**Unlike most essays on the well examined life, this essay is in response to a series of specific conversations in which specific questions arose. This essay is written for Standing Up For Racial Justice’s DC chapter as part of our own going conversations about rethinking the white-allyship role and journey. Specifically, this is part of a project about using interpersonal reparations to divest from white supremacy and invest in Black liberation as the first step in creating transformative relationships with Black people. For the case for state sanctioned reparations read Ta-Nihisi Coates the Case for Reparations. For more information on how cities relate to the frontier. “The Frontier Is Our Home” by Lynda Schneekloth, State University of New York at Buffalo. **
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Slavery, White Pillage and Settler Colonialism
It is often said that slavery is America’s Original Sin. This statement in itself either erases the genocide of first nation peoples or starts American history at the Revolution, therefore obfuscating much of our settler-colonial origins. It also sets our understanding of America in a Eurocentric lens of Christian redemption and repentance. It would be more useful to say that slavery is the foundation on which we built the very idea of America.
America imagines itself as a frontier house: a well-stocked, nearly self-sufficient, autonomous construct created to advance a manifest destiny. Yet what is manifest destiny if not an imperial idea? While the frontier people who populate this house may not agree or even be aware of this imperial idea, they continue to serve it and their worldview is shaped by its needs. In many ways, America is the pinnacle of a specific settler-colonial project, built on stolen land.
When various European empires launched their various colonial projects in the Americas, they shared a fundamental imperial assumption, that land could be owned and indigenous people could be seen as disposable or could be dominated to suit the needs of empire. The needs of imperialism or empire, whether British, French or Portuguese, we pretty similar. Broadly speaking, empire wants dominance or power over land, people, wealth and other nations. A colony is an imperial project in so far as it is created to further the goals of dominance.
The American colonies were an imperial project to extract resources from land stolen from first nation peoples. It is crucial to understand that the settler’s existence is predicated on pre-existing violence. In order for a place to be settled, for the land and people to be pillaged, it first has to be “pacified” through genocide. The first imperial agents sent to a new world are not settlers but explorers who are themselves merely scouts for armies of extraction, domination and speculation. Settlers were sent to the colonies after the genocide began to further this colonial project by providing labor and management.
The settlers were themselves often refugees and European indigenous populations that were deemed semi-disposable by various European empires. We often forget, everyone is indigenous to somewhere, even our oppressors. Regardless of their personal reason for fleeing Europe, once they became settlers they became a part of the imperial project of domination, speculation and extraction. Once they were handed land, they were told it was theirs and told that they must defend it. In defending their land they became complicit in the genocidal colonial project even though it preceded their birth and their arrival in the new world.
Imperialism is a positive feedback loop of domination. As the colonial project advanced; more resources were being extracted which fueled the size, and power of European states, increasing the size and scale of European wars which in turn increase the demand for resources: more labor was needed. The indigenous populations of North America proved to be difficult to subjugate into forced labor as they were likely to flee plantations and rejoin their native tribes which were in active and violent wars of resistance with colonial empires. European indentured servants fared little better. For one, it was too easy for light skinned European indentured servants to run away from their contracts early and pretend to be free Europeans in other settlements. Secondly, the most valuable crops were grown in the American South and the Caribbean a clime that many Europeans had difficulty adapting to.
Third, and most importantly, after the ruling class of American’s plantation system had to put down a series of intra-racial rebellions such as Bacon’s Rebellion, it became necessary to separate poor European migrant workers and enslaved Africans. European indentured servants and enslaved Africans coming together in solidarity threatened the economic and political system of the pre-revolutionary American south. White Supremacy was the solution to this problem. It allowed the payment of a psychological wage, or systemic benefits and privileges that messaged to Europeans [increasingly “raced” as white people] that they were better than enslaved Africans, in lieu of the land and wage reforms that the American European immigrant working class had been demanding.
Whiteness is an elaborate story created not only to justify inequity and enslavement but also to teach poor European immigrants a standard of conduct. White people were told that the system works for them; if they just worked hard and assimilated they could advance up the social ladder. In addition to cultural components made to build internal solidarity with other white people, and by extension the state [Protestantism, English language, work ethic etc], whiteness also set a standard of conduct and achievement.
Whiteness as a standard meant valuing formal Eurocentric education as the pre-requisite to economic success, listening to your boss, not speaking out and using the courts and other institutions when problems arose. This is a concept often called labor discipline, crucial to keeping workers obedient in the inhumane capitalist system. If your boss treated your poorly and the systems for redress didn’t work in your favor, you were prevented to going outside the system by a counter story of lazy, unruly Black masses. In time, ideas like “white trash” further cemented whiteness as tied to middle-class bourgeois values and “good workers.”
This is basis for what is now called white middle class dominate culture: perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, belief in one’s own objectivity and the right to comfort etc. [Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, Change Work 2001]
Through this lens, it is clear that white people did not create white supremacy, they are in fact creations of it. This is the context in which America currently exist and has always existed. Our revolution was not an anti-colonial one in the normal sense. Our revolution was not against empire itself, it was coup, as desire to begin our own settler-colonial empire within our own tax system. In this new neo-colonial era often called neo-liberal, we often shift between roles of indigenous surplus population and colonizer depending on our identities, social mobility and the current mechanization of both formally organized capital [developers and city planners] and non-formally organized capital [market trends].
“Gentrification” and Urban Neo-Colonialism
“The contemporary American city is often represented as a frontier. From the vast literature on the imaginal place, the frontier, three themes are addressed that reveal the power of the imaginal in making and subverting places. First, the frontier was invented rather than discovered, and second, it is the landscape for sanctioned violence. The third theme is the reminder that the space on which the frontier is enacted, whether the wild West or urban America, is and always has been someone’s home. It is this masked aspect, frontier as home, that offers a standpoint of resistance and hope for our cities.” “The Frontier Is Our Home” by Lynda Schneekloth, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Fast forward centuries later and this story is still being told, if updated for modern sensibilities. Now, instead of the west being seen as this vast frontier that is both empty and full of dark skinned “savages,” our inner cities are the new frontiers. Displaced Okies, baby-booming yuppies and now millennials have been the explorers and settlers of the last century of urban colonialism. The term “gentrification” itself contains an invisible violent history. Gentrification comes from the idea of landed “gentry” or upper class aristocrats coming into place that was formally rented by lower class individuals. To use the term gentrification in many was reinforces this classed [and now raced idea] that gentrification comes not only with visible improvements and infrastructure investment but a better class of people. Basically, it’s okay because wouldn’t we rather have white people living there any way?
“Areas of urban decay are seen both as vacant land ripe with opportunities to be exploited by capitalists and dangerous “uncivilized” areas that need to be tamed. This cry for taming or “civilization” is then used as justification for violence against the native population, now Black Americans instead of indigenous peoples and enforced by police instead of the United States cavalry. One can see settler colonialism on a structural level in the recent “urban renewal [i.e. negro removal]” of Columbia Heights, the current development of Petworth or the impending development of Historic Anacostia.” – 5 Pillars of Anti-Black White Supremacy in DC
Hipsters, artists, yuppies and hill staffers are the new settlers of this vast urban landscape. Like the buffalo soldiers, Mexican cowboys and Chinese train workers before them, these settlers are not all white. Transplants like myself come in all shades and races. Yet, like the frontiers people of our past, it is the white hill staffers and yuppies that bring in the Calvary and the speculators. One of the truest statements I’ve heard about displacement is the axiom “white faces bring white money.”
This means that while many actors play roles in subtle community changes that bring about displacement and neo-colonial development, it almost always takes white people being in neighborhood for that neighborhood to change. For instance on U Street, Black artist developed a vibrant go-go culture and arts scene in the 90’s. They took over various buildings in the “blighted neighborhood” but didn’t have the access or resources to spur the kind of capital development we would see in the early 2000’s. Yet when white folks came on to the scene, drawn by Black festivals like the Funk Parade, it signaled to developers that investments could now be made.
Of course, the actual story is much more complicated than this. Crime rates, changes in development laws, land deals that Marion Barry helped orchestra, foreign investment, sub-urban backlash and other factors played in important roles in this story. Yet, all of these factors exist in the same settler-colonial structure and all of these actors are reacting to the same story. Even the most sympathetic accounts stem from a settler-colonial forgetting that the frontier is home. Through this lens, a complex pattern develops of investment and disinvestment interwoven with enfranchisement, uprisings and structural change.
American cities have gone through multiple cycles as the new frontiers. Edith Wharton and other gilded age authors tales of “Old New York” are full of landed elites fleeing to the country to escape the influx of immigrants and then starting progressive movements to “clean up the slums.” Young white transplants to DC are the newest in long line of disposed, uprooted or socially mobile settlers following speculators and prospectors into new frontiers. They spend some time in their “dangerous surroundings” and eventually take part in great pacifying activities like bringing new and expensive vendors to Saturday markets, taking over festivals like the H-street and Funk Festivals, calling the police to address [read arrest] “suspicious characters” etc.
Another great recent example of the power of whiteness in gentrification is in Petworth. There is a long history of respectable Black folks asking for increased policing in the neighborhood. Yet for decades the calls of elderly residents and middle class homeowners went unheeded by the MPD. Yet, as white folks begin to echo these calls, policing presence increased dramatically. Eventually the calls from the low income Black community to end police brutality will be joined by the middle class Black residents who only wanted a few more police who responded in less than an hour to a call. But white residents will keep calling the police until they have pacified the neighborhood and feel secure and protected and eventually, once all the young punks have been displaced, safe.
“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.”
― Paulo Freire
The result of this pacify-settle cycle is well known. American cities are heavily segregated by race and class. Black communities are systemically divested from until it is time to start flipping housing. Racial segregation breeds cultural unfamiliarity that leads to misunderstandings. White fragility not only makes overcoming these misunderstandings challenging but legitimizes emotional and, in case of the work place, economic violence for Black people who bring up race. The unnatural standards of whiteness breeds a racial anxiety in white communities and inhibits empathetic and emotional supportive family relations by making so many things off limits for conversations.
All told, this creates a culture that lacks many of the spiritually fulfilling traditions and activities that typify ethnic cultures. Again, it is crucial to remember that whiteness is a culture of dominance, not an amalgamation of European cultures. If you were to ask most white people space, habits and activities that are “white” and spaces that fulfil them emotionally and spiritually there would be little overlap. White people tend to invest heavily in subcultures, regional cultures and multi-cultural events for spiritual and emotional fulfilment.
One of the main drivers of cultural appropriation is the construction of whiteness itself. Whiteness is not merely an amalgamation of European cultural tendencies. This means that whiteness is not a melting pot of French, German, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Italian cultures. Rather, it is a culture of dominance that exists to both bestow and justify privilege for people perceived by society as white. White ethnic groups had to give up parts of their culture and identity in order to access the privileges of whiteness. Whiteness began to be bought and sold through marketing and advertising like many of other cultural values during 1950’s consumerism.
As whiteness was being sold through visions of an American dream in subdivision ads and car commercials, consumer capitalism worked to create a cultural deficit in white Americans, a feeling that they didn’t quite “have it all.” Consumer capitalism is then there to fill that deficit, with the next new “modern” thing. This leads to a tendency to mine other cultures for new music, hair styles and clothing that were previous considered low, uncouth or unprofessional.
Consumerism, Capital Production and Cultural Appropriation are an unholy trinity of exploitation and marginalization. For instance, it provides fertile ground for white America’s obsession with Black pain and trauma. Whether it is in the tragedy porn of shows like the Wire or advocacy organizations love of Black tears but aversion to Black power, this obsession forces Black people [and POC’s] into permanent victimhood. The permanent victimhood of Black people is one of the reasons that the Black Liberation movement is so viscerally frightening to some white people. Black Liberation’s expression of joy, rage and even apathy are beyond the box that liberal white America puts the Black American other. –5 Pillars of Anti-Black White Supremacy
For Black communities, the lie of Black inferiority, when internalized, creates its own self-limiting beliefs and habits. Racialized stress often leads to horizontal oppressions as feelings of shame lead Black people to lash out at each other. The lie of Black inferiority when combined with a disempowering social script that expects “docility” in oppressed Black people and a history of white violence causes many Black people to be uncomfortable speaking out against white people either because they have been socialized to expect silence from themselves or because they have experienced the violence of speaking out first hand. Equally important white supremacy and settler colonialism create economic security in Black communities. This forces Black people to have to prioritize acquiring basic economic necessities over activities that might allow for eventual liberation from capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of domination.
Relationship and Building Power in Coalitions
All of this means that effective coalitions between white and Black people are difficult and tends to be transactional. Transactional relationships are typified by a “what can I get out of this” mentality. Transactional relationships are unable to make systemic change or even effective reforms because they are not strong enough to get people to make any sacrifice. Transactional coalitions tend to fall apart at the first obstacle. They also tend to do more harm than good as power differentials and resource differences tend to build resentment over time. For instance, Black communities have grown to resent white organizations coming to us with fully planned out campaigns and asking for our support by telling us how “their” issue affects us.
Reciprocal relationships are far more effective. Reciprocal relationships are typified by a collaborative solidarity informed by honesty, equity and long term vision. Reciprocal relationships center on real conversations about needs of both parties and reframe the asks, goals and terms to respect those needs.
Reciprocal coalitions tend to be able to overcome moderate obstacles because all parties see a need to fight and overcome adversity. Reciprocal campaigns are often still susceptible to divide and conquer strategies however. Privileged groups often take deals with those in power that meet their major demands, sometimes at expense of the core demands of marginalized partners. Tipped workers getting left out of minimum wage increases are a great example of this. Even the strongest reciprocal relationships can only achieve reforms of enfranchisement, reforms that bring marginalized communities into current systems.
Transformative relationships are ones that leverage the power of reciprocal relationships to transform the context in which the relationships exist. Transformative relationships transform spaces and endeavors in ways that improve the freedom, joy, power and self-determination of all parties. Transformative relationships means investing in each party’s capacity so that together you can create a world in which you both thrive. Transformative coalitions are not concerned with asking demands of the current system, they are concerned with dismantling the current system and building a new one. Transformative relationships are aware of each other’s past, current context and visions for the future and are able to take this into account when plotting a shared course.
Too often, the model of solidarity we use in anti-racism work is based on abusive transactional relationships. Anti-racist solidarity is distinct from other forms of transactional relationships between different communities like services presented as charity or tokenism rampant in the performance of white and POC ally ship. This is both a particularly dehumanizing and ineffective model of solidarity in which the transactional nature of the relationship is obfuscated as a repayment of a historic debt. While White people and other communities that benefit from anti-Black White Supremacy do have a debt that they must pay, that debt is fundamentally not payable by disempowering themselves through some guilt ridden attempt to shift their power over to Black people.
To get free we need more power, not less. We need more leaders not enfeebled followers.
This idea that white people must give up their power is based on a white middle class and masculine limiting belief in scarcity. It presumes that either power is inherently bad [or at least bad in white people’s hands] or that it is a zero sum game. Intersectional transformative relationships teach us that power works in abundance. Just as standing in solidarity with my Black Trans siblings requires me to stand in my own transformative non-binary masculine power, not abdicate it, so too must non-Black people stand in their own transformative power. Yet in order for them to do it, they must first discover it and re-imagine their identities is a way that accepts my existence and my inherent humanity.
If you are afraid of your power or unable to separate your use of it and your identification with it from the dominance of my Black maleness, then you cannot stand in solidarity with me. –What Black Queer Feminism Has Taught Me
Divesting From White Supremacy and Investing In Black Liberation
Stokely Carmichael once said “if a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem but if he has the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.” The problem with white supremacy is a problem with power. But it’s not who has power, it’s what kind of power they have. White Supremacy and settler colonialism gives white people power over everyone else in the world but leaves them with little power over their own lives. It’s a power so indebted to the master/slave relationship that middle class white people are able to order any resources they want but unable to provide for their own spiritual wellness and wholeness. They are too used to relying on Black people to raise their children, cook their food, and entertain them to develop an organic culture of their own and as long as they have the power to force Black people to do it for them, they won’t.
Black people have power and lots of it. We have spiritual power and communal power built out of a long history of resistance. Yet our communities are under attack and the onslaught of neo-liberalism means that we must rely on white institutions and economies in order to survive. So we live in this constant paradox of not being able to live healthily with each other but being unable to live without each other. Instead we are killing ourselves trying to exist in an abusive relationship that is over four centuries old. In order to untangle ourselves from this abusive relationship we have divest from the system that supports it and invest in something else. We must heal and be whole before we can come together as equals.
For Black people that has meant divesting from the lies were are told about ourselves and investing in Black community, healing, love and joy. This why the BLM:DC focuses on Black Joy Sunday, supporting Unchained’s Emotional Emancipations and hosting Black Organizer Dinners. This allows Black people to heal and decolonize our ideas and relationships with our bodies and ourselves. From these spaces we can build a liberated culture and dual power.
Briefly, liberated culture is culture born out of resistance to capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and alienation. Elements of a liberated culture include: value of iterative processes, abundance, generative ideas and processes, being adaptive and conducive to life, transformative, grounded, communal, poly-centric, poly-rhythmic, nurturing, creative and centered on manifesting our greatest good.
Dual power is idea first posit by Lenin and further developed by Marxist, anarcho-socialist, Black nationalist, revolutionary nationalist and others. At it is most basic it is building alternative power. It is building a community’s ability to collect and leverage the resources it needs for its own survival that do not depend on mainstream oppressive structures. In many ways it is Gramsci’s counter-hegemony in practice. It is, to borrow an IWW saying, building a new world in the shell of the old.
BLM:DC, like many other M4BL groups, is beginning to formulate a plan for building our own version of dual power based in an explicitly Black Queer Feminist liberated culture. This plan is both informed by and birthed in the unapologetically Black spaces that we create and fund with our own salaries mostly from government and non-profit work. Many of the vibrant cultural aspects, art work, chants, songs, and events that we have thrown which have enriched your lives and inspired your activism come from these spaces. This website, my personal analysis and even the gift of this blog post also come from these spaces.
It should be clear then, how white folks in our network are directly benefiting from this work. The work of the M4BL is providing the keys for white people to dismantle white supremacy. This means:
- Divesting from unattainable white middle class standards that teach you self-limiting ideas about the scarcity of power.
- Divesting from ideas of patriarchy and addressing toxic masculinity so that you can organize white people from a place of love, collaboration and resilience based on mutual encumbrance
- Divesting from systems that feed your body but enfeeble you soul
- Organizing other white folks [base building] to counter the growing white nationalist and counter-revolutionary backlash the movement is upsetting
- This means building with low income white folks to bring them into a broad anti-racist coalition that centers Black leadership
- Divesting from all systems of oppression to build a coalition that is strategically placed to fight for collective liberation.
- Build a new identity based on love and radical inclusion, one that will survive the dismantling of white supremacy and therefore whiteness
- Investing in Black futures and Black Power so that we can stand together as true partners in social transformation.
- Fund Black organizing to continue providing the energy, vibrancy and analysis that they rely on to inform their own
Dana (generosity) Practice
In the Buddhist tradition, the teachings are given freely because they are considered priceless; in the Buddhist tradition we also practice dana, or generosity, by making monetary offerings for the teachings. Dana is not payment for goods or services rendered; it is given from the heart. Your generosity is a gift that supports not just the teachers, but also the Sangha, the larger Dharma community, and your own practice. – See more at: http://dharmawisdom.org/teachings/articles/meaning-pali-word-dana#sthash.zL56Uig3.dpuf
Reparations should not be seen as merely repaying a material debt. Reparations in the form of giving sustaining gifts to projects of Black queer feminist dual power is a communal ritual, a form of restorative justice, in which White people let go of their power over in order to sustain their access to their power with. It is better understood in terms of Buddhist dana than the modern non-profit industrial complex’s donation. It is not charity nor are you buying something. It is the process in which we can begin to close the wounds of our past and head towards a brighter future. Reparation, when paired with a revolutionary communal praxis of direct action, reflection, analysis building and healing, is about letting go of whiteness and building something better.
|“If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.”
–El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X)
Against the Idea that Interpersonal Reparations Obfuscates the Role of the State
Interpersonal reparations is a necessary first step for state sponsored reparations. Blacks asking the state to force unwilling white people to pay reparations depends on and therefore invests in the state’s ability to take commit economic violence on its populace. For reparations to not invest in a new ability of the state to commit economic violence it would have to rely on a pre-existing value or structure. It is also highly unlikely as the state was created to protect the power relationship that white supremacy was created to justify.
The closest America ever came to reparations was in the uncompensated emancipation for slavery. This was only possible because of anti-southern sentiment and industrial north’s desire to profit off the industrialization of the south. Because it did not come with an actual commitment to ending white supremacy and was a project of capitalist reconstruction was halted before the fundamental inequality of America could be addressed. It set up the powerful backlash that led to convict leasing program and black codes. Any alternative, like the state taking wealth from corporations or rich families obfuscates the role of whiteness and the complicity of individual white people.
There is an alternative. A mass movement to dismantle white supremacy. A transformative campaign for reparations in which the campaign for reparations creates the cultural transformation that allows for the maintaince of the structural transformation reparations is advocated to bring.
9 thoughts on “The Case For Inter-Personal Reparations”
Thank you for writing this piece. I’ve been thinking a lot about interpersonal reparations as I’ve been working with excavating and transforming my own privileges and biases, and your ideas are very helpful/inspiring. Has anyone ever talked about a National Endowment for the Reparation of Slavery? I know that could look like traditional charity, but it could also be created from the deep context you’re putting forward here, administered by and for people explicitly intending to unravel and reweave the structures that calcify our curiosity, imagination and action…
Hey America! Thank you for reading this piece! I’ve thought many different ways it could look and am always excited to hear about more!
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Hi Aaron. You said “Interpersonal reparations is a necessary first step for state sponsored reparations… For reparations to not invest in a new ability of the state to commit economic violence it would have to rely on a pre-existing value or structure…. A transformative campaign for reparations in which the campaign for reparations creates the cultural transformation that allows for the maintaince of the structural transformation reparations is advocated to bring.” I’ve been thinking for days how to write back just right because believing that I understand and have been practicing this wholeheartedly. I committed to paying interpersonal reparations since August 2018. I earn 50k/year, about +30k after taxes, and have paid over 11k in reparations in less than 1.5 years. Every pay day, I send a self-imposed 10% tax to a friend to use as he sees fit to help low income Black people in his community. When he has an emergency, I send as much as possible to help ease legal, medical and financial emergencies. The reason giving so much is because dove into learning US history and the savageness, and past’s connection to present blew my mind. I am poor, so have given up much to pay the reparations. And I know that whatever I have given up is incomparably far less than even the tiniest drop in the bucket of what Black people have lost and had stolen from them over the centuries and to this day. Paying interpersonal reparations has been a great exercise not in generosity, but in contributing a tiny share to right a huge wrong on which my economic life stands. It’s living the truth that white people must give up comfort and excess that is built on such deep suffering, then and now. And absolutely you are right – paying interpersonal reparations has shifted my mind to that new value system that needs to exist for state sponsored reparations to happen as a right to a wrong, rather than another form of state violence. It’s also been a great experience because this is the first time that feels like I’m doing activism for real, the kind that really helps people and shifts structures in the right direction: if all the well-meaning, antiracist white girls gave 10% of income to Black-owned organizations, no questions asked, how much good could come of it.
Hey Olga. Great to hear from you and thanks for sharing your personal experience! I’m really glad that it has been perspective shifting for you. Your personal practice sounds really wonderful.
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