White privilege and supremacy are dominant elements in our society. They pervade social and environmental movements, as well as Buddhist and other spiritual communities, the very places where many of us work for positive change. We have to confront the inequities in our organizations and movements before we can succeed in our work.
What steps can individual activists and organizations take? Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Sensei, explores this question with Todd Paglia, ED of Stand (formerly “ForestEthics”) via this public webinar. Stand is an advocacy organization made up of people challenging governments and corporations to make the health of our communities, our environment and our climate the top priority. Todd opens the webinar with the observation that far from being unrelated, forest protection, climate change, and white supremacy are so deeply interconnected there is “no solving one of these things without solving all of them”.
Rev. angel has been a member of the board with Stand the past 10 years, and currently supports the organization on issues of race, equity, and mindfulness practice. This summer Rev. angel, along with Lama Rod Owens and Dr. Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, PhD, released a timely and provocative book: Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Revolution. This article is a selected transcription of Rev. angel’s presentation (via the webinar with Stand) on the book, the philosophy, and the message of liberation and hope that Radical Dharma brings.
Because Stand is a white-led organization, special emphasis is given to contextualizing Radical Dharma for a white audience. This article is a selected transcription of Rev. angel’s presentation. The full webinar is embedded at the bottom of the post.
About the book, Radical Dharma
About the process of creating the book
About the use of the term “white supremacy”
About the theme of liberation in the book, and how it relates to white people
This notion of dharma as universal truth is one of the ways the word is interpreted. It’s also interpreted as the teachings of the historical Buddha, but this idea of dharma as universal truth is the way we are holding it here. It’s not a Buddhist book. It is a love song to the Black Lives Matter movement and movements for Black liberation, and that is inclusive of all movements for liberation.
One of the points of the book is to look at the way that various forms of oppression intersect with one another and are particularly locked in and around white supremacy. My sense of the work is that it is not a book that is about dealing with a black problem or a brown problem; it is a book about dealing with the problem and the challenge of white supremacy.
One of the ways we approached the book is as a book inside of a book. The book inside of the book is a set of conversations that have been mashed up together. We traveled to four different cities: Atlanta, Boston, Berkeley, Brooklyn (we being myself; Lama Rod Owens, who is an African American queer man who is teacher or Lama in the Tibetan tradition; and Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, who is a long time practitioner and student of mine and also an academic. Jasmine actually facilitated the conversations in three of the four places.) We then took these conversation, mashed them up together, and packaged them under the three themes of race, love, and liberation.
The book is what we call a talking book. It was inspired by the book “Breaking Bread”, by Cornel West and bell hooks. For me and for Lama Rod, it was an amazing, pivotal book. It defied something of our understanding at the time because it was two black intellectuals talking to each other. What that did is turn on it’s ear the idea of who is an intellectual, and what does intellectual conversation actually pertain to – what does it cover – when the individuals talking are black folks. What stood out for us is that it was the same for us as Buddhist teachers, we [Lama Rod and Rev. angel, as two black, Buddhist teachers] are unfortunately rare at this moment, in terms of being Buddhist teachers in America.
We went to these cities based on Buddhadharma magazine asking Lama Rod and I to have a conversation after the non-decision to indict the officers that were responsible for the death of Eric Garner. There was a heaviness that set in that added to Trayvon Martin, to all of the other things that we were seeing emerging into the consciousness of America. So we had this conversation, and the way I like to say it is that it went as viral as anything could be considered viral in the Buddhist community. We realized there was an openness and a receptivity to this conversation.
The Buddhist community, very much like the environmental community, and a lot of our progressive movements, is overwhelmingly – and unnecessarily – white. So it signaled something to see that people were responding to these conversations. Out of that we decided to pull these conversations, in these different cities, and put together a book.
We realized that there were some other questions that should be pointed to, in terms of ourselves personally and what it took for black folks to be able to find our ground and actually create a home in an institution – within communities – that have been overwhelming and predominantly white. [We write about] what it meant to pursue personal liberation in the face of that; to navigate situations that are commonly traumatizing for black folks and people of color, but also to figure out how to make relationship with the reality before us.
I think that pertains very much to the situation that we find ourselves in today. How do we navigate the social realities that we find ourselves in and also take care of the very real truth that the exposure to the realities of the continuing situation of white supremacy in America are staggering and traumatizing? [This has always been the case for] those of us who have been aware of it all along – but to have the actual images put before us [is particularly traumatic.] These images can also generate a sense of shame, frozen-ness, and reactivity for some people, even for activists who considered themselves allies.
We saw this in a big form last year right around this time at the Netroots Nation Conference, during which the Black Lives Matter activists who were there confronted Bernie Sanders about Sandra Bland and asked him to say her name. His response was a bit lackluster, but the resulting protest, actions, and the conversation that it generated is what this is about. This conversation actually caused the democratic party, for one, to turn around and have to navigate a conversation about racial justice and inequity in this country. That is a conversation this country needs to have.
One of the things that I think about this is that what we are confronting are the inadequacies of solely dealing with legislation and advocacy as a way in which to shift something that is as pernicious as racism and white supremacy – that are actually the grounding and the foundation of this country as a whole.
So I just wanted to lay that down, and say that what you’re going to see in the book is this early section about what we had to leave behind. This is a common framework in many spiritual traditions and personal liberation traditions, is to think about what one has to leave behind in order to enter the path of freedom.
Then each of us contribute an essay on what it is that we bring forward. That is to say, what are the specific themes that we each focus on. In Rod’s case, he focuses quite a bit on healing. In Jasmine’s case she focuses on the connection between modern day race, racialization, and the abolition movement and slavery – that’s her focus as an academic.
In my case I look quite strongly at the arena of intersectionality, and how intersectionality informs the next possible frontier for not only specific communities and how they relate to one another interpersonally, but also transcendental movements and how transcendental movements are possible when we look at the underlying connection of all things. In a woo-woo way, you might say that that is oneness. I like to say that it is “oneness” actually brought out into reality. We are sitting on the precipice, in many ways, of both the challenge of confronting race in America [and also] the very real opportunity of finally having love enter the conversation about what makes social liberation and transformation possible.
About the process of creating the book:
The process, in a word, is “breakneck”. The last word was “put to paper” (digitally) on Feb 22, 2016. So this book moved at a breakneck pace. We didn’t even get our contract finalized until January. We bypassed much of the ordinary publishing process. We didn’t get on the usual “train” so to speak, because we felt very strongly that the book needed to be out in time for summer – in time for Juneteenth; for Netroots Nation (the largest cross-issue organizing conference in America); for Black August; for youth organizing in the summer; for Black Lives Matter and liberation movement organizing, much of which happens during the summer.
And in so in many ways we forewent the normal path [of publishing]. That speaks to, also, our commitment. We forewent the normal path of “this is how you get your book in bookstores; this is how you get it in front of people.” Our response was, “We don’t want it in front of ‘people’, we want it in front of our people; we want it in front of the people.” …
As black or brown people, one of the things we are forced to do – if we are choosing a path of liberation – is to navigate the personal as political. This made for an easier process in terms of each of us writing that way, because we actually have to live it. We don’t have, as a result of race, the same privilege to invisibilize our personal experience. I think that this is one of the things that racialization has done for and with black folks and brown folks – we are constantly navigating our personal and collective experiences, and recognizing the relationship between the two.
One of the things that we talk about in the book is that we think that it is a great loss for white skinned people that are caught within the construct of whiteness – before it is deconstructed for them – that they actually lose access to that [awareness of the personal as political]. Either people are hyper-personalized and think “I’m not part of a collective; whatever I do is of my own making and it’s all about me”, or their own personal heritage, backgrounds, and history gets lost in this big melting pot of whiteness.
We know one of the results of whiteness is that people don’t have the opportunity to fully explore and navigate who they actually are, what their own backgrounds and histories and upbringings are, both inside and outside of whiteness as a construct.
About the use of the term “white supremacy”:
The way that we hold white supremacy is [to refer to] the centering of the cultural construct of whiteness as supreme or superior to the cultural proclivities, desires, and self determination of all other people.
It lifts up the values of so-called “white people” as superior, and it centers the so-called “white race” – which we know scientifically doesn’t even exist – but it centers the values of the so-called white race as superior, more civilized, and the central organizing component of all of society.
Who decided those values? How is it that German values, Italian values, Jewish values, Irish values, Scottish values, Slovenian values, Czechoslovakia values – how is it that these values could possibly be the same thing? Underneath the notion of white supremacy, there is actually a ruling class, or owning class, holding and delivering one theory of togetherness under the form of white skin that was actually designed to divide white peoples from native and black peoples. White went on the books here – it didn’t exist as an actual legal term until it got to America. People used to talk about where they were from (an Irishman, an Englishman, a Scotsman) as opposed to being just plain ole white.
So this terminology is home-brewed right here in America, and we have been very good at exporting it all over the world. But the really key thing for us to understand about white supremacy is it’s constraints and confines. One of the main confines I like to talk about is the politics of dis-belonging – which is to say that If you do not conform to whiteness, if you do not conform to the notion that whiteness sits at the center of all things, then you will get dis-belonged from whiteness. If you get dis-belonged from whiteness you are now subject to all of the lack of privilege and lack of benefit of all those brown and black and red and yellow peoples, and nobody wants that!
When I talk about whiteness and white supremacy, I want to highlight the fact that in our modern society black skinned bodies, brown skinned peoples, are also holding down white supremacy as a result of internalized oppression. On the other hand, there are white skinned people that are clear anti-racist organizers, clear anti-white supremacist organizers.
So we’re not talking about people’s skin color, as in automatically this is who you are if you have this skin color. We are talking about something that is very complex – which makes it all the more important that we actually navigate white supremacy as distinct from racism. If we don’t we will not see that white supremacy holds a patriarchy, and notions of masculinity; we will not see how it holds up a rabid form of capitalism; we will not realize how it holds up the degradation of the planet, under the framework of “man over planet” – this notion that we have the right to simply use natural and human resources as we wish – which is very much part of the framework of the white supremacist thinking.
About the theme of liberation in the book, and how it relates to white people:
Liberation, in a word, is ease. Ease, and being free from the sense of limitation and holding back that constructs, whatever those constructs are, [create]. On a personal level we talk about it as ego, right? That ego is something that has been constructed and handed down to us from our parents, our family of origin, from our heritage, the different ways we’ve been shaped by religion, by the schooling that we had, by experiences that are traumatizing, and also celebratory.
In many ways we get handed these ideas about who we are and we start living in the projection of who we are – ego – rather than actually being able to live in the free, open, liberated space of who we [actually] are. The result of that is this kind of persistent sense of anxiety, of not being enough, of constantly looking over your shoulder for what it is that other people think.
The way that I speak about whiteness is as a social ego – it is a social construct, that has been handed to us. We don’t question, “Where did that come from? Why do I just buy this idea that I’m white without deconstructing that?” In the same way, at some point in my life I bought this idea of who angel was, who she could be, what she was permitted to do and not do, what I could do as a black woman, as a mixed race woman, as a queer woman, as a Christian (being Baptist), as a New Yorker, as the child of a parent that didn’t finish high school – what did that say about me, what could I earn, what could I do, what kinds of jobs could I apply for.
All of that exists on a social level through whiteness. Whiteness starts to shape what it is we think that we can and can’t do – in positive ways, for white folks, and in negative ways. Obviously it has negative connotations for black folks and brown folks because there is a sense of what is possible for us. We’ve been taught the myth of meritocracy, that it’s just about what we each do, but we also know – there have been studies – of racial bias, unconscious bias.
One of the things that white folks loose as a result of this construct of whiteness is one’s ability to love across lines of difference -because of that dis-belonging, because of that politeness that is ascribed by belonging to whiteness. One can not love freely across lines of difference. One is told who one can love and be connected with in terms of one’s rank in society.
Whiteness forces white people to actually trade their humanity for privilege – the privilege of having those paths of access. What does it mean if you as a white man, Todd, begin to stand up and talk about inequity for black people? You’re going to get some push back. Some doors are going to shut down on you, and you’ve got to make a decision about that. That [awareness] is usually happening unconsciously. White folks just know to be quiet, know not say anything. They see something wrong going down – it starts very early in childhood – you see something that feels wrong, that seems off, and you want to say something, but there is an invisible cloak of whiteness that tells you, “You better not say anything cause something’s going to happen!” I think most white folks don’t’ even challenge or deconstruct, what is that thing that’s going to happen?
What’s on the other side of that – and this is the truth, the dharma, of all liberation – is that when we move through these places of resistance, when we move through these places of fear, what we access on the other side is our own liberation. We get to settle down and be more of who we are as a result of that. So, yeah, socially there’s push back, there are so-called consequences, but the value, the benefit, is that we get more free. And if we get more free – to speak the things that are true for us – we get more free to actually be who we are. Less and less of our lives are defined by external circumstances of conditions.
The result of that on a mass level, the result of people that are anti-racist, that are progressive, that believe in humanity, that believe in equity for all, that believe in a society that works for all – yes there is going to be this period of churn, just as there is on a personal liberation path where, basically, your shit is hitting the fan. You don’t know what is going on. It’s all kind of confusion. But when you move through that what you find is that you have this sense of ease and groundedness and presence in life that creates a space and opportunity for other people around you to have that ease and ground and presence and sense of bravery to step forth into what is often referred to as one’s basic goodness.
You get out of the questioning mode of “am I good enough; am I okay enough; do I have enough; should I do this in order to be seen this way by that person”, and you just drop into this fundamental okay-ness with who you are; – the basic goodness, the promise, that every single one of us are basically good. We are basically kind, we want to belong, we want to be connected, we want to love, we want to be loved. All of this anxiety that comes from this conditioning keeps us from being able to relax into that. It happens on a personal level, it happens on a structural and social level. Liberation – to be radical, to be complete about really unpacking the things that are hindering us from that kind of ease, from that kind of freedom – is what radical dharma is about.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams has been bridging the worlds of spirit and justice since her critically acclaimed first book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, was hailed as “an act of love” by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker and “a classic” by Buddhist pioneer Jack Kornfield. She received the first “Creating Enlightened Society” Award from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and is a Senior Fellow for Faith and Social Justice at Auburn Seminary. Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Revolution was released this summer.
click here to return to Community Voices table of contents