There is anger in me today, and I am not pushing it away. I’m so torn between staying abreast to what’s occurring in our society and crawling under a rock. Every time I see a headline or hop onto Twitter, it surges my anger. And maybe this is something that’s okay, especially if it drives me to action. It is easy to feel helpless, hopeless, during times such as we live in today. Have lived in for a long time.
Recently I was reflecting on the fact that segregated housing and education existed in my lifetime. I honestly find that astounding. And we really haven’t come much further in my 52-years. Yes, the laws enacted during the Civil Rights movement were real and helpful, but the white supremacy that exists in our society is very deep. And it remains today. It exists in me and it likely exists in you. We are collectively products of our society. Embracing and recognizing this truth is a step in the right direction.
I am encouraged by the efforts of East Point Peace Academy, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) that each seek to dismantle white supremacy. Yesterday on a webinar, I heard Rev. Lynice Pinkard share that “getting back to normal is getting back to power, greed, and racism.” And she encouraged us to “stay with the trouble.” And asked us, “Where do we stand in relationship to domination, subordination, and subjugation?” This event was sponsored by East Point.
There is a strong urge in me to buy a plane ticket and fly to Minneapolis. To be a witness. To lend my body to the cause. But that urge may not become a reality. I know there are two sanghas in Minneapolis that practice in the Plum Village tradition – Blooming Heart Sangha and Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center. I wonder what we might do to support and connect with these fellow practitioners.
Yes, there is a place for being in nature, finding joy, nourishing peace. And there is also a place for direct action. And maybe it arises from anger. That’s okay too. We take our practice of peace and joy and apply it as a foundation to reject white supremacy and racism and violence.
I’ll end with a quote from James Baldwin – “All safety is an illusion.”
Capitalism and White Supremacy. I don’t know if that’s quite the right title. I really wanted to have the Environment in there too. Anyway, these are the topics I’ve been wrestling with lately and are the general theme of this essay.
The quarantine of 2020 has forced each of us to live and do things differently. As a librarian at a community college, I have been very fortunate to both retain my employment and to work from home. Although it has been difficult from time to time, it is truly a luxury to have personal safety and a steady income. I know this isn’t the case for many millions of Americans.
Throughout my life, I’ve always been a learner. It’s one of the reasons I went into academic librarianship. Not only do I get to learn from the students on a regular basis, I also get to be surrounded by the written word. And during this quarantine, I’ve definitely upped my reading. In fact, I seem to have accidentally created a curriculum for myself that focuses on capitalism, white supremacy, and the environment.
This isn’t a catch-all, be-all type of essay. Just opening up with a few of my thoughts and then sharing my curriculum with you. It’s at the bottom if you want to skip ahead.
Capitalism and Racism
These topics are so intertwined together. Moving forward, it will be difficult for me to look at each individually without considering the whole. And that’s a good thing! Researching and experiencing these more deeply has been pushing me to reflect on what is most important, and therefore where I might place my attention and resources. In some ways, the curriculum has radicalized me more than I expected.
Historically, I have rarely identified myself as “a liberal.” I’ve always considered myself a bit further to the left than the liberal. In fact, I’ve struggled to vote for a Democrat for president for decades (and 2020 is going to be especially difficult). In the end, they seem to always let me down and don’t seem to move society forward.
So, I’m probably somewhere on the anarchist, socialist, communist spectrum. It does beg the question whether someone like me should even vote in a presidential election. I don’t know the answer. If you have ideas, please do comment. This accidental course of study has definitely forced me question our current political structures as it relates to capitalism, white supremacy, and the environment. Do current politics in United States have the capacity to address the damages of capitalism, white supremacy, and environmental degradation?
Capitalism in the United States is detrimental for all workers, but especially for BIPOC communities, and the environment. It forces the lowest possible wages and the weakest environmental considerations in order to feed the shareholder. The costs of capitalism are both extremely obvious and also deeply hidden. The Capitalist State upholds this structure and the mentality permeates all aspects of society. From the church to the oil company. I’m not a great scholar, but this is the sense of what I have gleaned from my recent readings. It’s also been quite interesting during this COVID Crisis to see capitalists embrace more socialist approaches (such as the large bailouts of corporations and the IRS payment to workers).
White supremacy is propped up by capitalism.
Perpetual growth based on theft and slavery is the name of the game. From the first arrival to North America by Europeans that forced the death and/or migration of native peoples, to the theft of the southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California), to chattel slavery, to post-reconstruction lynchings and Jim Crow laws well into the 20th century, to redlining to prevent home ownership of black people, to the continued violence and murder of black Americans in the 21st century, to reliance on fossil fuels. My god, I’m only 52-years old and legalized segregation in schools and colleges existed within my lifetime! And three of the greatest Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s were all assassinated (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X).
And white supremacy isn’t only about Black Americans. Immigration of cheap labor from “non-white” countries such as Italy and Ireland in the early 20th century, all the way to present-day immigrants from Central America and Mexico. And then we have anti-semitism throughout history that continues to this day. They all suffered at the hands of the Capitalist State. Is it surprising that some of the most polluted locations in North America are within non-white communities? Is it surprising that incomes, better health, and home ownership are all highest for white Americans?
I’m feeling this is enough of an introduction to the topic at hand. I did want to dig deeper into the environment, since this is intricately tied with capitalism and racism, but I’ll leave that to be explored on your own through the books, podcasts, videos, and articles listed below.
Clark, John P. Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (2019)
Eberhardt, Jennifer L. Phd. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do (2019)
Lowy, Michael. Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (2015)
Note: The title of each episode is first, followed by the guest on the show, and then the name of the podcast. You can search online or in your favorite podcatcher.
Community-Led Practices To Build the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock | Data & Society
COVID-19 in Black America, Ibram X. Kendi | This is Hell!
Covid19 and the Crisis Capitalism Creates in Normal Times, Silvia Federici | Latin Waves Media
Food Workers and the Virus, Raj Patel | Belabored
I Am Not Your Negro: Racism in the Us, Richard Johnson | Factual America Podcast
The Nature of Democracy in the Times of Crisis, A. C. Grayling | KPFA – Letters and Politics
Technological Change and Social Protests, Kerstin Enflo | A Correction Podcast
We Have To Begin With Emancipation, Asad Haider | Millennials Are Killing Capitalism
The living creatures of the Earth – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs – they came before us and will likely be here long after we have departed. Today as I practiced walking meditation in my yard, there was an abundance of Butterflies. The lifecycle of these beautiful creatures is wonderful to observe. As the Caterpillar’s crawl around the yard and on the fence, they find a place to cocoon before allowing the Butterfly to spring forth. They then nurture the plants and bushes. They bring joy to those who observe. Their playful flight, to-and-fro, without seemingly needing anywhere to go or anything to do. Such a delight! And for 56 million years they have been practicing this dance.
As a young teen, I delivered the local newspaper in the early mornings. I lived in a place with dense fog on many winter mornings. This being caused by a relationship between the earth and the sky. They touch each other and interact together. These early mornings brought dew to the Sycamore trees lining the streets. The density of the quiet. Each drop could be heard as it moved from the fog, to the tree, and then to the dry leaves upon the ground. This sound. This feeling. It still penetrates into my consciousness 40-years later. There is a sadness for me that the current generation of young people have not experienced this fog. The newspaper is now delivered by adults in cars. The land has heated and dried up so there is not so much winter rain to soak the ground that brings forth the fog. I do hope for its return. Fortunately, the Sycamore remains standing today. But it disappeared from Europe; will it suffer the same fate in North America?
Today I saw an Oak tree with one limb torn from its trunk. It was a 20-foot tear from this lovely creature. These majestic trees can live over 100 years and few saplings are produced. The California landscape is still blessed with these trees despite harsh summers and dry winters. The shifting climate will cause these trees to suffer as new trees are slow to take root and old trees fall or lose limbs. They are a part of the shifting landscape that isn’t only about the Oak, but also the bugs, insects, soil, and Chaparral that rely on the Oak for protection and food.
In the last month, I read The Overstory, by Richard Powers and Braiding Sweetgrassby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The first being a novel and the latter exploring indigenous wisdom alongside scientific inquiry. Both books look toward nature and plants as a source of wisdom, a source of inquiry, and a source for us to take a bold step forward. Kimmerer writes,
If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away. If you don’t give it respect it will leave us.
It is from these books I draw inspiration for writing and shifting my attitude and actions.
Thanksgiving. That is where we can begin our healing with the Earth. To see, to recognize, to give thanks for the offering. The trees that bring us life. Air to breathe. The Bees that pollinate so that we might eat the fruit. Like the tree is connected to the soil, we are connected to the tree and subsequently the Bee. As we begin each day and arrive in each moment, look to your surroundings and cultivate a sense of gratitude. That floor you walk upon was once a tree, cut by a person and delivered to your community by a vehicle. Can you see the tree within the floor? Within the walls? Were these created with respect and thanksgiving? What respect for nature can you bring forth today? Just saying thank you and offering to do better may be enough in the moment.
Then gaze from your window. Do you see something alive in the world? Wonder about it. The rocks are no less important than the soil, or the insect, or the tree. We may all have the opportunity to see the sky, that which keeps us grounded to the earth and is part of the lifecycle of water, wind, and air. Each of us can do this!
If you are one whom capitalist economics have destroyed your environment, your home, and your community then you too can begin with this practice of gratitude. Let your awareness of the damage be a catalyst to rise up in voice and action. We all need to hear your voice. I hear your voice. I see your suffering. It calls for justice!
To be an environmentalist is to allow yourself this exercise of gratitude. To see and love nature, even when it has been destroyed. It is a place from which we can advocate for those creatures without voices – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs. Then coming from a place of love and compassion, we can extend this love and compassion to our advocacy for environmental justice.
One Bowl and One Spoon
The “One Bowl and One Spoon” metaphor, written about in Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks to my heart. If we can see all the Earth provides is contained within one bowl and is served with only one spoon, then perhaps we can take the step toward greater ecological compassion. Stewardship. Reciprocity. Reparations. We can take care of her and learn to share all the wealth the Earth offers, for she remains abundant. In doing so she can begin to heal. And from this healing we can live better in relationship to her and all the creatures of the land. To recover the inequities brought forth over the centuries so we can embody the Earth’s life-giving offerings more equally.
On July 20, 2019, I participated with dozens of Buddhist priests and three other Order of Interbeing members in a protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The event was organized by Tsuru for Solidarity. The Fort Sill site, which was used as a concentration camp to incarcerate Japanese Americans, and was slated to become a holding facility for migrant children.
If you are white, do you know what it means to be white? Do you know how this impacts your community or place of work? What about your spiritual community, your sangha? White awareness is an important training.
The first People of Color retreat in the Plum Village tradition took place at Deer Park Monastery in 2004. Offering this retreat was a big deal and our Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, provided his spiritual support and direct teaching for the couple hundred participants. More people of color retreats and affinity groups have been created. Offering this dharma door has been life-changing for people of color in the sangha. For many, it wasn’t until attending one of these retreats were they able to identify a home within the Plum Village tradition. I have heard that arriving at the monastery, and seeing others like themselves, was a feeling of complete ease and it provided a very different experience from more general retreats.
As a white person, I did not attend these retreats. But I have listened deeply to those who attended the retreat. What they shared is inspiring and has deepened my compassion and understanding.
White and Middle-Class
And yet we continue to struggle as a sangha to open the doorway for all practitioners. The American sangha remains predominately white and middle-class. For many, white awareness may be difficult to explore when everyone else is similar. This isn’t a criticism, but a reality. In fact, as a white man in America, I don’t need to think about being white whereas people of color receive regular reminders throughout their lives. I can live outside the experience of race and ethnicity. At a retreat, white people usually begin thinking about race when a small group of practitioners create an affinity group and call it “People of Color” – the affinity group proceeds to meet together for meals and for sharing together.
At that point, many whites begin to feel left out. They begin to question the need for separateness. Isn’t Buddhism about interbeing and inclusion? There is often a litany of reasons to question the people of color affinity group. But how often does the white practitioner ask themselves what it means to be white, what impact does being white have on the sangha, on the retreat?
White Awareness at Deer Park
At the recent Deer Park Monastery Holiday Retreat, the retreat organizers set aside time for affinity groups to form. Retreat attendees were asked to suggest groups the day before by writing suggestions on the board, and then everyone could mark down our interest level for each of the suggestions. In the morning, several groups were listed, with a few tick-marks on each. The list included a “people of color” group and a “white awareness” group. The white awareness group was absent when the final list was posted. The person who had suggested the group asked for my support in speaking with the retreat organizers. We asked to understand the reason and to request the affinity group be added to the program. After the conversation, the organizers added it to the program.
And then the questions began to circulate. What does this affinity group mean? Is this a response to the people of color group? Is this a racist group? In the afternoon, and the next day, attendees shared confusion by the affinity group and didn’t understand the purpose. That said, one person did write on the signup sheet: If you don’t know what this means, then this group is for you.
We can do better, but the lack of awareness and consciousness among white practitioners feels surprising. Intellectually, I know many people simply lack the framework or the language to navigate anti-racism work. When the affinity group gathered later that evening, we were 8 white practitioners and 1 Vietnamese.
For the 90-minutes of sharing, we each offered our experiences, insights, fears, shame, and a deep desire to be an ally for people of color within the sangha. By notremaining silent, but speaking up and voicing support for people of color affinity groups and retreats. To be aware and speak up about our place of privilege as white practitioners. To name those who have remained un-named. And to see what has been obscured by socialization and that white people can choose not to see race.
This will take many years of deep looking, training, and conversations. It is ongoing education for each of us. And it will take creating true friendships with people of color where we can talk about what it means to be white.
The white awareness affinity group at Deer Park feels like a small step in the right direction. A direction toward racial healing and atonement. It’s not perfect and we have much to learn. There will be controversy and there will be misunderstanding. Practitioners will say we are creating division in the sangha by talking of white awareness. Some will be hurt. But this is action. It is important and necessary action.
White awareness is a work in progress to opening pathways of trust and healing. If we don’t understand our own whiteness, and the power it wields, then we will struggle to truly heal.
This is racial healing, atonement, and an expression of reparations. People of European descent have a responsibility to allow this to occur through action within our spiritual communities. To name the lives, lands, and cultures. To see the outcome of colonialism and white supremacy that has been carried forward to the present day.
Addendum: Reflecting further on the specific experience at Deer Park Monastery, some methods to improve do exist. For example, being able to publicly share the intention of the group or to allow more planning than the day before. Perhaps a different name for the group that is more explanatory. Such as “What does it mean to be white?” or “The impact of being white in the Sangha.” Ultimately we are on a learning continuum and I look forward to hearing other people’s insights and experiences.
It is just a seed in me right now, but it is a conscious direction I am moving. A movement toward reparations, atonement, and racial healing.
In a racial conflict, particularly involving Black Americans or Indigenous people, I feel as a white man that I should follow their lead. If I need to speak, and I better be certain speaking will help, then I will do so with the language of love and empathy and not force or dominate an outcome. Doing otherwise seems unwise and continues the white supremacy that has dominated American society. I will recognize the times when this makes me feel uncomfortable.
Silence takes many forms, both positive and negative. The silence of the early morning, before others awaken. The silence of a monastery, where we go for meditation. The silence of government, when it doesn’t respond to a disaster. And the silence of community leaders, when members of the community are in crisis. I think most people value silence at some point in their lives. Silence has a role and a place. But I want to explore moving from silence to an action, a declaration, a response. Through silence I work to cultivate insight and compassion. It is also through silence that people remain unheard in our society and in our communities.
Last month I received a text message from a Black colleague. My colleague wrote, “White silence is real.” This was an invitation and a wake-up call. The text was sent in disappointment and in kindness. Disappointment because he had to say it. Kindness because he said it. For me, the exchange was about being unafraid of difficult conversations. And my role was to say thank you, be silent, and then take action.
White privilege and racism are hard for white people to see. It challenges us as individuals and as well-meaning people who often see racism through the lens of Racist = Bad / Not Racist=Good binary. This really sets us up to be defensive and unable to see a different reality. In writing about what makes racism so hard for whites, Robin DiAngelo identifies individualism as a key characteristic. She writes, “Individualism prevents us from seeing ourselves as responsible for or accountable to other whites as members of a shared racial group that collectively benefits from racial inequality.” This in turn leads to our silence and to our denial of the advantages of being white, allowing us to think through a colorblind lens, assuming that we treat everyone equally. From this place it is difficult, if not impossible, to build cross-racial understanding and discover how race and racism are at play in our lives.
I want to break my racial solidarity with my fellow whites and speak to you. This is not about feeling guilty, feeling indignant, or a need to prove ourselves. This is an invitation to begin to see our racial filters and to recognize their impact on people of color. This is an invitation to look deeply into the life experiences of the Black men and women in this country. Looking deeply means reading Black literature and history, following people of color on social media, seeking out media aligned with racial justice (such as Colorlines), attending race-focused conferences, cultivating friendships with people of color, and engaging in small-group workshops with other white people to talk about what it means to be white. It is a constant learning process, and we will make many mistakes along the way. Like the text thread above demonstrated.
For most of my life I have remained silent, either consciously or unconsciously, when racism is present in conversations and in my community. Honestly, it has been easy to remain silent because as white people we have been trained to ignore racism and act as if racism is either something taking place elsewhere, or that racism is already solved. We’ve got our blinders on. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that people of color have also been silent, but in a completely different way. While as a white man, I don’t always see the racism, people of color have learned to accommodate, code switch, and/or withdraw. The person of color feels racism acutely. They are constantly reminded through media, wealth, employment, housing, law enforcement, education, etc. that things are unjust. In the workplace and in the community, people of color may not feel safe to speak up and remind others of racism. I imagine it is exhausting to remind white people of their blindness.
What I have observed is when people of color speak up, particularly Black Americans, they are judged and shut down. White people see them as being angry or unreasonable. That what they ask and argue for is too much. Then we may beg them to hear our apology and we ask them to be forgiving of us! Ultimately, we may even say that we feel silenced because talking about race makes us feel unsafe and judged. Suggesting that we don’t want to offend anyone. I am not being silenced because a person of color has finally been able to speak up and share living truth. We may think our action are about being politically correct and sensitive. I have been this white person making these judgments and requests.
My action, my declaration, my response is to engage in this difficult conversation. To hear the stories told by people of color, to offer the benefit of truth, to speak up when I see injustice, and to stand in solidarity in the hope of building and creating a more equitable world. Step forward with honesty, humility, and a willingness to make mistakes. Know when to be silent, and when not to be silent.