I Need to Start With the Racist Attitudes in Me

Some of my anger at the recent actions of white supremacists comes from acknowledging my own capacity for ugliness.
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“What racism I can find close to home and within myself—as scared as I am to see it—is what I have the most power to root out straight away.”

Photo by Jeremy Perkins/Unsplash. 

In the face of the white supremacist violence and President Trump’s reaction to it, fear, anger, and condemnation of others comes naturally to me. What is more difficult—perhaps for many white people like me—is a willingness to examine the extent to which my daily thoughts and behaviors support the racism I adamantly oppose—in others.

Yes, I’ll go on a protest march. Yes, I’ll attend anti-oppression training. I’ll write to politicians. I'll take to my social networks to show my solidarity with all the other people who want desperately to root out racism—in others.

To what extent am I willing to examine those parts of myself that are like the people I feel so angry toward? Here’s why I think that’s important: What racism I can find close to home and within myself—as scared as I am to see it—is what I have the most power to root out straight away.

This is why I was so intrigued by a Facebook post from the black, queer Buddhist teacher and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. Lama Rod Owens writes:

“It seems like if we are really interested in ending white supremacy, white people should focus more on loving themselves instead of trying to love me. The violence emerges from the ways self-shame and apathy are bypassed in attempts to use love towards me as an argument trying to convince me that you are not ‘that kind of white person.’ As long as you cannot face yourself and love even those ugly parts, you are indeed that kind of white person, and I will be left with the work of trying to love what you cannot bear to witness.”

So what might be an ugly part of myself that Lama Rod suggests I should love? What do I need to see in myself to avoid violence emerging?

As it happens, I read Owens’ post while backpacking with my 12-year-old daughter in Thailand. One day, we were traveling in a van with other tourists of various nationalities, including a middle-aged Indian husband and wife. We had conversed a fair amount during the day and become quite friendly.

A lifetime of living as a white man in a white-privileged world has left me with occasional unwanted ugliness.

After a stop, when we were all getting back in the van, the husband took the seat my daughter had been sitting in, on the front bench. This worried me because Bella gets carsick easily, especially if she can’t see out the windshield. I felt irritated with the man, but what was more uncomfortable for me was the rising “ugly part” of myself, as Owens calls it. I called the Indian man “entitled” in my head. I had made up a whole, completely unverified story about how he had worked his way out of poverty and had become rich enough to travel and now expected to be allowed to take whatever seat he wanted.

But, of course, I knew this story was based on nothing but introjected stereotypes based on Indian ethnicity and nationality. There was no evidence for the story, nor do I believe such a story would have arisen had he been a white European.

Even more uncomfortable was to see in myself that this “entitlement”—that I imagined probably clashed with another person’s entitlement—was my own. I realized that my life history and experience—countless occasions of getting exactly the seat I wanted—made me feel, on some level, that it was my right for Bella to get the front seat if she needed it.

I’m not saying that my stereotypes and the so-called clash of entitlements are foundational to me or my value system, or even more than passing ideas in my stream of consciousness. I am saying that a lifetime of living as a white man in a white-privileged world has left me with occasional unwanted ugliness.

White people don’t tend to do much about racism when it is comfortably out of sight.

Some of my anger and frustration at the recent actions of white supremacists come from having to acknowledge the parts of me that remain unloved, as Lama Rod Owens would put it.

This is part of why—and it’s important to acknowledge—white people don’t tend to do much about racism when it is comfortably out of sight. Now we have stopped being comfortable, as white supremacists force us to look at them and their attitudes.

So I must look at myself.

If I leave my ugly parts unloved and unseen, if I refuse to examine the white supremacist within me, I have no way of understanding the white supremacists around me. For example, my own racist moment with my Indian friend was actually motivated by genuine concern for my daughter, perverted by conditioned and introjected racism.

Can that suggest something about where the white supremacists are coming from? Perhaps some of their ugly behavior too comes from concern for loved ones perverted by years of trauma and lifetimes of societally conditioned racism. Of course, I condemn their actions. But a little understanding and love for myself—as a flawed white person—and a little for the people—not the behavior—might allow for some space to reduce hatred.

Meanwhile, I, and lots of progressive white people like me, are left, as Owens says, to learn to love what we cannot bear to witness within ourselves.

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