Waking Up to White Supremacy
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.
Photo by Lex Non Scripta. Stencilling Allied Media Projects’ network principles.
Max 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).