White Awareness

If you are white, do you know what it means to be white? Do you know how it affects you and the people around you? How it affects the circumstances of your life? How it affects society? How it affects Shambhala?

Do you think that your whiteness is relevant, or worth exploring? If so, why? If not, why not?

Increasingly in North America*, white members of our majority white Shambhala sangha have been asking themselves questions like these, not just because we are curious, but because we are waking up to the need for these conversations. The answers may be different in different places, but there also is a great deal of consistency and overlap in the structures and meanings of whiteness.

We are becoming more aware of white supremacy & settler colonial culture – how it affects white people, how it affects People of Color, and how it is embedded both implicitly and explicitly in our Shambhala centers. By talking about “white supremacy & settler colonial culture,” we are not referring simply to racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy & settler colonial culture also refer to a political or socio-economic systems where white people are given unearned structural advantage (privilege) over other racial or ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level. This unearned privilege and power gives white people’s social and political demands more legitimacy in the eyes of government and law, adversely affecting people of color not just as individuals but as a group.

The dominant culture is white culture. Whiteness is a construct – or a conceptual thought as we might say in Buddhism. While it doesn’t exist in the ultimate sense, it does exist in the relative sense. It has had and continues to have a huge impact on our lives – how we move through the world; who is heard and seen, and who is not; who has access to resources and who does not; who harms and is harmed.  

How does whiteness play out in our Shambhala communities? Consider, for example, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, who unpack some of the qualities of white supremacist culture in their workbook Dismantling Racism. In their account, these characteristics include: perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, objectivity, right to comfort. You can find more information about these qualities and white supremacist culture here.

Do these qualities sound familiar?  From a certain perspective, white supremacy is a particularly virulent strain of what we call “setting sun” culture in the Shambhala teachings. Just as we have individual cocoons that we need to examine through the practice of meditation, so there are social cocoons that can obstruct the wakefulness of whole groups of people and that require the appropriate social methodologies in order to deconstruct those barriers and experience social liberation. Whiteness is one of these.

Looking at that list, you can get a sense of how white supremacist culture doesn’t actually serve any of us. That being said, it is used to oppress People of Color and privilege white people.

Given that white folks currently hold power and privilege in this society, it is up to us to unlearn our own social conditioning and to dismantle white supremacist culture in our relationships, our communities and ourselves.  White Awareness Groups have started forming over the past couple of years in a handful of US Shambhala Centers – in Boston, Madison, Atlanta, Berkeley, New York.

In February 2018, POC Shambhala leaders Charlene Leung, Chair of the Diversity Working Group and Aarti Tejuja, Director of the Office of Social Engagement, gathered a group of about 20 white Shambhalians who were already engaged in white awareness work, encouraging us to form a White Awareness Council. They quickly realized upon the formation of the People of Color Council that no amount POC work would be enough to shift the culture in Shambhala. We need white people working on whiteness too.

The White Awareness Council is still taking shape and getting a sense of what is needed and how to move forward. At this time we have the Council itself and a working group focusing on supporting White Awareness work on the local level in our Shambhala Centers. Other working groups will arise as needed.