What kind of world do we live in that tells a child “white is beautiful, black is ugly?”</i></b></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Watching this show I had a breakthrough realization. I could no longer be colorblind. If a 5-year-old kid can’t be colorblind, then as a responsible adult, I needed to make a change. </span> <span style=”font-weight: 400;”>As MJ said, “</span><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>If you wanna make the world a better place, Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”</span></p><h3><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Racism is Real</span></h3><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>In 2012, I married into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family. My understanding progressed further. My in laws, despite experiencing atrocities and inequities in their life, definitely raised their children with the same ethic as Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” At the same time, they live a strange dichotomy. </span> <span style=”font-weight: 400;”>As a Malagasy family, their ancestry is both mixed African and South East Asian, which means, for the most part, their skin is on a color wheel, closer to mocha than ebony. And so my family has the luck to experience both active racism with a side of “well-meaning” colorblindness. </span></p><p><em><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>When you live with racism, it is far from comforting to have one white person, often a friend, say to you “well you’re not really black.” </span></em></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>The thing is, we live in a world and not just an American world, an Occidental, Western European influenced society, in which the status quo perpetuates that lighter is “better,” but white is best. If you want to read some firsthand examples of active racism I recommend this thoughtful and eloquent piece on </span><a draggable=”false” href=”https://onbeing.org/blog/what-i-said-when-my-white-friend-asked-for-my-black-opinion-on-white-privilege/”><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>the very real experience of racism</span></a><span style=”font-weight: 400;”> by Krista Tippet. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Ultimately, to claim “color blindness” or to deny your part in white privilege really doesn’t do any of us any good, because there are millions of people each day, who still actively experience racism. It’s a real thing. It’s an active thing. And although it may never go 100% away, we need to make an active effort to end it, while also working to heal the wounds. We need internal medicine, not just band-aids.</span></p><h2><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Make An Effort, Not An Excuse</span></h2><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>And so, I write this piece in the spirit of intersectionality. I acknowledge that each of us is unique, each of us has a different experience. Not one of us should judge another before trying to walk in her shoes. Most importantly, I acknowledge that I and that </span><a draggable=”false” href=”https://onbeing.org/blog/what-i-said-when-my-white-friend-asked-for-my-black-opinion-on-white-privilege/”><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>many of my white peers have been complicit</span></a><span style=”font-weight: 400;”> in our experience of white privilege. No excuses.</span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>I think this is one reason so many of us “white and color blind” felt shocked at the recoil experienced in the USA during and following the election of President Obama. In our effort to be color blind we completely discounted the experience of our Black American, Native American, Asian American, Central and South American, and immigrant sisters and brothers. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>But we need to make an effort not to be complicit. We need to think about it and we need to talk about it. And we need to not remain silent if and when we see or hear racist things go down. We need to make an effort, not an excuse because it is the right thing to do. </span></p><p>The fact of the matter is that most white people in the United States (and Europe) live in primarily white neighborhoods. Our communities (for reasons we can debate another day) remain segregated. One reason we don’t think racism exists is that we don’t have the opportunity to see it in action. </p><p>Where we live and most importantly where we grow up, means we often benefit from white privilege simply by the luck of birth. This doesn’t mean that there are not poor or disadvantaged white people. What it does mean, is that we don’t all have the same experiences. </p><p>In the article by Tippet that I link to above, she describes an experience one day in a university course in which a white male student gripes about reading a book on Malcolm X, because he can’t relate to it…</p><p>Think about the books that we read in high school and university. Most of them are by white male authors. How do you think people from other backgrounds relate to these books? This is, in fact, one of the major reason many universities created departments of Women’s Studies.</p><h2><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Racism is Taught</span></h2><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>As the study I mentioned earlier on highlights, racism is learned, it is taught. Babies are not racist. And if we raise our kids thoughtfully, neither are they. White parents, black parents, parents of all backgrounds should speak to their children about race. About the experience of race and about what it means to be a good person. </span> <span style=”font-weight: 400;”>We should build our children up, but not at the expense of others. </span></p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>You probably saw <a href=”_wp_link_placeholder” data-wplink-edit=”true”>this video</a> of a Virginia dad and his beautiful, smart daughter last year, but just in case I will share it with you here: </span></p><p> </p><p><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>My husband also asked that I share a story from our family. Earlier this summer, my husband asked my eldest son (his stepson) who he would marry when he grew up. Would he marry a white, black, Chinese or another kind of person? And our son answered, “I don’t know, skin color isn’t what is important, it’s who the person is…and if I love them.” He may only be 10, but he knows that beauty is only skin deep.</span></p><h3>Bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing…</h3><p>I first heard this saying in my son’s Kung fu class. Kung fu is a peaceful (defensive) martial art. The goal is not to attack, but to be prepared. Black parents talking to their kids is a bit like Kung fu. They are preparing their kids to go out and succeed in the world. Awareness is not an OFFENSIVE attack. It is preparation. </p><p>Similarly, acknowledging that white privilege exists and that if you are White in America you benefit from White Privilege. No matter how poor or rich, how hard you have worked or studied, you benefit to some extent from white privilege. This article does a good job of explaining the inner-workings of the <a href=”https://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/”>uneven playing field</a>. </p><h3>Perspective & Awareness</h3><p>Not all Americans have the same experience of being American. </p><p>What is American to you, may not be American to me. </p><p>American as Apple Pie…?</p><p>Pretty much anywhere you go in the United States of America, you can find an Apple Pie. But is Apple Pie even American? Or is it German? Or Dutch? French? Or Swedish?<br /><br />Pumpkin Pie is likely actually American, as pumpkins are a native fruit from the Americas. But what then about Sweet Potato Pie? Does it really matter?</p><p>My point is, that neither you nor I can precisely trace or claim the origins of white privilege any better than we can the origins of Apple, Pumpkin, and Sweet Potatoe Pie, but we can acknowledge that they all exist. Awareness is vital. </p><p>Once I became aware of white privilege, I started to notice it in action. Sometimes in the form of <span style=”background-color: #f6d5d9;”>simple </span>privilege, sometimes in the form of outright racism against someone in my presence. </p><p>What Can We Do?</p><p>We can be aware. We can discuss the origins and the history of race in America with our children. We can discuss the reality of diverse backgrounds and experience. We can question our assumptions. And we can speak-up.</p><p>Silence is complicit. Awareness is mental Kung fu. </p><p><em><strong>Bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing. </strong></em></p><p> </p><div style=”display: none;”><img draggable=”false” src=”https://alibcandid.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Ruth-1-16-200×300.png” alt=”Picture of black hands and white hands being held.” width=”200″ height=”300″ /></div>
A tale of Language and Privilege
How do you define indigenous?
Each of us is a product of our background. In life, we often look for ideas and people that reinforce the way we think and thereby validate our values and beliefs. As a kid, my mom shared office space with several other women at her university. Together they worked on gender and diversity issues in education. The women my mother worked with self-identified as Chicana, Black, and Native American. The result is that from an early age, despite being a little white girl from a Colorado Ranching family, my exposure to other experiences and cultures started early. At the time, I didn’t know the difference; I simply saw strong, intelligent and passionate women who inspired me to be my own person.
Recent events and discussion about white privilege have led me to understand how this inclusive and intersectional experience of my childhood prepared me to be open to diverse ideas and probably led to my decision to study abroad in Madagascar in 1998, which is where I met my husband. This “tale of Language and Privilege” is an exercise in thinking, not an argument for or against the usage of the word indigenous. I invite you to read it, to think and to discuss.
De-Nile is a River in Egypt
This is a post is best read slowly and thoughtful with a cup of coffee or tea. When you finish take a moment to sit a enjoy and to be followed by a long moment of contemplation.
My look at the word “indigenous” is a look at semantics and language. At meaning and usage. At language and privilege.
Specifically, I would like to show you how I transitioned from seeing the word “indigenous” as a conscientious word to describe native peoples, to a word that instead highlights a history of White Privilege and Colonial Imperialism. Although not everyone will agree on intent, the way that Indigenous is generally applied to populations around the world also implies “primitive.”
This subject has been brought to us originally by a discussion I had a few years ago with my husband. When our discussion started, I was very very lost on a long ride down the River De-Nile. My guess is that most of my readers are probably also bobbing along on a raft that is not as sturdy as they once thought…
This conversation originally came to my attention after a discussion I had a few years ago with my husband. When our discussion started, I eventually found myself very very lost on a long ride down the River De-Nile. My guess is that most of my readers are probably also bobbing along on a raft that is not as sturdy or directed as they once thought…
My husband and I grew up several thousand miles apart, but in families that value respecting individuals and cultures for their face value. We don’t judge. We walk our own path.
He grew up in the Antanosy region of Madagascar. I grew up in the State of Colorado, in the United States. Despite the geographic distance in our upbringing, it is often surprising how much we think alike. At the same time, we have had very different life experiences. Sometimes these experiences mean that we don’t always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes these experiences mean that we have experienced very different things. Racism. Sexism. And, the vestiges of Slavery and Colonialism.
Madagascar is just off the tip of South Africa and is on one of the trade routes from Europe to India. As a consequence, for many years ships with slaves, pirates, and various individuals intent on colonizing or just taking a break (for a few years or twenty), stopped off to settle and to terrorize in my husband’s hometown of Tôlanaro. A town that has two names, one used by the locals and one used by foreigners and given to it by the French (Fort Dauphin).
Because of the already diverse cultural heritage of the Malagasy, the people of the Antanosy region are long accustomed to the idea that not everyone looks the same. Because of the passing of Indian (from India), Asian, Middle Eastern, and East African peoples, walking down the street you can see people that are clearly of mixed heritage. Blue and green eyes, deep pool black eyes, tufts of blond hair, straight hair and curly hair can be found.
Certainly, the Antanosy tribe has a particular look, as do each of the 18 tribes in Madagascar, but historically, the Malagasy have not really been caught up in this idea of race. Foreigners are called Vazaha, which translates to “stranger” or “foreigner,” but not in a derogatory sense. Malagasy people simply consider themselves Malagasy rather than get overly caught up in origins and shades of skin color.
Growing up, my husband knew that some people were foreigners, but he didn’t know that racism existed. Some people were Vazaha, but people were people. And guests were to be honored in your home. Growing up in Tôlanaro, his parents were particularly interested in the foreigners that came to town, inviting them into their home, and learning as much as they could from the outside world. As far as my husband knew, guests and visitors were to be honored. And the color of your skin or the birthplace or birth status of your parents had little if anything to do with your personal value.
And then he moved to France.
In the last 15+ years, my husband has become well versed in racism, white privilege, imperialist thought, and every other repulsive thing that goes alongside. This essay is however not a pity party and I won’t get all the details, but I do want to share with you just enough that you can see how moving from Madagascar to France, changed his world view, forever.
I also want you to think about what his experience might have been if he had been white (say British or American white). Or if he had been a Black American coming to France. Let’s note during all of this that my husband has passed down through his family, French Nationality, so when arriving in France, his legal status never has been that of an immigrant. He arrived in France, legally, French.
Language and privilege: American versus African
When I was home in Colorado a few months ago, I had the honor of joining my mom’s book club. The members had just read a book by a contemporary Black American Author. He, like so many other Black Americans traveling to France (particularly Paris), thinks the French are not really racist because as Black Americans, they don’t experience the same racism they experience in the US. If you are reading this and you are a Black American, I want to you to think twice about what you experience in France.
For example, if my husband dresses in jeans, flip-flops, and an American flag t-shirt, and he speaks English, he can get into a fancy cigar club on the Champs Elysees, no problem because the doorman thinks he is AMERICAN. If he returns with his Senegalese friend (who parks a Maserati and Aston Martin in his garage in Miami) dressed in a suit jacket and nice jeans, but speaking French, they will be turned away from the same club, because they don’t meet the “dress code.”
In other words, they are guilty in the eyes of the doorman of being African and not French or American. Being rich doesn’t even make a difference, which is surprising to an American. Poor Americans rank higher than Rich Africans and French Africans in France. Ponder that.
Imperialism (usually White Capitalist Occidental People’s superiority complex)
Americans (both black and white) are known in France to be hard workers, but people of more recent African heritage (immigrants and born French alike) are not. Many white French consistently and publicly espouse the view of Africans as lazy. As uneducated. My nieces and nephews who attended a French school in the Seychelles arrived in France confronted by the assumption that they would be behind.
A few months after my arrival in France, I attended a CV workshop, on the recommendation of the French Employment office. The white French woman running the workshop started off by asking us to introduce ourselves. When I introduced myself as an American the woman responded, “Great! You shouldn’t have a problem getting a job, everyone knows that Americans are hard-workers, unlike Africans….” Um. Um. Ok. So Americans may be loud and impolite, but we work hard…
The aftershocks of colonialism and the imperial point of view, also continue to ripple through the United States. I grew up in Colorado. My mom’s family had been homesteaders around the turn of the century (1900). I grew up proud of my heritage and my family’s work ethic (I still am. Cowboys and Cowgirls are to be respected). We were tough, proud people.
As a child and as a young adult, road-trips often included visits to regional museums, which in an attempt at Grace, often focused on the people who had lived in the area before white (and black) settlers came to the region. Boulder had been home to the Arapahoe Indians and numerous streets, neighborhoods and even towns (Niwot) are named after local leaders and tribes. One of my favorite childhood storybooks was about Sacajawea and I knew plenty about the history of the Native Americans or American Indians that had lived in the region.
Museums cover the past. History is a study of the past. My experience (and I assume that of the majority of white and black Americans) was as though Indians were mythical romantic creatures of the past. We studied them in school. We visited heritage sites and museums. When I traveled to France, I was asked if Indians really wore headdresses and rode horses. My AP US History textbook (you know the same one that a conservative school board in Jefferson County, CO tried to ban because it is too LIBERAL) had a section titled the “Noble Savage.”
We studied dead Indians, but we never studied living ones. Well, I studied them, a bit, as part of my Unitarian Universalist 9th Grade-trip. We spent 10 days between the Navajo and Hopi Nations in New Mexico and Arizona. We stayed with homestay families. We took walks. We visited the longest operating Trading Post in the United States. We also visited the longest inhabited village in the Americas. Old Oraibi.
Maybe it was my own naivete, but the trip was still more like a trip to the past. I didn’t really stop to think about the separation of living American Indian society from mainstream (primarily white) American society. The people I met seemed more like ghosts from the past than living people. I was disconnected and I didn’t stop to consider what it must be like to be a First American, living amongst the vestiges of colonization. Getting up each morning and stepping out to be a part of “American” society.
I had a dear childhood friend with whom I spent hours playing after school. Our mothers were friends and had offices in the same building at the University of Colorado. At some level, I knew she was Indian, Navajo to be precise. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, she told me that the Navajo’s true name was actually “Diné” and that it meant “the people.” Navajo was actually a name given the tribe by an opposing tribe. I don’t recall it’s meaning, but it is not a complimentary name.
After this, for many years, in fact, I tried using the name Diné, but just about nobody, outside of people from the Four Corners region, has ever recognized the term. Many people, to my surprise, are not really even familiar with the term Navajo, and yet the Diné is one of the largest tribes remaining in the USA (of the 560+ that are recognized).
Despite our friendship, I never realized the implication of our diverging backgrounds until my husband and I started to discuss the word Indigenous. I frankly never thought to ask my friend about her experience growing up in Boulder. Never. I may have been raised in an open-minded, politically correct family, but I was still the recipient of white privilege and I had no reason to consider that her childhood experience was any different from mine.
I don’t remember how the subject came up, but I argued my point valiantly, for probably a week or more, before I finally saw it from my husband’s point of view. Growing up, I had been introduced to the terms Indian, American Indian and Native American. At the time indigenous referred to what I perceived to be semi-wild and innocent people still living in the bush in Australia, the Amazon, various islands or even parts of Africa. Aborigines. Bushmen.
And then I took a trip to British Columbia and went to the Royal Museum and I was astounded at the exhibit on Indigenous Peoples. As a student of Anthropology, I was in awe. Wow! I thought that the use of indigenous to describe Native Americans or American Indians was magnificent. Of course in ecology or plant biology, we talk about indigenous plants, so what better word, to call native peoples than “indigenous?” Or so I thought.
And then I took a trip to British Columbia and went to the Royal Museum. The museum had an in-depth and thoughtfully done exhibit on Indigenous Peoples. As a student of Anthropology, I found myself in awe and I left with a new perception and understanding of the word indigenous.
No longer did “we” need to worry about what “Native” and “American” meant, we should simply follow the step of the Canadians and call Native Americans or American Indians instead “indigenous peoples.” Of course in ecology or plant biology, we talk about indigenous plants, so what better word, to call native peoples than “indigenous?” Or so I thought.
And so, for the next 15 years or so, I proudly called Native Americans, “Indigenous peoples,” when I referred to them in conversation. Just as I did when talking about Pacific Islanders or the Kung! and others who suffered under the invasive regimes of Occidental Colonialism. Until that fateful day, in which my husband said, don’t use that word. I hate that word. “Indigenous” is a dirty, dirty, and demeaning word.
It gets complicated: implications of usage
I proudly paraded my open-mindedness until that fateful day, in which my husband said: “Don’t use that word. I hate that word. ‘Indigenous’ is a dirty, dirty, and demeaning word.” What? How? Why?
I tried to argue. I told my husband all the ways my usage of “indigenous” in fact demonstrated an open-minded and respectful usage. He told me I had a serious case of white-privilege. I was shocked. I was outraged. My own husband telling me — ME! — of all people that I was practicing imperialism in my speech absolutely scandalized me. And then I let it sit. And I started to think. And I started to question.
I felt feelings of shock and outrage. How could my own husband tell me — ME! — of all people that my speech and my thought process demonstrated my privilege and embraced imperialism. I felt scandalized. And then I let it sit. And I started to think. And I started to question. And I saw my privilege.
Think about the following countries and list off the ones which you personally think of supporting populations of indigenous peoples:
What qualifies a group of people as indigenous? Why have “indigenous” populations failed to embrace certain or many aspects of so-called “modern” society? What is the difference between a poor developing population and an indigenous population? The lines may not be clear cut, but hopefully, you can see what I am trying to demonstrate.
Why don’t we study “indigenous Koreans?” Or “indigenous Norwegians?” Why is it that the Maori are an “indigenous tribe,” but the Danish people are just…Danes? As an adjective, indigenous is indeed accurate to describe American Indians, but if we are going to call Indians “Indigenous” with a capital “I” then maybe we ought to also call those of European, Asian and African descent who live in the USA, “Invasive.” As we should anyone living in New Zealand or Australia, whose ancestors arrived sometime in the last 400 years.
Let’s look at the definitions of the two words according to our old friend Merriam-Webster:
1: produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment indigenous plants the indigenous culture
1: of, relating to, or characterized by military aggression
2: tending to spread especially in a quick or aggressive manner: such as of a non-native organism: growing and dispersing easily usually to the detriment of native species and ecosystems
“A non-native organism: growing and dispersing easily usually to the detriment of native species and ecosystems.” Are we talking about thistles? Or Colonialists? I can’t tell. As adjectives, indigenous and invasive are appropriate, but as nouns, especially proper nouns they are not. Why? Because it is the Invader who identifies the Indigenous as so.
The Imperialist Perspective
In other words, my white privilege, the same privilege, that never called me to question my girlfriend’s perspective growing up, led me to see the word indigenous in a very different light than my husband.
Growing up in Madagascar, my husband went out into a world in which he saw the unequal usage of the word indigenous. He saw that by classifying a population as Indigenous they suddenly become fragile and weak. Children to be protected by the laws and the money of dominant world powers.
Now, I acknowledge that indeed certain populations embrace the word indigenous and that there is value in the distinction “indigenous” makes when looking different groups around the world. Furthermore, many groups that choose to use the word “indigenous” do so in trying to make amends for previous wrongs.
At the same time, let us not forget that the individuals making these decisions still tend to come from positions of imperialist power and privilege.
You may not understand what I have shared with you today, you may even disagree, but I ask you to let it sit. Think about it. Contemplate it. And then think about how your experience and your perceptions may be different those that you encounter in your daily life. At work. At school. In the supermarket. How does our background or our origins influence our world view and how the world views us?
For further reading: