Caucusing is a form of upāya—skillful means. To caucus is skillful because it reduces harm. For Buddhists, practicing harm reduction is a relative bodhicitta practice.
In my experience of 24 years of facilitating racial justice work, I have found that it is not helpful to put together in the same room folks who have had racism aimed at them all their lives and folks who haven’t had to think about it very much, if at all. The latter group, white people, need a place to start thinking and feeling about it, a space for using prajña (insight) to discover how white conditioning, through no choice of their own, has been embedded in their ego. There is no white person in North America who does not have white conditioning.1
—Robert Horton, Co-Founder
The UNtraining: Healing Personal & Social Oppressions
The current political landscape of the United States has made it impossible for us to avoid our racial karma. In recent years, the news has been littered with it: police violence and murder of Black and brown people (which is not new), race-based travel bans and deportations, and the detention of migrant children from Latin America, to name a few. Unfounded in our DNA or biology, the invention of race historically and the current construction in North America divides humans based on skin color and other physical attributes.2 This division lives at the root of the institutionalized system called racism, which advantages those deemed “white” and therefore superior, and disadvantages people of color (PoC),3 denying their inherent human worth and dignity. These disadvantages, which manifest as direct violence (against people’s bodies), structural violence (as systems inhibiting wellbeing), and cultural violence (as prejudice and other attitudes that perpetuate the first two),4 affect people of color’s access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The effect of racism in the United States over generations is undeniable: “Every social indicator, from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being White.”5 This is still the case despite the legal progress of the 1960s, achieved through the blood, sweat, and tears of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act did not eradicate racism, and the first Black U.S. presidency did not enter us into a post-racial society.
Racism runs deep in our bodies, our minds, our policies, our schools, our institutions, and our culture at large. Like a deeply embedded, spreading weed, we can’t simply yank it out of the ground; we must carefully remove as much of the root as possible—otherwise it will quickly grow right back while we’re not looking. It requires our utmost perseverance, diligence, care, heart, effort, and patience to overcome it.
Rooting Out Racism Through Caucusing
One of the most helpful tools when first approaching the roots of racism is caucusing. In this case, to caucus means to meet in separate identity groups—so you may have a white caucus and a PoC caucus, and depending on the group, people of mixed race might want their own caucus. This article focuses on the purpose and benefit of having a white caucus when examining racism. In her article, Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People, Kelsey Blackwell offers an eloquent and heartfelt explanation of the importance of caucusing for people of color. White people often wonder—why continue to divide along lines of race? Wouldn’t that only serve to reinforce race and racism? Shouldn’t we all unify and recognize each other’s shared humanity? Isn’t that how racial healing happens?
Rather than increasing racial division, a white caucus (and caucusing more generally) is, as Robert Horton suggests, a form of skillful means, or upāya in Sanskrit. Upāya, according to Chögyam Trungpa, “reveals and deals with situations as they are: it is extremely skillful and precise energy.”6 In order to harness this skillful energy, we must first recognize the realities of racism as they are, not as we wish they were. This means letting go of any desire to be “color-blind” or to skip to the ultimate truth that we are all human. It is important to feel our shared humanity, but we cannot do so genuinely without recognizing the real effects of racism: Not everyone is treated equally or humanely in our society as it is presently organized. Trungpa further describes skillful means as a form of ruthless compassion that “severs us from our comforts and insecurities.”7 He continues:
“If we were never to experience this kind of shock, we would not be able to grow. We have to be jarred out of our regular, repetitive and comfortable life-styles… We must begin to become compassionate and wise in the fundamental sense, open and relating to the world as it is.”8
In forming a white caucus, we are relating to the realities of racism and the harm that it causes, rather than assuming or hoping that we can jump directly into interracial healing.
In the fall of 2017, I gathered with other members of the Shambhala Buddhist community for a Social Engagement Think Tank, a three-day program focused on applying Shambhala teachings to pressing social issues in our world. Unlike other Shambhala gatherings, which are typically majority white, the Think Tank organizers purposefully invited a more balanced group of about half white people and half people of color. We all came with different ideas of what social engagement was and what we wanted to accomplish together. Early on we had the opportunity to announce topics for conversations that we wanted to have with each other. One person of color offered the topic: “What is the color of Shambhala?” I did not attend that conversation and later found out that no one else had either. And yet, this person was pointing to the elephant in the room: The “color of Shambhala”—the racial dynamics and overwhelming whiteness of the community—was actually what we needed to talk about, but for various reasons were not ready to confront, especially in a mixed-race setting.
Mixed Race Dialogue Often Unduly Burdens People of Color
It can be not only hard, but harmful to address racism in a mixed group, especially when white participants have little to no experience examining racism or their white identities. People of color encounter the reality of racism every day; white people do not. This is white privilege—the ability to go through life mostly unaffected and unaware of race because being white is considered good, neutral, or the “norm”.9 When white people unpack and process racism in mixed-race settings, it can cause harm to the people of color present and potentially to themselves. As biracial author Kelsey Blackwell writes, “I keep showing up for these conversations in mixed-race settings and breaking down from the pain of it all. I open myself up to stories about racist family members, or admissions from former white supremacists. Why do I need to hear this?”10 Robert Horton further observes:
People of color need spaces where they do not have to hear white people’s first processing of their white conditioning, both because it can be unintentionally harmful and because they have already heard it many times. People of color need a place to share the feelings and thoughts that arise from living with racism daily, as well as to investigate internalized racism—the ways in which dominant white culture has also become embedded in the minds of people of color.11
If you find yourself in a mixed-race setting, you may notice that a need for caucusing arises—this could either happen intentionally, or you may notice that the group is naturally splitting along lines of race. At the Social Engagement Think Tank, people of color participants saw the need for caucusing and requested that we split up into a PoC caucus and a white caucus. This came as a surprise to most if not all of the white people there. That surprise quickly turned into pain, confusion, and even panic for some of the white people who did not understand why splitting into race-based groups would be helpful or necessary. Caucusing appeared to be dividing the group, when in fact it was acknowledging a division that was already there, one to which most of the white people had been oblivious.
In addition to the pain that such conversations can cause people of color, white people who are newer to working with racism may not be ready to relate to their own discomfort, guilt, or shame, especially with people of color present. White people often exhibit a variety of unproductive behaviors when race is the topic of discussion: remaining silent for fear of hurting the feelings of people of color, defending their status as a “good” non-racist person, sharing their anti-racist credentials and how they already “get it,” or breaking down emotionally and thus remaining the center of attention. If white people don’t know how to hold their own pain about racism in a skillful manner, people of color often end up having to bear the brunt of this pain and manage white people’s emotions. A particularly challenging or painful experience can drive a white person to avoid the work of anti-racism all together. Caucusing is therefore skillful because it can reduce the harm that white people can unintentionally cause for people of color and themselves in mixed-race settings.
Although I understood the need to caucus during the Think Tank, I was still thoroughly uncomfortable in the white caucus group and felt self-conscious and distanced from the people of color. None of the white people there had experience leading a white caucus, so we found ourselves adrift. There was no one to hold the view of what we were doing and why, or to facilitate the painful process of having our whiteness so exposed. We did our best to look at our own experiences, but we didn’t know how to accommodate the multiplicity of our feelings and perspectives, in both our confusion and our goodness. Meanwhile, we could hear the PoC group laughing and enjoying each other’s company and I felt quite left out. Working through this discomfort proved necessary for beginning my journey of examining racism and white conditioning.
Why White Caucusing is Essential
A white caucus provides a space for white people to examine their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences of race, and to discover how they have been conditioned as white people. Robert Horton observes:
“White people need a place to investigate their white conditioning and hold it with compassion and without judgment. They need space to have the common emotional reactions that arise upon discovering this conditioning—like shame, guilt, sadness, and anger. This space is also necessary to perceive the group— rather than individual—nature of white conditioning.”12
All people, without exception, are conditioned by the messages that we receive from the people and institutions that we encounter: media, family, school, acquaintances, literature, and history. In the case of racial socialization, such conditioning teaches white folks and people of color—implicitly or explicitly—that white people are superior in U.S. society. Some examples include the perpetuation of stereotypes in news and entertainment, ethnic jokes at the dinner table, and the misinformation or absence of education about oppressed racial groups throughout history.13 Further, the implicit and non-verbal signals we receive hold just as much information and power as the more overt, direct messages. What people around us don’t talk about and who they physically or verbally avoid transmits and strengthens racial taboos and biases. All white people in North America (and some other places too)—by virtue of living in a racist culture, the legacy of colonialism, genocide, and slavery—absorb white conditioning. It has saturated our minds, perspectives, beliefs, and bodies.14 Unless we work to increase our awareness of this conditioning, we inevitably embody it and act from it.
This conditioning manifests in white people in myriad ways—from unintended microagressions to the feeling that people of color are fundamentally different, from pitying or looking down on people of color to full-blown feelings of superiority and overt bigotry. We don’t even have to believe the conditioning in order for it to affect us. Genuinely believing in the equality of all people does not erase the socialization of white dominance embedded in a white person’s psyche. It’s no wonder, therefore, that white people can easily cause harm to people of color in a mixed-race setting despite their best intentions. A white caucus creates a space for white people to come together to deepen their understanding of their own white conditioning. By illuminating the ways in which we perpetuate racism through our conditioning, we open up the potential to actively undermine it.
It’s About Reclaiming Wholeness
In addition to undermining, subjugating, threatening, and destroying the lives of people of color, white conditioning also comes with many costs to white people. When the English, Irish, Polish, Germans, and many others came to be considered “white” in North America, there was a price that came with the “belonging” of whiteness: loss of connection to ancestry and our own indigenous cultures, disconnection from people of color or lost relationships, the pain of living in a racist culture, not seeing or experiencing the full humanity of people of color (and therefore disconnecting from our own humanity)—to name a few. Our journey to liberate ourselves from white conditioning therefore is not just for the sake of people of color, but also for our own sake. We have to realize that we have a stake in the matter. We have an opportunity to reclaim the wholeness of our humanity as white people. Our conditioning isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility to do something about it. It can, however, be challenging to identify the conditioning itself, because as white people, we are trained to forget or ignore its existence. This, in part, is what makes a white caucus such a rich opportunity—because we as white people can help each other see what is hard to see alone.
My experience of white caucus work has helped me identify the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that racism works through me—a long-held pattern of wanting to “help people of color”, racial judgments sometimes so quick they can be hard to perceive, the desire to be seen as a “good” white person by people of color… all is revealed. At the Think Tank, I watched my white conditioning arise—fear that the people of color, including my friends, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore; my judgment of other white people; feeling alone and awkward about connecting with the people of color; flashes of guilt, shame, self-consciousness, and self-doubt. At the same time, I sensed that there was a purpose in gathering with other white people, that something good, potent, and helpful was possible in that space. Revealing such thoughts and feelings within ourselves can be emotionally challenging, which is why we hold it with other white people who share similar experiences. By hearing each other’s stories, we start to realize that we are not alone in our confusion and embarrassment about race. We can take responsibility without taking it so personally.
A white caucus helps us discover that our white conditioning is shared—it’s a societal phenomenon that we are a part of, rather than an individual failing. None of us are “good” or “bad” white people. In a white caucus, we can actively practice seeing each other’s fundamental decency alongside the pain and embarrassment that arises when we uncover our white conditioning, while holding everyone, including ourselves, in loving-kindness. In my experience, this makes working with racism much more liberating—I don’t have to defend my goodness or fuel feelings of white guilt and shame. These impulses might arise, but if I hold them with the larger view of my full humanity rather than as evidence of a fundamental flaw I can soften toward them and then redirect my focus towards racial justice and away from my own “trips”.
The caucus setting allows white people to be more open and honest about their experiences and confusion without having to worry about hurting people of color or relying on them for answers. It also shocks us out of our comfortable lifestyles, encouraging us to look at our privilege and the ways we unconsciously perpetuate white dominance through our conditioning. A caucus reminds us that things are not “ok” in this society and that we have a lot of work to do personally, in our relationships, and in our communities. If we don’t first heal with each other as white people, we cannot work effectively with people of color—our conditioning will inevitably get in the way.
At the time of the Think Tank, I had no idea how to talk about race with white people in a beneficial way, and neither did my white friends. Since then, I’ve participated in white caucus work through the UNtraining White Liberal Racism program and have discovered how enriching a white caucus can be when it’s led by an experienced facilitator. It still requires confronting challenging emotions and seeing parts of myself that I might not want to see, but when those things are held skillfully in community with the view of my basic human goodness, it’s worth it. It gives me the opportunity to touch my humanity more fully and to deepen my connection with others. After the Think Tank, some of the white participants continued to gather for an online white caucus; after some trial and error we started to discover together how fulfilling, helpful, and heartening meeting with each other around these issues could be.
Healing is only possible after we’ve recognized the reality of racism in the room. That recognition will more often than not require the skillful means of caucusing. If you as a white person feel that you understand the need for caucusing, please help bring other white folks along. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re somehow a better or more advanced white person. That is neither helpful nor true. What is helpful is to meet people where they are and work through confusion and discomfort with them. If you are interested in forming or participating in a white caucus, it is helpful to have a white person who has experience looking at their own conditioning and ideally facilitating that process for others as a more experienced peer.
Over time, by airing out the dirty laundry of our conditioning with other white people, we learn that we can trust ourselves to be with our own experience, we can love ourselves in spite of the ugly things we find, and we can trust other white people to support us. This is the power of a white caucus: The trust in ourselves allows challenging feelings to move through us without getting so stuck or paralyzed. The trust in our white allies creates the foundation of a community to whom we can look for guidance and clarity, rather than burdening people of color with this task. We can also build our capacity to hold our own and others’ pain, to recognize our own mistakes without sinking deeply into guilt and shame, and to be open to the experiences of people of color. This is a lifelong practice that, with time, can strengthen our ability to interrupt racism and expand our awareness to see our own conditioning and to cause less harm. Engaging in white caucus practice can help make us more resilient, more available for genuine connection, and more helpful in mixed-race settings. This doesn’t mean that we will learn what the right thing to do or say is all the time and be able to avoid ever making a mistake; it means that we can more fully embody our humanity, our humility, and our compassion for others, even when we do make mistakes. It means we can love ourselves through our mistakes instead of grasping for validation or forgiveness from people of color.
But When Can We Be Together?
Given the benefits of caucusing, one might wonder, when are we ready to do the work of racial healing in mixed groups? First, it’s important to emphasize that we should not jump the gun, bypass, or skip ahead. Increasing our awareness of our white conditioning while we relate to people of color in the context of our everyday lives (even if those people of color are strangers or people we see in the media) is already a lot to work with, and a lifelong journey. Ultimately, as anti-racists we aspire to realize interracial harmony, understanding, and the dismantling of institutionalized racist power dynamics. There may be times that are ripe for us to come together, but it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Racism has been built and reinforced in our society for hundreds of years, and it will probably take at least that long to uproot it. Caucusing will be a beneficial practice for a long time.
There are also opportunities to participate in race work in mixed groups; avail yourself of them if you’re interested. Ideally, mixed-race work against racism is done in majority PoC groups who have PoC leadership. Your experience in a mixed-race setting may offer you insight into why caucusing is helpful, although caucus work certainly isn’t the only tool. My advice for moving into interracial healing is from adrienne maree brown’s Principles of Emergent Strategy: “Move at the speed of trust… build the resilience by building the relationships.”15 Healing can only occur if we have a foundation of trust. In order to trust others, we must first trust ourselves. Cultivating self-trust and trust among a community of white people through caucusing establishes a foundation to create trust across racial groups. Taking the time to build interracial relationships and trust not only sets us up to do more of the work of examining racism together, but is also a part of the healing itself. Just remember that each of us can be at very different places in the process of trust, and your level of trust as a white person may or may not align with the people of color you are hoping to work with. Trust requires genuine, open communication, and the willingness to accept the reality of where everyone is on their journey of working with race. I have found it helpful to remember to trust the needs of people of color in mixed-race spaces; in fact, people of color have asked it of me. As white people, we cannot know what is most helpful for people of color at any given time.
Ultimately, when facing the depth and magnitude of racism, and the suffering that it causes, caucusing provides a compassionate and skillful path forward. That path shines the light of curiosity onto our own experience and builds compassionate communities. As white people, we can create powerful transformation by seeing, processing, and liberating our white conditioning. The conditioning itself likely won’t go away, but it will no longer have the same power to affect our thoughts, words, and actions. The more we’re able to talk about race with other white people, the less taboo and more workable it becomes. Every white person who has not pulled back the veil of ignorance and silence woven by their conditioning perpetuates institutionalized racism. We hold the power to dismantle it within ourselves and with each other. Every ounce of curiosity, courage, openness, and heart will make a difference.
A special thank you is due to Robert/Ro Horton who offered the “pith instruction” for this essay, providing insight, inspiration, guidance, and mentorship. Also many thank you’s to Gabe Dayley, Jessie Stern, Janet Carter, and Kelsey Blackwell for their keen editing eyes, encouragement, and support.
Alex Vlasic is a facilitator and writer focusing in the areas of social and racial justice, white awareness, and the application of contemplative and spiritual practice. She serves as an assistant teacher to the UNtraining White Liberal Racism program and is an emerging teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Alex can also be found growing food and stewarding land in central Vermont.
Illustration by Alicia Brown
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- Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019. ↩
- Elizabeth Kolbert, “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label,” National Geographic, April 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/. ↩
- Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997). ↩
- Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research, 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–191; Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” Journal of Peace Research, 27, no. 3 (1990): 291–305. ↩
- Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, 8. ↩
- Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987), 210. ↩
- Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 211. ↩
- Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 211. ↩
- Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? ↩
- Kelsey Blackwell, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics, November 18, 2018, https://arrow-journal.org/why-people-of-color-need-spaces-without-white-people/. ↩
- Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019. ↩
- Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019. ↩
- Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, 6. ↩
- See, for example: Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70; Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Ruth Frankenberg, The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Michael R. Smith and Geoffrey P. Alpert, “Explaining Police Bias: A Theory of Social Conditioning and Illusory Correlation,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34, no. 10 (2007): 1262–1283. ↩
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 42. ↩