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Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

white privilege

Why White Awareness?

By on January 8, 2019

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.

White awareness is not a new term. In 1978, Judy H. Katz wrote the book White Awareness: Handbook For Anti-Racism Training. More recently, Robin DiAngelo published two excellent books — What it Means to be White and White Fragility. With these titles, the white reader can gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be white and the impact it carries in our country, our communities, our place of work, and our sangha.

People of Color in the Sangha

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.

This would be the first time a white awareness affinity group is offered during a retreat.

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.

Seeking Understanding

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 not remaining 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.

Healing Actions

White Awareness through Reparations + Atonement

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.

Spiritually and rationally healing actions in solemn acknowledgement that only a tiny fraction of what has been stolen and destroyed can ever be returned or repaired.

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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.

Silent – Silence – Silenced

By on December 13, 2018

White Silence = Violence
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.

Transcending White Nationalism and Developing White Racial Literacy

By on August 20, 2017

In over 15-years of teaching information literacy classes, I often used the Stormfront website as a teaching tool because they own an MLK domain. Most students didn’t even know about David Duke, prominently quoted on the MLK site, and now he’s front and center thanks to President Trump. On some level this is okay, because it brings white nationalism front and center, but it also means we can’t count on our leaders to speak out against what they represent.  

It’s up to us whites to transcend white nationalism and cultivate a more pluralistic and fair society for everyone. It’s up to all of us to counter the white nationalist movement, recognize and transform our white privilege, pursue atonement and repatriation. We begin by recognizing that we live in a systemically racist society, that we each carry these seeds of racism (some conscious and some unconscious), and that we can become more literate about racism through dialogue, openness, and study. 

This opinion piece, in the New York Times, is written by a former white nationalist. He writes, “The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today.”  This is a critical recognition and one of the first steps we can take in moving forward. 

Here’s the complete article by R. Derek Black: What White Nationalism Gets Right About American History

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