White people on an anti-racist path need allies of color who can support our journey – people who will talk to us honestly, tell us like it is, while also encouraging us and believing in us. Mushim Ikeda is one of these people. As an American of Japanese descent growing up in rural Ohio, the threads of oppression, assimilation, and resistance are intertwined in Mushim’s life history. A Buddhist teacher, writer, and multicultural community activist, Mushim is widely known for her down-to-earth, humorous, and penetrating approach to Dharma and social transformation.
In this piece, created explicitly for White Awake, Mushim points out that while our anti-racist intentions might feel good, how we relate to our privileged status is where the rubber meets the road. It’s risky, yet rewarding, this commitment to true racial equity, and collective liberation.
Speaking as a person of color, I want to thank you for your intention to become a white ally to people of color.*
And, if you’re at the beginning of your ally journey, there’s something you need to know, right off the bat, if you haven’t already given it a lot of thought. Beyond feeling good about being anti-racist, you’re going to need to face your fear of losing your protected status as a white person.
In other words, it’s unlikely that you can have your cake and eat it too. Unexamined white privilege, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy are in the air that we breathe in the U.S., in the soil beneath us. Once you begin to side with the causes of people of color, it is possible that you may find yourself, at times, feeling alone. Other white people may regard you with suspicion because you side with people of color. People of color may regard you with suspicion because you are white.
And that’s one of many reasons why you’re going to need other white allies, so that you feel supported.
Many white people of good intentions feel personally attacked and deeply injured when terms such as “white supremacy” and “racism” are used by people of color and their white allies. They might prefer that softer words such as “discrimination” or “prejudice” are used, referring to the individual acts of individual persons. This is sometimes called the “Kumbaya” form of white allyship. In this approach to anti-racism work, it is thought that to combat personal ignorance and prejudice, people of different races and ethnicities can get to know one another better. We can share some meals, perhaps potlucks with foods from our varied ethnic backgrounds, gather in sharing circles, and sing spiritual songs of humanity’s unity. We might celebrate holidays from around the world together. These activities, if not accompanied by rigorous structural analysis and discussions of the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, are sometimes called the “Food & Festivals approach” to diversity work.
As a white ally, it’s also possible that you may feel unseen, at times, in the ways that you have suffered from oppression. It seems as though many white people don’t understand the term “white privilege” because they don’t yet understand that it refers to the unearned access and privilege that comes with their whiteness, and doesn’t mean that they haven’t struggled or experienced lack of unearned privilege in other dimensions of their lives and being. A white person may have struggled very hard in their life because of childhood abuse or because their parents were poor and couldn’t afford dental care for the kids. Everyone, without exception, has their own suffering. A mature white ally knows where to go for support, so that they don’t burden people of color with either their guilt that they benefit from white privilege, or their hurt feelings resulting from being rejected by people of color or from feeling not seen in their wholeness.
I treasure the mature white allies I have, because I know they have my back. And to do that, they have to be ready to speak up, to act, and to give up their protected status as white people. Allan G. Johnson, writing about “the great collective [white] silence” and how systems of privilege work in the book Privilege, Power, and Difference, says:
“Human beings are highly dependent on one another for standards of what – and who —is okay and who isn’t…. What counts isn’t just what they do, but even more what they don’t do.”
Johnson says he imagines “a scene in which a gang of white men are beating a person of color in broad daylight on a city street.” His book was published in 2006, and, ten years later, in 2016, we see how little has changed in the U.S. In the scenario, the white onlookers feel no ill will to the person of color being beaten, and they aren’t cheering on the attackers. They’re “minding their own business.” And then, he writes, “one of the men [attackers] stops, looks up, and says, his eyes panning across our faces, ‘We appreciate your support. We couldn’t do this without you.’”
“This is how racism and other forms of privilege really work day in and day out,” Johnson says, in conclusion. “It results from what is called ‘passive oppression,’ which can be defined as making it possible for oppression to happen simply by doing nothing to stop it.”
Anyone in a dominant culture risks a lot when they stop being part of passive oppression. Beyond their feelings being hurt by possible rejection, a white person who is part of an invited group of all-white presenters at a conference risks losing income and networking opportunities if they say, “There’s something really wrong here and I demand that we address it.” And that’s only one example, out of thousands and maybe millions of possible scenarios.
We need white allies who are well trained and mature, in my opinion. We need as many as possible. People of color and folks of mixed heritage in the U.S. have lots of our own work to do in the service of liberation. I’m writing this in May of 2016, subsequent to the Occupy movement, and during the current era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the Movement for Black Lives. These are ongoing life-and-death struggles. And all of this raises the questions: What are you willing to do and say? What are you willing to give up?
These are meant to be open questions, and they deserve to be asked with deep compassion. They point toward a journey that requires courage, conviction, support, and an unwavering commitment to learning. And my hope is that it is also a joyful journey, a journey of spiritual deepening and opening and renewal. Because when we move from spiritual contemplation into the wisest action accessible to us in the moment, we can know for a fact that our lives are happier when we stop making it possible for oppression to happen, and if we mess up, which is inevitable at times, that this gives us the opportunity to learn and to grow. I have heard many white people who self-identify as liberal and progressive in their political views say they discover in anti-racism work that they need to give up their protective self-image as “the good, non-racist white person” who is down with the cause, and who considers themself to be completely separated from “racist white people.”
As Eleanor Hancock (co-founder and director of White Awake) says, “We can shift from feeling the fear of losing our protected and privileged status to the knowledge that this potential loss is inseparable from the potential for collective liberation – a much, much greater gain.”
*Note: I understand that the term “white ally to people of color” is a contested term. Some people like it and find it useful; others do not. In discussions of race and dismantling racism and white supremacy in the United States, there is a constant evolution of preferred terms. My understanding and use of the term “white ally” in this context is that a white ally is a person with white-skin or white-person-identified unearned privilege who engages in anti-racism work while practicing principles of cultural humility. (Regarding the term “cultural humility” as defined by Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia, search for “cultural humility Vivian Chávez” on YouTube.)
Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and multicultural community activist. She has taught residential meditation retreats for people of color, social justice activists, and women, and she is the guiding teacher of the East Bay Meditation Center’s “Practice in Transformative Action” yearlong program. Mushim is the recipient of the 2014 Gil Lopez peacemaker award from the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California. In September, 2015, Mushim was awarded an honorary doctor of sacred theology degree from the Starr King School for the Ministry.
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