Sister Tam Muoi (aka Sr. Samadhi) recounts her personal journey with the practice of White Awareness.
White people, do something. But what? Please allow me to share some of the journey I’ve been on for the past five years, initially with the aspiration to create more diversity in our Sangha, but soon realizing that there was a whole other journey to come first, the practice of White Awareness.*
*“White” as a description for people, entered the European languages in the late 17th century, used in legal documents to differentiate slave owners from the enslaved https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_people#A_social_category_formed_by_colonialism
I woke up
At Deer Park in 2015, during the American teaching tour, I participated in a workshop entitled “Racial Equity.”This workshop eventually gave birth to the ARISE Sangha (Awakening through Race, Intersectionality, and Social Equity) The workshop was offered by a coalition of Black, Indigenous and People of Color and White monastics, lay Dharma teachers, and OI members. I was on board, and completely with the White practitioner who asked the panel, “What can we do?”
The answer has stayed with me, like a koan, “Don’t ask us, People of Color, to educate White people about racism and diversity, along with everything else we are doing. What you need to do is educate yourselves!” Thus I began my journey.
Are You Sure?
Before the workshop in 2014, I had the great fortune to be among the monastics whom Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) sent to live at Blue Cliff Monastery, our center in upstate New York. I lived at Blue Cliff for three years and among many benefits, I had an entirely different experience of race than I was accustomed to in rural England, where I grew up, or in southwest France at Plum Village.
My first retreat at Blue Cliff was a weekend Lawyers’ Retreat. I was intrigued and expected the monastery to be full of White, wealthy men. But no! Our abbess, Sr. The Nghiem, dedicates her efforts to inclusion in all forms. As a result, Blue Cliff enjoys a continuing friendship with CUNY Law school, the top school for social justice in the US. Its stated mission is, “to transform the teaching, learning, and practice of law to include those it has excluded, marginalized and oppressed.”
On Friday afternoon at the start of the Lawyer’s Retreat, a bus turned up. It carried a multitude of engaged and inspiring young people, and their professors, representing the ethnic diversity of New York City and its boroughs. I noticed my preconceived notions about lawyers starting to shift.
That evening, to my great shame, I asked a mature African American woman sitting next to me in the dining room. Was she a student? No, she answered, with a natural smile, I am the Chief Family Court Judge for the five New York boroughs. Now that’s the kind of discomfort that this journey has brought me into time and again, but I am learning how to stay with it, to feel it in my body, and above all, to learn from it, and be humble.
Later, I had the chance to go to a “Zen and Race” training in New York City, given by the first African American Dharma teacher, Merle Kodo Boyd, from the Zen Peacemaker Circle. My most vivid memory of that ethnically diverse weekend was learning for the first time the phrase “micro-aggression”* and what it means.
*Microaggression: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups. [source: Wikipedia]
Whilst sharing in a dyad my partner shared how, often at public events, his wife, Latina by origin, is frequently addressed as if she were one of the catering staff. The assumption about his wife’s occupation because of her skin color brought it up again, discomfort. What to do with that knot in the stomach, the dry mouth, the anger I felt, and the helplessness?
By the time the annual People of Color (POC) retreat came around, I had learned enough to understand that POC retreatants need their own space for safety and confidentiality, free from the additional burden of worrying about White people’s feelings. […]