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This conversation is right on time. Dr Maytha Alhassen is a Syrian-American journalist, poet and scholar, working to bridge the worlds of social justice, academic research, popular culture and healing arts. And on this episode of CTZN podcast, she schools us  on the history of immigration and white domination in America.

May was born a learner only to grow up in a White America that treated her multi linguistic skills as a deficiency. She always found school to be regressive and disappointing, and set out to learn all the truths on her terms and is speaking them out loud. 

When talking about muslim bans or immigration issues, May says that its not about whether immigrants are welcome or not. It's about white supremacy. Trump’s travel ban was not the beginning but a continuation of a legacy of immigration restrictions and bans in America. And it began with the naturalization act of 1790 which said only free white people could be citizens of this country. 

What we are witnessing right now - with travel bans and family separation and caged children and overflowing, unsafe, unsanitary concentration camps was built on that legacy. 

And witnessing is exactly what we need to do. Not the kind of empathy that centers our feelings of others pain and just sits there. But the kind that takes action because of what has been witnessed. The word in Arabic is Shahada - which translates directly to act of witness and testimony. May calls it a kind of “with-ness”, one that is interdependent, active and engaged. One that understands that we all have a stake in transforming systems of oppression because we are all connected. 

And she leaves us the critical question and contemplation: who is witnessing what is going on all around us? And what will we do about it? 

This conversation is real time and essential. Take a listen.


…….

Kerri:

Welcome May Alhassen.

May:

Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

Kerri:

I'm so excited you're here.

May:

Kerri, yay.

Kerri:

I was thinking before, by the way, that we know each other in two contexts. We know each other in the yoga context. We met many, many years ago at Hala's house-

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

... I think. Then we met again in an activist network. I love that because it's weird that I have yoga friends who are activist friends, and you're one of the few that stand fiercely at that intersection, so I'm so excited you're here.

May:

I'm excited to be here too and to make that integration even more on point I guess.

Kerri:

Yeah, yeah, totally. I have no doubt you're going to do that, just knowing what I know about you. When I was thinking about how to introduce you I was challenged. You're an academic, an activist, a healer, a yoga teacher, a writer, a translator, an artist, a poet, an actress, a commentator, a speaker, an organizer. I'm sure I could go on. I was like how can anyone properly introduce you? I love that because I love how many super powers you're bringing to your work. But I'd love first for you to tell us about where you come from, and even more specifically, who you come from because I would imagine that has everything to do with the work that you do in the world.

May:

I'm going to start with where I just intuitively, in my mind, just visualize which was I was born in Southern California, that's strangely a big part of my story because I'm kind of, as I joke, an LA stereotype in my granola, crunchy, plant-based, yoga every day lifestyle. Thinking about the ways that I'm connected to nature, disconnected by virtue of systems that are around us, however, I was born, literally in Little Aleppo because my father got into business with his brothers and through the business they bought out a track of houses that were model houses in a cul de sac. I literally grew up with his family on that block. We'd take plastic chairs outside and eat watermelon. I don't think people know that Syrians eat watermelon.

May:

That's my dad's side of the family is that they're from Aleppo. He grew up in a very different environment to me, which was a Syria that had just become independent from French colonizers. 1946 is when Syria becomes independent and months later he is born. He's born into a new reality, but also a reality that shifts the generations of his own lineage. His father is a Bedouin from different city completely and that's part of my story that distinguishes me from other Syrians in America which is I have this direct ancestral connection back to southern Arabia. You're looking at me here, but the listeners can't see me, I have curly, black hair and I looked a little bit "darker" than the usual Syrian. My grandmother on my father's side has red hair and blue eyes.

Kerri:

Wow.

May:

That's actually the common story. Syrians are like the white Arabs, which I didn't really connect back to until I finally visited there in my 20s and why did it take that long? My mother's side of the family who was all over the world, Canada, Spain, U.K., Saudi Arabia, I think somewhere in Syria, we would converge in the south of France where her parents lived. Actually, to this day, my grandmother on my mother's side, is buried in Nice, in the south of France. We would go there every single summer and this was a divergent story from the Arab immigrant or the children of immigrants in the U.S., which is they would mostly go back home in summers and that's why their Arabic improved and they had a strong connection to the land. For me, I was going to Cannes and these places that are ... I didn't realize it as a child because I was just going to see my grandparents and my cousins, but I didn't know this was the film festival land, the partying, the St. Tropez, the upper elite, aristocratic lifestyle. I would come to find out later that those were the folks that my mother's family was partying with. It would lead to some interesting complications, especially with my own politics.

May:

I then am raised in this smaller city, which some of your listeners might know about because of pop culture, called West Covina, California, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend put us on them map. It was a city at the time, I grew up in the 1980s, that still was a Republican district. What that meant is even though there were a good amount of people of color there was still this sense of white dominance because all of us Asian, Indian, black, Mexican, other Latin Americans, we all try to fit within the standards of white aesthetics, white culture-

Kerri:

Assimilation.

May:

... to feel like they were accepted. That was my earliest memory, one, waking up in Aleppo, then going to school in white America.

Kerri:

Was that a conflict for you?

May:

Oh incredible conflict because I didn't know that I was supposed to hate myself until I went to school, actually. I grew up speaking Arabic and English. I was put into ESL classes even though I had already been speaking English, but I don't know if most folks know that when you go to a public school and they ask you what languages are spoke in the household, if you put anything in addition to English, even if you put multiple languages and English is still on there they'll put you in ESL classes. At this point, I'm already speaking, I've done math, I'm doing a little bit of reading and then I'm put into a class where they show me an apple. This is, I think, around first grade. Or no, I think it's kindergarten.

May:

They were showing us an apple and I was like, "This is a motherfucking apple," like I know what this is. I go back home and I tell my parents, "What is this school thing? It feels very regressive." I didn't use the language "regressive" but as a kindergartner, but that was definitely something that I felt and sensed. Had I not told that to my parents, they wouldn't have gone to the administration and said, "Hey, what is going on?" The administration's response was, "Let's test her." They tested me and not only did I test into a non-ESL class, like a mainstream class, but they skipped me a grade and they put me in gifted.

Kerri:

They would never have done that-

May:

If I didn't go back.

Kerri:

... if your parents hadn't have been like, "What the fuck?"

May:

Exactly. Had I not said that to them they would have not known what my school experience was like. They didn't grow up here.

Kerri:

They didn't even inquire into it.

May:

Right.

Kerri:

They weren't testing for competence-

May:

Right. They were noting that bilingualism or multilingualism was a deficiency.

Kerri:

Whoa.

May:

Right? Imagine-

Kerri:

And not a strength.

May:

Right, not a strength. Of course, now we have scientific research that's producing all these reports about how fundamental it is to have a bilingual, multilingual brain as a child, and what that turns into in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, acclimating and adapting in different environments. At that point, English and Arabic-

Kerri:

I wonder if that policy still exists. It's such a subtle policy of exclusion, but I would imagine, just even knowing the school that I grew up in outside of Manhattan, that was exactly what was happening when I was growing up. I just wonder is that still the line in the sand that they use to determine who gets into what class.

May:

Totally, I mean-

Kerri:

I don't know enough about education to know that, but especially in Trump's America I wouldn't put it past our school system.

May:

And the different ways that school plays out across the nation.

Kerri:

Yeah.

May:

What I think is really interesting I think, we're around the same age, during this time there were shifting ideologies around education and culture in America. I saw the move from the melting pot to the salad bowl, to the mosaic, to multiculturalism as sometimes a diversity marketing ploy, right?

Kerri:

Yeah.

May:

Also saw the transition from having Christmas break to holiday break.

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

From Christmas show to holiday show. Actually during this time, folks might find this really interesting, like I said, I went back home ... Let me back up a second. During this time, the other part of my response, this is where the conflict around self-hate comes from, yes I was strong enough to tell my parents that this wasn't okay. But the message that was communicated to me that was that me speaking Arabic was not okay, so I started speaking Arabic back to my parents. My little kid brain was like, "Oh, Arabic, bad." That's the association it made. I tried for decades to separate myself from being Arab and tried to find another identity to lean on. For me during this period with the transition to holiday show, to tolerance of other religions, it was being Muslim, ironically, pre-9/11. I just invested in that identity.

Kerri:

Do you ever think about what your path would have been like had you been assigned to an ESL pathway-

May:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kerri:

... and not accelerated academically because you have such an academic ... I don't know what you'd call it, pedigree. I just wonder, had that fork in the road not happened for you.

May:

Well, I think about two things, one is that I think about all the other children that didn't go back to their parents and say this was not okay, and where their lives ended up and where they could have ended up.

May:

Then for myself, I think about this continued to be the story with my engagement with public education was that it was never challenging enough. My parents also didn't have the experience growing up in the system to know what I was being dropped off into at 7 AM and what they were picking me back up from at 3 PM.

Kerri:

Wow.

May:

One of the first things I did when I got on the internet was look for boarding school. I was like the little Mathilda get, I felt an outsider. That was the other part of it, I was bullied, mercilessly, for looking like another. There were not other Arabs in school with me besides people who had my same last name, because there was the Alhassen clan that lives on the cul de sac up on the hill. That continued to be ... Well, I should say, contribute to a lot of pain as a child was not just reconciling those two worlds, but really finding like I didn't fit in any of them in the way that I was told to. Later in life I would come to see that as a strength, but as a child I was actually very depressed and I've spoken about more publicly about the kind of depression that I experienced as a little kid, like a seven, eight year old. We're hearing stories now about what's happening with young kids. I think I read somewhere about an epidemic of young, black children with suicide now. That lack of attention to creating conditions that speak to embracing people, that's still continuing today. We've moved forward, allegedly.

Kerri:

And have we, right?

May:

Yeah.

Kerri:

It just makes me think about ... and I didn't plan to talk to you about education, but you're like now got me thinking about what it's going to take and how critical it is to transform the culture of education, and how we understand. That's the beginning for so many kids.

May:

Yeah.

Kerri:

Not just in academics, but in culture.

May:

Right.

Kerri:

What we learn in school, what we learn from other kids, what we learn from other parents, what we learn from teachers and administrators, it shapes us.

May:

No, definitely. Not having an Arab woman be my teacher until graduate school was a big deal. This is another part of my story. A lot of people who hear me talk about who I am and how I came to be and that was the other part of your question, know that my father played a big role, and that's a story you don't hear in the U.S. context of talking about Arab and Arab-Americans is the role for some people and some families that Arab fathers have on the career path or the trajectory of their daughters. It's usually told in a context of counter-terrorism, like our men exist to make us submissive, to be at their beck and call, and we are hidden behind the sheets, black sheets, and we have no say.

May:

I don't want to generalize. That's also not the best strategy in countering that kind of prevailing stereotypical thinking, but I also do want to mention during my childhood period, my father was very involved in local organizing, so that's another part of you were hinting towards my activism. I was introduced to so much in the municipal context, in the state context. I don't think any of my other peers, in terms of people in the Arab-American community really came close to until after 9/11.

Kerri:

Well and just hearing the story about how your parents protested your assessment at the-

May:

Yes, yes.

Kerri:

... school-

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

... was like an act of activism.

May:

My father would take us to city council meetings. We'd-

Kerri:

That's awesome.

May:

... go to political fundraisers, do canvassing, go to phone banks. I'm sure I did a phone bank and I was underage to do it. We protested as dump sites that was supposed to be closed near our home.

May:

One of the funnier things was that my father would always take me to political fundraisers. At the time, I was somebody who loved belly dancing, so I would only agree to go if I could dance at the political fundraiser. Here I would dress up in a custom my mom made, like a really skimpy outfit for a six year old. I call it a little JonBenét Ramsey-esque. Then my father would introduce me as his future congresswoman. Had I not had that, given the world around me, the pop culture imagery, where totally absent was that of a strong Arab or Muslim woman, what would have I become? What would I thought was possible?

Kerri:

Your dad and your mom migrated to the U.S.

May:

My mother, the reason her parents were in the south of France, because-

Kerri:

They're both Syrian, yes?

May:

The complications. What's funny, I think that we forget a lot of these countries and these notions of nationalism come to be in the last two centuries. When borders are created then identities are created. Syria comes into being in 1946. Before that, that whole land before French and British colonizers came in, was Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, that was called Land of Syria. Because of the way that the Ottoman Empire, which preceded British and French colonialism would rule the area, which was very decentralized, people identified with cities and not a nation/state identity. That's why I led, actually, this conversation talking about being from Aleppo, which in Arabic is Halab. There was a strong identification of being Halabi, which is the noun around somebody who's from Aleppo.

May:

My mom's story is that she was born in Syria. Couple generations back her family is from Egypt, actually. We only uncovered that when we went back in my 20s. I was like, "Whoa, how come I didn't know this part of my story?" But when she was very little they moved around all over the place. Her father was a diplomat, so my marriage between my mom and dad is like the marriage of the princess and the pauper. She moved from Egypt, to Turkey, to Spain, to all over the place, and then finally settled in Lebanon. She really identifies with Lebanon. That's why we would travel there frequently.

May:

However, another plot twist, her family has Saudi citizenship. On my birth certificate it literally says I'm Saudi and Syrian.

Kerri:

Whoa.

May:

When people look at me they're like, "What? How is that part of your story?" It's also an interesting conversation because it tells you, your podcast is CTZN and we think about citizenship, how citizenship plays out differently in the Middle East, or what I like to call Northeast Africa, and that is what passport you have is your entry point to navigating that place that you're living in. If you-

Kerri:

It's not even just place-based.

May:

Right, right. There are very few people in the Emirates who have an Emirati passport. It doesn't get directly handed down either. Your father has to be an Emirati to be handed out. My mom had a Saudi passport, she couldn't hand it down to me, which someone would say, "Who would want a Saudi passport?" But for somebody who was a Muslim, going and being able to go hassle-free to visit one of the holiest sites in our tradition, Mecca and Medina, that would give me easy entry.

May:

I'm going off on a little bit of tangents, but talking about education, before this current administration Saudi Arabia, there was a policy of offering scholarships to Saudi students to go study anywhere in the world, and mostly American universities. That included graduate school. That also included healthcare. At a certain point, I really wanted to go back to law school, but I wasn't willing to have that quarter of a million dollars of debt, so I was trying to look back to see if there were any ways that I could navigate and get that money. But now that's not the case anymore. The new administration pulled all that out under the rug following suit with American financial advisors who have instructed them to take money out of social services, like healthcare, like education, and redirect it to a defense budget.

Kerri:

Sounds familiar.

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

Your parents come to America. This is my question ... but thank you for taking us on that tangent. I have a feeling you're going to school us this whole podcast. I'm just going to keep asking you questions because I'm learning so many new things. But what do you think inspired them to get political right away? Is that something that they had been oriented to from where they came from or did they feel compelled in America to get engaged?

May:

The other part of my mom's story I did not finish is that she grows up in Lebanon and in 1975 it was the start of the civil war.

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

Her father, at this point, is a diplomat there involved in politics that are going on that would have spelled danger for his family. He gets wind of what's happening and before there is a submergence or total explosion of violence, he takes his family and moves to the U.K. and my mom finishes up her last year of college there. Then they moved to the south of France. In her early 20s she's there.

May:

My father, at this point, he comes to the states in 1968 and literally just a couple months after MLK has been assassinated, so this is a very interesting time and climate for him to be here. He was somebody who worked as a busboy, took community college classes to transfer to an engineering school. It was his dream to be in an engineering school where he would learn how to build cars. Cars were his big, big passion.

May:

He hasn't publicly told this story, but I think it's a fundamental part of who he was, he was working at a cafeteria, I believe on campus, and he was promoted ahead of some of his white colleagues. One day he was walking to work and he was jumped by two of them. They I guess walked on his back and he was injured so severely he was in rehab for six months. The idea is that this dirty Arab gets this job before them, and this is southern California, went to school in San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire area, and that was still something he experienced.

May:

To be honest, I don't know what really led him in, but the irony is because my mother's father was so heavily entrenched in politics and she saw what that meant in terms of displacing them, especially for her, somebody who loved Lebanon. Her heart still is there, it's in Beirut. She has so much distance from politics, it's like she's allergic to it. She doesn't want to get involved. We'll tell her who we think are great candidates to vote for and policies that are important for us, but ironically, she does get heavily involved in PTA. That's the kind of work that speaks to her is something-

Kerri:

Local political.

May:

Local politics, exactly. For my father, coming from a Syrian context where the party that the Assad regime is a part of comes to power in 1963. For five years, my father's adult life he sees what that dictatorial nationalist transition, some people would call it socialist, but we can have disputes around terminology, what that did for him. Which is that when you're under a really oppressive, tyrannical dictatorship, that political participation is not only stripped from you, but your ability to engage in freedom of expression and speech is also as well. I think there was a part of him that because he was so heavily excluded as a Syrian in that period from the political process, wanted to be engaged in it. I know that he wanted to desperately run but he said to me once, he's like, "I have an accent. No one's ever going to elect me in this country."

Kerri:

Speaking of tyrannical dictatorships, you know where I'm going?

May:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kerri:

I want to talk about the Muslim ban.

May:

Oh actually, I thought you were going to jump back into Syria, but that is a tyrannical dictatorship too.

Kerri:

Yeah, I know. I figured that was a good bridge. We don't hear so much about the Muslim ban now years later, and yet, it was the tone, I think, that really shaped the last two years under this administration. You and I were together when that executive order came down in LA. I'll never forget it because I was so grateful you were there and Linda Sarsour was there, that I was actually in your presence while this was happening because I didn't understand what it meant. Right away, I got this incredible context, like this is what this means, this is where this is coming from. Since that day, I have always been like whenever I had a question about it I have always been like, "What is May saying? Follow me." At CTZNWELL we featured your Facebook Lives, really you have helped us make so much sense of this. I'm so grateful to you. We just stand in the place of it is so important to listen to the voices who are most proximal to those who are most impacted and you have been one of those voices for us, so I'm grateful for-

May:

Thank you.

Kerri:

... how outspoken ... I'm sure that has been challenging for you, how outspoken and committed you've been to really helping people make sense of this.

Kerri:

I want to read something that you wrote because I think it gives better context to how we should be talking about this. You said when you were talking about the Muslim ban you said, "Their geographies are in places that we call the Middle East and Africa, but the bigger story of this is the fact that a ban is part of the logic of white supremacy in this moment." I think that's really important because even to call it a discriminatory policy against Muslims feels too innocent. This has everything to do with our legacy of control and colonization, of policing bodies, of harassing and harming others, of detention and incarceration.

Kerri:

You wrote a great blog, everybody should read this, about how we have to go beyond the immigrants are welcome narrative. But this is not the story we hear in the media.

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

It's even not the story we hear on the left and in progressive communities. It feels like we actually need to be telling another story. What is the story that we need to be telling about not just the Muslim ban but this administration policies against not just the migrant community, but communities of color in general?

May:

When the Muslim ban came down as an executive order it was right after the inauguration, but it also was part of a series of other executive orders that targeted the indigenous Native American community in response to Standing Rock. There was another executive order that was a response to federal oversight of police and law enforcement that had come in response to Ferguson, so that oversight was stripped as well. The message that was communicated in those first couple of weeks, in my mind, was that any community that isn’t aligned with white supremacy is under attack. If we're not thinking about it in that intersectional way, then we're losing... Yeah, we're losing the plot, we're losing the story of what's happening.

May:

In fact, what I've been saying is that white supremacists see us more unified than we do. Imagine if we actually saw what was happening in Standing Rock with what was happening in response to the protections of law enforcement against police brutality, or protections around police brutality, I should say, and also the ways that the Muslim ban was transpiring. All those things are happening and then of course that plea for the wall, which it just shows us how much this administration and the white supremacist agenda which was also was very much set literally the day after Obama was elected. There was a convening of white supremacists in Tennessee and they said, "What are we going to do to oppose this administration at every turn and what's our story going to be?" Their story was white genocide. If they could prove and show that any other community was infringing on the reproduction of whiteness, whether it is the physical demographic bodies of white people, or if it was also the rights of white folks that was being taken away, allegedly, as if rights are this scarce resource by other groups of people. Then they were going to wage an all out war. That was their story. We never came up with the story.

Kerri:

A counter story.

May:

Sorry, right. They've been riding with white genocide since 2008, but we haven't even been able to pinpoint that.

May:

Fast forward, we also did not put pressure on the Obama administration to move past liberal policies, liberal policies that in other people's hands could be easily exploited. For example, what you were quoting was from right before Obama exits they pass a budget and part of the budget was this visa waiver program, which reversed the visa waiver for anybody that had nationality in Syria or Iraq. What that meant was if you're a European who's from Spain, like my cousins are, my Syrian cousins, and you're Syrian, you can't come to the U.S. without getting a visa now like any other Spanish person. That made them second-class citizens in their own country by the U.S. doing. That existed before the Muslim ban and people were like, "Oh whatever, it's an additional issue and inconvenience maybe. They just have to go to the consulate." But what that effectively did was it gave DHS, Domestic Homeland Security, the jurisdiction to be able to add as many other countries as it wanted.

Kerri:

It was like they cracked the door open.

May:

They cracked the door open and then the Trump administration actually cites this Visa waiver program-

Kerri:

And kicks the door in.

May:

Exactly, exactly. They start with countries like Syria and Iraq because there was a geography of violence created around them, which-

Kerri:

Supported that affiliation for them.

May:

Right, right, right. That geography of violence, which we never have a conversation about comes because of the destabilization of the Middle East because of the Iraq war and other decades of U.S. interference in the region and military bases, and so on and so forth, and drone strikes, and bombings. None of that is part of the conversation, it's just in an unconscious American person's mind, here's the Middle East, this is where violence occurs and people are born and bred to be violent. If we just block them from coming here we'll be safe.

Kerri:

I think this is so important too because I think there are so many people who woke up on November 9th, 2016 and --

May:

11/9, I call it 11/9.

Kerri:

11/9, right, right. 9/11, 11/9 and thought that this was the beginning of a tyrannical trend when in fact, it was the continuation of one.

May:

Right. Going back to this idea of why the ban signals another iteration of white supremacist policy is we've had migration, immigration restriction bans that were exclusionary to every group except Northwestern Europeans many times in our country's history. When people went to LAX to JFK and said, "Immigrants welcome, this is a part of our history", Statue of Liberty says, "Bring me your tired, your downtrodden", no, it's actually not a part of our history. What you read from was an article I wrote for the Boston Review on I called it the 100 Years History, but I went a little further back, or 100s of Years History of the Muslim ban, which starts after the Constitution is passed there's a law in 1790 that says only white, free people-

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

... can be citizens of this country.

Kerri:

The Naturalization Act.

May:

Act, exactly. What that meant was that effectively, every kind of legislation was trying to include other people who were not that, whether it is women, free black folks, any other group. But the whiteness is so prevalent and strong that in the early 20th century when Syrians were migrating here ... There's actually in law school a lot of discussion is around Syrians coming in the early 20th century because they are the ones that flipped what they call naturalization cases. What was happening was that an Indian person, a Japanese person-

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

...  were trying to find any argument to become a citizen, but they had to use the claim that they were white too to get citizenship.

Kerri:

Which assimilation, the very assimilation that you were talking about.

May:

Right.

Kerri:

Conform and we'll reward you.

May:

Right, right, right. It's not really immigrants are welcome, it's an immigrant is welcome if you can demonstrate that you can assimilate into a white culture or whiteness. While other groups were unable to prove their whiteness, the Syrians were around a very interesting argument, which was what they called cradle of civilization argument. Basically they stated, "Oh, you all are white Christian folks, right?" Most of the Syrians coming into the U.S. at this point were Christian. They said, "Well what do you call home? You call Jerusalem home? You call Paul of Damascus home? Well we're from there, so if you're white and Christians are white, we're white too because we're from there."

Kerri:

Well and there is the history of Christian domination --

May:

Exactly, exactly. That's how they were able to flip it a little bit, but that didn't mean also during this period that Syrians weren't being lynched and had crosses burned in front of their house-

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

... in the south. That's what was also happening at the time.

Kerri:

You also said it's not enough to say no ban, no wall, but rather, no prison, no cops, really gets at what we're talking about because white supremacy sees immigrants and people of color the same way. What is the relationship? Can you help us understand the relationship between the immigration debate and mass incarceration in our country?

May:

The Muslim is racialized as this brown foreigner. When we say Muslim ban, automatically people are thinking about that even though some of the countries on that ban are from Africa, so effectively, as we've seen around free 21 Savage, nobody's thinking about black migration to the U.S. and how they're undocumented folks and how they're affected by the same policy, so that's one thing. But systemically, a lot of the stuff is rooted in a system of anti-blackness that creates the logic around the need for prisons, for a penal system, for restrictive immigration policy, and it's actually black organizing that reverses some of the stuff.

May:

What I was telling you about restrictive immigration, there was a National Origins Act that was passed in 1924. It was only totally gutted in 1965 because of the liberalizing trend of the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of folks were able to come after 1965, so all those quotas for non-European countries, non-Northwestern Europe countries, were dissolved, but people came here and they didn't see the black freedom movement that was responsible for letting them come into this country. There's a disconnection in that point to what they owe in terms of black struggle. As we saw with the 1790-

Kerri:

Naturalization.

May:

Yes, that the first group of people to expand that were black folks when they were emancipated after the Civil War. There's that element to it.

Kerri:

Which led the way for women.

May:

Yes, exactly. Precisely.

Kerri:

That's another connection we don't make, we fail to make, especially as white women.

May:

Right, right, right. But also, black women were involved-

Kerri:

That's right.

May:

... in the abolition process as well. It's that historical nod to the struggle that preceded us, so that's one point of it. But, like I said, that logic about restricting people that are not white comes from a rooted anti-blackness.

Kerri:

Why do you think that as a movement we have such a hard time with intersectionality? We stick to our issues, we stick to our identities and we fail, to your point, to connect the dots around how our liberation or emancipation, our right to vote, has all been very interconnected and interdependent. Do you think it's self-preservation? Are people just struggling to survive and don't feel like the movement is strong enough for us to band together and to tell them we're complexed? What do you think is at the root of that?

May:

I think people, this is going to sound harsh, are still invested in the possibility of ascending to white, middle class status. Hierarchically, the way they're positioned, let's just take a system that is rooted in anti-blackness, if you're brown and you have documentation, you're looking at somebody as undocumented as holding you back.

Kerri:

As a threat.

May:

Yes, from being included conceptually as being worthy of having an American citizenship. People are just racking their brain, they're like, "Why are some of these Latinx folks in Texas voting for Cruz? How did that happen?" Well, it's because they are believing in this mythical universe of their ascendancy to white, middle class social culture. I think people are still holding out for that.

Kerri:

For the American dream.

May:

Dream, right, right. What would it mean for us to see these also as not just abnormalities of the system. I think that's what people are seeing and banking on, so the people that come-

Kerri:

Versus a mythology.

May:

Right, right, the mythology that they're invested in, which they're thinking that these are temporary detentions. They're thinking this is a temporary hold back in their fulfillment of economic mobility. This is a temporary moment where the wall might just be up for a little bit. This is a temporary moment where some of the people who look like us are in detention, but we're not supposed to be there because we work hard, because we own a business and --

Kerri:

Meritocracy.

May:

Meritocracy, right. If black people worked a little bit harder than they would be like us. No, absolutely not.

Kerri:

Well and this is no different then third, fourth, fifth generation-

May:

Correct.

Kerri:

... white European migrants who I think make up a good part of Trump space-

May:

Right, right.

Kerri:

... who are defending their turf. Gore Vidal said this is like the United States of amnesia because we are against migration and movement and yet, we come from it. It does feel like there's a shared ideology there, to some extent, even though it's happening in such different ways, such different groups of people of defend your turf, self-preservation, hold onto the mythology of the dream, keep going, don't let anyone get ahead of you, there's not enough to go around. All of these ideologies conspire to get us stuck in this stalemate with one another.

May:

Right. Lack of putting this in a better way, but this is why white supremacist culture is so boring too because you can't know about any other part of your story beyond a couple generations, and then you have to carry on the myth that it's always been like that, so how am I going to break this system that has been in place for centuries, no, it actually has not. This is a relatively new process in the modern history of people, of folks around the world is this idea that actually a very small group of people, in terms of global population, should control all the resources around the world.

Kerri:

Which is going to, by the way, end the world.

May:

Yes, yes. I'm going to test out a pretty, I don't know if it's going to be an unpopular thought, but I've been sitting and thinking-

Kerri:

All unpopular thoughts welcome on this podcast.

May:

I've been sitting and stewing around how we talk about western civilization. We all enter college and we have to take West Civ I or West Civ II, and continue the process of being trained around the history of modern thought comes with Enlightenment from Renaissance era-

Kerri:

All positive things.

May:

Right, right, right, right. No other history existed before, like thee was a Medieval period that everybody was, I guess, in the world under ... except the fact that it was actually only concentrated in western Europe and that's it. These are the stories we're told and this is the other part of the story we're told is that knowledge production exclusively comes from this process and this period, but that knowledge production was sponsored and subsidized by colonial enterprise.

Kerri:

Right, well industrialization is also a part of that story-

May:

Right.

Kerri:

... which has wreaked havoc-

May:

Right.

Kerri:

... on Earth.

May:

Right. My maybe unpopular-

Kerri:

I know where you're going and I totally agree.

May:

I want people to hear Western civilization and think stigma in their head, have a bad association and say Western civilization equals destruction of organisms because it's not also just us and the livelihood that we could have in this habitat that we're ruining and destroying, but we're taking all the other species with us.

Kerri:

Totally. I was even thinking of calling the course The Beginning of the End.

May:

Right, exactly.

Kerri:

This is the beginning of the end. It's so funny because when I think about ... I feel like I'm a cynic, so I want to be careful not to assume that all bad things have come from this too. Part of what I see emerging post-2016 election, and has been emerging for some time, for those of us that were in the movement long before that, it is a greater understanding of our interdependence and more vocabulary around it, more shared practice and culture around it. While it does feel like things are slipping and rolling back, I also see an evolving and an expansion of an understanding that our liberation and well-being are bound. It reminds me of one of the quotes that you had on your website. I don't know if this is your tagline or your mantra, but it says, "A kind of engaged withness." That does seem like ... I don't know, we have more words around that and more practice now than we've had in a long time and that even while things are slipping and getting worse, that is also something simultaneously that is emerging. I love the "kind of" part because it's feels like it makes space for paradox, and contradiction and difference, and conflict inside of "withness". I want you tell us what you mean when you say that.

May:

This conceptional framework emerges from my dissertation, which I wrote two years ago. It's the idea that I just struggled a lot with solidarity as a concept of acknowledging and practicing interdependence because how it frequently manifested, I come from an organizing space, was an assessment of reciprocal exchange, and so-

Kerri:

It assumes sameness.

May:

It assumes sameness. It also has a calculation around how much I'm willing to give you around let's say your struggle. There's sameness and separation. Your struggle's over there, my struggle's over here, I give you my solidarity for your struggle over there. But if we take away that engagement or if we take away those terms and say actually I'm witnessing what's going on for you, but with me in the process, then it transforms not just the relationship that you have with "the other person", but acknowledges the difference, but your relationship to the difference.

May:

What I mean by that is that I am very inspired by Islamic spiritual tradition. A lot of that came out of how witness is described in a Quranic and spiritual sense. In English we think about witness as here you are Kerri. I am seeing that you have a bandage around your thumb. My heart might go out to you, but then it just shops there. But in Arabic, the term around witness is shahāda. Included in that definition is "to testify", so you can't have one without the other. If I'm standing there and let's say the bandage fell off I would just say, "Oh, Kerri's just in pain," that's it. It would just end there. But if I was like, "Is there anybody around who has a band-aid," that's me testifying.

Kerri:

It sounds like you're defining the difference between empathy and compassion-

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

... like you can have empathy in which you can retain a sense of separateness, like I feel for you, whereas, compassion calls you to act on their behalf.

May:

Exactly.

Kerri:

Okay.

May:

I've spoken publicly about some of my frustration around how popular empathy has become because it also always centers our feeling of the other's pain and just sits there. That's cool, but it's also a little self-absorbed, was that oh my God, I'm so empathetic, I just carry all these people's pain around all the time.

Kerri:

What if I'm an empath? What do I do with that?

May:

Oh yeah, I'm an empath, yes. Exactly. What do I do? I just have to protect myself from everybody else's suffering. Well no, now it's all about your feeling other people's suffering, but now we should feel for your suffering.

Kerri:

Oh my God-

May:

Yeah, so-

Kerri:

... I love you for saying that.

May:

Well I also love compassion too because why did we throw away that term, because it does call to action. If you look at the history of how witness is deployed it's deployed around conversations about the Holocaust, who was witnessing the genocide, conversations around slavery, who was witnessing what was going on in slavery. For a lot of international tribunals and other genocides the term witness comes up and we think of it also in a legal juridical sense in the U.S. But if you saw those as..., how differently are you oriented in the world? I have this conception, which is now people are going to get a little afraid, but sahāda means "witness to testify" it also means martyr and that's where people are really afraid of what that term could possibly mean.

Kerri:

Well it means different things in different contexts too.

May:

Right, right, but the way I interpreted the connection of all those terms together is if I'm witnessing an injustice, a part of me dies. The only way I can be reborn is through the telling. That's why the dissertation is called to tell what the eye beholds.

Kerri:

I don't think that's radical or controversial at all because I think it even reminds me of our relationship with the term ally ship right now and also the prevalence of white savior syndrome, which seeps into so much of our activism, or the othering of I'm going to help that person over there, regardless of who is doing it. But if there's no skin in the game, right-

May:

It's the stakes, it's us understanding that we all actually have a stake in transforming the systems of oppression, but more people in the world are experiencing the not, but also the people who are allegedly privileged, because they're part of the destruction of their own life.

Kerri:

Everyone is suffering under white supremacy, I don't care where you're ... You know what I mean? In different ways, certainly based on our location and our proximity, but not healthy for anyone.

May:

Right. I should also say that the part of the influence of engaged "withness" is James Baldwin, so a "kind of". He was asked what he considers himself, is he a writer, and he said, "No, actually, I'm a witness and the pen is my weapon." That's how he saw himself. We started off this podcast talking about all the different ways I show up in the world and spaces I show up. I guess I don't see them as separate. We were talking about how we collide in such a rare way, the yoga community and the organizing community. But for me, it's all witness because that interdependence is the genetic code that I guess I've existed in the world with and that integration of mind/body/spirit.

May:

When that hasn't been acknowledged those moments of depression as a seven year old, those moments of depression when I was forced to have cerebral processing as my way of being as an academic, that's led me to say, oh, something's out of balance, because everything should be talking to each other. Mind/body/spirit should be talking to each other. I should be talking to the art community, the organizing community, the near death community, the media community. Just that separation doesn't exist for me, not that there aren't proper boundaries that people should have and spaces should have, but that's the fiction of Western civilization is separation-

Kerri:

Binary.

May:

Binary. Oh yeah, how the Victorian period fucked us all up. That's where homophobia comes from is just this investment in an idea of a white, male rich person who is heterosexual as the ultimate citizen. That tiny little place called the U.K. just exported that all over the world and we're still paying the price for it.

Kerri:

That's right, that's right. I want to talk about healing, because I feel like you're going there.

May:

Yes, yes.

Kerri:

Healing also as a wholeness, because I feel like that's also what you're naming is in our culture because we've been indoctrinated under all these ideologies and exports, thank you very much England, and other colonizers, we do a lot to contort and exclude parts of us, and neglect parts of us, and deny parts of us, whether that's mind/body/soul. I think of that also in terms of community and meta community. When we don't understand that we need all of our communities to be healthy and whole, then we see that it's possible for us to separate and to actually work against one another. One of the things that we talk about and we explore at CTZNWELL is this idea that the wellness culture sells us a myth that you can do self-care and wellness-

May:

I'm so glad you're talking about this.

Kerri:

... by yourself, and in isolation, and that's enough. When in fact, we're like, "No, no, actually you can't achieve wellness when other people are suffering." I feel like that's our version of testifying. We witness and we testify, and therefore, we must be engaged in the well-being of everyone because our well-being is intrinsically tied up in that.

Kerri:

I know that you're a healer, you're a yoga teacher, you're a Reiki master, you're all sorts of-

May:

Almost a master. I just completed level two, so I don't want to misrepresent myself, but yes.

Kerri:

In 2017 you piloted a trauma-informed yoga program geared towards displaced and marginalized people. You piloted it in Greece, it's called Yoga To Displaced People. I want to hear not just the role of healing in social justice and liberation work. But more specifically, the best practices of how we do it because we do healing a lot of different ways, and we do wellness, as I just mentioned, a lot of different ways. A lot of it is perpetuating systems of separation and systems of white supremacy and systems of oppression. How do we do healing with one another? How do we do yoga and wellness with one another in a way that supports and reinforces like that truth that we have amnesia about?

May:

Just to pick up from the pushback around self-care culture, which is I'm not saying that you can't have that bubble bath and feel good about it. I think part of that movement was I don't want to feel guilty for taking time for myself. That's fine, but it's not a revolutionary thing to have a 16 day filled with gig economy capitalist labor production and be-

Kerri:

An appropriation.

May:

An appropriation, and tear up your body and say, "Okay, I have a bubble bath now. I've reversed all of that." I think that's the trap it gets us into is that our real work, we have to do all that stuff, the caring for ourselves, but maybe we don't actually need that much maintenance if we didn't have systems that took away so much from us. As an example, let's think about the folks coming from many different places. I think the misconception around refugees is they're Syrian refugees, there's Afghans, because clearly we're responsible for their displacement. There's a lot of Africans from Cameroon, from Congo, folks from all over the world had this moment to leave where they were going. What I frequently heard was that had they know how different it would be and what they entered into maybe they would have just died back home. The thing was, "back home" before the intervention of war, of economic systems that made it untenable to live, they had a community.

May:

I hear more people talking about community care and why that's so fundamentally important is that pregnant mother from Syria who gave birth in Turkey on her way to Greece and had an infant that she's taking in a boat, and then comes there and doesn't know what's happening to her child, in a community of elders she would have. She also would have a community of elders that would take care of her kid when she needs to go take a shower. That isolation, that individualism, that disconnection from an ecosystem of care, that is radically felt in the new experience for displaced people on the Western European continent, especially within a refugee camp geography.

May:

For me, I thought I can't change the EU, not that those things aren't possible. But in the immediacy of now, what can I do if I can't change international law and the sweeping, overwhelming anti-immigrant sentiment that's hitting the U.S. and Europe. Let me give people a chance to mindfully breathe. That's been a little bit of my mantra in addition to an engaged witness because how much of us running from something is a continuous running? When do we get a moment to breath?

May:

I worked with a women's center in the island of Chios, which is one of the three islands that most people come to on their way to try to get to the mainland of Europe. These are almost extension war geographies with how not just chaotic, overwhelming, how securitized these islands are. There were shifting tides but at the point that I came two years ago, if you weren't a refugee you couldn't go in and out of the detention camp because they didn't want you to see the deplorable conditions that folks were living in because they're afraid of you reporting back food poisoning, everything.

May:

Anyways, what could I offer? The women's center on the island of Chios was almost like a bit of a shelter because women could spend their whole days there, get therapy, medical training, and I asked if I could do a trauma-informed yoga series of workshops. I was trained by Hala Khouri, who we both know. That's part of my trajectory. Then to also try to teach in Arabic. It was fun because-

Kerri:

Wow.

May:

Well the thing we always forget, because we just think about how difficult people's situations are and where they're coming from, and how we just think challenge, everything is dark and dreary. What they need in some of these moments is not just mindful breath but play, and fun and laughter. My pronunciation is not the best because I stopped speaking Arabic for decades and then didn't pick it back up until college, so I was trying to say breath, like the most essential word in yoga. I just didn't pronounce it right. They all started cracking up and I felt in a way, I was like, "No, I should laugh at myself too." They were like, "No, it's really cute the way you're saying it. It's funny. It's cute". Here they were laughing in yoga, we do have laughing yoga. I'm just like, "No, let it be. Let them have their moment."

May:

At the end of doing this for a week there was a teenage girl from Iraq that came and she was a quiet person. I just noticed this moment in Savasana there was a smile on her face that just glowed, was glowing up the whole room and I was like if I could just give this young girl a moment to feel okay, and that's great. But it's not even me giving this moment, it was you have these tools available to you and hopefully you can employ them and think about getting back into your body when your body has been so radically not just displaced, but racialized as not wanted, excluded. How can you get back into your body and say it's okay being me in this space that doesn't want me here.

Kerri:

Despite all the things, despite what we're witnessing, and despite your life's experiences, you still have a vision-

May:

Yeah.

Kerri:

... for freedom. I'm like, "How the fuck is that possible?" Yet, I'm like, "Please have a vision for freedom for all of us." What is that and how do we get there?

May:

After Trump was elected in the couple minutes of 11/9, I just had this download come to me that was like what you need to invest in is divine feminine work and art. I come from an organizing background that centers abolition. A lot of people do, a good friend of mine, Patrice Colors and I, constantly have conversations around this and she is somebody who I've really looked to, to lead the way around how to think about abolitionist frameworks for transformative justice, for organizing, for conceiving of not just new communities, but new ways of relating to each other and within ourselves.

May:

But that moment I just had this stark intervention from the spiritual realms and I started to do ... Well actually, I was asked to hold spaces to use Islamic spiritual practices geared towards the divine feminine rising and sacred femininities. I started to do those and I realized that a lot of women that come from the same demographic as me, women of color, also raised in a Muslim household, were taught a very mechanic version of it that was fixated on a practice of assessing piety and performing piety in a public way, so-

Kerri:

Like Athena.

May:

Athena?

Kerri:

Yeah, like the Greek god Athena is very much like that.

May:

I didn't even know that's the way that-

Kerri:

That's the way I heard it.

May:

Really?

Kerri:

Performative, strong.

May:

Interesting.

Kerri:

Like-

May:

I see her as-

Kerri:

... rigid.

May:

But she's the warrior that is born out of Zeus' head-

Kerri:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

May:

... right? Okay. I see that. Now I see that.

May:

I started holding those spaces and low and behold, this was something that most of these folks are either my age, younger, were desperately searching for, was a connection back, especially within white supremacist capitalist, homophobic, transphobic [crosstalk 01:03:04]. Yes, all of it, that system, because a lot of that work is also about disconnection, not just from each other and us, but from the spirit world. That's been something I've been invested in. The Reiki came after this moment in this aftermath. I'd already been doing yoga, but that's the stuff I'd been cultivating.

May:

I would also say on a practical sense, that I see a lot of work for transforming who we are and our societies local, local organizing, local pressure on local politicians. We've seen a turning tide, clearly, on the national stage when it comes to do the tide that's come in, women of color, the AOCs, the Ilhan Omars. But we've also seen the resistance they've received as these young women of color with a radical agenda for justice that people are unwilling to let go of. One, we support them, but we also know that on the federal level, that's not going to radically shift our everyday lives. It does have a large influence and I'm not going to say that it doesn't, but the local work, if we want to take over city councils, if we want to be the head of school boards, we are shifting if a little Maytha is going to go to ESL, or going to be sent on the educational pathway she should have been destined towards. That work, it's not glamorous. It doesn't get you on MSNBC sometimes, but it's the most critical, crucial, vital work we could be doing. At the same time, using that experiment to say how could we think of freedom and justice differently, especially with these local structures connected to a country that has such a violent, damaging history, that has a constitution that wasn't meant for so many people, well maybe these places are the pockets of freedom. That's been all my mentors is the grassroots bottom-up storytelling and organizing is what can transform. We need to flip and invert the ways we've invested in the top-down because we're actually like Republicans then. It's trickle down freedom --

Kerri:

It's a bypass, right?

May:

Yes, yes.

Kerri:

Just to use your phrase again, we can't "bypass the withness". We need the proximity to better understand one another and to witness, and testify. We can't do that from afar. We have to actually build that in these, Adrienne Maree Brown calls it fractal moments, fractal relationships. That's what I hear you saying is let's start with you and I-

May:

Right and see the tangible work that your everyday laborer towards freedom and abolition is doing on the ground level.

May:

Los Angeles had an amazing victory happen last week or two weeks ago around putting a stop to a $3.5 billion jail expansion plan that has been set into motion over a decade and a half ago. Patrice, we mentioned, and her organization, Dignity Empower Now, and the coalition that Dignity Empower Now is a part of, Justice LA, has been doing this work. They were able to convince a board of supervisors that has a budget of $30 billion plus to say, "Guess what, these prisons aren't going to do anything for us. They're just going to cost us more money and what about if we create decentralized mental institutions or centers instead. That's a re-imagining of what it means for us to have agency in the process of freeing ourselves.

Kerri:

I'm so grateful at that fork in the road between you being put on one of two paths at school and your parents speaking out and protesting that you got on this path-

May:

Oh thank you.

Kerri:

... because you are such a force. Every time I'm around you I learn so much that, speaking of withness, I just wouldn't know or learn, or understand in the way I need to were we not in relationship in this way. I'm just so fricking grateful for you being on this podcast and you being in my life, but you also being in the movement. We will continue to follow you and listen to you-

May:

Oh thank you.

Kerri:

We will testify.

May:

Yes.

Kerri:

We will testify.

May:

Testify, I love it.

Kerri:

It's like I'm being reminded of Madonna. I'm going to testify my love, but I mean it now in a whole other way because of you.

May:

I'm going to testify for justice.

Kerri:

I'm going to testify for justice. Thank you for being here May.

May:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Kerri:

You got it.


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