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Change Yourself, Change the Culture
As a white person and a Buddhist, I have developed a three-step practice for addressing and contributing to healing the wounds caused by racism. It is a practice of noticing, analyzing, and dismantling, and I’m sharing it here as an offering to anyone engaged in the work of uprooting oppressive ideas from their psyche.
While this practice is informed by Buddhism, it is not confined to this modality or limited to a Buddhist identity or religious framework. As long as you have an understanding of interdependence and a commitment to be of benefit, this is a practice you can use.
The example I provide of my own work with this practice pertains to my experience of whiteness, and challenging lessons of white dominance and colonialism, but this practice can be used to uproot any unchecked beliefs or ideas we might hold about the value of difference. This is a practice technique for unlearning habits that feed a culture in which inequality can persist unchallenged.
The first part of the practice is to establish an intention to notice. This step is important if we’re going to dismantled un-checked beliefs at a subconscious level. Implicit biases are just as harmful and just as important to address as blatant forms of discrimination.
When I began to embark on this practice I set the intention to start noticing how I experience whiteness, and in particular, how messages of white supremacy inform my beliefs. With the intention in place, noticing the subtle ways white dominant thinking has had an influence on my view of the world became much easier.
Many examples came up, but I noticed a particular narrative I have as a white Canadian from a lesson I learned in school when we were asked to explain the difference between Canada and the United States. There are many legitimate, reasonable answers to this question, from the banal “Canada has Provinces and territories, whilst America has States and territories” to the formation of one country through violent revolution and the formation of the other through business contracts. But those are not the differences we talked about when I was in school, nor the lesson I received.
The lesson was:
Canada is a mosaic, while the United States is a melting pot.
To be a melting pot means there is a definitive, singular American identity to which all members of the country are expected to adhere (see — white, male, able-bodied). To be a mosaic, is to say that diversity is valued and respected. The claim is that Canada respects cultural differences so much that it is the very fabric of our national identity. Comforting, for a country known for being incredibly ‘nice’, and definitely a belief I held, unquestioned, until I began to do this practice.
I internalised the meaning of that statement as a belief that America is racist, while Canada is not. I saw my identity as a Canadian had a lot to do with thinking of myself as morally superior to Americans. It was uncomfortable* to notice this, and even more uncomfortable to see all the ways I had been dismissive of racism in Canada because I really did believe we were somehow a post-racial country.
*Discomfort is a positive sign that the practice is working.
Having noticed a belief, the next step is analysis. This may sound very dry, but it need not be that way. Consider the root of the word ‘analysis’, which is Greek in origin. It comes from two words: Ana and luein, which together mean ‘loosen up’. So much harm is caused because we cling to the things we believe, even when we are given new information. Loosening up is a way of relaxing our grip on long held and harmful beliefs and ideas. It’s about examining the ideas we hold, so we can see them from a bigger view than that of our limited personal experience.
The work of analysis is a practice of cultivating curiousity. It’s about questioning and being open to learning something new and seeing things in a different way. Good questions to ask, regardless of the belief we are examining, include:
What is my source of information for this belief?
Who does this belief benefit?
Who does this belief harm?
In the case of Canada being a “mosaic”, the lesson always went hand-in-hand with how Canada was the end of the Underground Railroad, a refuge to enslaved Black people running from our racist neighbours. We were not told of Indentured Servitude faced by so many of these Black folk escaping our supposedly more oppressive neighbours. We were also not told about the Chinese labourers brought over to help build the Canadian Pacific Railroad, given the most dangerous tasks to complete, and later faced with discrimination in the form of extra taxation and economic exclusion. And while we did learn of Residential Schools, we were not told that the last one closed in 1996, in my lifetime, nor any details of the conditions or that no work had yet being done towards restitution or reconciliation.
While it didn’t excuse what I had come to believe, it made a lot sense that I took the lesson to mean Canadians aren’t racist. It also made a lot of sense why so many white Canadians deny the ongoing impact of our colonial and racist heritage.
Upon closer examination I began to see how Canada and America are not so very different at all. Take away the first battle for independence, and both countries were formed by elite wealthy white male property owners. Both countries went to great lengths to get and keep cheap labour. Both countries have had influxes of immigration from almost every other country in the world. Both countries have interned, segregated, or systemically discriminated against every group that came in, and the Indigenous population that was already here. In short, the government and culture of the country where I was born is no less responsible in perpetuating human suffering than any other.
The final step in the practice is to dismantle the belief. In many ways, the step of analysis, which involves asking questions, is part of dismantling, but we’re circling back to intention here too. To truly dismantle a belief we need to put momentum behind the new information we have received. We need to own the cultural roots of misogyny, white supremacy, ableism and gender discrimination in our own psyches if we are going to uproot them. We need to keep circling back with new intentions and deeper inquiries.
Having read passages from the Truth & Reconciliation report, I can no longer claim ignorance of racism in Canada. I won’t minimise the impact of racist policies having learned of Komagata Maru or how, before WWII and the Japanese Internment Camps, there was WWI and the Ukrainian Internment Camps. I no longer celebrate Canada Day. I support Indigenous led initiatives for Truth & Reconciliation. And when non-white Canadians tell me they experience racism, I absolutely believe them.
It takes individuals to make up a culture. The beliefs of the individual are a reflection of the cultural norms, and the cultural norms are a reflection of the individual. By doing the work of noticing our beliefs, examining them, and dismantling them, we are doing our part in challenging a culture that enables systems of white supremacy, sex and gender discrimination, and ableism to survive. Whatever you dismantle within yourself, you are helping contribute to dismantling in the wider cultural narrative.
Originally published on Medium
Further resources specific to this, if you’re interested:
Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ talk: ‘Why Your Liberation is Bound Up in Mine’ on the Meditation in the City Podcast
Past blog entry on whiteness is Western Buddhism.
Toodle on over to www.KaitlynSCHatch.com to find out more about what I do.