I recently completed Reverend Brig Feltus’ Heal Thyself, a diversity consciousness intensive for white coaches and healers. After 50 hours of intense, sometimes gut-wrenching coursework, videos, essays, book excerpts, group exercises, meditations, discussions, phone calls, and social media engagement with black thought leaders, as well as 10 hours of community service in a soup kitchen in the Tenderloin, I had over 70 pages of notes and lessons.
This course was essentially Buddhist in nature, and emphasized healing, as opposed to blaming, white people. It was taught with compassion and it taught compassion. We engaged in all topics with Beginner’s Mind: with curiosity, conscious mindfulness, skillful listening, and righteous intentions. We were taught to view the work as part of a larger journey towards personal and collective liberation and enlightenment.
The following are my key learnings and the ways the course impacted me. As we learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, we are the totality of our actions, which includes our thoughts, as well as our words and deeds, so I have divided the lessons into these categories.
Topics we Covered
Much of the following we covered from both historical and current perspectives, as well as from the lived experience of the teacher, Reverend Feltus, and her guest teachers. I invite my white readers to ask: have you ever learned about racism from a black person?
- The Racist history of cartoons
- The racism in major philosophers’ writings
- The historical trauma of black people in nature
- The racism of cultural traditions like Black Pete
- Black stereotypes
- The use of racist iconography for lawn ornaments, soaps, and tchotchkes
- The origins of terms like Lawn jockey, pickanninny, the N-word, etc
- Google facial recognition comparing apes to black people
- Racist memorabilia
- Unconscious associations of whiteness and beauty/goodness
- Police Violence
- Tone policing, virtue signaling, oppression
- The Clark doll experiments
- We associate danger with blackness
- Say her name
- Black Lives Matter
- Benevolent racism
- Identity politics
- Black power
- Black liberation
- Respectability politics
- People of color fetishes
- Slave patrols
- Lynch mobs
- The drug war
- Dragging and call out culture
- Black Twitter
- Hip hop
- Racism in banking
- Dehumanization bias
- Rosa Parks
- Thomas Jefferson
- Jim Crow
This course spent a lot of time on history. Historical context, I discovered, was critical for not just understanding, but for healing my relationship to race. My big historical lesson was this:
It is impossible to really understand America without understanding the central role white supremacy played in creating it.
I used to hear “the system was designed to hurt blacks” and think it was hyperbole: seeing racism where there was simply greed. “Those policies were racist,” I thought, “but inadvertently so; they were mostly just capitalist: keeping the rich rich.” Now I know that that is just wrong; Redlining, for instance, wasn’t just meant to keep the rich richer: it was explicitly meant to hurt black people. Racism is an ideology that the people who wrote our laws, and often, who still write our laws, explicitly subscribed to, even if they wouldn’t have called themselves bigots. Aristotle, Shakespeare, Kant, Jefferson, Wilson, Truman: racism was literally written into the declaration of independence, into Federal housing law, into the GI Bill. It is not an embarrassing piece of our ignorant past, it’s an inextricable element of our past and present society.
As a result of this work, I have a much deeper empathy for black anger. And I know not to take it as a personal affront to me as a white person. As Ta-Nahesi Coates has said: the knife has been removed but that doesn’t mean the wound is closed. His experience of America today is neither joy nor gratitude, but rather, the exhaustion, resentment, and relief of a man who was being stabbed and now no longer is. After the amount of suffering black people have endured in this country, asking black people to acknowledge “progress” is insulting. Black America is not going to “get over it” until people stop saying “get over it.”
Guilt and shame are dangerous
They don’t make us more trustworthy. They emphasize the ego and focus on the impact of pointing out harm, when the harm should be the focus. More to the point, they are dangerous because they can be used to avoid examining where we can change our behaviors or repair harm. What “works” is actual integrity, oneness, solidarity, action, reparation, and honor, especially in all white spaces.
Think before apologizing. Apologies can often ring hollow, as the apologizer’s aim is often to get off the hook, rather than engage in real learning, growth or change. Restoring integrity, on the other hand, acknowledges that if I hurt you then the real breach is of my own standards. Taking the time to see how I am out of integrity with myself is a deeper and more meaningful process to witness than the receipt of a mere “I’m sorry,” and so is far more impactful. Restoring integrity also specifically acknowledges the pain or impact of my actions, and specifies concrete steps to overcoming it. I have been called out for causing harm a few times since learning this, and a focus on restoring integrity has yielded profound results each time.
Oneness is a more helpful goal than “equality”
The goal of spiritual anti-racism work is not really “equality,” since “equality” as a concept is a conceit, like superiority or inferiority, that holds the individual as the highest truth. It can work in the political realm, but not in the interpersonal. The goal is to recognize and embrace our collective essential oneness with the Universe, and use that to heal our severed relationship with each other. This perspective places the emphasis on self-healing, rather than calling out others, and on interpersonal relationships, rather than policies.
The language around race was a huge area of learning for me. Take, for example, this sentence:
“We live in a white-supremacist, imperialist, cis-heteronormative, patriarchal, settler-colonizer, capitalist society.”
An analysis like this used to turn me off completely — it brought up tired Marxist tropes, an impotent utopianism that I had no practical use for. This course gave me the space to understand that these things are all objectively true, AND that it’s simultaneously a possible and worthwhile enterprise to dismantle these elements of our society. I can now say this sentence without feeling like I have to also advocate Marxist revolution or risk becoming a hypocrite.
The only way I got past the incredulity I used to defend myself with was to open my heart, which took sustained, supported effort.
Beyond that basic realization, here are the three terms I grappled with the most through this course
“As a result of being raised as a white person, i have a racist worldview, racist biases, racist patterns, and I have investments in perpetuating these systems, and in NOT seeing it. Didn’t choose it, don’t want it, got it.”
— Robin DiAngelo
My challenge was this: if we define “racism” to include unintentional, unwanted bias, and if, as a result, we now conceive virtually all white people to be “racist,” then hasn’t the word itself lost any real meaning? More to the point, doesn’t that now put me in the same bucket as neo-nazis?
Now I realize that “racism” should not be used to separate out “good” white people from neo-nazis. As DiAngelo says, “If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me?”
So I really looked at my internal stories, all the ways I’ve rationalized the racial wealth and education gaps, racial disparities in police violence, low black SAT scores, how few black friends I have. And I accepted myself as “racist.” It was scary, humbling and liberating; it is what allowed the journey of healing to begin. Once I accepted my own racism, the question changed from: “Are you racist?” to: “Do you acknowledge your own racism? Are you interested in challenging it? And if so, what are you doing about it?”
This one used to really turn me off. I remember thinking: “This is a radical Marxist conceptualization, in which normal, everyday Americans, trying to love each other, are all lumped in with skinheads. I don’t believe that all white people secretly hate black people, so I reject this term and the overly pessimistic analysis that it implies.” But now that I’ve given the term some room in my brain, and really grokked all the ways white people have been held superior to other races (I mean, really COMPREHENDED that it’s actually, literally, historically, TRUE) I’m better able to transcend my initial emotional reactions to it. I no longer “tune out” when I hear it spoken, and I can authentically use it in a sentence without feeling guilt or confusion.
One of the biggest critiques of “identity politics” is that it flattens human nuance. What I’ve been learning, however, is that intersectionality, and “identity politics,” can be amazing tools for ADDING nuance. Take, for instance, examining #metoo from an intersectional lens. First, I recognize that whenever I think of the term I tend to think of white women like my friends being date raped by white men like me, rather, than, say, the sexual abuse of southeast Asian immigrants or trans women. This alone is interesting and revealing. More to the point, I can now see that the associated admonition to “believe women” is complicated by the history of white women falsely accusing black men of rape. Nuance.
Right words follow from right thought, and right deeds follow next. So how do I show up differently now?
Blind Spot Recognition
Beyond just acknowledging that I’m “not perfect,” part of the work is specifically learning to notice my recurring blind spots around race. For instance, I can get overly familiar with black modes of speech in a way that doesn’t feel clean. I can also get judgy about academic performance. Like many white people, I can get hostile when white privilege is pointed out, especially if it’s done aggressively, and I can find myself falling into the trap of discounting the suffering of black people, say, when reading articles about airplane crashes. It’s good to know this stuff about myself, so that I can try to adjust.
Empathy by white people, so long as it’s free of paternalism, guilt, shame, and centering ourselves, can be deeply healing. Repairing the trauma of racism requires white people to get intimate with that trauma respectfully and compassionately. So a lot of this course was simply me taking the time to witness Black trauma, through movies and essays and personal stories I otherwise wouldn’t have consumed, and allowing it to impact me emotionally. I cried a lot, moving through guilt and shame, to pity, rage, and pain, and into compassion and empathy.
There are no shortcuts to this work: the journey is long and frequently messy.
Concrete Anti-racism Practices
Here’s what I’m working on, (Not what I’m “good” at; I honestly don’t think I’m particularly “good” at any of it) Again, I approach all of this with lots and lots of self-love and compassion.
- I speak about race and racism to my white friends without preaching, shaming, or arguing. I invite them, and myself, into a place of self-examination with more deftness and grace.
- Interrogation of the politicization of my desires: I’m better able to dismantle and examine the element of my desires, say, when in relationship with or flirting with a black person.
- Looking for opportunities to speak and act: Confronting people, yes but also asking questions, raising issues, Noticing bias and naming it, and adding perspectives that are not organically emerging (especially in all-white spaces)
- Developing the skills of humility, transparency and honesty around my own unconscious biases, the places I get routinely tripped up, and my ingrained and learned habits in social contexts.
- Proactively going out of my way to make the minorities in the spaces I inhabit feel welcomed. Using my voice to create space for their voices. Overcoming my own insecurities in these spaces to do so (without minimizing my own authentic feelings).
- Seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.
- Not immediately dismissing new concepts before I’ve had a chance to understand them.
- Not complaining or immediately rejecting feedback if it’s delivered to me in an aggressive or angry tone.
- Not seeking to understand by asking the nearest black person to break it all down for me.
- Embracing and supporting minority-only spaces within my communities.
- Recognizing that I could always be doing more, like going to protests, talking about racism on social media, supporting organizations fighting racism, or engaging in more public service.
Knowing I have firm ground to stand on
This was one of the biggest takeaways for me as a teacher and coach.
Whereas before, when race was brought up, I would stay silent “as a non-expert,” I now engage “as a non-expert.”
I defer to people to speak to their own lived experiences, but I don’t automatically defer to every black person I meet or read about how I should think, speak or act in life. I discern. I seek out black thought leaders who make me uncomfortable and sit with the discomfort. I have developed the habit of overcoming my initial resistance to the tone or the words themselves when listening to new and challenging perspectives. I do not perform obsequiousness, or patronize black people by putting them on a pedestal. I am better at engaging with black people without making our interactions learning moments or conspicuously avoiding racial topics entirely.
My goal is to heal myself of my internalized racism, not to have black people approve of me.
I balance humility with self-respect; I neither prostrate myself nor get on my high horse. I have a deeper sense of when to pass the mic, when to use my voice to amplify, and when to remain, exquisitely, silent.
Knowing when and how to engage
In order to do this work, I am developing the ability to quickly discern if the person I’m speaking with is INTERESTED in teaching or engaging or learning. When a white person I’m speaking with, for instance, demonstrates “high vigilance,” I don’t have consent to educate. If someone is ONLY interested in “debate,” then I usually don’t engage either. Not because I couldn’t marshall facts to support my beliefs, but because in a debate there is a winner and a loser. The person across from me isn’t interested in learning or growing together, he’s interested in winning, and I’m not interested in that. I use the word “perhaps” a lot. I mirror the language that people are using. I remember I always have the right to back out of an exchange, especially with a stranger, and I strive for common ground, understanding and compassion.
White Supremacy is not Charity
This course was consciousness-raising: it helped me develop my own values. Dismantling white supremacy, rather than something I OUGHT to do, is something I do because I choose to be in integrity with those values. I choose to engage with race because it would be incoherent not to. This has meant learning to conceive of this work not as charity that I as a white person do FOR black people, but rather as a way of fighting for my own full humanity in a society that has set me up to think of myself as superior. It is a lifelong project, I embrace it as a part of my own healing, and I do so with joy and gratitude at having the immense privilege to take a significant amount of money, time and attention and devote it towards my own growth and healing in this way.