“Waking up White” (by Debby Irving) is the title of a book I read a few years ago that traces an American white woman’s journey in discovering that being “white” is a thing, and not just a default against which everything else is different and other. I’ve been walking this road of discovery myself, and for the last few years growing in awareness of how whiteness comes with privileges and responsibilities that I was previously unaware of. I’m also becoming acutely aware of how white Western dharma is. The lack of ethnic diversity on retreats in the UK is a little embarrassing, and raises some questions. Why is this?
I have a personal interest as I’m white, while my eldest daughter and my foster daughter are not-white and I sincerely want to understand how they experience the world and avoid causing harm because of my ignorance. I’d also like there to be a Dharma community in the UK that they could feel was for them if they ever sought this.
The Zen teacher Reb Anderson who used to teacher regularly at Gaia House once said that a Bodhisattva (one on the path to Buddhahood) studies everything that is helpful for beings. In trying to understand the web of conditions that leave our dharma halls, monasteries, Zendos and Zoom meetings so homogenously white I have delved into a Pandora’s box that unearths history, economics, religion, politics, and the psychology of discrimination, bias, oppression and generational trauma.
I recently completed Crystal Johnson’s “Unpacking the whiteness of leadership” course offered through the Branching Streams Sangha, the network of regional groups aligned with San Francisco Zen Center. Crystal also teaches with Spirit Rock. This was my first Zoom training course and I’ve been bowled over by how engaging and effective it is. This is partly because the material is so alive, it began right after the flourishing of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police killing of yet another black man in the U.S. and challenges new and experienced dharma practitioners to explore their complacency by investigating our unconscious bias, fragility and trauma. The beauty of this training is that it is held in a way that is filled with kindness and understanding. There is none of the guilt and shaming that so many people imagine must accompany this transformative work. But it did not end with personal and societal exploration. The course took this forward into skilled action as we practiced courageously facing the difficult, developing the skills to challenge ourselves and others, apologise with sincerity when we get things wrong and plan actions to actively promote genuinely different ways of relating.
I started the course by reading one of the recommended texts Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I ‘m no longer talking to white people about race” after hearing her speak so impressively on BBC Radio 4.
This helped me to appreciate how many of Britain’s wealthiest cities have prospered economically due to the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, how the myth of race was invented to justify this trade and how ongoing inequality and discrimination, as well as my relative white privilege today are a direct result of past and ongoing political and economic power-mongering. I also learned to appreciate how fragile I and other white people can imagine they are when challenged with the realities of living in a society in which racism in its gross and subtle forms permeates all aspects of our lives. But denying the experiences of people of colour or the facts and statistics that validate their experience will not liberate white people from their own conditioning. This is where courses like “Unpacking the whiteness if Leadership” really come into their own.
Crystal presented stark historic facts that show how systemic racism has evolved and become the water in which we swim and the air we breathe. Sharing and exploring in small groups we discover how we can either contribute to or challenge racial discrimination and bias.
I recently finished another recommended book, “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem, a therapist of colour who traces how the brutality of medieval Europe set in motion the conditions for racist violence and police murders in modern America. By presenting well-referenced evidence and arguments, Resmaa compassionately explains how a bloody history of racialized trauma is passed on both biologically and socially generation to generation, creating untold inequality and harm today. He also offers a range of pragmatic and culturally accessible body-focused practices (including insight and Zen meditation) that allow trauma to be healthy processed rather than “blown through” others, thereby continuing the cycle of suffering.
For me, this study and practice really is where the rubber hits the road in understanding and living according to dharma. With the support of the wonderful people I have been studying with and the associated recommended reading, I am learning to become more conscious of ignorant and unconscious habits and learning to embrace the inherent discomfort that comes with this kind of work. Training in a fearless enquiry that liberates beings.
I strongly encourage courageous souls who would like to deepen and broaden their practice for the world we live in to immerse themselves in this vital enquiry as an expression of their deepest wish for the freedom and peace of all beings.
With bows to all.