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Waking Up to White Supremacy

white people legacy of violence
by Max Airborne


Charleston is heavy on my heart and mind. Nine more beautiful lives stamped out. Black lives.

Do you know their names?

Cynthia Hurd, age 54

Susie Jackson, age 87

Ethel Lance, age 70

Clementa Pinckney, age 41

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45

Tywanza Sanders, age 26

DePayne Middleton-Doctor, age 49

Myra Thompson, age 59

Daniel Simmons, age 74


Say their names. Say them until you know them more than you know their killer’s name. Learn about their lives. Can you let yourself feel the loss of these lives?

Black lives stamped out by the desire to preserve white supremacy.

As a white person, I’m feeling the importance right now of addressing my fellow white people. This shit is deep, friends. White privilege is not isolated events, and it’s not something we can just disavow. White supremacy is not just the KKK, and it won’t stop hurting people because we wish it so. We in the U.S. are living in a society that was intentionally constructed for the exclusive benefit of white people from the very beginning, woven into the fabric of this nation. Our access to this land required genocide of Native people. Our economic success required enslavement of African people.

Can we really let ourselves fathom what that means? For those of us who are considered “white,” everything we have is made possible by this massive delusion of our supremacy. Every dollar. Every convenience. Our relative senses of safety, belonging, freedom, ease, comfort. We mostly don’t even notice those things because white supremacy tells us we deserve them and we have come to expect them.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at the documentary “Race: the Power of an Illusion.” Do you know, for example, that the concept of race was deliberately constructed by men like Thomas Jefferson, and that anyone deemed not white was also considered not human? Not human. Let that sink in, really. Let your heart feel the impact of this condition and notice all the reverberations of this fact over the course of time. This is the foundation our country rests on. Little changes here and there haven’t really addressed the foundation. It’s this foundation that gives rise to white people who visit black churches to murder the parishioners. It’s this foundation that gives rise to a police force that can murder a sleeping black child or choke a black man to death for selling cigarettes and face no consequences. It’s this foundation that causes a white woman to call the police when black children are swimming in her neighborhood pool. Every day. These things happen every day and they have been happening every day since the beginning of this country. The foundation. Not something isolated or separate from us.

When will it end? What will it take for us to live in a society that truly values all lives? I feel like it will take ALL of us standing vigil in every moment. All of us truly committing our lives to lifting up the house, tearing down the foundation and building a new one, all of us together. Collective practice for collective liberation.

And how do we get there?  We — white people, I mean — would have to truly wake up to the reality of white supremacy. To recognize that it is the foundation of our lives. To admit to ourselves that we’re afraid to let go of it. And then, knowing that our liberation depends on that letting go, to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Can dharma practice help us white folks let go of white supremacy?

When I first began a Dharma practice, mostly what I knew was that I was hurting and wanted to feel better. People would talk about things like “freedom” or “enlightenment” or “awakening” and in my mind I’d sort of put those ideas aside. They felt lofty. My motive was simply the desire to feel better. And the sense of kindness I cultivated in my practice felt like medicine. But after a few years of practice and a few glimpses of something deeper, my motivation starting changing. Awakening no longer felt lofty and impossible. It’s here, and we see it when we clear the dust from our eyes.

When antiracism became more of a focus for me, it was not purely about justice. I wanted to be “good” and to be seen as good, to be liked. Racial justice felt like something outside myself. I felt guilty, and also angry about feeling guilty. I felt that racism was not my fault because I was merely born into this system, but that because I had white skin I should feel ashamed, and the way out of the shame was to work for racial justice. I was paying my dues. I wanted to do the right thing, to be an ally and support my friends of color. And after some years, it began to dawn on me that this was not enough. It wasn’t getting to the root of the problem at all. It was perhaps in some cases perpetuating it. But the more I’ve listened and learned, the more I’ve started to see the depth of the delusion, and that getting to the root will require much more from us.

I keep thinking of that quote I hear a lot by Ajahn Chah.

Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else.

If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

Do I, in fact, really want to renounce white supremacy? Despite all my work for justice, I can feel the clinging that pushes me to ask myself this question.

We love the benefits of white supremacy! They’re so comfortable and familiar! And why on earth would we want to let go of all that comfort? It’s much more pleasant to stay in the delusion, to not make the connections between our comfort and the historic and present-day violence against people of color. Sure, I can acknowledge the pain, as long as you don’t take my comfort away. It sounds crass, but I can viscerally feel myself hit this edge. That fear of letting go. What am I going to have to give up if I really want to dismantle white supremacy?

I think here of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination. To quote my friend Lisa Moore from East Bay Meditation Center,

There is no unconditioned me. The existence of each and every being and inanimate object is subject to what preceded and what is currently in interbeing.

Likewise the beings and objects at present co-create the world that has yet to exist. There is no being without interbeing…

The delusion of isolated history fragments us from ourselves and each other. Historical interbeing can be the basis for the deep solidarity that sustains movement building. History lives and changes as we live and change. As we understand these changes, we can be more skillful in bending its arc towards justice.

Can we as white people turn our attention and intention toward awareness of the constellation of causes, conditions and experiences that brought us to present-day white supremacy? Can we vow to learn what it would mean to practice renunciation of white supremacy, and then do it? Like so many other delusions, the whole culture supports us (in this case, white people) not to look at it, and we cling to it desperately. But it’s really delusion and craving that would seduce us into keeping white supremacy outside our sphere of practice. Nothing left out. Our liberation depends on it.

And, in that practice of awareness and letting go, can we commit to learning what it would require of us to work in full cooperation and solidarity with people of all colors, and work together to co-create a new foundation? No one left out. Our liberation depends on it.

I have a lot of faith in the Dharma. If anyone can emerge from the delusion they’re swimming in, it’s a bunch of Dharma practitioners truly committed to waking up. Come, let us wake up together.

We Begin by Listening

Photo by Lex Non Scripta. Stencilling Allied Media Projects’ network principles.


IMG_3619Max is devoted to social justice and community building, focusing on racial and disability justice, fat liberation, queer liberation, and exploring how to create the conditions necessary for authentic diversity and liberation for all beings. Max is rooted at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA, and is currently part of Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leader training program (CDL5).

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Comments (15)

  • quilley powers

    yes, I can feel the depth of holding on, white knuckling for my comfort.

    I live in an all white community. Well, almost. I do notice a few people of color occasionally. They definitely stand out.

    Who am I?

  • Arindam

    Though I have to object to much of this article, I will limit myself to two points:

    1) Our economic success required enslavement of African people.

    No it did not. That’s what makes slavery tragic: it was quite unnecessary, as far as economic development is concerned. One need only point out that the economic development of the Western world (as measured by growth rates of GDP per capita) accelerated in the decades and centuries following the abolition of slavery (in both Europe and North America) – and the greatest success – the postwar ‘Golden Age’ from 1945-1973, was the era that not only saw no slavery, but also major improvements in civil rights. [For details, see Paul Bairoch’s ‘Economics and World History’.]

    Indeed, if slavery contributed to economic success, the South might well have won the Civil War.

    2) Charleston.

    As regards that event, there are many reasons to believe that it was a hoax of some sort. Leaving aside the question of why anyone in the deeply devout South would shoot up a church, it is curious that there were nine killed – and none injured. It is also curious that the scrawny young man accused of the shooting was not overpowered by the African-Americans in the church, and got away completely unscathed. The shooter himself does not look as if he had the physical or mental aptitude necessary to commit mass murder. The timing of the attack – coinciding with votes over the TPP and other dubious trade deals… is a little too convenient.

    One hopes Dharma practice will help remove unnecessary and undesirable guilt, and replace it with the ability to look at such events calmly and objectively – from a detached perspective that goes beyond black and white.

  • Matt Watersong

    Thank you for your vital words. I find so much life in the path that asks these questions. To me, the thread you are following is the most living form the dharma takes in the 21st century. I hope your path feels supported by all beings and I am grateful to know you are traveling it.

  • Nikki

    While I enjoyed the article, like Arindam, I also have some disagreements. The idea that all white people are somehow taking advantage of ‘ white privilege’ seems a great overstatement to me, and I don’t think grovelling around in guilt has any answers for our problem. Although some have made a financial profit from slavery years ago, and even now still do, not all of us are guilty of this. Many of our families came here recently from other countries and had nothing to do with this culture of racism. Although I certainly have privileges due to my race, how do I share that privilege, or denounce it and put myself in harms way and how would that help anyone, much less help eliminate the harm done by racism? I say applying this to every white person is unnecessary and counterproductive. If you find racism in your heart, root it out in every way possible. If you see racism happening around you, do what you can to stop it. Carrying around some kind of ‘white man’s guilt’ ends up looking more like pity and pandering than it does any kind of solution.

  • Liz

    This is an intense and helpful article. I agree with Matt that it is the living dharma. Hitting up against the edge of giving up my comfort feels scary, @Nikki, the article doesn’t promote guilt for white people, but promotes recognizing our privilege. Although it is true that some white people have less financial gain than others from our racist system, we all have some. I can remember getting a rent stabilized apartment that, with my finances and credit record, seemed like a miracle. Later, I realized, that in our integrated neighborhood, the small apartment building was all white and that a woman on the first floor told the landlord who she thought he should rent to. It’s important to see life as it really is

  • Drew

    YES, Max, thank you for the article. I hope I can find a way to be in contact with you soon!

    For those who question what role white buddhist practitioners should be taking in ending white supremacy, please see this resource from Insight Meditation DC, which I believe echoes Max’s article:

    “This is a call to white Buddhist teachers, leaders and practitioners (within the United States and abroad) to engage in the healing of racism as an essential part of our journey of awakening.
    Racial awareness as spiritual practice
    Our Dharma practice calls on us to leave no stone unturned in investigating racism and white dominance. And our practice can support us profoundly as we encounter the challenges of this inquiry. These four areas provide a framework of inquiry and action:
    1. Commit to ongoing self-education.
    2. Engage in facilitated group work.
    3. Promote structural change within our Dharma communities
    4. Build collaborative relationships with people of color.

    Let us fearlessly, tirelessly and lovingly commit to this work. May all beings live with ease.

  • Maia Duerr

    Arindam, I find your comment about a ‘hoax’ so incredibly offensive. I request that you take the time to read this article… …and i really have to wonder what your intention is here.

  • Dawn Haney

    Arindam, you say “As regards to that event (Charleston), there are many reasons to believe that it was a hoax of some sort.”

    I have to be honest, I’m kind of incredulous to see this statement in print. Like Maia, I find it incredibly offensive. I’m going to engage with you on the assumption that this was a poor word choice on your part.

    FIrst, to clarify:

    Are you saying you don’t think 9 people, including a South Carolina Senator, are dead? I’m putting on my moderator hat to say: Please be thoughtful about your words here. Many people are deeply grieving, and unfounded speculation that dead people are not dead will not be tolerated here.

    Are you saying you don’t think Dylann Roof is the killer, and so we may know less about the motivations of the killing than we think we do? I think a different word than “hoax” would be more appropriate if this is the point you are trying to make. Again, people are dead, which is not a hoax. At best, you give speculative theories here that seem based in racialized ideas of mythical African American strength to “overpower” and an assessment of Roof’s “mental aptitude” based on his looks.

    These statements test the limits of our commenting policy, which I would suggest you review before additional posting:

    “Leaving aside the question of why anyone in the deeply devout South would shoot up a church …”

    There’s a long history of attacks on Black churches in the South. Most would argue that the reason for many of these is simple – white racism against Blacks. The 1963 bombing that killed 4 little girls in Birmingham is on a lot of people’s minds. I find it hard to believe that someone who appears to do a lot of reading on history would be unaware of this horrific example of an attack on a church, but here’s a link for more information on the history of attacks on Black churches:

  • Arindam

    1) Thank you for the link to that article, Maia. I found the following line, most curious:

    ‘As her son lay dying, Sanders reached for his cellphone to call for help, but the phone had been shattered by bullets.’

    Are we to believe that this 21-year old, was such a good shot, that he could blow away a cellphone in the midst of a rampage? Or is it the case that he littered the church with so many bullets that the cellphone stood no chance? If so, what gun was he using? (No specific details of the weapon were provided in that article…)

    The article would have us believe that when he stopped to reload, others in the congregation – instead of overpowering him – pleaded with him to stop. I find that… preposterous.

    Today, there’s been a major suicide bombing in a mosque in Kuwait. One can easily find photos and video coverage of the carnage inside the mosque – as well as of bloodied victims – for example.

    Compare this coverage with that of the Charleston Church incident.

    2) Thank you for that article, Dawn.

    I noticed that the author mentions various burnings and bombings of African-American churches in the past, (many of them over five decades ago) but not a single shooting. Not even one…

    As for Dylan Roof, he is innocent until proven guilty. All commentary based on ‘white racism’ being behind this killing, assumes that he is guilty. This assumption, in my view, is premature.

    For those who find what I have written offensive, a few words from Epictetus are in order:

    ‘When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from an impression that it is right for him to do so. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion,”It seemed so to him.”‘ (The Enchiridion, 42)

    I do not think I have reviled or harmed anyone with my words, but the basic principle applies to what I have typed as well: if my views are false, I am the one hurt – and if they are true – well….

  • Bruce

    I would like to point out, for the benefit of “Arindam”, that while a police investigation is ongoing in this country, all the details of a crime like this, including photos, are often withheld from the public. That is done to aid the investigation and also to avoid having the accused convicted by and in the mass media.

    Secondly, some details that are available indicate that the accused had a website that was rabidly racist. See

    If you are aware of this information, then your statement “All commentary based on ‘white racism’ being behind this killing… is premature” (inclusive) is disingenuous at best and deliberately offensive at worst. Why are you even posting on a Buddhist website?

  • Arindam

    So, Bruce, you would have me believe that photos of the crime scene are not published to prevent the accused being convicted by the mass media, but photos of the accused wielding the Confederate flag are.

    If the Kuwaiti authorities thought the same way, I can easily imagine what they’d be saying:

    ‘A suicide bomber has blown himself up in a mosque killing two dozen people. No, I cannot allow you to take photographs or video footage of the scene – that would jeopardize the investigation.

    Why are you looking so suspicious? Here, take these pictures of the assailant waving IS flags.

    What, you still don’t believe me? Look, that’s all the public needs to know – OK?’

    What am I doing on a Buddhist website? Demonstrating that attachment is the cause of suffering – in this case, the attachment to a particular narrative causes you to take offence at any criticism of it. What better place to demonstrate this than a Buddhist website?

    Since you’ve been kind enough to provide me with a link, I think it’s only fair that I provide one as well, demonstrating that this ‘rabidly racist’ individual had black friends – online at least:

  • Nathan

    Arindam, if you seek to shine a light on others attachments here, perhaps it might be wise to turn it back on yourself.

    On another post, you and I discussed Islam and the situation in Burma. There you were insistent in suggesting that Islam is somehow an inherently a violent and destructive religion.

    Here, you’re quite fixated on suggesting that what happened in Charleston was a false flag operation. Which, in my book, is a good way to derail the conversation away from systemic racism and white supremacy.

  • Bruce


    You are clearly not interested in any other point of view than your own. You are here simply to get attention and provoke other people. I will not respond any more to your infantile rants.

  • Arindam

    Yes, I remember that conversation Nathan. It can be found here:

    If someone wishes to argue that Islam is a non-violent and constructive religion – be my guest. You can bolster your argument by comparing murder rates in Islamic countries with those in Latin America, Africa etc.., or by pointing to the development of the Persian Gulf countries and the building of mosques and madrassas around the world.

    And if you wish to go further and warn us all about the dangers of ‘Islamophobia’… by all means do so. I might even refrain from comment – like the men in this cartoon:

    [Though I would not wish that sort of detachment on anyone.]

  • fayer infinity

    Max, thank you so much for your article here. I am grateful for the invitation to get deeper into a life less-inclusive of white supremacy patterns. I feel sad that many of the comments here feel argumentative or defensive, though I wouldn’t expect different from white people conditioned to push back against confrontation of their entitlement.

    My perspective is this–I’m a mixed race person, native and white, and was raised by my more-Indian-patterned mom as my attachment bond. I feel blessed that I got conditioned to see the world without the complete indoctrination of white supremacy. My question as an adult, after years of being in mostly white community because of my white skin, is how do I create a world around me that actively resists the unspoken your with us or against us of supremacy? Look around at your lives, do you actually have non-white community or have the POC in your life adapted and assimilated to be in your world?

    I left my close queer-white-feminist community about a year ago in search for a place that wouldn’t demand that I assimilate to their white and middle class norms. I feel scared and confused without the blanket of my old culture….but it was littered with supremacy, and fit or be excluded, collide or we will throw u away. White patterning shadows from all the being “on top” whites have been granted. I left, and I don’t know how to do what’s next. I would love to start a conversation with others who have already left the comfort zone….

    Thanks again max.

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