Lately, I’ve been feeling a deep sensitivity as I move about my world—a vulnerability, a brewing sadness, that comes, I believe, from the rawness of beginning to peel back the layers and peer into the depths of my own internalized oppression. I see how often I let myself become small, allow someone else a final thought to keep the peace, and ignore the use of words like “ghetto” (when a place is not) and “afro” (when a hairstyle is not) to protect a white friend from feeling uncomfortable if corrected.
Often these subtle aggressions happen closest to home, when engaging with my friends and other seemingly aware white individuals. To be clear, these people are not racists. They’re activists supporting marginalized populations, creatives dedicated to raising social consciousness, and general do-gooders making not enough money to do meaningful things. No doubt upon reading this, they will stand by my side and say, “write on!” (pun intended).
Yet the fact that even individuals conscious of the oppression of marginalized populations inadvertently reinforce their own privilege indicates the power of societally patterned interactions.1 These patterns are the result of our conditioning by a system created by and built to propagate the prosperity of white people. Without paying specific attention to these patterns, we’re destined to recreate oppressive societal structures of power and hierarchy on the micro-level in our conversational dynamics, even against our best intentions.2
This article offers examples and reflections from my own experience on how we might consciously design a more colorful and inclusive social discourse. Such work is the fuel for creating a compassionate and empathetic community from which enlightened society has the possibility to manifest.
Our Sanghas Are Not Welcoming for People of Color
Recently, I was asked by a sangha member to share my perspective on why our Buddhist community is a welcoming place for people of color. I agreed, but I doubt that I gave her the answer she expected: “I don’t believe our community is welcoming,” I told her. “We’re significantly behind at looking at white privilege and presenting teachings for addressing this reality on a personal and communal level.”
I could have added that, to the uninitiated, the formality of some our practices can feel off-putting at best, elitist at worst. Then there’s the “white elephant” in the room: For a person of color first stepping into a Buddhist center, there’s a good chance that the majority of the faces that greet them will be white. Beyond the general inquiry, “What can we do to make our sangha more diverse?”, sanghas rarely explore how a lack of diversity is frequently a reflection/function of white privilege. As a person of color, if I’m looking for a space where I can find deeper understanding of how the Dharma may support me in confronting the challenges I face daily in a racialized society, I am unlikely to succeed when this hardship is not discussed or addressed by the larger community. Why would I come back?
I do believe, however, that our sanghas are fertile ground for this awareness to take hold. There are many who are eager to listen and thoughtfully consider how we might create a more inclusive environment. If supporting these efforts is of interest to a person of color, they’ll find ample opportunity to do so. If not, I don’t blame them for looking for community somewhere that doesn’t require such selfless and potentially painful service.
Personally, for the number of times I’ve felt disheartened, alienated, and confused, I’ve conversely received words of encouragement from white allies who’ve made it a point to check in and acknowledge sensitivities. I see physical evidence of how the larger Buddhist community is working to create safe spaces where people of color can gather and discuss challenges along the path. I long for these actions to be adopted more widely, and I’ve witnessed how powerful it can be when they are implemented.
Patterns Emerge When We Look
It may come as a surprise to some that this painful social patterning often emerges while in the very process of consciously trying to dismantle it.
Last fall I attended a Shambhala workshop in a mixed-race setting where we spent time exploring microaggressions, seemingly innocent observations about a person’s appearance or interests that transmit a hidden, often unintended, racist stereotype that reinforces racial hierarchies. Aware of the potential for painful discourse, Charlene Leung, Chairperson of the Shambhala Diversity Working Group, warned me and other participants of color that her presentation might open something of a Pandora’s Box in an audience of mostly whites. Still, given our personal experiences within our individual sanghas, we were eager, though perhaps a bit nervous, to open this conversation within the larger community of Buddhist sanghas.
We watched two videos explaining microaggressions and illustrating them in several fictional vignettes. In one video the tables were turned and white people were the victims of stereotypical assumptions:
You’re not good at golf? But, you’re white?
You’re so exotic. Where in Europe are you from?
How do you get your hair like that? It’s so limp.
Having personally experienced the all-too-eager-questioning about my own tresses, I was curious how it all might land.
Laughter was the predominant response from the group. The content of the videos was meant to be funny, the humor designed to show the absurdity of what some white people say to people of color—illustrated by how clearly ridiculous microaggressions appear when lobbed in the other direction. But as the group’s chuckling continued, I felt my initial nervousness at the prospect of engaging in uncomfortable conversation shift to surprise and then curious dismay. Was the group not taking microaggressions seriously? Did they believe they were immune to such actions? Was their laughter a way of distancing themselves from being one of those people? Or was the content of the video simply that funny?
While I appreciate the disarming power of laughter for introducing a painful topic, I question if humor alone is truly enough to incite change. I also question if laughing about sensitive issues without also pairing this inquiry with more sobering conversation might be painful for those who have truly been victims in such situations. I wasn’t laughing.
I admit I’m not immune to the all-too-quick laugh or brush-off when something is uncomfortable. In fact, this has been my go-to tactic for shaking off subtle microaggressions when they’re unwittingly hurled in my direction. Experience has shown me that these insults usually come in moments of ease, when everyone is connecting and has left their guard with their shoes by the front door. In these moments I simply don’t have the energy (or often the bravery) to step into “schooling” mode. Like many people of color in such moments, I become weary and uneasy with white people yet again. Better just to retrieve my guard by the door or, even easier, to slip it on with my shoes and head for safety.
How easy. How painful.
I suspect one reason for our discomfort in these conversations is that sharing our personal inquiries and experiences of race is terrifying. When we feel discomfort, we habitually reach for familiar ways of being, thus weaving a “cocoon” of false safety. Writes meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in this cocoon, in which we perpetuate our habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground.”3 This process keeps us separate, “safe” from that which may be uncomfortable; but it stifles our ability to connect with reality and alienates us from others.
This work is also new in many communities. In mixed race settings, we’re still learning how to foster an environment of honest inquiry while at the same time trying to minimize any harm such inquiry might cause to those who do not identify with the racial majority. It’s not easy.
Frankly, I couldn’t engage in my Buddhist community if it were not beginning the prickly work of addressing racial disparity in sangha. Given the freshness of this work for many, however, there’s ample opportunity for growing pains. As a person of color, I’m likely to experience discomfort when these issues are discussed in a mixed-race setting. This often arises when people offer comments or other visible feedback that challenge the importance of such discussions. Sometimes white people insert some way in which they’ve also been discriminated. When this happens, I get angry. I want to react. I know this is not the way.
Understanding Conversational Architecture
At this same conference, Charlene discussed the hidden architecture that creates any group discourse. Each new voice that shares in a group dialogue builds this architecture, and its structure determines how we speak, what is said, and who is invited to participate. Though we might not realize that such structures exist, we’ve all experienced their confines. This is why, for example, we’re more inclined to share our conceptual views of Dharma verbally during a group discussion than to offer our perspectives as an interpretive dance. There’s some unspoken shared acknowledgment that a dance might not be so well received. We leave it out even if it’s what we really, really long to do. Acting on such an urge might expose us as the one who does not belong. People might laugh. The horror.
If we pay attention, it’s not hard to recognize the hidden architecture of any gathered group: Who leads the conversation? Whose opinions incite head nods and agreement and whose seem to go unnoticed? Who speaks first? Who speaks last?
When the designers of a conversation are white, often white men, we may forget to examine the architecture of the discussion because these are the architects we’re all most familiar with. We’re socially conditioned to accept and attune to the “white is right” channel. Of course, we can all say anything, do anything. This is America! But can all of us, really? What if my vernacular is different than that of the architects? What if collective assumptions don’t align with my personal experience? What if everyone’s body language is comfortable and relaxed and I’m feeling anxious? The opportunity to say the “wrong thing” increases. It’s much safer to—in the vernacular of black folks in the days of slavery—“keep your head down” than risk being exposed as different.
When The Arrow invited me to pen an article sharing my opinions on how we might create a more inclusive sangha, my, how I felt the discomfort rise. I put the whole thing off for months for obvious reasons: Who am I to offer such suggestions? Discussing race outside the confines of other similarly opinionated brown-skinned folks makes me mightily uncomfortable. And yet, the personal unpeeling I mentioned earlier has made me aware that such discomfort is actually an indication that something that may disrupt this architecture wants to be birthed. Offering my voice creates a crack in the wall of my own internalized colonization.
The Power of Skillful Disruption
With awareness and skill, we can disrupt an established architecture on the spot, to invite in those who may be conditioned to stay on the sidelines.
Earlier last year I attended Awaken Chicago, a multi-day workshop dedicated to changing the conditions causing local violence, isolation, and inequality. It was a big deal. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön were there. During one breakout panel with angel Kyodo williams and Gaylon Ferguson, the audience was asked to share their own challenges and aspirations for creating a better world. The question was simple, but the discourse was elevated. The mixed-race, older, well-educated audience spoke of their frustration from regularly bumping up against oppressive systems, the politics that had given rise to such suffering, the challenges of meeting these realties in their daily lives, and so on. It was all very good. Behind me sat a group of roughly 30 mostly black high school students who had been bussed in to attend the conference. Other than some muffled chatting among each other, they were quiet.
Midway through the session, Gaylon called out to the young attendees: “I want to hear from the people in the back,” he said. “What do you think?” There was some confusion in the audience. Was he asking them directly? The kids behind me were suddenly very quiet. I felt my anxiety rise. Was he being too direct?
No one spoke. No one wanted to speak. Gaylon persisted. “Yes, I’m curious, what are your aspirations?” I could feel the discomfort of the audience, and I began to feel protective. Why should they speak? Let them be!
Several moments of awkward silence passed.
Then a young girl ventured forth: “I want to go to college?” she said with trepidation.
She handed the mic to the right. Some of the kids passed it on but others offered a few words:
“I want to empower black girls.”
“I also want to go to college.”
They weren’t trying to get it right. Their age made them immune to the carefully crafted eloquence of the older, more educated audience members in the front. They spoke from their heart, and it sounded nothing like what anyone else had said previously. The room was alive. My lungs easily expanded, though I hadn’t realized I’d been breathing shallowly. Gaylon had opened a window.
This is the power of dismantling conversational architecture.
Though initially Gaylon’s methods felt intrusive, I can see now that his approach was actually quite skillful. The formal setting, the number of well-spoken attendees who’d already raised their voices to contribute to the conversation, and likely many other factors contributed to an architecture that was firmly established and largely inaccessible to the high school students. It said, “This is a conversation for well-educated activists.” To shake its foundation required a concerted and pointed effort—one that made those participants who’d already accepted the structure’s confines uncomfortable. By specifically asking for the students’ perspectives, Gaylon essentially said, “What you have to say matters to me.” It just took one person to trust his invitation, to believe that her voice would not be laughed at or misunderstood. Her comment—“I want to go to college?”—paved the way for her peers to offer their own perspectives, which were markedly different from the previous discourse.
It’s not that those who created the initial architecture were incorrect, but when we don’t examine who is or is not contributing to the conversation, we fall into familiar patterns of relating, and these patterns are often influenced by larger societal norms.
Obviously the circumstances and tactics are individual to the setting and situation. Gaylon is a skilled Shambhala teacher and, I imagine, has much experience knowing how to engage a group. But in some way, I believe that we can all take steps towards fostering conversational inclusion. This may mean verbally supporting people of color when they offer their opinion, encouraging people who don’t often speak to share their perspective, or speaking up when someone makes an insensitive comment. More often than not, for white people, it means simply taking a step back and allowing more space. Perhaps something new will arise in these moments or maybe they’ll simply remain open. What could be more powerful and bring more solidarity than hanging out in this conversational fertile ground together?
I do not blame white people for their own conditioning that has led many to unconsciously carry the burden of making decisions, setting the tone, and getting the job done. I understand the motivations for these actions are the products of their own conditioning. This place may be excited and eager to dive in. It may be feeling some level of expectation from the other participants. It may want to “save” a presenter from feeling embarrassed by being the first to break a group’s silence. I imagine it must be tiring to feel the weight of so much responsibility. The good news is, you can simply let this go. Awareness will enable you to put down the conversational chisel and leave it without concern for another to bravely pick up.
Actively working together to create an architecture of inclusion is one way more people of color might find a home in their sangha. As with the Awaken Chicago conference, these actions could make others aware that there’s room for them to express their true selves in such a community. When anyone feels that they can fully show up, that their concerns are valid and important, that their community is a reflection of who they are, why wouldn’t they come back?
Can We Support These Specific Efforts?
To make this work possible and palatable, it requires that all parties consciously consider personal patterns as they step into community. We must use prajñā to examine our natural responses to uncomfortable conversations. How am I feeling? Offended? Bruised? Ignited? Will my actions create room for others or shut them down? What are my motivations for speaking or withholding? As facilitators, we must carefully consider how content might be received, and we must make on-the-spot adjustments when necessary. Who is not participating? What is the feel of the room? Charlene did this by informing me and other people of color of the scope of her presentation. No one predicted that the video content would ignite such robust laughter. For my part, I didn’t realize that such a response would prove so painful when not paired with more thoughtful conversation. Now we have this experience for shaping future dialogue. We learn and move forward.
This kind of learning and adjusting while aiming for inclusion is only possible if we all make a personal commitment to look at the ways in which we contribute to the perpetuation of white privilege in our social environments. No one is immune. If you believe you are not impacted by this truth, then I’m sorry to say that you are part of the problem. Are you willing to do this work?
Here are some specific actions I’d like to see in this effort:
- Offer and protect space for POC to come together regularly, such as a designated POC meditation and discussion group.
- Recognize that being in community with large groups of white people is often stressful for POC. At such programs and retreats, create opportunities for POC to be in community just with each other to download, offer mutual support, and discuss whatever may be arising.
- Help us POC to see and hear ourselves in these teachings. Reach out first to leaders of color to fill roles as meditation instructors and teachers.
- Understand that merely saying “I support diversity” is not enough. Encourage the deep and painful work of understanding white privilege. Promote participation in trainings such as the UNtraining or Shambhala Online diversity classes like Cultivating Dignity, and/or offer a study group where white members may read and discuss books examining the reality of white privilege. Waking Up White by Debby Irving is a good place to start.
- Realize that until senior teachers have also engaged in the work of looking at their own white privilege, the risk of alienating students of color is high. Can we require all new and current teachers to engage in a workshop, class, or study group examining white privilege and exploring how to bring cultural awareness to discussions?
Such efforts are small steps, but I believe they support the Shambhala vision of creating an Enlightened Society. Just as with this aspiration, our commitment to racial equality must expand beyond the pocketed. We need everyone.
Personally, I’ve found that my willingness to engage in any community is directly correlated with the extent to which white individuals are engaged in feeling, being, and touching their own privilege. I do not know what happens in this work, only that when someone has engaged in it, I can feel it. If this were paired with an active awareness to support the empowerment of people of color, I believe it could create something beautiful and rare. In this space there would be a collective agreement to allow new ways of relating to arise, even if it takes moments (years) of uncomfortable silence and awkwardness for that something beautiful to venture forth. When it does, it would be supported community-wide from a tiny flickering pilot light to a brilliant flame, and that flame could be a beacon radiating inclusivity, openness, and love.
Kelsey Blackwell is a somatic coach, writer and facilitator committed to fearlessly creating spaces for women and PoC to trust and follow the wisdom of their own bodies so they may powerfully shine their lights in a world that sorely needs this brilliance. Follow her at kelseyblackwell.com.
Illustration by Alicia Brown.
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- See, for example, Albert Bandura, “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication,” in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (2nd ed.), eds. J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001), 121-153. ↩
- We often unintentionally recreate these structures on a macro level as well. See “Women of Color Assess the Impact of the Women’s March,” wbur.org, January 24, 2017; and Brooke Obie, “Woman in Viral Photo from Women’s March to White Female Allies: ‘Listen to a Black Woman,’” The Root, January 21, 2017. ↩
- Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984), 52. ↩