It's now more than a year since Buddhists for Racial Justice the organization folded into North American Buddhist Alliance as an initiative.
It is time for a progress report on NABA's attempt to implement some of the rallying cries from the Buddhists for Racial Justice calls to action.
Here are two reflections by the co-facilitators of the White Affinities Group (WAG).
For about the last six months, Joshua, Ruby, and others have been leading the White Buddhists for racial justice monthly online conversations that started in early 2017 at NABA.
Offerings by others will be in future issues of NABA News.
NABA also hopes to gather everyone around for racial justice conversations soon, including at upcoming webinars. Let us know if you have other ideas!
by Joshua Goldberg
The NABA WAG is an initiative arising from Buddhists for Racial Justice. In May 2015, 125 Buddhist leaders convened for the First White House Buddhist Leadership Conference and presented then-President Obama with a Buddhist Statement on Racial Justice. In the wake of the racially motivated murder of nine Black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina the following month, Buddhists for Racial Justice (BRJ) was created to host and collect endorsements to the Open Letter on Charleston, and at the same time BRJ issued a Call to White Buddhists for Racial Justice that was crafted and released to inspire and activate white Buddhists to take responsibility for fostering an inclusive culture within our practice communities and to respond on the basis of Buddhist principles to racism manifesting in our individual and collective consciousness, families, organizations, and institutions. In 2016 a complementary Buddhist Practitioners of Color Call to Solidarity for Racial Justice was released “to manifest what remains missing in many of our sanghas through information-sharing, collaborations, and creating spaces that allow people of color to lay their burdens down without fear, judgment, shame, or denial.”
Since that time we have seen a resurgence of openly racist political organizing sweeping across Turtle Island (North America), atop the cumulative impact of hundreds of years of racist, colonial, and imperial empire-building that have deeply integrated white supremacy into the foundations of Canada and the U.S. and our relationships with ourselves, each other, and these lands.
How do we as Buddhists meet this moment?
NABA offers monthly opportunities for Buddhists working on racial justice to gather. This multi-lineage container provides nourishment, solidarity-building, probes into larger questions, and opportunities for action couched on the teachings of the Buddha. These calls are opportunities to, in the original words of BRJ, provide inspiration and “seed actions in your life, practice, and community to heal the trauma of racial injustice and transform our Buddhist centers of practice to be truly inclusive and welcoming for all.”
There are monthly calls specifically for people of color (POC) and monthly calls specifically for people racialized as white (White Affinity Group, WAG). We also come together periodically in multi-racial, multi-lineage calls to learn and share together.
The NABA WAG
From the start the structure of the WAG has been an experiment. White-only racial justice spaces can be productive spaces for white people to learn without inflicting that learning on POCs but also have the potential to go in unhelpful directions -- e.g., reinforcing white fragility, fear of mixed spaces, or misunderstandings about racism. There was uncertainty about whether the WAG should focus on participant learning or more concrete organizing, and how to create a space that is useful to and supports people’s local racism cessation work rather than taking away time and energy that could otherwise go to tangible organizing.
After a few calls involving open discussion and then a reflection on the Four Noble Truths as a framework for our work together, on the basis of feedback from participants, the calls evolved into a semi-structured drop-in to talk about the work we're doing to end white supremacy and work for racial justice, in our sanghas and beyond: what we are learning, what the challenges are, and how this connects with our Buddhist practice. It is still very early in relationship building and we are not yet a cohesive group able to effectively do organizing. That may come over time, or it may continue to be a space for white people who organize elsewhere to come unpack our baggage in a space that is supportive and kind while also committed to liberation, growth/learning, and leaning into discomfort. Whether we shift again with time into a group that does some structural work together on racism in the mahasangha or remains a resource that primarily supports individuals’ work outside of NABA remains to be seen.
What we Talk About
WAG is inclusive of all levels of experience with anti-racist work and Buddhism. We are all learning together.
All kinds of anti-racism work can be brought in for discussion. This could include conversations with people in day to day life (sangha, work, family, etc.), more formal collective organizing against structural and systemic racism, internal learning and unlearning, etc.
The WAG calls follow the East Bay Meditation Center’s Agreements for Multicultural Interactions, including confidentiality. While we do not share identifying or personal details outside of the calls, these calls are for us to take learning into our lives and we share the broad themes from the WAG calls with the POC caucus for transparency and accountability.
Some themes that have emerged thus far from the discussions are:
- What is whiteness, in this time and place.
- What it means to be in authentic relationships with global majority people.
- White convert Buddhism, cultural sharing, cultural tourism, and cultural appropriation.
- Transforming patterns of white-domination in predominantly convert sanghas.
- How to have effective, honest, respectful conversations about racism and white supremacy.
- Sitting with the uncertainty of not knowing what to do, when the urgency to stop the violence of racism is so great.
- Cultivating humility, while avoiding tipping into white over-caution and doing nothing.
- How to focus our limited energy.
- How to address our own racist mistakes and be accountable for the impacts of our actions.
- How to engage when we witness other white people doing racist things.
- Embracing our responsibility as response-ability (instead of something heavy), embracing what we know, what we can do.
- Sharing resources that we have found useful.
To encourage participation beyond the monthly calls, in April we started posting reflection questions and will continue to post these every couple weeks. Some of these questions are specifically directed to white people, others are for everyone (and we hope that the POC call participants will also generate questions specifically for POCs). Every month we post a question about commitments to racial justice work in the month ahead, and recommendations for materials to add to the NABA BRJ resource page.
Our hope is that this will provide a way for people who aren't able to do the monthly calls to have another way to participate. It's up to each person how to work with these questions -- internal reflection (silent contemplation, journaling, art, etc.) without sharing, or discussion on the WAG listserv or on NABA’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Building a Future Together
My experience thus far, as a co-facilitator and a participant, is that white people are hungry for opportunities to talk deeply and honestly about racism and white supremacy. But we are also affected by the conditioning that we have been exposed to living in a deeply racist, colonial society. Like other forms of oppression, white supremacy is a toxic structure that requires the oppressor to be disconnected -- from POCs, who comprise the majority of the world; from our own humanity; and from our root cultures and ancestral lands and lifeways, in the creation of this false homogenized category of “white people”. It is hard practice to connect and to feel the feelings that arise when we do, to be willing to experience difficult emotions like grief, anger, confusion; to have spotlighted our cravings, aversions, and indifference. Buddhist practice shines the light of awareness on everything, pleasant and unpleasant. So too WAG can at times bring up something that we’d rather not deal with. There are challenges in white people trying to build relationships together. But we have also had some wonderful conversations and connections, that I hope have helped all of us to heal a little bit from the toxicity of racism, and to move forward with more willingness to push back on our privilege, more courage and confidence to speak up and mobilize against injustice, and more determination to engage in our own internal transformative work.
Growing Deeper Awareness
By Ruby Grad
When I heard about NABA’s White Affinity Group, I was excited. I looked forward to sharing with other white folks about racism and white supremacy within the context and container of the Buddha’s teachings. As a fairly long-term practitioner and as someone who considers themselves interested in the full range of the impact of white supremacy and how I and others fit into that picture, I have been curious for a long time as to how the teachings inform our work and vice versa. My anti-racism work began in earnest in a predominately white Euro-American meditation center, so it seems natural to me that we look to our practice and knowledge of the teachings as a foundation for this work.
As is my habit, at the first call I attended, I immediately felt intimidated by the work that other folks are doing compared to me. But I decided that I wanted to contribute and took the opportunity to co-facilitate when it arose. I have learned a lot in the capacities of a participant and co-facilitator.
As a co-facilitator, I work with self-doubt as to whether I can be effective in that role and the idea that I am responsible for making sure the experience is positive for everyone participating. I am working with applying my knowledge that all beings are the heirs of their actions and the best I can do is contribute to providing conditions that are more likely to encourage deeper experiences and sharing, and letting go of my need for everyone to feel good about the experience and about me.
As a participant, the main lesson for me is how much I appreciate being able to share with like-minded people. Interestingly, I’ve also learned that coming from different Buddhist traditions means that we bring different outlooks and experiences to the table. I strongly emphasize ethical behavior in my practice, and I tend to explore white supremacy within that context. For others, the practice of compassion is the emphasis, and I appreciate hearing about that and their sharing of how compassion in action works in relationships when combatting racism.
There have been some hard lessons. A white supremacist hacked into one call, and I quickly fled once that person began talking about the role of American Jews in Western Buddhism in a negative and derogatory way. I grew up Jewish, and I know and respect some, if not all, of the teachers they mentioned. I immediately felt ashamed that I had fled, as others, especially those who had also grown up Jewish, were able to stay, and I learned how strong that proclivity is for me. As a result, I have undertaken the practice of being more mindful in potentially triggering situations and listening to the part of my personality that knows that I can stay and listen, as hard as that may be.
I also watched issues of intersectionality divide people who were otherwise of similar mind as to white supremacy. It was my first real experience of what had only been an intellectual awareness. In exploring the sadness and disappointment that arose for me, I recognized yet again the strength of my own tendency to want everything to go smoothly, easily, harmoniously, and my previously unarticulated expectation and naïve belief that as practicing Buddhists we should be able to use our practices to solve every challenging situation. But that isn’t always true, and the experience helped me to realize the value of agreeing to disagree to keep the connection if possible or moving on if not.
I look forward to more experiences both of sharing with like-minded people and being challenged to deeper awareness as we continue on.