Seeing beyond racism
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
|I’m a mentor for the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certificate Program (MMTCP) that Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach are teaching. This is a 2-year program for diverse people residing in 47 countries. One of my students asked me to clarify a statement I made. What follows is an elaboration on my initial response.|
Yes Carl. The statement I made in our group, “There are no good white people,” took place in a context – we were talking about race. I wasn’t making an absolute statement that as white people we cannot find goodness inside of ourselves. What I wanted to convey is that as a white person in the USA, none of us has a free ticket that absolves us of racism by virtue of our goodness and commitment to harmlessness.
Racism has many layers. Some are overt: the intention to hate, harm, exclude or blame others by virtue of their skin color, ethnic origins or ancestry. Then there are many less overt layers that include unconscious bias, white privilege, and the ways that our white privileges come at the expense of others.
While we may have had absolutely nothing to do with setting systemic and structural racism in motion, advocating for the laws and social norms that keep them in place, or even liking that they are there, as white people, we still benefit from them. When we participate in the systemic bias that has been built into many aspects of our society and serves us as white people while harming people of color, we perpetuate racism. We don’t have a free pass – we can’t just claim that our goodness and commitment to harmlessness absolves us of responsibility for race-based oppression.
Once we understand the pervasive nature of racism, it can motivate us to stay aware, compassionate and connected both to our own assumptions and blind spots, to work to see the workings of our privilege, and to find allies in this journey of waking up together.
Maintaining our privilege is contingent upon maintaining our separation from others. We have to “not see” the harm that arises from racism, and we have to cut off our awareness of the suffering of others. This sets the stage for a perpetual internal battle between our hunger to belong and our sense of isolation and aloneness; between wanting to feel good about ourselves and a lingering sense of badness. We feel separate, cut off from ourselves, as well as others. As we wake up and let go of what keeps us from feeling disconnected, we open the gateway for seeing our place in the web of life. The more connected we are to the web of life, the less alone and isolated we feel, and the more aware we become of the harm that is arising from our automatic participation in a system of white supremacy.
It is sobering work. It takes maturity to seek out situations that reveal our blind spots and our complicity, to become aware of our ignorance and come to terms with how deep seated and systemic racism is in our society and to actively look at and feel the depth of the harm that has transpired. As we do this work, pools of shame, guilt, entitlement, desire for safety, fear, anxiety, feelings of superiority, self hatred, overwhelm, rage at the injustice, and heartbreak at the suffering can surface. Our meditation practice gives us an anchor in compassionate awareness where we can breathe with and through all of these feelings. Our friends help remind us that this is not personal, it is a feature of the racist beast that we are wrestling with. Our teachers, partners, and spiritual friends can mirror for us our goodness, and remind us that we are not alone as we find ways forward. And yet even though it is not personal, the more we feel racism as our responsibility to understand and help dismantle, the more connected we feel to the web of life.
Our increased connection then sets up a positively reinforcing loop that makes it easier to notice what is there, and facilitates shifting our perspective. We can stop splitting off parts of ourselves because they aren’t consistent with the idea of who we think we are. It can soften our tendency to separate ourselves from others around us. We can make choices not to perpetuate ignorance, hatred or harm and feel the way that choice positively impacts our capacity to connect and respond. Rather than being identified as “good” in order to seek a free pass, this is the goodness and commitment to harmlessness we can trust. As we grow in this work it can naturally extend into considering proactive ways to redress some of the harms that have and continue to take place.
At the beginning of the MMTCP course Konda Mason led all of the teachers and mentors in a diversity training. I was struck by her statement, “Race is everything.” How could something so highly conditioned and involving a sector of the population be everything- particularly for meditation teachers?
When I see how pervasive, deeply embedded and unconscious racism is, I understand that racism is not just about a sector of the population. It a system of harm that involves us all. This can be seen in the enormous harm done to people of color, as well as in the ways that we as white people have had to cut off parts of our humanity in order to be complicit in the privileges we maintain. What we are learning as teachers is to understand the causes of suffering and find a compassionate response; this allows us to see how vast and complex this illusion we call race is, and how devastating and real racism is. As we look at identity as individuals, as families, and as communities, see social structures, and take time to be with the myriad of feelings that arise as we do this inquiry into race, we interface with conditioned truths.
This work requires us to cultivate compassionate awareness, rely on spiritual friendships, and anchor ourselves in relative as well as perennial and timeless truths. This helps me contextualize what Konda might have meant. From this perspective, I sense the veracity of Konda’s statement. If as meditation teachers, we understand race, we understand everything.
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