I’m attending a once-a-month, 6 month Unpacking Whiteness discussion series at a local Buddhist center. I signed up hoping to uncover an unbreakable bond between Buddhist philosophy and racial justice, where I often find conflict, at least on the surface.
More on that at some point. For the moment, I’ll just say that it has not served that purpose, at least not yet. And Yet, it has been enlightening in a different way. I wasn’t thrilled with the first session, but introductory meetings tend to be pretty thin. Most of the people in my little group hadn’t spent much time thinking, and less time speaking, about their own Whiteness and Whiteness in the world, and I facilitate those discussions whenever I can, so I was metaphorically twiddling my thumbs for much of the March meeting.
But this week things got good. By which I mean, they got vulnerable.
We started by going around the room and each sharing an act of historical racism committed by White people, preferably in Minnesota. I liked that everyone was instructed to phrase it as White actions, rather than Black or Brown or Red victimization. As in, “a mob of White people lynched three young Black men in Duluth in 1920” (fact) rather than, “three black men were lynched in Minnesota in 1920.” The passive voice is a powerful way to excise blame. I was intrigued by how many of the responses focused on atrocities committed against Native Americans. I don’t think that would have been the case in my hometown of Chicago. For better or worse, Minnesotans have more awareness of what they have done to Indians than what they have done to Black people. Many people think Black people just chose not to live here because it’s so cold or White; whereas, even if they can’t tell the story, they know Whites screwed over the people who lived on this land before us.
There were then two questions assigned to our small groups. How have you benefitted from White privilege and how have you been harmed by White privilege? The answers to the latter were particularly interesting. I honestly had no idea how I was going to respond, allowing me to, for once, answer pretty spontaneously. Everything I said bounced off of some excellent point a previous participant had made. Whether it was the shame I carry for being White; the feeling that any Black person would be crazy to trust me or any White person with real friendship; the fear of asking POC real questions about race because I know they’ve been burdened with the reality their whole lives; the oppressive White supremacist system of Capitalism and how it engenders competition, and constant dissatisfaction, and environmental destruction, and exclusion. (I highly recommend you have this conversation with a group of friends or open-minded strangers. Or in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you come up with.)
Our final task was to go around our breakout circles and say a few words about how we were feeling. One of the Zen priests, who happens to be in my group, said he felt terribly sad about the feelings of separation from POC that everyone had touched on. But I had to honestly say that I was both relieved and excited. Relieved that I had brought more muck to the surface, and excited at the prospect of embarking on disinfection. I don’t know how yet, but you can’t change what you can’t see.
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