Right now, there are ongoing protests in the streets, ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white policeman. The protests are about a world more than the tragedy of that particular killing. They’re about centuries of violence against black and brown bodies, hearts, and minds.
As long as America postpones justice, we will have these recurrences of violence, riots, and protest over and over again. Thus we must ask ourselves: what will end racial violence and oppression?
Anti-black racism is the core wound of American culture. As William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” I saw images of a protest in Tampa, Florida, last week; one young African-American boy was carrying a sign that said, “Stop killing us.” A friend in D.C. related the story of President Trump employing the National Guard in order to shoot tear gas and flash grenades into a crowd of peaceful protestors—so that he could clear the way to pose for a photo in front of a church. This friend told me, “We have to be in the streets to save our lives.”
The trauma of racial suffering just keeps going. It is time to learn to listen deeply and respond wisely.
We each have a role to play in fighting racism, and as Buddhists or practitioners of meditation, we also have a medicine to bring to these times. I am writing as a white woman, and like everyone in a racist society, I am having to uncover my own racism. I’m aware that many of you reading this are black, brown, indigenous, or other people of color. I ask for your forgiveness for any lack of understanding or sensitivity I might express.
How can we practice now, knowing what we know? Now and every day, we need to ask ourselves how we can deepen our attention. We start by being willing to open to what we’re feeling right now. We touch into the realness, with the intention to be very gentle and curious. It may be useful to start with inquiry, by performing a checkup on yourself. How have these recent events—the trauma of racism that’s been so exposed in terms of our collective psyche yet again—how is that impacting you? Maybe you’re hurting or feeling raw. Maybe there’s anger or rage, or like my friend, tiredness and despair. Maybe there’s hopelessness. Maybe you feel numb, not so connected.
Don’t make anything wrong. This is just an honest checkup. Maybe there’s guilt. Maybe there’s something else compelling going on in your life, and this isn’t the focus of your attention. What are the feelings right now? What is asking for your acceptance? Can you be a compassionate witness to what’s inside you, without making anything wrong? Take a few breaths if you’re able to.
This is the first step. The second step, for those of us who are white or non-black people of color, is what we are being called to do in these times—to step up, look at the pain around us, and attend to those who are most vulnerable and threatened.
We cannot feel what black people are feeling right now, but we can accompany black people. We can bring our presence and commit ourselves to understanding. Last Saturday, a woman who was born in Nigeria but now lives in the United States, shared this proverb with our group during our weekly online gathering: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
In our shared village, black people have been enslaved, exploited, imprisoned, and lynched. We know, at least conceptually, that black lives have not mattered in America for over 400 years. One way to begin to connect with the immensity of this pain is to reflect on how, in our own lives, we feel rejected from the village. Some of us live with a sense of not feeling loved, accepted, or respected within our families or social circles. Each of us has no doubt felt the pain of rejection. And some of us have experienced times when we were truly unsafe. Thus we know the feeling of the child who has been pushed away. Can we pause and remind ourselves of these places in us? What has it been like for you, to feel disliked, to feel hated, or to feel unsafe with others?
As we do this second step, we can continually come back to the first, pausing and acknowledging what is going on inside us.
We may know what it feels like, that our life doesn’t matter to someone else. We may know the feeling of hurt and rage, the striving to meek our human needs. Sometimes we react with blame and aggression, sometimes violent aggression. We each have that capacity in our nervous system. When we feel rejected, unlovable, and violated, we may burn ourselves in self-hate. We hate those that make us feel unlovable, but some part of us believes that we’re less-than.
The second step is an act of stretching: we’re seeking to understand. We are stretching ourselves to remember and attend to how the pain, woundedness, and incredible injury of not belonging hurts us. Because the truth is, our heart holds the whole village. We can’t be awake and whole if there is a child in our heart who is hurting.
The third step is to go beyond our own pain in order to attune to the harm of the village—the ways we cause harm. We’ve all been harmed by the village, because the toxicity of our culture harms all of us. But we attune to those who are most terrifically harmed, and we attune to the ways in which we participate in the harming. The third step invokes the courage needed to face this truth. While the legacy of racism is not our personal fault, we carry its poison.
This can be a difficult step for many white people who aren’t used to confronting the ways we’ve been conditioned to trust in and uplift whiteness. But unless we make the courageous step toward examining ourselves, we will not be conscious of the unseen assumptions of black inferiority and white supremacy. Unless we look deeply, we won’t see the ways in which white people reap the benefits of centuries of violence. This is what is meant by white privilege. It’s the unearned privilege of access to the best jobs, homes, education, health care, and justice. It’s the background sense of entitlement, that we deserve these benefits. It’s white privilege that more white people will make it live through this pandemic or suffer less economically.
But perhaps the deepest expression of white privilege is that responding to what’s going on feels optional. Part of our village is hurting, and people are forced to try to save their lives. We may care, we may take some actions, but it feels optional. We forget the rejected child in our heart.
As white people, how do we hold this? How do you process being part of a race that has caused so much horrific suffering? Do you feel guilty or ashamed? Do you feel angry because you feel like, “Well, I didn’t do it personally”? Do you blame people of color for being reactive? Do you become numb? Do you embark on the oppression Olympics: “Well, I’ve been wounded, too”?
We may resist examining our privilege; it may feel too dangerous in some way, we don’t want to be with it. That is why we need each other. White people need to unpack these things together, just as people of color need safe spaces to unpack their suffering.
The last step is about responding. Angela Davis wrote that it’s not enough not to be racist; you need to be anti-racist. This is an active step. We push aside caution. Speak up when you see police brutality. When you go to the polls, select leaders not based on party, but on their dedication to equity and racial justice. Dialogue with your racist family members or friends, seeking to deepen understanding and caring.
Our society has the virus of white supremacy built into every strand of its being. You can address the strands that intersect your life. We need to act because we are part of the village. We need to save and serve all of our lives.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” When we stop being silent, there is a deep goodness that arises. We are moving toward wholeness, becoming who we really are. We can bring our awakening consciousness, our caring hearts, and a deepened dedication to acting for justice.
Want to learn more about the work of undoing racism? Tricycle is offering free access to a selection of articles about race, dharma, and practice by Buddhist teachers of color and their allies.