Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, Katrina Browne will lead us in a program and Dharma sharing on racial awareness and racial healing. Katrina, who participates regularly in our Takoma Park morning sitting group, has for more than 20 years looked into the moral and societal questions that attach to those of us whose families historically benefitted from slavery and its aftermath, or who currently benefit from being seen as “white.” Katrina’s notes are below:
This past week I learned about the first “Colors of Compassion” retreat at Deer Park Monastery in 2004. Reading about this retreat for people of color (in Together We Are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connections by Thich Nhat Hanh and others) gave me a firm, tender nudge towards pursuing a greater understanding of the role that the Dharma and Sangha can play in helping white people, such as myself, become more healed and whole-hearted partners with people of color in the work of dismantling racial injustice.
In Together We Are One Kaira Jewel Lingo writes: “We were honoring and healing our blood family in the context of a spiritual family.” Larry Ward writes: “We are having people of color retreats… [to create] a chance for us to recognize, to embrace, to subdue, to tame, to heal, to release and untie the internal knots created by our experience of being people of color.”
Their words led me to ask: Are those of us who are of European-American heritage, or whom the world labels as “white,” working on healing our blood families? Are we untying our internal knots around issues of race and racism? Are we recognizing, embracing, subduing, taming, healing, releasing? Are we showing up for the likely discomfort of sorting out where our families and we ourselves fit into historic and current racial injustices?
I took up that challenge twenty years ago, but only in recent years have I been learning what the mindfulness tradition can bring to our anti-racism journeys.
When I was in my late twenties I learned from my grandmother that our Rhode Island ancestors, the DeWolfs, were slave traders. I then learned from a historian that our family, over three generations of slave trading, brought more Africans to the Americas on their ships than any other family. The amnesia in my family was parallel to broader Northern amnesia about the massive, centuries long, and multi-faceted complicity of the North in the slave economy.
My world was rocked to the core.
I decided to invite family members to come with me to retrace our family’s Triangle Trade (from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba), and we filmed it. The result was a documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (PBS: 2008) that shows us fumbling our way through trying to make sense of the implications of this patrimony. I wish I’d spent more time in the film talking about my Irish, Dutch and French immigrant ancestors who came here, worked hard in factories, sand, thanks in part to the benefits of white privilege, were able to quickly move up the economic ladder.
I feel like I’ve been in a 20-year retraining program, and there’s more retraining to go.
Mindfulness is fundamental to my process these days. You know those emotions that can hijack us around these issues? For white folks: guilt/shame, discomfort, defensiveness, denial, anger, anxiety about saying the wrong thing, fear of the implications of facing racism, backlash-y resentment… a few examples. (Any of these familiar?) If we get hooked by them, stuck in them, it can be hard to bring our best thinking and our most grounded selves to the work that needs to be done. And we can be at greater risk of re-injuring people of color. In terms of our internal landscapes, in addition to emotions, we can have “implicit racial bias” (unconscious prejudices that have been socialized into us despite our good intentions to be “not racist”).
Becoming conscious, mindfully, of these emotions and biases gives us the opportunity to interrupt them before we reactively or reflexively act on them. Breathing in I pause and notice an emotion or a bias, breathing out I let it go. Breathing in, I notice it is still there – these are deep, old, stubborn grooves. Breathing out, I try letting go again. Breathing in: I dial a white friend and have a quick cry about how this history sucks and its tentacles in me fill me with shame. Breathing out, after some tears, I feel better, stronger, more ready to face the current challenge in my work in these realms.
This Thursday evening I hope we can share about how mindfulness practice has helped us look deeply into our racially-based emotions, biases, and family stories.
You are invited to join us.
As is our tradition on the first Thursday of the month, we will also offer a brief newcomer’s orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.