A Courageous Presence With Racism
Tara Brach explores four steps that help to deepen our attention to what is real so we can respond wisely to the suffering of racism. Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and bestselling author.
This is the transcript of Tara Brach’s talk that explores how we can offer an honest and courageous presence to key domains of fighting racism. This talk was recorded amid the global events following the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
For the original presentation which includes opportunities for further reflection see: https://insighttimer.com/blog/a-courageous-presence-with-racism
There are, in these moments, continual protests in the streets ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white policemen. As we know the protests are about a world more than the tragedy of the particular killing last week; they are really about centuries of violence against indigenous, black and brown bodies, hearts and minds. William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” I think this really applies. And in particular anti-black racism is the core wound of the American culture. And people are protesting now – and some of them violently as we know – because the trauma of the suffering just keeps going.
In one picture I saw a protest in Tampa, Florida. A 5-year old black boy said, “Stop killing us. Stop killing us.” Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. As long as America postpones justice we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
So, my friends, I start like this because it feels like a crucial enquiry for us: What will end racial violence and oppression? I believe we each have a role to play in fighting racism; we each have to bring a medicine to these times, each one of us; and it matters that we bring it forth; it matters that we respond wisely right now. This is what we’ll be exploring together.
I’d like to acknowledge in this talk I am speaking as a white woman and like everyone in a racist society I am having to uncover my own racism; I am still in process; so I want to name that. And I am aware that while many of you are joining me are white, I am also grateful to know that many of you are black and brown and there are indigenous people. And I ask your forgiveness – I wanted to start this way on purpose – for any lack of understanding or sensitivity I might express.
I want to also name that this is one of the hardest talks of my life. And I think for most of us some expressions of suffering penetrate more deeply or more regularly than others. And for me racism is like that. I care so much. Black lives really matter, truly.
These last days watching that video of George Floyd’s murder and just this sense of the heartbreak of “yet another”, it’s been crushing. It’s been heart-breaking. On a Zoom call with one of my black friends I was so struck – this is what stood out – her tiredness, just this kind of exhaustion or despair at the daily-ness of violence against her people, tiredness and exhaustion. I’ve been in touch with others who feel devastated, anger, grief, everything you can think of, the whole range and called to act. I had friends on the streets yesterday in DC telling me “This was when the president called in the police and the national guard to shoot tear gas and flash grenades into a peaceful crowd and he was clearing his way to pose in front of a church.” And one friend filled with this fear and agitation about what’s going to happen said, “We have to be in the streets to save our lives. Will the president deploy military force against us?”
How To Respond To The Suffering Of Racism
So, we’re asking ourselves – and this is kind of collective, I’m joining you and you’re joining me in this inquiry – what are some ways that we can deepen our attention so we can respond wisely to the suffering of racism?
Step 1: Acknowledging What’s Real Inside Us
The first step is really the message of “start right where you are” — with the willingness to open to just what you are feeling right now. The friend I mentioned who is so tired – she is a black teacher, leader, very powerful woman – and she was saying, “Of course I’ll respond and soon but first I’m pausing so I can just feel what’s here.” And I just want to note for her, a dedicated activist, that’s not months of cave time but it’s knowing that for her to be her best, to be that medicine, she needed to pause and get in touch. We are so quick to strategize and fix that we can skip over really connecting inwardly. And then we just react from habit; we are driven by avoidance or fear.
This is the first step, always — and we have to keep coming back to it again and again, to keep pausing and honestly acknowledging just what’s real inside us. We can’t move to the second step – which is attending to those who are most vulnerable, most threatened – if we haven’t connected inwardly and acknowledge what’s here. We are just not going to have the presence that can see.
Step 2: Seeking To Understand
We are being called in these times to really look deeply at the pain that’s around us. And here I’m particularly addressing those of us who are white because if you are listening and you are black or a person of color – brown, indigenous – you may feel absolutely overwhelmed by the suffering of oppression and to white people… we can’t feel exactly what black people are feeling right now but we can accompany black people. We can bring our presence and commit ourselves to seeking to understand, to seeking to feel with.
In The Shared Village: A Reflection
Last Saturday during our weekly Satsang – that’s the gathering offered online for people that want to explore their questions – one woman spoke. She was born in Nigeria, and now lives in the United States. She was talking about how hard it is to just hold the magnitude of the violence, the horror of the violence, against black people here. And she shared an African proverb that I wanted to share with you. It says,
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
This has been an important part of my reflecting and I’d like to invite you to join me in that.
In our shared village – at least for Americans – for over four-hundred years black people have been enslaved, demeaned, exploited, imprisoned and lynched. They are the tormented child. And we know this at least conceptually. To the white race black lives have not mattered. Expendable.
So, to relate to this… I mean, how do we relate to this? How do we really let that in how that continues today? One of the ways is we can reflect how in our own lives we felt rejected from the village. Some of you may be listening and know that either in your family or in your social circles you are living with a sense of not feeling loved, not feeling accepted or respected. Each of us at some times felt rejected, marginalized, not okay. Some of you have felt really unsafe. Some of you grew up in situations and know the feeling of being truly threatened, shamed, physically violated. And if you are not black, some of us are brown indigenous or belong to religious groups that have been violated for generations. We know the feeling of the child that is being pushed away. We each know it somewhere in our psyche. So can we pause and remind ourselves of where we know about that? What has it been like for you to feel not belonging, to feel disliked, to feel hated, to feel unsafe with others?
There is a place in us that knows. We know from every vantage point of the village. And we know how natural it is when you feel like your life doesn’t matter to someone else, the feeling of hurt and rage, to seek your human needs, to meet them. And sometimes when we react to blame and aggression – sometimes violent aggression.
We each have that capacity in our nervous system, it’s built into us, and as many of you know when we feel rejected, unlovable and violated we often burn ourselves in self-hate – it’s part of the process – we hate those that make us feel unlovable but some part of us believes that we are not okay.
What we are exploring here in this second step are ways we can stretch and seek to understand. And you might imagine, and this is for you who are white: Would you want to be black, treated in this society as black people are? I mean, can you imagine being anxious daily about your teen, every time they go out: “Will they come back? Will they be killed? Will they end up in prison?” Because so many mothers have to live with the truth that their teen is at great risk of being killed or injured, being put in prison.
About six years ago I participated in a vigil of grieving mothers grieving the deaths of unarmed black men in the street. And just bearing witness to that and then imagining: wow, what would it be like? Could you imagine that, having to be grieving because your unarmed child was brutally murdered by the police? Can you imagine it? It’s hard to go close to. And, more broadly, can you imagine daily being viewed as inferior, as potentially a criminal or as too angry or as dangerous?
This is the second step: We stretch ourselves to attend where this pain, woundedness, incredible injury of not belonging lives in black people in the village because the truth is our heart holds the village, we are holding the whole village, we can’t be awake and whole if a child in our heart is hurting. So we deepen our attention.
Step 3: Knowing Our Part In Causing Harm
Just as we’ve all been harmed by the village, because the toxicity of our culture harms all of us, and just as we can attune to those who are most horrifically harmed because we are part of the village, we participate in the harming. The third step of deepening attention is the courage to face this truth. And this is really, really difficult for many in the white race.
Here I speak again as a white woman to white people. The legacy of racism is not our personal fault. But we carry its poison in this assumption of black inferiority. Unless we examine ourselves we will not be conscious of it. And daily we reap the benefits of the centuries of violation. And that’s what’s meant by “white privilege”; it’s how we have this privilege of being able to have access to the best jobs, the best homes, the best education, the best healthcare and justice. It’s white privilege that so many whites will make it through this pandemic possibly — we’ll see but it’s likely — without dying. Most of us will not die. Most of us will not be financially devastated, but black Americans are and will be.
That’s privilege. That’s the benefit of the centuries of exploitation. And I’d say perhaps the deepest expression of white privilege is that a part of our village is hurting and they’re forced to try to save their lives and for white people responding to this pain feels optional. We may care, we may do some things, but it feels optional. We forget that this is a child in our heart.
Many of you perhaps saw what Barack Obama wrote last week. He quoted a friend of his. It was very powerful.
“The knee on the neck is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down ignoring the cries for help. People don’t care. It’s truly tragic.”
A friend of mine in Oakland was describing a gathering she was part of and there was what she called “the howl” and it was a weeping and wailing chant, “Black Lives Matter.” She described just the chant going over and over again and how people were sobbing as they were chanting, and, of course, that got me crying. It’s like this asking the world to believe and know black lives matter.
For white people, knowing our part as a race in causing harm, how do we hold it? And I invite you to look at that in yourself. Like how do you process that if you are white being part of a race that has caused so much horrific suffering? I mean, do we feel guilty or shamed? Do we feel angry because we feel, “Well, I didn’t do it personally” – that’s called “white fragility”. And do we blame people of color for being reactive or over-reactive – “You are too angry or too hostile, now you are rioting!”? Do we cut off? Do we get numb? Or do we just live with that experience – “Well, I have been wounded, too”?
I have heard this. It’s called “Oppression Olympics”. And the truth is there is huge intersectionality; that many groups are oppressed, that the society creates incredibly poison and harm for many of us, but the truth is that no group in America faces the same murderous type treatment as the black community – taking the lives, the bodies, the respect.
I don’t think we can examine racism and white privilege on our own. There are too many ways that it feels dangerous and we don’t want to be with it or we can’t really look. I think we need each other. We really need to be with other white people just as people of color need safe affinity groups, containers, to unpack their suffering.
It’s not my fault and yet I can be responsible
Some years back I led a year-long group with people on white awareness, a white group. It was one of the biggest wake-ups of my life. It was a painful process towards being more whole, like I really belonged to the village because my heart was opening to the child I hadn’t been paying attention to quite in the way that I needed to.
Some time after I began a three-year group – that was a mixed race group – where we were exploring racism and really, in a deep process of getting to know each other, building trust. And for the first bunch of months I felt anxious and self-conscious and completely unnatural like I was inside tied up in knots. There was no spontaneity, it was hard for me to really listen or be real, I felt unreal. And then I got it: white guilt. And as a teacher and leader in my community I think underneath was that sense, “I can never possibly do enough to make up for this suffering.”
So I brought RAIN – that practice of mindfulness and compassion – to what I was feeling. I recognized and allowed it and investigated the belief that “I am failing, I am never enough,” and sensing how pervasive that was and bringing a lot of nurturing to that. The real message to myself from my high self or my awake heart was “Trust your caring.” And what was so interesting is that by working with that guilt, waking up from the guilt, it actually deepened my realness with others in the group and also my dedication, the sense of really fighting racism. It was the sense of “It’s not my fault and yet I can be responsible, I can respond.”
The point that I am hoping to explore with you is that it really takes intention to take off the blinders and wake up to the racism in us all. It’s society’s racism. It’s like fish in water; we’re breathing that air.
Writer Scott Woods puts it this way, he says,
“Racism is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
Step 4: Responding As A Part Of The Village
As we explore together, we really are looking at how a courageous presence is only possible if we put aside the judgment. We can’t get to healing unless we get to the truth of what’s happening inside and around us. Can we feel what we are feeling? Can we stretch and sense what others are experiencing? Can we have the courage to look at our own part, our own contribution, our own way of participating? This is the Buddha’s first and second noble truth: recognizing the suffering and its causes.
We’ve talked about these three steps. The third seeing our conditioning, our own conditioning to perpetuate the harm. The last step I’d like to talk about is responding. And there is no way to do this adequately. I’m just going to name some things. But I want to share a story before we close that’s really touched me. But before that Angela Davis writes that it’s not enough not to be racist, you need to be anti-racist, that’s active. “Lean into your courage and push aside your caution. No one benefits when allies are cautious.”
Taking the wisdom of these two women there are many ways we can each move forward. And each of you is going to bring your own medicine in your own way. But what’s important is your intention to engage, your intention to engage, not to wait. And one thing that many white people have found helpful is to join the organization SURJ – it’s called Showing Up For Racial Justice – to advocate justice for George Floyd, to help support the work of black lives groups like Black Lives Matters, groups that are fighting for police accountability and social justice, join rally’s or stay at the edges and be the physical barrier between protestors and police, speak up when you see police brutality, vote and when you go to the pol select leaders at every level not based on party but purpose: Are they dedicated to equity and social justice?
Last week at the satsang, another African-American friend attending – he is also a preacher and a psychologist – wrote a powerful call-to-action. He said,
“To my white brothers and sisters,
Helplessness is not an option. Our society has the virus of white supremacy built into every strand of its being. The thing you can do: address the strands that intersect your life. Go to the mat with your racist and racialist family, friends, community. Confront your wonderful innocent grandmother who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about those black people. Challenge your otherwise loving and supportive brother who doesn’t see the big deal with Trump. Disrupt dinners that would be otherwise peaceful because you don’t talk politics.”
We need to act because we are part of the village. We need to save and serve all of our lives. Martin Luther King says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” When we stop being silent there really is this deep goodness that we feel, it’s really in alignment, that we are moving toward wholeness, being who we really are, and then we can bring our care and sincerity to acting for justice.
Digging Soil At A Lynching Site
I’ve been following this ongoing memorial service on the site where George Floyd was murdered where people from different races are gathering peaceful with candles and prayers and they are sharing their food and a remembering, there is something about remembering and caring that really nourishes our spirit. And you can feel this kind of soul-nourishment in the story told by a social justice activist Bryan Stephenson. He says,
“We have been doing this thing where we have people go to lynching sites. And we have them collect soil from the lynching site and put it in a jar. And in our museum we have hundreds of these jars of soil that were collected from lynching sites. And we have the name of the lynching victim and have the date of the lynching. And it’s been really powerful to give people an opportunity to do something tangible, to do something redemptive, to do something restorative, and people come and they go to these places, we give them a memo, and it’s really powerful.
We had a middle-aged black woman come to one of our events. And she was nervous about going to a lynching site by herself but she was fired up and we gave her the jar and we gave her the memo. And she went out to this lynching site, pretty remote area. She got really nervous but she decided to do it. So she went to the place where the lynching took place. She was about to start digging when a truck drove by. And there was this white man in the truck who slowed down and stared at her. And then she said the truck stopped and turned around and drove back and the man stared at her some more. And then it stopped. And then this big white guy got out and started walking towards her. And she was very nervous.
Now we tell people, ‘You don’t have to explain what you are doing. If you want to say you are just getting dirt for your garden feel free to say that.’ And that’s what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ she said ‘Something got hold of me and I turned to that man and I said, ‘I’m digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in ninety-thirty-one and I’m going to honor his life.’’ And then the man stood there and said, “Does that paper talk about the lynching?’ and she said yes. And he said, ‘Can I read it?’ She gave the man the paper and he stood there reading while she was digging. And then he put the paper down and stunned her by asking, ‘Would it be okay if I helped you?’
And then she told me that this white man got on his knees and he started throwing his hands into the soil with such force and his hands were getting coated with black soil, they were turning black, and he was putting them in the jar, he kept throwing his hands, and it moved her. And she said the next thing she knew she had tears running down her face. And he stopped and said, ‘Oh I am sorry. I am upsetting you.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no. You’re blessing me.’ And they kept putting soil in the jar. And they got the jar almost full and she noticed toward the end that the man was slowing down and his shoulders were shaking. And she turned and she looked and she saw the man had tears running down his face. And she stopped and she put her hand on this man’s shoulder and she said, ‘Are you alright?’ And that’s when the man said to her, ‘No. I’m just so worried that might have been my grand-parents that were involved in lynching this man.’ And she said they both sat there with tears running down their face.
At the end of it he stood up and said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar.’ And she said, ‘I want to take a picture of you holding the jar.’ And they both took pictures. And she brought this man back and they put that jar on our exhibit together.
Now, beautiful things like that don’t always happen when you tell the truth about history, when you try to actually look for redemption and restoration, when you have every reason to be afraid and angry but until we commit to some acts like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourself the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration.”
Each one of us has a medicine to bring to these times. Each one of us can put our hands in the soil and participate. It’s about courageous presence, telling the truth about us seeing the truth in others and creating a village that really embraces and creates safety for all its children, the world that we believe in.