When I was tiny child – I couldn’t swim yet — and was taking swimming lessons at the local pool, I trusted my teachers. If they said ‘who wants to jump?’, I didn’t hesitate. I jumped right into the pool! Right into the deep end. I was bold and I remained unafraid of deep water.
I jumped in again this spring. This time around I trusted my teacher, Ruth King, a nationally known Black Buddhist mediation teacher who supports prolonged mindful inquiry and sharing about the roots of racism. When she put out the call, ‘can we talk about race, own our ancestry, and try to heal injustice?’ ‘I said yes’. No hesitating. Like in my swimming classes, I jumped in.
My self and six other white women formed an affinity group and committed to a year of deep, honest dialogue about what it feels like and means to be a white woman in America. (Ruth’s program has 44 racial affinity groups from around the world – all same-race affinity groups but not all white).
I am in this water. It’s been almost 6 months. I’ve been sad, ashamed, and uplifted. I’ve asked if talking about race will make any difference. I’m exploring white dominance, patriarchy, and nonviolence.
I‘m talking about being white with other white people. Race on the table. That is a big step, actually. The first questions that surfaced had to do with being white: Do I feel white? What is my culture? What do I identify with? What can I embrace about being white?
My first reaction was “White isn’t a culture!” Other people have ancestry and music and ritual — they have culture. Me? “I got nothing. A bunch of domineering, haters is about all.” But there was more.
I wanted to honestly identify with being a white person I can admire. I wanted to my words and actions to support others to thrive as much as I can. I want to create a more just world through kindness and nonviolence. Remarkably enough, there aren’t many consistent role models out there, but I started reading. My podcast subscriptions expanded. I walked, headphones on, absorbing new ideas and new voices. And the lightbulbs were lighting up.
White culture has historically been defined as a dominance culture –as white supremacy culture — with white males defining, controlling, mandating opportunities for everyone else. And as a white woman I have absorbed and lived this culture — for my own benefit and also for my own survival.
I balked at this realization. White supremacy had always meant violence and men wearing white sheets carrying hatred and automatic weapons in the dark of the night. I knew THAT wasn’t who I was. Sure, the KKK is white supremacy but there are also subtle and everyday threads of dominance, violence, and supremacy woven into everyday relationships, family, workplace. And I had participated in those.
The list played in my ears like a familiar tune: perfectionism, individualism, either/ or thinking, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and entitlement to emotional and physical comfort. Why on earth did I absorb these ideals that separate me from my humanness?
In her well known article on ‘White Supremacy’, Tema Okum lists interpersonal domination strategies. The list played in my ears like a familiar tune: perfectionism, individualism, either/ or thinking, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and entitlement to emotional and physical comfort. Each of these was a familiar and intimate element of my own thinking. Each was alive in me – I’ve internalized them, battled them in therapy, been knocked to the ground by them, and belittled myself and others over them. I’ve subjected others and been subjected to each and every one of them.
Well, it’s pretty hard not to be subject to them in this country. Eleanor Hancock, founder of the anti-racist educational organization White Awake, explains that white people are socialized and rewarded with limited types of privilege – like fitting in or feeling safe – for identifying with the expectations and values of the capitalist workplace and educational system. These systems value profit & achievement over everything; they insist on compliance and not questioning authority or upsetting the status quo lest you be voted on the island. And they trickle into our homes, families, and bedrooms!
bell hooks coined the phrase “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” as a way of demonstrating how many different types of domination intersect, serve the same purpose, and are inseparable. These values serve the imperialist, capitalist system — those few with wealth are awarded the greatest protections and benefits.
And these values are enforced by physical, emotional, and social violences through a patriarchal heirarchy. None of us win! And some people lose big. Some losses are subtle. Others are layers of harm that tear at dignity, opportunity, and even the right to breathe.
One simple question: “Who am I?’ and all of a sudden I find myself in deep waters wresting with a hydra! White Dominance. Patriarchy. Greed. Imperialism. Violence. Cut off one head and another appears. I pendulum between feeling hopeless and feeling like I’m riding a rocket ship to a world that I could define as home. And in some way I’m relieved to have hold of the hydra. If I want to keep my head above water in this journey, it is good to know who the opponent really is!
Can kindness, dignity, and nonviolence — that leaves no one out — take down the hydra? I’m optimistic. And pretty sure it is the only way.
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Jamie is a psychologist, mindfulness teacher, college professor & writer. She is dedicated to healing, truth, and creating a just and inclusive world.
Her blog, Kindness Redefined, chronicles her exploration of deep versions of kindness & respect as a lens on power, social inequity, & mindfulness.