Racism, the Environmental Movement, and Buddhism

Photo by Sonia Gallagher https://flic.kr/p/6j3zvcAs a Buddhist, I believe in inter-connectedness or, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, the  inter-being of all beings. At least intellectually I believe. Like many, I keep stumbling against those areas where my connections to even other people is more theoretical than actual. Of course, that’s why we practice.

Recently, I again stumbled into racism.

Who am I?

I’m about as white a woman as you can find.

I grew up in a world of white privilege and never even had a clue that non-whites were treated any different than the way my friends and I were treated. My hometown of Fallbrook, California had maybe two black people and a smattering of Latinos and Native Americans. Race wasn’t an issue because we all looked alike, or almost all. I remember when the first black kid we’d ever had in our school system arrived at our high school.

Of course, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s opened my eyes a wee bit, but not much. I was busy having and raising kids. My awareness of racism gradually increased just because I was out in the world more.

Photo by Christopher Michel https://flic.kr/p/h2Gv3a
Service at Glide Memorial Church (Photo Christopher Michel/Flickr)

By the early ’90s my kids were well out of the house and I was exploring. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Rodney King beating horrified me enough that I found my way to Glide Memorial Church. That radically inclusive community opened my eyes a bit more. It was the first, and so far only, community of folks that included the very poorest and the most wealthy, an amazing variety of races, and more sexes than I ever knew existed.

But I still didn’t clearly see my part in racism — not yet.

Becoming Aware of My Privilege

When I moved to San Diego, I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church and took a workshop called The Journey Toward Wholeness Path to Anti-Racism. There I was asked to examine the question: What is it like to be white?

Of course, I had expected something entirely different — at least a black person teaching the workshop. No, it was a white woman minister who taught me that it’s up to me to work toward racism’s solutions because here, in the U.S., I’m of the dominant (white) culture. Not because we whites are wrong or bad people, but because our society has favored us since the beginning.

I discovered, among many other things, that as a white woman living where I do, I feel safe most of the time, even when there are cops around. That’s part of white privilege.

Peggy McIntosh’s paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack describes this well, including the kinds of questions I still ask myself.

Racism and the Environmental Movement

Years ago, in Florida, I canvassed for Greenpeace. Looking back, I now see what a white group we were, appealing for funds from other whites. It never occurred to me then, nor to any of my fellow canvassers.

Since the Journey Toward Wholeness class — over the last decade or so — I’ve been part of several organizations working hard to change policies and undo, or at least limit, the recent damage we’ve done to the environment. We’ve done good work, and I’m proud of us. But one thing haunts me: we’re all or almost all white.

I know in my heart that the people I’ve worked with are not racist — at least not in any deliberate or conscious way. Let me tell you one story.

At a workshop for the leaders of one group, we did a section on racism. We saw a video that pointed out how racially unbalanced the green movement tends to be in the media. That video included comments from people of color about how they felt excluded. Then we moved into triads to share our experience. Both people in my group said, one way or another, “but racism is over in this country.” Yet there wasn’t a black or Hispanic person in the room and, as I recall only one Asian. This is in one of the most culturally diverse counties in the country. When you’re white, it’s hard to see white privilege.

Van Jones, founder of Green for All and a civil rights advocate, said that the traditional environmental movement does suffer from a diversity problem. Polls show that black Americans, Hispanics, and people of other races and ethnicities are often the strongest supporters of climate and energy policies. But these voices are often under-represented according to Jones because the staffs of many mainstream environmental organizations have been historically white, and most of the smaller environmental justice groups are only getting a fraction of the funding bigger groups receive.

The potential for connection in the environmental movement is there, but it just hasn’t happened in my world yet. All I can do at the moment is be aware of that and maybe mention it now and again in public.

What’s the Connection to Buddhism?

I’m not sure, except that I’m Buddhist. I live at Sweetwater Zen Center and, although our sangha is mostly white, we do have some people of color both in residence and in our sangha at large.

While I wish there was no need for a People of Color (POC) sangha, I know there is. I know because I’ve asked people of color why they feel the need for it. And I’ve taken them at their word when they’ve said, “Anne, you’re white; you don’t understand.” I don’t. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to be any other than white — and in the U.S. that gives me an edge, period. Which is why I was glad when a POC sangha began to meet here.

Racism came up recently for me when I learned that the POC sangha that meets here is sponsoring a Day of Mindfulness for People of Color on November 1, right here, literally, in my own back yard.

The day will be led by Mushim, a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif. where she’s guiding a year-long program called Practice in Transformative Action, mindfulness training for social justice activists. If that weren’t enough, she is s the recipient of the 2014 Gil A. Lopez Award for a peacemaker of color from the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California. 

Mushim is a big deal and her topic makes my heart sing. But I’m white so I’m not invited. There is a public talk the night before that I will attend.

I commented to a person of color that I was sorry I wasn’t invited and that it was probably good for me to feel left out once in a while. His first reaction was that I was being snarky. I wasn’t. I know it’s a good practice for me to be in the racial minority from time-to-time and to notice it.

A better way to say this is I know it’s good for me to recognize I’m in the racial minority, for planet ’round, I am. That’s much more accurate.

Referring again to Bernie Glassmanabout all I know to do is to bear witness to my own racism as best I can. To become conscious of it. As I do, I trust that right action will occur. That is, come to think of it, how this post got started.

Love, blessings and deep bows,





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About the Author

Anne Myo-on Wayman is a zen student in the Soto tradition. She lives at the Sweetwater Zen Center (SWZC.com) where she practices and writes, often about writing at AboutFreelanceWriting.com. You can find me on Google +.