“To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You’re everywhere you look, you’re the standard against which everyone else is measured. You’re like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a ‘woman doctor’ or they will say they went to see ‘the doctor.’ People will tell you they have a ‘gay colleague’ or they’ll tell you about a colleague. A white person will be happy to tell you about a “Black friend,” but when that same person simply mentions a ‘friend,’ everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn’t have the word “woman” or “gay” or “minority” in its title is a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses ‘literature,’ ‘history’ or ‘political science.’ This invisibility is political.”
I am a white male. I grew up in an upper middle class family in a predominantly white area. Because of the family I grew up in, the culture of my community, and my own ignorance, I had absolutely no awareness of any privilege I had in life. As Michael Kimmel points to in the quote above, my experience was relatively ubiquitous and my race and gender ultimately invisible. It was a non-issue, and not something I gave very much thought to. I had friends growing up that were people of color, but I was too young and uneducated to recognize any differences in experience. As a young child, I was taught that a person of color just looked different than I did, and that was the end of that. Essentially, I was taught that color did not matter.
When I was a teenager, I went to a therapeutic boarding school in Costa Rica. Although most of the kids at the school were white (and wealthy), I found myself living in a completely different culture. My eyes slowly began to open, and a seed was planted. It wasn’t until I really began a mindfulness practice that the reality of my experience struck me with any force. As I began to tune into my own experience, engaging with my community around me, and paying attention to what was going on in the world, I quickly realized that my experience as a white male was just that: the experience of a white male. There are many other experiences out there of which I lived for decades without true awareness. My first reaction to this realization was guilt. It came in the form of shame that I grew up with such opportunities, and a feeling of inability to understand and work with these problems. This guilt has been the cornerstone of my own work with white privilege.
I know there are many people that object to white privilege being real. Multiple studies have shown that white people react with anger when presented with facts related to white privilege, and get defensive. We could talk about the crime statistics, point out the color of band-aids, or present you with John Oliver’s recent piece on Hollywood Whitewashing. However, my intention is not to convince you that white privilege simply exists. Rather, I wish to share my experience with this incredibly hot topic, and hopefully offer you some insight so that you may investigate your own experience.
“We have made enormous progress in teaching everyone that racism is bad. Where we seem to have dropped the ball is in teaching people what racism actually IS.”
“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.”
In the 90’s, it was common to hear white people say that they don’t see color. I was inadvertently taught to not see color via encouragements to see people of color as just people with different skin tones than my own. Although this seems like a great ideal solution (to treat everyone equally), the truth is that we do see color. And the color of someone’s skin is NOT just a skin color. The truth of our society in the United States of America is that the color of one’s skin dictates how the person is treated by the community, the opportunities one is offered, and ultimately one’s place in our world. Like me, maybe you don’t overtly hate people of color, maybe you don’t make racist jokes, and maybe you don’t think white people or males are superior beings. However, this overt racism is really just a small piece of the puzzle.
We must see color if we are to awaken. It is only our own delusion that leads us to believe that we don’t see color. When we tune into experience, we see the small ways in which we do “see” color. There is no shame in being honest with yourself about experience; this is essential for us to proceed along the path to awakening. Personally, as I began tuning into my experience in daily life, I began to notice slight judgements, thoughts, and ideas arise in the mind surrounding race. I’m not proud of what happened in the mind, but it was happening nonetheless. Denying the existence of these thought processes only pushes us further into delusive thought patterns. We can tune into our experience, notice these thoughts, notice our reaction to them, and work with them. If we are to effect any change in ourselves or in the world, we must first recognize the issue. Furthermore, the dharma, or Buddhist path, is a path of reducing suffering both in ourselves and in the world around us.
In the chapter of Fours, the Anguttara Nikaya says, “He who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming himself or another, nor of harming both alike. He rather thinks of his own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world. In that way one shows understanding and great wisdom.” If we are to set the intention of not causing any harm, we must understand the ways in which we are causing harm to ourselves and to others. Pretending that harm isn’t being caused is deeply harmful, and it can slip by us because of its subtlety (to white people, at least). And this is one of my greatest motivators. What I experience as subtle harms in my mind are actually causing great harm to others. What I see as harmful in a minor way is part of a bigger problem which is causing harm in a great way. When we bring both mindfulness and our heart practices to the mind and experience, we can confront our behavior and the reality that is the culture we live in, and begin stepping out of the darkness of delusion and into the light of awareness.
“White privilege is the other side of racism.”
I can lay out all the statistics for you from the incarceration rates to the pay gap or poverty numbers to media presence, but our true practice with this issue relies on our own experience. White people are less likely to get arrested, receive smaller sentences, are less likely to live in poverty, get paid more, and are less likely to be assaulted by police. And not by a small margin. These facts may be horrifying, but do they really describe the experience of a white person? In my opinion, no. The experience of a white person in the United States is one of ubiquity of “normal.” We measure the experience of races or cultures against the white, heterosexual male. So what is the experience of being white in this country?
To me, being white means I never had to question my role in society. As part of the dominant group, I see myself as an individual rather than a part of a group. My experience, although preferential, just seemed the norm to me. When I walk down the street at night, people see a white man. I do have a serious criminal record and am covered in tattoos and those two things do shape my experience a bit, but they were both results of my actions and choices. When I pause to investigate what it means to be white, I find that being white really does mean being “invisible.” My race is not an issue, as I’m not treated poorly because of the color of my skin or my culture. In fact, I receive preferential treatment, and this is where the problem rests. The preferential treatment is not always obvious, but it’s there and the norm to me. We deal with a dichotomy of either preferential treatment or discriminatory treatment, and because I get the preferential treatment, I was never encouraged to take a look at it.
Think about your sitting practice or mindfulness in daily life. Which suffering grabs your attention more: the dukkha related to clinging to pleasant experience, or the dukkha related to averting from the unpleasant experience? Or maybe even more on point, what grabs your attention more: your leg right now, or your leg when it is broken? We often don’t take note of what is “normal” to us. In the dominant group, we are generally accustomed to our life of privilege. Our race is not related to regular pain in our lives. There are other things white people notice much more quickly than their race. On the other hand, people of color experience suffering as a direct result of the color of their skin. To work with our white privilege on a personal level, we can take a mindful look at how we are treated because of our race. What opportunities did you have growing up? How are you treated by your peers, or by strangers? What does it feel like to be white? At the same time we can tune into the experience of a person of color. When we tune in with care, we see that white people are truly privileged. Take a look around you at the world, and the roles that are filled by different races. When we respond with compassion and our full attention, this disparity is deeply troubling. We don’t want to see anyone suffer, including ourselves, and the suffering that is present in this world is immense. Bringing awareness to your own white privilege is an important step. As Paula Rothenberg says above, privilege is part of the dynamic of racism. It isn’t separate; we must look at privilege in order to understand the full spectrum of this problem.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
When white privilege first came to my attention, the response of my mind was guilt. I didn’t choose to be white, I didn’t choose to be privileged, and I frankly did not want to be treated as “better” by anyone. I also am not a “racist,” and don’t want to be grouped in with some other white people. These reactions are worth tuning in to. They come from the unpleasantness of the situation as a whole. I see people suffering because of their race, and I don’t directly suffer in the same way. This is unpleasant to me. The mind’s reaction is naturally to avert. Anger, guilt, shame, and justifications fill the mind in an attempt to drag me away from the unpleasantness of my experience.
White guilt is not useless; we can utilize this feeling to investigate what we are going through. When you think about privilege or the intense inequality in this world, it is okay to have an unpleasant feeling arise. When we look at the unpleasantness, we can intercept the process and see how and why the guilt arises. For me, a large piece of the guilt is knowing that I am in the dominant class but am not making any strong effort to address these problems in the world. There is something inside us that cares for the wellbeing of all living beings, even if we have to dig a bit to release it. Taking any guilt you may have, you can investigate it and see what is truly going on: we care about sentient beings, and see the injustice occurring. In my experience, one of the major results of white guilt is that people are afraid to talk about racial issues. As you educate yourself about these issues, you can then ask how you can bring mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom to the world in a way that can help end suffering for billions of people.
It is uncomfortable for me to be writing this piece. Did I accidentally say something offensive? Are my experiences of the small judgements in my mind coming off in a bad way? Does me talking about my privilege make me seem entitled? These are things we must risk if we are to pursue change. I’m not perfect; I have a lot of work to do. I do know that these issues must be addressed. Bhikkhu Bodhi once said to a group I was sitting with that it is our duty as meditators and practicers of mindfulness and metta to look out for the collective happiness. If I am to take the dharma with me in my life, the dharma inevitably comes into contact with racism, privilege, and inequality. How does dharma practice interact with these issues? By looking at them clearly, and offering understanding and care.