Waking Up To Whiteness


A journey to the seeds of racism in our store consciousness (and a retreat invitation at the end)

Click here for French translation

In the United States, grief, rage and despair are roaring, inflamed by the police murders of innocent Black people and the structural racism they are embedded in. On the European borders, many Black people and People of Color (BPoC)1 are left to die in the Mediterranean Sea or forced to live in camps. The global distribution of resources, opportunities, and recognition are still reflecting (neo)colonial legacies. Many, if not most, BPoC in Europe are still facing discrimination when looking for work, at work, in education, or in housing.2 And, in Germany, for example, more than one hundred people were murdered for racist motives in the last 20 years alone.3

Many of us have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings, in which we commit to look deeply into and relieve the “suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression”. How can we see the roots of racism and take mindful and effective action to transform them? Which individual and collective practices support us on a practical level in doing so? How can we do this as white people? How do we deal with feelings such as shame, guilt, anger or confusion? And is it possible to look deeply into this in a spirit of love, joy and community?

We would like to offer you a little peek into the both challenging and deeply nourishing journey of a small Sangha of white monastic and lay friends looking into these questions.

“With the mud of discrimination and fanaticism we grow the lotus of tolerance and inclusiveness.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Our White Awareness Sangha started in Plum Village at the 21 day retreat in 2018, as a group of people from five European countries and a US American friend. For the past two years, we met every month online to support each other in learning, reflecting, and putting love into action. We followed a Dharma and racism study curriculum4 designed to accompany white people in spiritual groups, adapting some of its valuable structure and material to our specific European contexts and histories. We read texts, watched films and had very vulnerable dharma sharings on how racism shaped us as white people and affects our society.

In February 2020, we organized a small retreat for ourselves, for which we invited trainers from Phoenix e.V., a BPoC-led association based in Germany, which has been offering transformative and empowering learning spaces in anti-racism and white awareness for nearly 30 years. They work in a very unique way, which has a deep spiritual foundation aligned with Plum Village practice. Our group was welcomed by the Healing Spring Monastery near Paris, allowing us to ground ourselves in the collective energy of mindfulness throughout the training.

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh at the EIAB (European Institute of Applied Buddhism) in Germany.

Are you sure?
As white people, it can be a challenge to even only start the conversation about racism and privilege – with ourselves, with others, or within our Sanghas. It is an effort – a Sangha effort – that we decided to show up for, breaking the taboo that was compelling us not to see, not to hear, and not to speak. Part of white privilege is that white people are not forced to think about racism every day, because their daily experience is not determined by it. 

Or so we thought.

With ever so gentle guidance, the online curriculum and our trainers from Phoenix, Mutlu and Maria, led us to see our ancestors, our upbringing, and our conditioning as white people with new eyes. Through carefully crafted exercises it dawned on us that many of our ways of seeing or doing things were not universal for all people or completely individual to ourselves, but were actually learned by us as part of our upbringing as white people in a racialized society. By reflecting on our own experiences, we came to see how racism is inscribed into our everyday ways of thinking, speaking, acting and understanding the world, as well as how we create and do Sangha.

“In the safe space of our group, it was a relief to share and recognise similar experiences, similar emotions, similar wrong perceptions received from our schools, the media, children’s stories, etcetera throughout our lives. The safe space we created made it easier to hold and take in the often devastating information.” shares Sister Tam Muoi, one of our monastic members.

As long as we (as white people) don’t actively choose to look at the seeds of racism in our store consciousness and how it is watered by society, we will perpetuate racism, although we might not realize or intend to do so.

One lay member of our sangha shares about this: “Before looking into racism, I thought it consisted of intentional aggressive acts of harming or insulting people – now I learned that the suffering is caused as much by a culture of prejudice, often unintentional acts of discrimination and by unequal opportunities. This showed me how much deeper racism is rooted in society – and in myself.” Another member adds: “I now see that my unconscious biases and my self-image of not having any biases often stand like two different walls between me and People of Color. This way I can neither see who they really are, nor how I unconsciously contribute to racism. I sense that these walls are in the way of true empathy and action. Unfortunately this has also happened with a Person of Color in my local Sangha. When I realized this, shame came up, then sadness arose, and lastly I felt some hope that it is possible to slowly break down these walls inside me.

Often it was not easy to show up for, and stay with, discomfort, shame and confusion. When they came up, we tried to embrace these feelings with tenderness and listen to them like listening to wise teachers or hurt children. When these feelings were really heard, they transformed to show a new path and gave the strength to take the first small steps on it. Together, we travelled from the head to the heart – from intellectual understanding, to feeling, to embodiment. None of this would have been possible without the collective mindfulness practice, Thay’s teachings on Interbeing and the accepting and non-judgemental guidance from our wonderful teachers, who held our process with so much patience and kindness.

“By the end, although uncomfortable for me, I felt something had shifted inside of me, bringing a feeling of confusion and `not sure´.”  Sr Tam Muoi

Where do we go from here?
After an intense weekend, both inspiring and profoundly humbling, we were sent back out into the world with a renewed desire to uncover areas that we have been unaware of in our own lives and in European history and continue the work of racial healing. And with the dream of sharing our journey – a journey, which has only just begun; a journey, which will continue for the rest of our lives; and a journey to which we would like to invite other white people, to walk together, especially in Europe.

In May/June 2021 we hope to contribute to offering a similar space of mindful and compassionate inquiry into racism and whiteness to the wider white Sangha. During a retreat at the EIAB in Germany, we will practice deep looking into the conditioning and unconscious biases that each one of us has through the practices of sitting and walking meditation, Dharma sharing, Touching the Earth as well as interactive workshops.
Please click here to learn more and to register for this retreat.

Meanwhile, as the violence caused by racism continues to hurt BPoC communities and individuals, may we (especially as white people) put our love into action and show up for racial justice with our hearts and eyes wide open.

Our white Awareness Sangha at the training in Healing Spring Monastery, from right to left: Mutlu, Br. Mountain, Tashy, Annica, Chloe, Br. Duc Pho, Reli, Flo, Simone, Maria, Miranda, Conny, Jassy, Sr. Tam Muoi, Anthony, Ida. 

Written in summer 2020 by
Tashy Endres (PoC Rainbow & Friends Sangha Berlin)
Simone Fenger (Wake Up Freiburg and International Queer Sangha)

For questions or more information on upcoming retreats, please write to: whiteawarenessretreat@gmail.com or to plumvillageBPOC@gmail.com.

Also see

  • arisesangha.org for resources around racism and whiteness from within and beyond the Plum Village community
  • tinyurl.com/earthholder to learn how the Earth Holder community interweaves social-racial justice work in their practices.

1 Black and People of Color (BPoC) is a self-denomination of people oppressed by racism as being “different” from the white “norm” at the invisible centre of racism. Writing them in capital letters expresses our respect and intention to contribute to re-centering their perspectives.
2 Report by EU Agency for Fundamental Rights – https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2018/being-black-eu
3 https://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/rassismus/todesopfer-rechter-gewalt/
4 For the White Awareness Insight Curriculum for Uprooting Privilege (WAIC UP) see: https://tinyurl.com/waicup.

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