The cost of whiteness?

Mar 15th, 2018

Image copyright: Daria Nepriakhina

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.  –
Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

I believe that my liberation as a disabled, queer, poor person is directly tied to the liberation of all people.  The Buddha has taught that we are intrinsically linked in a web often referred to as interdependence.  In a very simplistic way, this can be understood as we are all in existence with each other and because of each other.  Part of the myriad causes and conditions that bring forth this moment, is the skin bag we call “me” and “you”.   In an ultimate sense, that can be seen as we are all one, and that constructed attributes such as gender, race, sexuality, etc. are merely that – constructions.  Some would say that liberation is to overcome or move beyond our constructions. For a long time I thought that way to liberation, but in fact, I have come to recognize in my own practice that liberation isn’t about overcoming or moving beyond anything.  It is eliminating my ideas or even my history.  It has come to, instead, rely on relating to these factors in a liberative way.  Over and over again practice has brought me back to embodiment and relationship as the way to moments of liberation.

When I speak of embodiment I mean this body as it is.  When I sit on the cushion looking at the wall, I am connecting with my body with each breath.  Connecting with my breath and body connects me to this moment, this experience, this very “things as it is” as Suzuki Roshi would say.  This body that is white, cis-gendered, male, queer, disabled, infected, educated, feeling, thinking, and historical.  I can’t ever escape the facts of my existence.  I can of course lose weight, I can take my medication, I can find recovery so that my tapes and messages have less impact.  What I have not been able to do is overcome or escape them.

For instance, let’s look at anger.  Anger is considered one of the three poisons when it is used as a translation for dvesha. Other translations I have seen are ill will, hatred, and jealousy.  I have been considered (and probably still am by some) an angry person.  I have done my fair share of yelling and screaming at injustice, at moments of pain and suffering, and at moments of “unfairness”.  I have held grudges, and in many other ways experienced anger.  Some of it justified anger and some of it not.  When I first started to practice, I believed that I was expected to “cut-off” or “end” the three poisons.  The one I truly struggled with was always anger.  I could convince myself of the possibility of cutting off clinging (lobha) and educate myself out of ignorance (moha). I just couldn’t imagine the possibility of getting rid of anger.  What I have learned is that overcoming or cutting off wasn’t a matter of never having the poisons. Instead, it was about HOW I experienced them, and responded to them.  My attempts at never experiencing anger, just enlivened it, gave it deeper roots, and led to depression and more suffering.  I was lucky to have two big teachings about anger that changed how I saw this overcoming.

First was early in my Zen Practice.  I had been practicing for about 8 years before I started Zen practice, and was participating in what was called a “summer intensive” that was being led by my teacher.  This was a three week long retreat where we lived, and practiced in a way that was similar to life in the monastery.  We ate in the zendo in a ritual way called oryoki.  I have a pretty severe and inclusive nut allergy and during this time, I was exposed to nuts several times.  With each encounter, I would get angrier and angrier. I kept being told they would try harder to warn me, and yet it kept happening.  Finally it happened the fourth or fifth time and I lost it.  I refused to be in the zendo during meals, I yelled and screamed, and cried (in private – I still couldn’t do such a thing publicly).  I am sure that I frightened many of my fellow participants.  I had all kinds of stories, and justifications that fueled my anger.  After a day or two of trying to “manage” and “overcome” my anger; the head of the meditation hall (his name is Mark Lancaster, now a great teacher, friend, and mentor) sat me down, and said something that totally changed my relationship to my anger.  I expected him to tell me to control it or leave.  I expected him to tell me how Buddhism tells us to not be angry.  What he said was simply, “We are big enough for you to be angry with us.” and “Let’s figure out how to include you while you are angry.”  I understood something in that moment.  I got to experience my anger, and learn that I didn’t have to let it decide my reactions for me.  I even got help in practicing this by this guy sitting beside me (not eating, but at least in the room) during meals, and being “with me” in my anger.

The second big lesson was when someone I consider a dear friend confronted me after a particularly loud outburst of anger came to me to talk about how this effected her.  She simply said, “Your anger, when it’s loud and expressive like that scares me. and I have to leave. I don’t like having to leave when you are suffering.”  This felt like an invitation into contact with the effects of my anger controlling me, not dismissing anger, but merely showing me how expressing it effected this relationship.

Over time, I have learned that no one actually ever escapes anger.  It is how I relate to it that matters.  Which brings me to the second part of liberation practice, relationship.  How do I relate to what I find in connecting to this skin bag in the world?  My practice has over time has begun to be about how do I relate to the causes and conditions of the actual experience of my life?  When I talk about practice being about relationship, I mean relationship to myself, my compatriots and also (and perhaps more importantly) my world.  Not my world as in the world according to my own desires and ambitions, but my world as it is.  Greed Hatred and Delusion are not overcome or cut off by finding ways to never having them, but instead finding ways to relate to them in accord with my vows, with ethical conduct or better, in ways that lead to liberation.

This is where whiteness comes in.  As I experience what it means to be a white male, I have begun to notice that my desire for social justice is less and less invested in “helping” or “supporting” black folks.  I am more and more looking at the cost of white supremacy in my own life.  White supremacy doesn’t only effect people of color.  It actually effects all of us.  The loss of an actual relationship to history that isn’t skewed to protect me from the reality of oppression and genocide for instance.  I recently heard angel Kyodo Williams, one of the co-authors of the book Radical Dharma, speak to this.  To paraphrase this, “of course we can talk about the effects of the sale of people being sold as property.  We can’t forget the cost on those inside the house drinking tea, like nothing is happening, while human beings are being sold as property. What gymnastics of mind must we perpetuate to make such a thing okay? There is suffering there.”  As I live in this white body, I try to notice this cognitive dissonance. In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.  I practice asking myself “what is the cost of whiteness and white supremacy to this body and mind?”  How can I relate to the world in a way that moves me more and more out of cognitive dissonance, and more and more into union with the reality that I exist with and because of all beings?

How about you?

PS:  I want to add that I am not saying we shouldn’t support or encourage the social justice work of Black and Brown folks.  I am saying the exact opposite.  The more that I learn to live in my white body, the more I understand what white supremacy has cost me, the more I want to follow the lead of communities that have been doing this work for centuries.  I seek to join in, rather than move away from.

I am also not talking about guilt or shame.  These are useless in overcoming anything. It may be uncomfortable, it may be new experiences and feelings, and I believe we can do this.  We can all learn, grow and change.


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