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Jun 23
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Going to the Root: How White Caucuses Contribute to Racial Justice

Illustration by Alicia Brown

By Alex Vlasic

This article was originally published on July 3rd, 2019 on The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics

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 Puts a Burden on PoC

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.

The Shambhala Times team encourages our readers to read the rest of Alex Vlasic’s article here, on The Arrow’s website.

1 Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019.

2 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/.

3 Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

4 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.

5 Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 8.

6 Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987), 210.

7 Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 211.

8 Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 211.

9 Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

10 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/.

10 Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019.

12 Robert Horton, email message to author, May 14, 2019.

13 Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 6.

14 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.

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.

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3 responses to “ Going to the Root: How White Caucuses Contribute to Racial Justice ”
  1. Nicki Dayley
    Jun 27, 2020

    Excellent article!

  2. Shambhala Times Team
    Jun 26, 2020

    Thank you! Ms. Vlasic’s bio is at the bottom of the article, but we also added her byline, which was left off by mistake.

  3. Virginia Evans
    Jun 26, 2020

    I can’t find any indication of who wrote this article.

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