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Dharma Justice

Whiteness and Healing Racism

Recently I have been engaged in a conversation with a dharma friend who is questioning the idea of white people talking to each other about white supremacy and if it’s possibly doing more harm than good. What you will read below are my thoughts in response to my friend. It felt important to share some of this discussion. It may seem a bit random at times, but I hope enough meaning is present to be of value. 

Slavery and Racism

I think it’s important to understand slavery as it was practiced in the United States. Slavery in the United States is a race-based system and came with the invention of white. This is very different from slavery practiced in other countries and throughout history. The term “white” only came into being a few hundred years ago. By saying slavery has always existed throughout the world comes across as dismissive of the Black experience in the United States. 

That said, I do believe that racism extends into other parts of the world, especially in light of all the colonialism based in (European) white supremacy. Our role as white people is to take the bold step into looking at how it manifests in our lives and the impacts on POC communities. Despite working on it for over 20-years, it continues to amaze me how much more work there remains to be done to transform my own internalized racism and white supremacy. In some ways, it’s a lot like our mindfulness practice; we continue to grow and learn. 

Some of the language in the justice movement talks about decentering as a method to lift up the voices of those who have historically been unheard. It is natural and easy to center on our own experience, but that may come at the cost for others. A good example is how we practice dharma sharing. When guiding these groups, we try to say “if you find it easy to share, try stepping back, and if you are shy about sharing, please step forward.” I think we also try to make sure that everyone gets a chance to share. Recently I experienced a group session whereby the facilitators invited people of color to speak first. Very direct. Bringing awareness to who speaks first, or the longest, or wants to share more than once is an enlightening experience for me. As a white male, I am working to not speak first or to speak less often when I am in mixed groups (gender and race). It’s part of my effort to shift systemic practices. 

Regarding harm to people of color when speaking in mixed groups. We may say words that we don’t even know are harmful, especially if we come with a strong white lens. Words that might be consistent with the dominant narrative around race. We might say that others feel unsafe sharing in a mixed group for other reasons, but for POC people it may be part of their wide-ranging experience found in work, school, and daily life. It can feel exhausting. This is what I’ve heard. 

Trauma and Racial Healing

In my observation, it’s difficult to talk about racial trauma in the context of other types of trauma. And each type of trauma can stand on its own. And if we are going to focus on racial trauma then we need to stay focused on that type of trauma and make an effort to withdraw all the other types. This is where harm can come in also because it is natural for us to compare, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. My trauma is deep and ugly. And yet it can’t be compared with the collective trauma of an entire population. 

I think we have a long way to go in healing racism in our society. So much harm has been done to people of color that I often think we need some kind of truth and reconciliation committee. We need to find a path forward for reparations and atonement. These need to be both societal and personal. The Yet-To-Be-Named-Network says, “The possibility of full-fledged reconciliation depends on full-fledged redistribution. Any sincere redress for unspeakable crimes against humanity requires action on a societal scale that individuals can never accomplish in isolation.” And this is where sangha has a part to play. To seek restitution for past harm and attempt to repair the damage done. In my view, working on whiteness is a step in the right direction. Does it have flaws? Most certainly. But the vast majority of racial justice activists (both POC and white) recognize that a conversation must take place among white people in a way that doesn’t perpetuate more harm toward communities of color. 

Again, the Yet-To-Be-Named-Network says, “For those who identify as white in our network, this means the naming of the lives, lands, and cultures that can never be restored, and the turning over of time, energy, money and land to those impacted by the brutal legacy of colonization and white supremacy, most notably Indigenous peoples of this continent and Black descendants of slaves.” This is a concrete expression for racial healing. 

Bias and White Fragility

I heard the criticism of Robin D’Angelo’s (White Fragility) work from some people, and at the same time recognize that just about any work in the public domain is going to face some criticism. I read both her books. The first was very academic and was based on her doctoral research. The second one tried to take that research into a more accessible format. I read them both as a means to grapple with some of the research findings and not to agree/disagree with everything. Another book that looks at research is called Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt. It finds much of the same information but focuses more on inherent biases found in everyone socialized in America. It links nicely with the Harvard Implicit Bias studies. Like white people, people of color also carry internalized racism and white supremacy. In the myriam francois podcast, the discussion said as much–we all contain internal white supremacy, including BIPOC people. I don’t believe we need to feel “guilty” for these circumstances, but to take action toward healing and reconciliation. 

For me, transformation needs to take place at the level of consciousness. And at the same time transform wealth, patriarchy, and racism. Our practice talks about the historical and the ultimate dimensions. I think the ultimate dimension is where we can see equality and harmony. But in the historical dimension we are still very stuck in suffering, harm, and discrimination. A friend said to me, no oppressed group can liberate itself without the cooperation of the dominant group (for example, the right to vote for women required the men to approve). 

Transformation

Thich Nhat Hanh was a revolutionary. Constantly challenging the status quo. He did this directly and through his practice. I don’t believe that working on whiteness and how it has caused suffering for people of color is focusing on what’s wrong. It’s focused on healing. On reconciliation. On interbeing. It’s not making the situation worse. And not acknowledging the experiences of people of color will make the situation worse. 

I am reminded of the Tenth Mindfulness Training where it says, “As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice.” 

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Justice

Being an Antiracist Means Diligence, Persistence, and Fearlessness

The protests must continue. It is clear they do create change. For those of us maintaining our quarantine, we may feel like we’re missing out. But we need to remember that protest is just one vehicle for change, especially for White Americans. There is a lot we can do to support antiracist work in all aspects of our lives.

Wooded Path
Photo Credit: Kenley Neufeld

Racial justice is linked with several other ongoing and critical efforts. For example, the abolition of the police and prison system can allow for real healing and justice. The efforts of anti-capitalism and environmental justice are also intricately linked with white supremacy.

The protests of the last few weeks have been critical in raising the voice of Black Americans. And, in turn, it highlights how white supremacy has impacted all BIPOC/BAME communities for a very long time.

Knowing a little about American culture, some people will begin to tune-out the protests as commercialism and capitalism draw us back into our comfort zone. Being an antiracist is uncomfortable. And it’s easier to buy a new product, read a gossip story about a celebrity, or stand aghast at the latest Tweet from Trump. These are all a distraction from what’s really important – healing ourselves and healing our community. As White people forget about the systemic racism, and as the antiracist work disappears from the front pages and trending on Twitter, we need to redouble our efforts.

Antiracist work must continue. In our homes, our communities, and in our workplaces. We must be diligent, persistent, and fearless. Even though I have been an antiracist for many years, there is so much I don’t know or understand. I must continue to educate myself and be open to the real stories and experiences from people of color. And I must be willing to be a disrupter.

In Our Homes

When I speak of our homes, I mean our personal space both internally and externally. It means our relationship with ourselves, our families, and those we live with. Maybe you’ve been frantically trying to educate yourself about anti-racism work. Maybe you’ve been attending webinars, reading books, watching films that speak to how white supremacy has infected our society. If you have been bold, you’ve been talking about what it means to be white with other white people. Taking the time to listen deeply to each other. We need to seek out these courageous conversations with our partners, our children, and our extended family. Learning to be honest and to admit our own fears. To be able to disagree with each other. And to push against a desire to push it under the rug. Look at your own racism. You have it.

Practical Tip: Subscribe to a blog, a newsletter, a podcast that regularly explores the theme of racism. Commit to reading or listening and then discussing it with someone in your household.

In Our Community (includes spiritual community)

When I speak of our community, I mean both the geographical location you live in and also any spiritual community you may be associated. For me, I live in the town of Ojai and I am also a member of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. Our work as antiracists in these areas are probably going to fall into the “policy” arena. But it may also include some of the things I mentioned above for our homes. Namely, engaging in education and listening to each other.

There is so much we can do within the political entity of a town or city. Take some time to understand your city budget. How much is being spent on policing? Is that appropriate for your community? What social services does the city provide and are they reaching the people in the most need? Have you noticed how segregation has negatively impacted certain neighborhoods in the community; in education, health, or employment? What environmental impacts (industry) exists that needs to be changed? Write a letter to the political leaders. Attend a city council or planning commission meeting. Speak. What about your school district? Notice where things don’t quite seem right. Align yourself with those BIPOC voices that are trying to be heard. Listen to them without judgment. Listen to understand. And to support. You can do it! Raise up Black voices. Build coalitions across racial, environmental, fair wage, and housing groups.

You would think a spiritual community would be the easiest place to be an antiracist. It may be difficult when the spiritual community is filled with well-meaning, liberal, and white Americans. It’s not always easy to see how structural and systemic racism may exist within such a community. But it does. If you are a predominately white community, how do you start? Much like what has been written above, we can begin by having conversations among white people. Remember, racism is a white-persons problem. Spend some time listening to each other, sharing your story, getting educated. We’re not all fully educated on antiracist work, and even if you’ve done such work then we know it is an ongoing process. And if you are fortunate to have people of color in your community, then when the conditions are right (for them), you can find a way to listen. We listen in order to understand. That means having an open heart and open mind. And if they identify examples of structural racism within the community, then believe them. And make a change. Why wouldn’t you?

Lotus flower
Photo Credit: Kenley Neufeld

In Our Work

Work is another place where we have the opportunity to be antiracist. Perhaps more so than other areas, this may be the most uncomfortable. Lean into your discomfort. Be willing to make mistakes. When you hear something inappropriate, say something. Don’t just expect someone else to be the voice. Look around you and see who is in leadership positions. Make sure Human Resources has a plan in place to address systemic racism; whether that’s in the hiring protocols or in the complaint protocols. Raise up Black voices. Who is doing the most speaking? Who is in the room and who isn’t in the room? Advocate for change and ask the difficult questions. Know who the other White people are that you can talk to about issues of equity. Join forces and move forward.

A few years ago, I organized a Racial Justice Awareness series for White employees. I started with the book What Does it Mean to be White? by Robin DiAngelo and then scheduled ten lunchtime sessions for employees to come together and discuss the book. We did a chapter per week. The participants were definitely all over the place in terms of antiracist understanding and work. But they committed to meet every week for ten weeks. We had many frank and open conversations. Difficult conversations. I think most came away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be white in a racialized world.

Each work environment is going to be different. I work in education, and our State Chancellors Office put together an amazing series of webinars over a period of six weeks on the theme of equity-minded education. Even though the focus was on BIPOC students in online classes because of COVID, the details could easily be extrapolated to many aspects of the campus. Likewise, in light of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, the Chancellors Office organized a 90-minute webinar on a Call to Action for California Community Colleges. During that webinar, 80% of the voices were from people of color. This is leadership.

For the corporate world, you might want to check out this HBR Ideacast episode. https://overcast.fm/+Dj5dXr4

Conclusion

There’s so much more to say. And I am only scratching the surface of possibility. Being an antiracist is not an overnight matter. My journey began in the mid-90s in San Francisco when I moved into a Black neighborhood. I didn’t realize that racism existed in me, but I quickly observed in myself a behavior that revealed my “hidden” racism – fear of black men. I still carry that moment in me today. Shortly after that, my employer offered a racial justice workshop for all employees. Thus began my journey. It has not stopped since those days. I have had to make many mistakes. Continuing to admit my unconscious bias. Do writing, talking, and most importantly, listening. It truly is a path that requires diligence, persistence, and fearlessness.