Skinfolk, Kinfolk, and the Kinship of Oneness

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People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, 1999

The concept of race is a recent concept and social construct in human history. Many sociologists and biologists do not see race as real. Yet it is real in terms of the damage done to people, particularly those who are already marginalized. It also damages those who perpetrate social hierarchies based on race and materially benefit from this caste system. The concept of race has propagated a social system rooted in a color code that I have begun to refer to as a system of “skinfolk.” By virtue of having very recent ancestors of African descent, according to this social construct, I belong to skinfolks often described as the “Blacks.”

“Blacks” as a skinfolk category did not always exist, and it is distressing that contemporary notions of race and skinfolk are now retroactively used to describe the panoply of humanity throughout history. One example is the oft-repeated statement that Blacks sold Blacks into slavery and were therefore complicit in the perpetration of the Atlantic slave trade that brought millions of “Black” people to the Western Hemisphere or the Americas. During the period of the Atlantic slave trade, however, there were no “Black” people. Instead, there were ethnic groups that did not recognize divisions based on skin color.

Nor did color similarities—what might be called “skinship”—translate into kinship. The phenomenon of ethnic conflict is, of course, not unique to “Black” people. Ethnic conflict is a profoundly destructive part of human history and interactions. Lest we think that conflicts between skinfolks are confined to Black skinfolks, one need only consider the historical religious strife in Northern Ireland, the tension between the Walloons and French in Belgium, the competition for supremacy in Asia between China and Japan, or the conflict between Muslim and Hindu skinfolks in India. Contemporary conflicts also continue to occur between people whose skinship is presumed to be the same; for example, conflicts between ethnic communities rage across Africa, persist between Haitians and Dominicans, and manifest on the streets in urban areas large and small across the United States.

The profound tragedy that my skinfolk have experienced since the inception of the slave trade and subsequent periods of racialized oppression is well known. The process of forced migration during the enslavement period resulted in Africans from different ethnic groups being separated and thrown together as a way to reduce the likelihood of revolt. This was also a critical part of an attempt to destroy diverse African cultural systems and beliefs.

 Yet as it is sometimes said: in crisis appears opportunity. As cruel as the attempted erasure of African cultures was, this intermingling of African ways of life also opened opportunities rooted in skinship, including social and cultural concepts such as pan-Africanism, which espouses positive Black cultural ideas and seeks to overthrow negative patterns of thought associated with blackness. Cultural consciousness is an antidote to the destructive aspects of enslavement, oppression, and colonialism—a pathway to healing from the intergenerational traumas experienced by those identified as occupying enslaved, oppressed, or colonized classes.

As a platform for social cohesion, skinship could be critically broadened by focusing on kinship. What is apparent is that a (r)evolution is in order, and it must be waged via a campaign that is rooted in the recognition that all people are sacred beings and thus kin. Pan-African and Black consciousness movements contain nascent ideals that open fresh pathways for considering what kinship means. We can no longer afford to be in perpetual conflict with one another. It does not matter which sector is evaluated, from the economy to spirituality. The divisions that perpetrate war and hate must be ended; kinship must prevail if healing cultural and ecological trauma is a priority.

Just as a lack of kinship recognition among peoples leads to inevitable conflict and attempts at ethnic domination, the current dominant economic “system” reveals a lack of kinship recognition between human and nonhuman worlds. This system is extractive at every level, perpetuating industries that mine everything—from the fish in the ocean to rare-earth minerals to fossil fuels. Extractive social interactions in Western social systems mirror patterns of extractive practices such as mining. Moreover, extractive social interactions and extractive economies often reproduce the same negative biological, social, cultural, and psychological impacts.

Marginalized and oppressed people and communities are particularly susceptible to extractive social mining, which manifests in societal pollutants such as the “drug war,” extractive education systems, standardized testing, and the entertainment complex.[1] If marginalized and oppressed people “perform” well, on the basis of an extractive separation process, they are selected for professional, technical, and scientific positions. More often, they are placed in social strata where they are subject to the prison-industrial complex, retail and warehouse jobs, and gig and underground economies. For whichever category one is selected, the outcome of marginalization remains. This happens regardless of titles, awards, and achievements. (In this respect, one might note reactions to the Obama presidency; or the assassination of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King; or the barely recognized contributions of Dr. Mark Dean, a person of African descent who invented the personal computer platform that we recognize today.)

Similarly, many people captured and transported during the enslavement period were selected because of their agricultural knowledge of crops such as rice and indigo. One result was the huge agricultural region known as the “rice bowl” that thrived in the southeastern United States, which, at least in my mind, is an early example of intellectual property theft. This led to the enrichment of some at the expense of marginalized and enslaved people whose well-being was treated as less important, regardless of their knowledge. Such enslavement, marginalization, and extraction among humans finds ongoing echoes in how the rest of our ecosphere is treated.


My cumulative study, exposure to, and practices of Buddhism, Taoism, Rastafarianism, Traditional African Spirituality, and other global Indigenous shamanic systems have formed my commitment to kinship. This was fueled by episodes of realization that go back as far as I can remember.

Those episodes of realization began when I was only six years old. On a family trip to visit my great-grandmother in Florida, I was with my parents and grandparents, and we wound up at the site of a carnival. I remember wanting to go to the carnival, but I was told no. I whined, as children often do, until my grandfather finally said, “Let him go.” I got in line, although no one else from my family followed. When at last I reached the entrance, a white man—who I can still visualize almost sixty-five years later—told me, “Niggers can’t come in here.” As I walked back to my family, I vividly recall my reaction, which was a resolution: I would begin a journey to unravel why I was treated that way and what could be done to ensure that no one would ever be treated that way again. I also remember my grandfather’s gaze. He had imparted a gift of wisdom—one that keeps giving to this day. It is manifest in gifts such as this piece I am now writing and in the admittedly imperfect ways I try to live a life of peace, love, and interconnection.

In contrast, on that same trip, I remember running up and down beaches on the Gulf of Mexico chasing crabs and accompanying my great aunt to the pier every morning to purchase fish and seafood as the fisherfolk brought in their daily catch. I remember being barefoot virtually all the time, except to go to church or another event where (I guess) shoes were required. I tuned into the feel of the warm earth encircling my feet. I remember the morning rain and the afternoon heat.

I also remember pockets in Chicago that held on to a bit of the wild. Near my grandparents’ building, I spent quiet, secret times with the dragonflies, tadpoles, and reeds.

When I served in the US Air Force in my twenties, I was sent to Thailand. Before that, my only experience with “Orientals” was in Chicago’s local Chinatown or at the Chinese laundry near my home. I thought Asia and China were equivalent. My brain exploded in Thailand when I encountered various local people, some of whom were darker than me with hair nappier than mine. This diversity was expressed in the food, as well, which was not “Chinese” but a reflection of the mélange of humanity I encountered. The ecology of the country also awakened my connection with the natural world, which was solidified later by a general ecology course that helped me recognize clearly the web of life and how I was part of it.

In more recent years, episodes of realization about my true interconnected self occur particularly during the early morning hours of three to about five, when the veil between the cosmic spirit realm and the earthly realm is the thinnest. Sometimes I will tune in to my breath and recognize that it is a miracle, that my life and that of all beings is a miracle, and the word miracle becomes a mantra recited silently with each exhalation.

When I am looking out of the window of a building or when I am in the car, I sometimes begin a spontaneous mantra of “interbeing,” repeating that word silently with every being I see, be it a human, bird, dog, or rabbit.

Similarly, spontaneous episodes of realization occur when I sit in my garden, or at a park, or a farm, watching the gathering of birds and pollinators while connecting with each plant spirit. Then the mantra “gratitude” emerges from somewhere deep inside, forming a chorus with the singing birds and other ambient sounds.

Every instance brings the potential realization of kinship and interdependent origination. As the Buddhist and clinical psychologist Jack Kornfield reminds us in the title of his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, whether we must go to work, wash the dishes, or clean up, when considered deeply and mindfully, these are opportunities for fulfillment.


Observing the world from a broader vantage point, or what I sometimes call my “cosmic perch,” I see my beautiful brown skin not as a symbol of caste, enslavement, inferiority, or oppression but as a remarkable expression of resilience, adaptation, and expression of DNA. That DNA clicked on to protect my ancestors from the rays sent forth by Grandfather Sun as he provided valuable nutrients such as vitamin D to our naked tropical bodies. My skin is thus a tribute to a profound cosmic and sacred connection to the oneness of all things.

Thus, I proclaim that we are cosmic stuff, sourced from the same stuff that forms all actions and manifestations of the Cosmic Mother-Father. The cosmic flow is in its totality incomprehensible, yet, sacred and profound and in that knowledge, I stand in awe as our hominid ancestors must have done. As such, I find the source and wisdom for my kinship with all beings, be they microscopic, plant, animal, soil, or rock.

As I look out at the world, from a cosmic perspective I see remarkable diversity that has adapted to life on this planet. The humanscape is rich because as kin we have adapted to live in a multitude of lifescapes—from the Arctic Circle, to the mountains, to the savanna and the forests—drawing sustenance from the water sources and soils where we evolved and adapted to the ecosystems and bioregions where our ancestors settled.

At present, most of us no longer live in isolated patches of community. We are at some level aware of one another and our remarkable diversity. I can say with certainty when looking deeply from my cosmic perch that I see kinship with all the humanscape. Sometimes it is difficult to reach that level of wisdom and discernment when faced with the various social constructs and interactions we currently experience. Yet at a deep spiritual level, I can see who I am, and myself in others, as kin.

When I connect to oneness—or “interbeing,” as the great Dharma teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls it—I can shake off any notion of insignificance. Instead of feeling as though I were a single grain of sand on a vast beach, I am filled with a sense that I am part of a grand system, and my connection to it means that I am an embodiment of that system. The same conscious connection to the cosmos elicits feelings of oneness in me. At the level of being a sentient being on Mother Earth, I therefore see myself as being in kinship with all sentient and nonsentient beings on this grand planet.

 The task at hand, as I see it, is how we might craft a consciousness of kinship and oneness that allows us to see each human, plant, animal, river, lake, ocean, and microbe as a sacred whole. From this consciousness, new and evolving systems of stewardship, rights, economies, and practices that are rooted in biomimicry can arise.

 The work of multiple organizations that I have the honor to work with reflect the movement toward shifting paradigms attuned to a (r)evolution that is both human and ecologically oriented. They also offer opportunities to reject paradigms that separate humans from the “other,” moving humans directly into integration with global ecosystems and kinship with all beings.

For example, the Sweet Water Foundation, with its dedication to sustainable farming practices and providing a portion of the farming yields to community members who have little income, is a project devoted to land stewardship and a just economy.

Similarly, Growing Home is the only certified organic urban farm in Chicago. Under its leadership, it is devoted to increasing the amount of produce available to a community lacking access to healthy food and experiencing food insecurity. This initiative is the epitome of systemic and environmental changes, in which the food is grown at a price that reflects the economic reality of the Greater Englewood community in Chicago.

Likewise, our work in partnership with the Stein Learning Garden at St. Sabina and the Chicago Grows Food initiative are committed to expanding the number of people and households that grow some of their food. One of the salient points in our partnership is using gardening to reconnect people not only to their food but also to our relationship to Mother Earth and Father Sky.

These local initiatives align with many initiatives around this amazing planet to preserve our fisheries, protect our soils through regenerative farming, and clean our air and waters, thus actualizing the common admonition to “think globally, act locally.”

May the cosmic dance—the choreography of planetary and cosmic unfolding—continue. May that be the dance that determines our future rather than the machinations of a handful of imperfect beings who are determined to act in disharmony with the divine, cosmic order that is the source of our existence.

When I’m sitting on my garden perch instead of my cosmic perch, I am well aware that I live in a world shaped by various skinships. I struggle within and against such constructs that unthinkingly or deliberately aim to keep myself and others “in our place.” Those kinds of racialized skinships are oblivious to the more fundamental kinships we share as fellow earthlings. We must resist their extractivist logics and oppressive forces. On the South Side of Chicago and beyond, I work toward practicing these kinships. And sometimes, looking out from my garden perch, where I can see my kin all around me, a familiar mantra repeats in my head: gratitude, bumblebee; gratitude, flower; gratitude, birdsong; gratitude, soil; gratitude, human kinfolk; gratitude, interbeing. I sometimes think of the little boy at that carnival entrance, stung by hateful words of division. I respond: “I am not simply a Black boy; I am a being 4.5 billion years old.” 

Reprinted from Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 4: Persons.

Notes

[1] Regarding the so-called drug war, see the Equal Justice Initiative website (https://eji.org/news/nixonwarondrugsdesignedtocriminalizeblackpeople/) and James Forman Jr. Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017). On the extractive educational system, see Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2012); Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2005); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 4th ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018); Carter G. Woodson, Mis-education of the Negro (New York: Tribeca Books, 2011). On standardized testing, see John Rosales, “The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing,” http://www.nea.org/home/73288.htm; Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias, “Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility,” Brookings Institution, February 1, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/racegapsinsatscoreshighlightinequalityandhinderupwardmobility/; Christine Brigid Malsbary, “Standardized Tests are a Form of Racial Profiling,” Common Dreams, October 26, 2015, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/10/26/standardizedtestsareformracialprofiling.

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  • Orrin Williams

    Orrin Williams is Food Systems Coordinator, UIC Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion, University of Illinois Hospital and Health Science Systems in Chicago.

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