Here’s the truth: White people will always be oppressors until we consciously take action towards equity and justice. This is painful to hear and challenging to fully understand when you have the privilege of being white, yet its truth is undeniable.
Right now, in America and across the world, oppressed people are confronting extreme political, economic and physical violence. This violence is so often at the hands of white cis-gendered, able-bodied men towards women, people of color, indigenous, non-binary, trans, immigrants, and disabled people. Although it’s not new, the number and intensity of violent confrontations are increasing and getting louder. Immense injustice was cultivated and nourished through our laws, our economies and our societies for generations; 2019 is a time of uprising that brings to surface those inequalities. These injustices have been built on the premise that white men are supreme to all others.
From what I can only perceive as the shame of confronting this reality and fear of losing power in the face of a changing power structure, I see too few white male cis-gendered peers joining the ranks of social actors advocating for change.
Yet, we must do so if we are to maintain any position of dignity and respect as the world evolves around us.
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Over the last few years, the concept of Whiteness has become a growing part of my daily consciousness. As a white, cis-gendered man, I understand the gravity of acknowledging the privileges and power I have, and will continue to have, in this body. I also understand that simply being me without taking conscious actions towards equity and justice perpetuates the status quo of white supremacy.
This privilege is intimately linked to my choice to identify as a Love Extremist. The ease with which I can even call myself an ‘extremist’ is intrinsically tied to my being white and not perceived as a physical ‘threat.’ Then there’s love. I’m lucky that I felt I experienced and was modeled healthy love at a young age, which many people, regardless of age, sex, gender identity, and race, do not.
Since starting the Love Extremist movement, I’ve used podcasting, salon conversations and pins to interrogate how we define love and extremism as a culture. I’ve realized these definitions vary considerably. Often definitions of love are informed by one’s privilege, upbringing, trauma and perspective.
Reading Bell Hooks ‘All About Love’ and ‘A Will To Change,’ I learned the deep ties between white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. Hooks posits that they are not three separate entities, but one overarching power structure that keeps us white men in control while limiting our capacity for living emotional, creative and loving lives. That’s right guys, we suffer from this system too. Even though we are oppressors, we are also oppressed by the expectations of dominance and toxic masculinity that permeate our culture.
The concept of ‘Blackness’ was created by white Europeans at the end of the 1400s to classify darker skinned people for purposes of control in a racial caste system. Read more about that here. This early classification of black people effectively justified human slavery and denigrated the status of dark-skinned people, despite their incalculable contributions to our societies, civilizations and genetic human evolution as homo sapiens.
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When You’re “Doing The Work” But It’s Not Actually Working
As an entrepreneur, community leader and artist I am surrounded by white people, mostly white cis-gendered men, who are using the language ‘doing the work’ to refer to our personal spiritual and emotional evolution. It’s not enough. Not even close.
We’re practicing meditation, going to therapy, leading and attending men’s groups, going to Peru or Topanga Canyon to take plant medicine, attending Burning Man and dancing our faces off at sober and drug-infused dance parties around the world. We may be working on our relationships, studying intimacy and how to be better partners or learning about community leadership and management so we can manifest more abundance in our lives and work places.
A Typical Men’s Circle Retreat: Just The Tip … Of the Iceberg
While this personal and inter-relational work is great, I’m afraid it falls short of what our culture needs to heal. To heal we must break out of our immediate, mostly white, cis, able-bodied, male-run communities and start building bridges into those we don’t yet know. We must listen and learn (and learn to listen).
We must sit in discomfort as we begin to understand how our personal identity work and our privilege often comes at the expense of others who don’t have it.
In waking up to my Whiteness, I accept my complacency and complicity in a system that oppresses people of color. And women. And all those who have been disempowered by our laws, economic structures and behaviors as a society. This ‘awakening’ isn’t about personal development, it’s not about leveling up or optimizing or improving my emotional intelligence. This is my work as a conscious human being, awareness is the bare minimum, it’s a requirement to exist in our rapidly changing world.
After awareness we can shift into action.
I am going through this process now, and it’s not easy. My discomfort grows every time I am being called out or when I experience one of my peers speak over a woman or person of color, we rush to share our views or experiences without even listening to them. There’s no mastery here, it’s a constant effort to do better.
We take our born privilege into circles where it is not welcome and offer our personal thoughts as a guise for productive action. This piece is a letter to myself and to those white, cis, able-bodied, male peers I share spaces with. Here are some suggestions for us to authentically evolve into ally-ship with those who we actively and unintentionally oppress.
1) Diversify Your Communities: While it’s valuable to do personal and group work, if it’s in a homogenous environment of other men who generally look like you, change that.
If your mentor is a white man, seek someone else for advice. Invite folks who don’t have the same set of economic, racial, able, sexual and gendered privileges as you into your space. Remember, if they show up, they are not tokens and should be treated as peers. If that feels uncomfortable, then you’re moving in the right direction, get to know your discomfort and where it comes from.
It’s essential to recognize your role as a white man is to empower others into spaces where they can be seen and heard. This is not about being a hero or collecting folks of color for some invisible scoreboard — it’s about shifting the paradigms of society. We have so much to learn from other perspectives that are different from ours, and we have so much to offer once respect, trust and authentic communication has been established. We also do it because it’s the path towards a more just, equitable world.
2) Learn to Sit With Discomfort: When you or your culture are being questioned, it’s not the time to fume or defend, it’s not the time to turn off or run away, it’s time to sit, listen and learn. You want to get to your growth edge? Sit in discomfort for a while. Don’t opt out because your privilege allows it.
Like an ice bath or a tough physical training, being in community where you’re not in control can be hard. This is so important to do as our society evolves. If we are to continue to have any place leading our evolution into future generations, we must learn to build respect. That means listening actively to those who usually aren’t heard, that means being uncomfortable by keeping quiet in new spaces.
Remember, the personal discomfort (like throwing up in an ayahuasca ceremony) that comes from our own work in community can often be misconstrued as ‘doing the work’ … and in some ways it is. However, to make progress with facing your Whiteness, you must engage with the discomfort you feel in non-white spaces. You must learn to listen to and work alongside folks who don’t share your race, worldview or economic background and treat them as peers, not support staff. This means extra work breaking beyond the circles you may normally engage with.
3) Ask For Permission when entering community spaces where you wouldn’t usually go.
Being a white man means you are often seen as an oppressor. Showing up and listening is intrinsically changing that paradigm, nothing needs to be said, your body, open mind and attention do more work than your words and reasoning ever can.
Whether it’s a different political, racial or economic space than you’re used to, it’s crucial to not only invite new folks into your spaces but to bring your body into diverse spaces when permitted. Again that may be uncomfortable and this isn’t a call to go and speak up unless your voice is clearly welcomed into the circle.
Use your embodiment skills in being a present, listening body. That’s often a huge first step in building trust and connection with others. Again, don’t show up anywhere where you’re not welcomed, ensure your presence will be accepted and understand that simply being in the space may be triggering for some.
4) Show Up With Love: If you come from love, bring it everywhere you go. Don’t just share your love with those who look like you, offer it to those who don’t. Love is listening, love is smiling when appropriate, love is putting your body in uncomfortable spaces.
It’s so important to recognize that love is not pushing ourselves on others. As men, we were brought up to be ‘aggressive’ and expect love to always be reciprocated. This practice is actually not loving, it’s destructive. Forcing a hug on someone who wants a handshake or a wave is not loving. Love is about seeing and being seen. How can we authentically see someone else when we are acting unconsciously or doing what we think we should do as ‘awakened white men’?
Learn to love with empathy and compassion, share your love openly but don’t force it on anyone who isn’t willing or wanting to receive it. Intuition is your best asset here, listen to what each environment calls for and what love looks like in every unique situation.
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I know some of these suggestions may be confronting. They’ve been super challenging for me. As I become more aware of my privilege in this white male cis-gendered able body, I find myself frustrated by the behavior of my peers who work deeply on themselves without working as deeply on their relationship with the communities that exist beyond their ‘chosen families’.
My intention is not to shame or put anyone down, it’s simply to illuminate where I’m at in this awakening and encourage other white men to join me. Let’s be better allies and peers, lets get on board with the world as it evolves.
As our brilliant friend Pharrell recently said in GQ, Because the dominant force on this planet right now is the older straight white male. And there’s a particular portion of them that senses a tanning effect. They sense a feminizing effect. They sense a nonbinary effect when it comes to gender… and it’s a fearful thing. It’s time to drop that fear and come into love and action.
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Ethan Lipsitz is a visual artist and founder of Extremist Love, a platform that advocates for love activism with media, art, technology and experience. Find him every week spreading love with his podcast Love Extremist Radio and traveling the world as an artist and facilitator.