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Towards Collective Liberation, or Why We Won’t Stop Talking About Racism

Race was a central theme at BPF’s National Gathering, with offerings like:

  • The Invisible Majority: Will the Real Asian American Buddhist Please Stand Up?
  • Revisiting the Middle Passage Pilgrimage
  • Black Rage, Black Healing
  • The UNTraining: Healing Personal and Social Oppressions

Some have called our focus on race “divisive.” Rather than a divisive topic, direct discussions of race are essential for our liberation. Buddhist feminist social critic bell hooks writes “Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.”

My friend and mentor, Chris Crass (pictured above), speaks directly to our quests for truly collective liberation in his book, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy. He dreams, “We need liberation movements of millions of people, from all backgrounds, from all walks of life, with a wide range of experience, playing many different roles.”

One of things I most appreciate about Chris is how he models what feminist anti-racist leadership can look like in the form of a white, straight, middle class, cis-gender man. As a former organizer with The Catalyst Project, he has trained other white people (including me!) about how to be in alliance and solidarity with liberation movements led by communities of color.

Guilt and shame often come up for white people when we learn about how racism has harmed people of color, whether through historical processes of slavery, genocide, and colonialism or through present-day versions like mass incarceration of Black men, ecological devastation of Native lands, and immigrant children detained in dehumanizing conditions. But staying stuck in guilt and shame serves no one:

Like many white anti-racist activists in our generation, some Catalyst Project members came into our early anti-racist consciousness and commitment weighed down by a lot of shame and guilt. These feelings made sense in response to the horrifying history and ongoing violence of white supremacy.

Within a collective liberation vision, white people work to end racism not for or on behalf of the interests of people of color, but because our lives and humanity depend on the eradication of racism as well. ….

One way to move through guilt and shame is to get clear on what we have to lose if white supremacy continues, and what we have to gain by choosing the side of justice and humanity, and locating ourselves alongside the people of the world struggling for liberation.” – Catalyst Project Collective

It is in discussing racism and the logic of white supremacy that I learn not only how these systems dehumanize people of color, but how they limit my own humanity as well. I learn that it is the systems of racism and white supremacy that are divisive, as they pit us against each other. It is in hearing multi-dimensional stories at the BPF gathering of Asian American Buddhists refusing to be invisible and of pilgrimages made by people of African descent retracing slave routes that I am able to get outside of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story” and locate myself alongside people who seek liberation from oppressive structures.

If it is true, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, that “the next Buddha is Sangha,” then our work is to learn how to be in community together. To do this, we must understand how racism (along with other dimensions of oppression) divides us so that we can dismantle this system piece by piece. As King says, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

If you feel unsure where you fit in when discussions of race – or gender, class, sexuality, or disability — take center stage, I invite you to read Chris Crass’ book and seek out other folks with similar privileges who have explicitly aligned themselves with oppressed people. We aren’t talking about racism to alienate you, but because we need your help to dismantle these systems.

If systems of domination are interconnected, then systems of liberation are also interconnected. If systems of liberation are interconnected, then we must help white people, men, and middle- and upper-class people create and win these systems and go through a transformative process of change while working for systemic change. While personal transformation has always been part of anti-oppression politics, interconnected liberation brings with it a vision that creates more space for possibilities of who we are becoming, as opposed to just knowing what and how we do not want to be.” – Chris Crass

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Comments (2)

  • fern

    I would invite everyone to examine his/her own prejudices. Yes, race is a dominant one, so obvious, and I, as an old southern white woman, have had to examine and face my own prejudice. But we all harbor ignorant illusions about others; gender, religion, weight, disability, class, and a million more. Some more difficult to address because they are so hidden. Guess what I’m trying to say is that not only white southerners practice prejudice; we all do. And it’s our responsibility to fearlessly examine them.

  • A. Breeze Harper

    Still amazing to me that in 2014 that there are people practicing Buddhism who interpret the precepts in a way that avoids talking about race and racism as a good method towards ending suffering.

    Thanks for the work you all did to bring this conference together, and focus on these issues of racial injustice.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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