This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
The author of this essay is a person of European descent living with the legacy of settler colonialism in the United States. The essay is addressed to people who are white; however, all people are invited to read it.
Our search for understanding in matters of race automatically inclines us toward blackness, although that is not where these answers lie. It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity.
We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African-American,” we draw a blank when it comes to whiteness. To the contrary, whiteness has a history of multiplicity.
—Nell Irvin Painter1
For many meditators and people on a spiritual path in contemporary western society, an ideal is to live in a just and equitable society, where meditation and ethics are central to the way of life. We often fall short of this mark in our society, particularly when it comes to matters of race. So often race is seen as a problem experienced only by people of color, and, in the United States, most often by Black people. In fact, we need to investigate whiteness to understand the issues of racial inequality and oppression completely. Doing so allows us as white people the opportunity to overcome the obstruction of our conditioning in the cultural context of the United States specifically, and in the world more broadly. We must examine whiteness in particular in order to address the ways that we benefit from systemic racism and how we replicate systems of oppression in our spiritual communities. This endeavor need not be a burdensome punishment for being born white, but rather can be a clear opportunity to awaken to the ignorance of our conditioned mind as a part of our spiritual practice. Opening to the challenge of looking at whiteness is precisely the type of practical application that meditators and contemplative practitioners seek—a chance to put the Buddhist teachings into practice more thoroughly. The work of awakening to the suffering created by whiteness can pave a pathway for healing to take place. Inside a container of unconditional positive regard, this work can be profound, allowing us to join history and analysis with meditation, embodiment, and contemplation.
Over the course of the last 500 years, European colonizers and their descendants created a global system of exploitation, violence, and economic dependency that continues to dominate geopolitics and the world’s economies. Known as white supremacy, this global system functions at multiple levels of society to structurally advantage people who are of European descent (“white” people) over all “non-white” people in order to maintain wealth and power.2 This system of domination is particularly insidious because it creates conditions in which poverty and other results of oppression appear to be the causes of disadvantage rather than the results of systemic injustice. For example, years of Black families being denied loans by the government have resulted in less Black homeownership and wealth.3 “If only these families worked harder or were smarter,” the argument of meritocracy goes, “their situation would improve.” These often unspoken but pervasive sentiments, of which white people themselves are often unconscious, support systems of power that continue to privilege them while ignoring the systemic roots of the apparent inequality. This system is mostly invisible to the majority of white people of all class backgrounds who benefit from it but plainly visible to the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who daily experience its oppression. The effects are infuriating and confusing, causing disconnection and the inability to engage in dialogue about the harms the system creates.
What is Whiteness?
Whiteness is a socially constructed collection of cultural identity, values, beliefs, practices, and assumptions that people of European descent hold, generally without realizing that these views are particular to themselves and in contrast to the views and practices of other peoples. Over time, the construct of whiteness has evolved to serve the interests of a historically wealthy, Christian, white, property-owning elite. The first instances of the term “white” date to the 17th century, appearing in legal documents created to define who could and could not own property, such as land, animals, guns, and people. It established a permanent slave class marked by skin color.4 It was also used intentionally to keep poor people with white skin from uniting with enslaved people from the African continent to overthrow the wealthy elite. Through the creation of a white identity, wealthy landowners made having white skin a structural advantage. Being white was seen as “better,” because even a poor white person could potentially own property and have the chance of one day amassing wealth, but the same would never be true for someone with Black skin. In other words, the poor whites may have been poor but at least they weren’t Black; they had an “other” to look down on and oppress. Over time, notions of who qualifies as white have shifted according to the needs of powerholders and as other cultures subsume the values of whiteness to advance their positions in society. For example, the Irish were not originally considered white; nor were Italians. From a historical compendium of U.S. case law on who is considered white:
”White Person” has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.5
Such absurd legal language for defining who is and who is not held to be white clearly shows that whiteness is both a created category, shifting over time, and a powerful one that affords many rights denied to other socially constructed racial categories.
Whiteness does not reside in the color of our skin, but in our thoughts and actions. It is a mindset rather than an innate quality.6 However, those of us socialized as white people often cannot see whiteness for what it is because we are so thoroughly immersed in it. Our enculturation happens as we learn history, imbibe media, and live almost every facet of our lives in a society dominated by whiteness; many of us cannot not see the whiteness of anything specifically because it is everywhere—-in the protagonists of most stories, in most consumer product advertisements, in the qualities and attitudes children are taught to cultivate. White people dominate mainstream media both as producers of content and as those who are represented. “White” is taken as the norm for personhood—think product ads, “John Doe,” or the protagonists of most entertainment media. In the twenty-first century this has changed somewhat as the legacy of civil rights struggles has permeated the mainstream; however, no process of acknowledgment and reconciliation has addressed these harms on a scale appropriate to the atrocities.7
Over the course of the past decade my entire frame of reference has shifted as I have read histories outside of the high school classroom style mythology of the United States. Such books as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s award-winning An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s classic A Peoples History of the United States, and James W. Loewe’s Lies My Teacher Told Me are excellent places to start to understand alternatives to the mainstream historical narrative. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a contemporary account of being a Black man in America, written by a father to his son. Marcus Reddiker’s Amistad; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; Resmaa Menakem’s My Grand Mother’s Hands; and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class each offer scholarly accounts of the legacy of chattel slavery and its impacts on our present day. Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire are standouts that I consistently return to. These books remind us that history is not singular. It is a multiplicity of narratives that converge to give us a fuller picture of how our particular existence as people within a larger society came to be. Not to engage with these histories is to choose ignorance.
A lack of engagement with history and the consequent failure to acknowledge how our painful past contributes to the social ills of today allows for white ignorance to persist. This ignorance amounts to a collective amnesia on the part of the majority of white people whenever people of color—especially Black or Indigenous people in the United States—claim rights. This ignorance interferes with our ability to seek truth and accountability. The true histories are hidden, distorted, and discounted. We cannot have dialogue on equal footing if all parties are not grounded in the truth. The trick of whiteness in denying this history is that it makes the results of hundreds of years of racism and violence—poverty, illness, mass incarceration—look like they are “natural” parts of being Black or Indigenous rather than the effects of systematic oppression.
Meditation as Tool
To lean into this aspiration, you must confront the fact that “whiteness” is a social ego as void of inherent identity as the personal ego, and you have identified with it as much as your very own name, but without being willing to name it.
Just as the ego-mind is a construct that constantly reinforces itself—building structures and systems of control and developing attitudes and views that maintain its primacy and sense of solidity so that it can substantiate its validity—so, too, does this construct of whiteness. One could call it the Mind of Whiteness.
—Rev. angel Kyodo williams8
In all of this pain, heartache, and confusion over the cost of whiteness, there is a great opportunity for expanding awareness, healing, and collective liberation. Over the past decade I have walked a path of uncovering, challenging, and undermining my own mind of whiteness. I have participated in reading groups, workshops, and conversations about race and whiteness. I have read articles about and analysis of whiteness by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as by white people. I have looked into my ancestors and read histories. I have facilitated workshops and reading groups, leading others on the journey of examining their whiteness. Most importantly, I have engaged in embodied learning activities and cultivated meaningful relationships with people of color. Through all of this I have begun to settle into a place beyond guilt, where through reflection and engagement I no longer feel at fault for all of systemic racism but rather responsible for changing what I can change and being in the struggle for racial justice on a daily basis. I have begun to feel a shift in my heart; I no longer feel that I am to blame for racism, but rather that I have agency to forge a new white identity that belies the legacy of whiteness. Beyond that, I can begin to acknowledge, take responsibility for, and transform the ways that I benefit from white supremacy. I can investigate how to directly shift my relationship to whiteness.
Some years ago I began a serious daily meditation practice, and began studying the dharma. As my mind slowly settled, I began to notice a subtle texture of racist thoughts just below the surface of my conscious mind. I was both horrified and intrigued. These were abhorrent thoughts that I did not believe—and yet, there they were. I found myself unintentionally making disparaging assumptions about the background, abilities, and potentials of people of color—most often Black people—despite knowing that they possess brilliance, are resilient and capable, and come from all class backgrounds. Almost daily I noticed subtly racist thoughts about the type of car a person of color was driving, the things a Black person in line at the Whole Foods was buying, or the dreams that a young Black man might dare to have about his future. On one hand, I took comfort in the knowledge, gleaned from my dharma practice, that these thoughts, having no origin, did not define who I was. On the other, I was disturbed that deep inside of me, despite all my anti-racist training, lived such toxic, racist thoughts. The discovery led me to several conclusions: Social conditioning goes very deep and is difficult to uproot despite consciously held beliefs or training; undoing white conditioning needs to involve embodied practices; and unlearning whiteness is a fully engaged, long-term process.
In time, I became excited about the opportunity that this noticing was presenting to me as a Buddhist and a meditator. As the teaching on selflessness reminds us that the ego is made up of accumulations of patterns that convince us that there is a self, so too does the “Mind of Whiteness” convince us that whiteness exists and needs to be defended. Both operate to make their existence seem unremarkable, de facto givens. They appear to us as the backdrop against which life happens, rather than as constructs upon which so much falsity is based.
Given the parallel between the individual ego and the socially constructed ego of whiteness, we see that meditation practice is a most precise tool for dismantling our confused and toxic conditioned mind. It encourages us through curiosity to combat our ignorance about the effects of whiteness on people of color and ourselves. Among other evidence, a recent study of anti-racist white groups in the San Francisco Bay Area9 has shown that mindfulness and embodiment are among the best tools for cultivating resilience in the face of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Characterized by an inability on the part of white people to stay in difficult conversations or situations around race, white fragility is commonly thought of as a fight-flight-freeze response, occurring when situations leave one feeling threatened or unsafe.10
Through workshops that join analysis with embodied exercises, where learning happens in the body, I have noticed profound shifts in myself and others in our ability to stay with the difficulty of talking about and attending to the impacts of racism. One example of an embodied learning activity is called intervention forum theater, in which a group role-plays interrupting racism in conversation. It helps us to notice what is alive in our bodies when we practice confronting these things in a safe space, so that we can be more comfortable in conversations about race in our daily lives. The cultivation of resilience in situations of racial discomfort has allowed me to expand my capacity to be present with the Black youth I work with who experience extremes of systemic violence and poverty. At the same time, being more able to stay with the discomfort of whiteness and racism has allowed me to see more fully the toll that whiteness exacts on myself and other white people, so different from but connected to the toll it takes on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
The Cost of Whiteness for White People
As a white person living with the legacy of violent settler colonialism in the present-day United States, I am disconnected from my ancestral homes and practices. I am descended from European ancestors who variously came from Ireland, England, Bavaria (in what would later become Germany), and scattered Eastern European lands. Europe was a violent place for centuries before some of my ancestors fled for “better” lives in the American colonies or, later, the United States. Ireland began to be conquered and colonized by Britain nearly a thousand years ago, and the people suffered brutally. This was the proving ground of British colonialism and subsequent empire. Almost universally, regardless of their individual circumstances, these ancestors lost touch with their own indigenous practices and sense of belonging to a specific place, were disconnected from the land and their earth-based practices, and were subsequently assimilated into whiteness to become colonizers themselves. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States:
The institutions of colonialism and methods for relocation, deportation, and expropriation of land had already been practiced, if not perfected, by the end of the fifteenth century. The rise of the modern state in western Europe was based on the accumulation of wealth by means of exploiting human labor and displacing millions of subsistence producers from their lands. The armies that did this work benefited from technological innovations that allowed the development of more effective weapons of death and destruction. When these states expanded overseas to obtain even more resources, land, and labor, they were not starting anew. The peoples of West Africa, the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and the Andes were the first overseas victims. South Africa, North America, and the rest of South America followed. Then came all of Africa, the Pacific, and Asia.11
The cost of this alienation has been enormous and traumatizing for all of humanity and the earth.
As I pursue my spiritual path and practices, I find myself conflicted and confused by the cost of whiteness—my ancestors lost their connection to their own land-based indigenous wisdom. In the process they both benefited from assimilating into whiteness and perpetrated tremendous harm. Growing up, I did have religion and some aspects of culture rooted in a context before whiteness, but those things lacked the spirituality, mysticism, and magic that I have longed for and found in other traditions. I have been transformed through the practice of meditation and the teachings held in the Shambhala lineage, yet as a white person I feel confused about which practices I should be adopting, located as I am in what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”12
I have most connected with practices embodying the indigenous wisdom of Tibet, practices that would not have such a prominent presence in the West were it not for the invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet. While it is true that these practices and teachings have been shared genuinely, I question whether it is appropriate for me to engage in them with so little experience of the cultural context—the society, cosmology, and ideology—from which they come. I wonder which elements are part of a common wisdom heritage shared with all humanity and which are culturally specific and not for me. Staying with these questions is the practice for me at the moment. It gives me an opportunity for contemplation that doesn’t simply allow me to bypass the complexity of being a white western practitioner with thoroughly modern sensibilities.
In addition to those layers of confusion, for those of us whose ancestors assimilated into whiteness there is the added complexity of defensiveness when confronted with terms like “white privilege” and “white fragility.” We may be trans or queer, working class, Jewish, disabled, old, femme-identified, descended from recent immigrants, or any other combination of traits yielding less advantage in our society, but that does not change the fact that we are afforded heaps of advantages over non-white people, in the United States and throughout most of the world. Advantages such as wealth accumulation in the form of home or land ownership afforded to whites but denied to Black people and others remain mostly at the periphery of our conscious inquiry.13 Blatant disadvantages suffered by non-whites, such as the disproportionate incarceration of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as the pattern of police murders of innocent, unarmed Black people, may also go unnoticed by those of us with privilege.
The cost of whiteness, while different depending on what kind of body one inhabits, is enormous. The cost for those of us who benefit from this system of oppression is nothing less than our full humanity. Recent research into the effects of racism, intergenerational trauma, and historical trauma passed on from one generation to the next reveals that the work that we have to do is not just on the wounds of the moment. We all also carry the pain and the crimes of our ancestors in our bodies and, through socialization, into our families and the broader culture. 14 So when someone asks, “What does slavery have to do with anything, that was so long ago?” I reply, “Everything.”
As I proceed on this journey of being in the world authentically, I find that I have more questions than answers. In my continuing study of the dharma, I am constantly amazed at how little I know. I am also finding myself able to notice and confront my social conditioning more skillfully through the practice of meditation and inquiry. I find constant opportunities to let go of some of my perfectionism, defensiveness, and need to be right all of the time—my socially conditioned whiteness.
Through conscious effort, meditation, and analysis, comprehending the problem of whiteness and racism becomes an opportunity. It offers a chance to take responsibility for learning about, unlearning, and challenging the systems of oppression that create so much suffering in our society. We can become agents for collective liberation by doing our part in dismantling the social ego of whiteness that has taken up residence in our minds, but which is not innate to our being. And we can work to dismantle white supremacy in our daily life and in the systems around us. I am white. And I want to abolish whiteness. That means starting with acknowledging the harms whiteness has created. I see that this work will not be completed simply by doing a weekend training or reading a book. It is the work of my lifetime.
Kalen Tenderness Tierney is a person navigating the world in a trans non-binary white body, working at the intersection of embodiment, meditation, and social justice. Kalen is a facilitator, teacher, and builder for social change living in Pittsburgh, PA. They are currently studying traditional meditation, philosophy, and trauma-informed practices to become a more effective facilitator and meditation teacher.
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- Nell Irvin Painter, “What is Whiteness?” The New York Times, June 20, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/sunday/what-is-whiteness.html. ↩
- In Radical Dharma, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah offer the following definition of white supremacy: “According to white anti-racist trainers Mickey Ellinger and Sharon Martinas, a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent for the purpose of establishing, maintaining, and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” See Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016), 208. For more on the development of the system of white supremacy, see Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1707-1791. ↩
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631. ↩
- Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1707-1791, https://sph.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/Harris_Whiteness%20as%20Property_106HarvLRev-1.pdf. ↩
- Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1744. Citing the Corpus Juris. See also: Teresa J. Guess, “The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence,” Critical Sociology 32, no. 4 (2006): 650-673, https://www.cwu.edu/diversity/sites/cts.cwu.edu.diversity/files/documents/constructingwhiteness.pdf. ↩
- Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 149-168, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700107078139. ↩
- A few instances of such acknowledgment exist, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the cultural genocide committed in the residential school system for Indigenous children. See http://www.trc.ca. ↩
- Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016), xxvii. ↩
- Katherine E. Roubos, “Cultivating resilience: antidotes to White fragility in racial justice education,” (master’s thesis, Smith College, 2016), https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/1738. ↩
- Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70. ↩
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Pres, 2014), 33-34. ↩
- George Yancy and bell hooks, “bell hooks: Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness,” The New York Times, December 10, 2015, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/bell-hooks-buddhism-the-beats-and-loving-blackness/. ↩
- Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” ↩
- Sue Coyle, “Intergenerational Trauma — Legacies of Loss,” Social Work Today, 14, no. 3 (2014): 18, https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml. ↩