Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Zen of Racism: Microaggressions and Beginner’s Mind

I was a white person sitting in a circle of People of Color and other white people I have known for years. We gathered as potential facilitators for a Talking Circle On Race and Racism, Round 2 (a project of the Multicultural Resource Center). Part of the evening was a trial run of one of the questions formulated for round two participants to be discussed in small, race-alike groups and then shared with the whole group. After decades of anti-racism work in many formats, I did not expect this evening to have the huge impact it had. Though the emotional discomfort has been intense, I am grateful for the opportunity to approach race and racism with a beginner’s mind.

My meditation practice and study of the Dharma help me approach pain in a way that I find useful. Humans have aversion to pain and so we scramble to avoid it using every trick in the book! These include self-delusion, justification, projection, blame and evasion. Sadly, these strategies for avoiding our pain often just add layers of pain and obscure reality.

This dynamic is especially evident when white people are confronted with the depth and breadth of the impact of racism on People of Color and when we begin to understand that we are complicit in the system that perpetuates it. I think somewhere we know that if we let that understanding motivate us, we will have to stand up and fight against it – and risk our own safety.

Meditation practice teaches a way to sit with pain (including fear) without the narrative or “story line” attached. That helps to override the urge to escape the pain and helps me to learn from it instead. Over time this helps me uncover the “truth beneath the pain.”

In response to the group work mentioned above, I am still sitting with the feelings that got stirred up – but some things are starting to emerge:

The People of Color in that room are all people that I have long admired and really care about. Not only did I see how deeply racism hurts them on a daily basis (something that is different as an intellectual understanding than it is when you are looking at the pain in the eyes of a friend), I also realized on a new level that I am an unwilling, unwitting delivery system for some of that pain, even though I have been working hard to be an ally for almost 30 years! I don’t want to hurt my friends, yet I do and I will. This is a heart-breaking realization.

During the Circle one Black man said he would like to ask white people, “When did you learn that if you try to interfere with the racist system, you will be killed?” This question really resonated with me, too.  I think that I grew up knowing that on some level.

I am also seeing some unaware assumptions that I had start to crumble. For one thing, I realize that I had assumed that my advocacy and commitment to learning about and fighting racism could somehow provide a sense of hope for my friends and colleagues of Color. After the recent Circle, this seems self-aggrandizing and not relevant to a struggle for human rights. Yet I still wish that somehow I could lessen the pain I saw in their eyes.

I've heard it said that the language of race is broken. It sure feels like that whenever I try to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about anyway – which means there will be pain. Or rather, it means that the pain that exists will be uncovered and, I hope, used to discover wise action.

I know what I get out of being involved in Talking Circles. It’s not comfortable, but it is extremely useful. I wonder what People of Color get out of them? Why should POC have to hear white people deconstruct their own racism – isn’t this adding to the hurt that POC already carry?

There is so much more work for me to do to unpack and process all that has been uncovered. I am aware of wanting to go into my intellect and design solutions or evaluate and figure things out. Lately, the most authentic discoveries I have made have been out of a very vulnerable, open place where I just sit with and breathe into the pain until I discover the truth that lives there. Then more authentic action can follow.