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Why Talk About Whiteness?

Shifting the culture of Shambhala, deconstructing barriers and experiencing social liberation

by members of the White Awareness Council

Over the past several months, the Shambhala community has been shaken to its core. There are things that we can see now that we couldn’t see as clearly before, particularly around sexual and gender-based harm and our organization’s finances. This has been incredibly painful while also being illuminating and completely necessary. These problems are not Shambhala’s alone; we see them play out in our greater society. Also, they are not the only problems that we as a community or the greater society face. It is crucial that while we seek to transform our community, we remain awareness of and efforts to address other ways in which we systemically harm one another. This article speaks specifically to the importance of looking at the reality of racial harm, but there are others too: classism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, and many more.

In February of this year, two People of Color (POC) Shambhala leaders, Charlene Leung (Chair of the Diversity Working Group) and Aarti Tejuja (Head of the Office of Social Engagement), gathered a group of about 20 white Shambhalians who were already engaged in white awareness work, encouraging us to form a White Awareness Council. They quickly realized upon the formation of the People of Color Council in early 2018 that no amount of POC work would be enough to shift the culture in Shambhala. We need white people working on whiteness too.

The White Awareness Council is committed to looking at the ways white supremacy (how society systemically and institutionally favors white people and oppresses POC) manifests in ourselves and in our community, the harm that it causes, and how we can help dismantle it. We are committed to supporting our POC sangha, the POC Council, and POC who are interested in engaging in Shambhala communities and teachings. We aspire to connect with other white sangha members who are interested in this work, to offer resources, and eventually to provide education and trainings. We want to see a Shambhala with anti-racism embedded in our curriculum, understood as inseparable from the dharma.

If you are white, do you know what it means to be white? Do you know how it affects you and the people around you? How it affects the circumstances of your life? How it affects society? How it affects Shambhala? Do you think that your whiteness is relevant, or worth exploring?

Increasingly in North America, white members of our majority white Shambhala sangha have been asking themselves questions like these, not just because we are curious, but because we are waking up to the need for these conversations. The answers may be different in different places, but there also is a great deal of consistency and overlap in the structures and meanings of whiteness.

We are becoming more aware of white supremacy & settler colonial culture: how it affects white people, how it affects People of Color, and how it is embedded both implicitly and explicitly in our Shambhala centers. By talking about “white supremacy & settler colonial culture,” we are not referring simply to racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy & settler colonial culture also refer to political and socio-economic systems where white people are given unearned structural advantage (privilege) over other racial or ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level. This unearned privilege and power gives white people’s social and political demands more legitimacy in the eyes of government and law, and within most organizations, adversely affecting people of color not just as individuals but as a group.

The dominant culture is white culture. Whiteness is a construct – or a conceptual thought as we might say in Buddhism. While it doesn’t exist in the ultimate sense, it does exist in the relative sense. It has had, and continues to have, a huge impact on our lives: how we move through the world; who is heard and seen, and who is not; who has access to resources and who does not; who harms and who is harmed.  

How does whiteness play out in our Shambhala communities? Consider, for example, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, who unpack some of the qualities of white supremacist culture in their workbook Dismantling Racism. In their account, these characteristics include: perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, objectivity, right to comfort. You can find more information about these qualities and white supremacist culture here: http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html

Do these qualities sound familiar?  From a certain perspective, white supremacy is a particularly virulent strain of what the Shambhala teachings call “setting sun” culture. Just as we have individual cocoons that we need to examine through the practice of meditation, so there are social cocoons that can obstruct the wakefulness of whole groups of people. We need appropriate social methodologies in order to deconstruct those barriers and experience social liberation. Whiteness is one of those barriers.

Looking at the above list of characteristics shows how white supremacist culture doesn’t actually serve any of us. Although not serving anywhere, it is being used–to oppress People of Color and to privilege white people.

Given that white folks currently hold a great deal of power and privilege, it is up to us to unlearn our own social conditioning and to dismantle white supremacist culture in our relationships, our communities, and ourselves. White Awareness Groups have started forming over the past couple of years in a handful of U.S. Shambhala Centers – in Boston, Madison, Atlanta, Berkeley, New York, Pittsburgh, and others. If you feel the importance of this work, please engage!

This is a learning edge for all of us white folks. If you feel concerned, confused, or upset about why a White Awareness Council exists and why we have written this article, please connect with us. Alternatively, if you feel excited, passionate, or motivated, please connect with us!

You can contact us via email: [email protected]

The White Awareness Council

Alex Vlasic (co-chair)
Alexandria Barnes (co-chair)
David Kahane
Gabe Dayley
Lea Stotland
Marit Wilson
Robert Pressnall
Michaela McCormick
K.T. Tierney
Meg Vigerstad
Danielle Loeb

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3 responses to “ Why Talk About Whiteness? ”
  1. Anne Saitzyk
    Oct 5, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you! Brilliant article. This is percolating in Los Angeles, too. A book group is starting Oct. 14th on Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Last year Charlene Leung and Michaela McCormick visited our main center and led Focusing the Lens: Uncovering Social Bias and Creating Vibrant Community.
    Thank you for creating this council and sharing resources.

    Best,
    Anne

  2. Sara Demetry
    Oct 6, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for this article and the upcoming zoom call. I look forward to more.

  3. Elizabeth Berlasso
    Oct 13, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. I look forward to more conversations, more learning in my community – Halifax.


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