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).
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.”