Last week marked an important moment for racial relations in the US, with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin being convicted of the murder and manslaughter of George Floyd, an innocent black man. Few will have missed the tragic event that took place last spring and that sparked countrywide and international outrage over the treatment of black people and people of color at the hands of police. Although the verdict comes as a victory for social activists and proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is clear that this is only the beginning. As news about police killings of black people continue to make the headlines, and as the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian communities has shown, racial injustice and violence against non-white communities is a problem that runs deep in the US.
As a white person living and experiencing privilege in this country, I often wonder how I can contribute to reducing the suffering caused by racial injustice. While there is a lot of work that needs to be done at the federal and state levels to dismantle systemic institutional injustices, I want to take a look at some steps that white people may take in their daily lives to help ease the suffering people of color. Please note that these are reflections that I have come to with the help of literature by Buddhist teachers as well as through my own practice—it is by no means an exhaustive list, and because it comes from my point of view, which is ultimately that of a person of privilege, it may very well omit and even misconstrue the needs of people of color. As such, any comments and suggestions about how we can move towards a more inclusive and just society are most welcome!
There seems to be a prevailing reluctance on the part of white people to accept that we experience privilege. I suspect that this sentiment is tied to feelings of shame that we are unwilling to allow ourselves to feel. After all, most people want to believe that they are in favor of equal rights, and the idea that our freedom comes at the expense of other communities can be a difficult pill to swallow. Yet statistics have shown over and over again that people of color have less opportunity than white people: they are more likely to experience poverty as wells as violence at the hands of those in power, and have far less access to essential services such as housing, healthcare and education.
Buddhism teaches us that in order to be free of suffering, we first need to learn to see and accept things as they are. So I would encourage white people to really explore and own the reality of our privilege, no matter how uncomfortable this may be. Yes, it is shameful that our ancestors contributed to the slave system (either directly, or indirectly by benefiting from that system); yes, it is shameful that, proportionately, so many black and brown bodies died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as compared to white bodies; and yes, it is shameful that, if we continue along this trajectory, white descendants will experience further privileges at the expense of people of color. Let us sit with this difficult reality and the uncomfortable feelings that are bound to come up during this exploration. Let us also remember that an uncomfortable feeling is just that—a feeling cannot kill or destroy us, but every day racial injustices are destroying the lives of black and brown citizens. Learning to accept this difficult reality is one of the first steps that white people can take towards addressing existing injustices.
Please stay tuned for more on this topic next month…