Last summer I traveled from my home in Berkeley, California to Pátzcuaro, Mexico for a weeklong “young” sangha meditation retreat. I say “young” because in our group of roughly 20, though we varied in age from early 20s to 40s, chronological years didn’t matter. We were artists, activists, educators, and scholars united by a curiosity to explore how creativity and contemplative practice might inform the larger social and environmental ills of our time. As a 33-year-old dancing, writing, Buddhist, I felt right at home. In addition to the Mexican participants, the young-at-heart arrived from across the United States and Europe. By day, we meditated, studied the Dharma, and engaged in experiential activities. By night, we enjoyed campfires, conversation, and maybe a few sips of tequila.
As the days turned into what felt like years, we became close. Romances blossomed, disintegrated, and blossomed again. Our nighttime campfires morphed into uninhibited sharing free-for-alls with impromptu poetry, mystic storytelling, and group sing-alongs. We were connected to each other and the lush, blooming forest that held us—one beautiful, breathing organism.
Then, someone dropped the N-word.
It happened innocuously enough. During one evening of group singing, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” led (naturally) to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and then Biggie’s “Juicy.”
“…And if you don’t know, now you know n***** …”
I’d sung that hook millions of times while cruising down the highway in my car and in the comfort of my own home—but never with an international crowd, and certainly not with white people.
My body tensed as we approached the chorus. Most, including the Europeans and Mexicans, skipped over the offending word. A blonde girl, who had initially started spitting the familiar rap lyrics, plowed through apparently unaware. I froze. Did that really just happen in this spiritual place with this engaged, progressive, socially conscious crowd? I wanted to pretend it had not, to resume our one-breathing-body bliss, but my body told me this was no longer an option. The utterance of n***** in a playful setting hit me like a dagger to the heart, and suddenly I felt the pain of separation, isolation, and oppression. I weighed how best to address the situation, without “ruining the fun.” I didn’t want to be that girl.
In truth, none of us knew how to talk about race or begin unpacking all the baggage that’s often included in that conversation. We were ill-equipped because as products of a society still recovering from the wounds of slavery, we’d learned “how to not see race.” We’d honed the art of avoiding such dialogue or saying something by offering empty words that meant nothing at all. Experience had shown me that when it came to discussing race, the feeling that often came up was fear. Maybe you’ll offend or inadvertently reveal some unsavory truth you didn’t know you were holding and be labeled ‘racist.’ As a biracial girl who identifies as Black, I worried I might not properly convey the sentiments of my people, or worse, share my point a little too well and be labeled ‘angry.’
I learned how to not talk about race at an early age while growing up in a small town outside of Salt Lake City. Like most, my primary objective through adolescence was fitting in. That meant quieting the parts of myself that were different from my largely blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmates. Daily I diligently pasted my wild curls into a tight, braided ponytail secured with LA Looks Mega Hold 8—industrial strength for the most unruly hair. I begged for the Doc Marten shoes and Girbaud jeans and picked up the best Utah slang, including using “fudge” as an expletive. Example: “The Green Jell-O salad melted in the sun! Oh, fudge!”
By amplifying some aspects of my personality and amputating others, I was able (by appearances) to succeed in my community. I had friends—lots of them, I made the cheerleader team, I sold the most Girl Scout Cookies. Eventually the white world became “my” world. Even as I lived in more ethnically diverse areas including Chicago and Birmingham, Alabama, I found myself befriending whites and spending time in predominantly white spaces. I spoke their language fluently and readily forgot those parts of myself I could not fully inhabit.
Naturally, there was a lot of pain associated with often being the only Black girl in my friend circles, including such minor inconveniences as not feeling attractive or ever fully understood. But there were also benefits. I adapted my own version of white privilege, believing I belonged everywhere whites were. This allowed me entrance and complete ease in jobs, schools, and networking opportunities. It was the proverbial white ticket in my back pocket that led me to Buddhism’s door. Had I not already found comfort in homogeneous settings, it would have likely struck me as strange that 95% of my sangha was white. Even more odd was the fact that the founder of our lineage and the current lineage heir were Tibetan. How might such a community develop? Alas, I did not question these things because I did not see them.
My hair had always been my beacon of difference—the part of me that proclaimed my ethnic ambiguity. My naturally sun-bleached locks hung around my face and obscured my Black features. I took delight when I was confused for Colombian or Brazilian. Without my hair, I became an undeniably Black woman. I felt it immediately. The day I cut my hair, Black women suddenly acknowledged me, were more courteous in the grocery store, said they liked my shorn-head, and commented on my bravery. As Black men passed me on the street, where they once would have been “spitting game,” I now received respectful head nods. Without my hair, I was admitted into a racial tribe I had never known I was not a part of.
And as I began to recognize my heritage, the atrophy of the Black parts of my being suddenly began to come to life. No longer embarrassed to not be someone else, I began celebrating my Black features, recognizing other people of color in predominantly white spaces and for the first time, eagerly discussing race. As this awakening unfolded, I began looking at the places where I spend time with new eyes, starting with my spiritual practice. Why aren’t there more people of color in my sangha, I wondered. Am I part of an alienating culture?
I saw the subtle: The uplifted spaces with plush sofas and ikebana arrangements where my Buddhist community gathers. They were simple, comfortable and elegant rooms, but they reminded me of the “formal living room” I was not allowed to enter as a child. I recalled my first experiences in our meditation center and the feelings of uncertainty as my body wondered if it was “allowed” to enter such pristine spaces. I remembered others nonchalantly napping or propping their feet on the coffee tables in these rooms and how it struck me as a point of distinction, an example of comfort with privilege.
And I recalled the obvious: In Buddhist classes as we connected the Dharma to our everyday lives, had we ever discussed race and white privilege? Did the Buddha not achieve enlightenment (in part) through abandoning his own privilege? Is the wound of white privilege not at the forefront of American society? How could this not have been addressed?
Luckily, some are addressing it. Reverend angel Kyodo williams Sensei put forth a provocative call in the Summer 2016 issue of Buddhadharma magazine. She writes: “If you have ever wondered how you would have shown up in the face of the challenge put before white America when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, upending the accepted social order, now is when you will find out. Will you actually embody our practice and teachings—or not?”
This call to action invigorated me. Finally another was calling attention to what I’d been feeling. In this politically provocative climate, how could any Buddhist, steeped in teachings of compassion and insight, not consider how they take part in the racial dialogue?
Still, in discussions of race with my white Buddhist friends, I’ve noticed a tendency towards “spiritual bypassing,” an eagerness to jump to the absolute—that really we’re all one—and move away from the confusion and muck of the relative—the discomfort of All Lives Matter, #SayHerName, and Donald Trump. And while I recognize interconnectedness as a key tenet of our teachings, shifting swiftly to the ultimate conveys an inability to simultaneously acknowledge the challenges of being a person of color in this world. It invalidates my experiences. Where I previously swept such insensitivities under the rug, I felt a developing intolerance.
When I looked, I realized there was much I had been hesitant to acknowledge because I was fearful of being considered out of touch, “playing the race card,” or simply being labeled a complainer. I also deeply enjoyed my Buddhist community and respected many of my teachers. If I looked too closely, would I still be able to take part?
But once the door was open, awareness flooded in:
Most of the teachers in my sangha are white. How many recognize that my experience of the teachings is impacted uniquely by the color of my skin?
Our community offers teachings on gentleness and warriorship that show us what enlightened leadership can look like, yet we still, perhaps subconsciously, hold beliefs that leaders look and behave like Type-A white men. I had encountered this personally when a white male counterpart was continually deferred to and put into a higher position of authority by staff and participants at a retreat we equally facilitated. Why? I was not incompetent or challenging to work with. I could only assume that it was because I did not look or sound like a stereotypical leader. After a period of time, I started to believe this myself.
Luckily, as these painful feelings surfaced, so did suggestions of how we might address these challenges.
I believe that anyone in a leadership role has a responsibility not only to recognize the racial differences of the students in their group but also to make it a point to connect with minorities individually and simply listen.
I believe that empowering people of color means specifically encouraging us to step into positions of power, supporting our voices and recognizing our bravery even if our leadership feels “shaky” or different from that which you are accustomed. Part of this is being aware of what we face in leading a predominantly white crowd. Society continually offers images showing people of color that we don’t measure up to the standard. We’re not fed the ideology that we’re born to be CEOs, professors, or even movie starlets, and we’re often not empowered by our own communities. Stepping into leadership is intimidating for all, but especially for those who have not been groomed to believe that they should be followed.
It’s as simple as recognizing and offering verbal appreciation when a person of color raises her voice into a predominantly white space.
When I open my mouth in a room where I’m the only minority, I’m acutely aware of who is listening. I feel a pressure to get it right, to represent my race, to say the thing that will make the crowd nod their heads in agreement. I’m always seeking approval. But inside I feel, “I have not studied race relations, who am I to discuss such things? I have too much skin in this game to try to be eloquent.”
I flash back to the moment around the campfire at the retreat.
“I like singing with you guys, but can we please not say racial slurs?”
I wish I had said it, but the comment came from the only other Black girl in our midst. I felt immediate relief and then shame. Why hadn’t I been able to express my discomfort? The group acknowledged her request, apologies were uttered, and the singing continued. I went to bed. Days later, the girl who had spoken the epithet pulled me aside to personally apologize. She never intended to offend and was “caught in the moment.”
How many moments had I been caught off guard and acted in a way I wished I had not?
In learning to speak about race, I’m discovering that it’s ok to disrupt, to not always be liked or even understood. Things are going to get messy, and this is good news so long as we recognize that allowing ourselves to not “get it right” is how we will all move forward.
Kelsey Blackwell is the lead coordinator of Oakland Shambhala, a satellite meditation gathering in Oakland, California that offers meditation instruction, discussion, and experiential activities incorporating mindfulness and “bodyfulness” to experience our fundamental human worthiness. As a dancer, she has studied ballet, modern, and African, and she currently practices and teaches InterPlay, body-wise play for all humans incorporating movement, storytelling, and song to unlock the wisdom of the body. On her blog, TheMarvelousCrumb.com, Kelsey celebrates the uncertain path of living a purpose-filled life.
Illustration by Alicia Brown