Thursday, July 07, 2016

Opening and Closing in Crisis: Alton Sterling and Philando Castle

Buddhism teaches this: when tragedy strikes, there are two ways to go:
We open.
We close.

I am trying to learn to open. Everything in me, all my privilege, all my familial training - all of my protective devices from both being a victim in the past and also having not had to face as much victimhood as a lot of other folks - all of that training says CLOSE. FIND ANSWERS. GET COLD. BE PRECISE.

And all of my Buddhist training says "Soften. Open. Trust. Feel."

I make mistakes when I feel, but I make worse mistakes when I don't.

This week, I am feeling the Alton Sterling killing. Then, the completely overshadowed but far more telling, Philando Castle killing not twenty four hours later. I am trying to stay open.

I am horrified, as I always am, as a protected white woman who rarely has contact with gunfire. Out of my protected place, a fear, a sadness, an overwhelm arises. I condone all killing, point blank (pun intended). I know this will make my military and cop friends pissed. Deep inside of me, my ethics say it is wrong. That doesn't mean I judge people as wrong who do it, I simply feel the whole approach of guns and killing as wrong. I also see all American systems - all of them - as completely cast against people of color, especially black men. It's not a conspiracy, it's how a situation built in order to protect white landowners from their black slaves was built.

White friends, if you think it's been a long time since slavery, think again. Slavery has been going strong in not that subtle forms - and still is - under the guises of Jim Crow and anti-Civil Rights laws and ridiculous incarceration rates ever since slavery itself was abolished formally.

Let me be really clear. I am not posting this by way of debate. If you disagree, don't think you can convince me otherwise. Perhaps that means I am not open after all. 

Am I preaching to a choir? Likely. Is it dualistic to state that I will not try to relate to someone who feels differently about police violence, racism and guns? Probably. But here's my general policy: if someone won't listen to me, entertain the possibility that white people are living in an upside down naked world everyone else can see quite clearly, then why should I listen to the same main lines I've been fed my whole life? Meet me half way, and maybe we can both learn something. If you think I am totally naive, then why would I listen to you? Perhaps that would be the most naive thing of all.

Black friends call me out as sensitive and having no idea just how horrific this is - my white fragility and white rage are both more about my whiteness than the killings. And they are right. While I often resist saying "I can't even imagine how that feels," since I find that to be quite distancing, the fact is, I can't imagine in this case. I can't imagine how it feels to the African American male Buddhist teacher, someone I respect a great deal, who weeps uncontrollably each time he hears about another black man killed by a cop. I can't imagine how it feels to be black in America, or even brown.

I can't imagine not because I lack in empathy, but because I was born white and will always be white. And while I will do my best to break through that to feel enough to take the actions needed to stand up as an ally, the fact is, I am not trying to change my whiteness and no one needs me to. 

I also can't imagine being a white male.

No one needs me to understand completely either end of the spectrum - how it is to be black in America, and how it is to feel, as some people, predominately white men, feel that the cops are under attack in an extremely biased way. 

Some of my white male friends - the more conservative, pro-gun folks - those folks can get just as infuriated with me as black friends. Both find me a bit zealous, perhaps making a bit too much noise. While I may side more with social justice than privilege, I can be - as many of my compatriots are - a bit of a noisy gnat, if not actually dangerous. I have enough privilege that people will listen to me, but also not enough oppression to really understand how it feels.

It is from this middle place, a place I reside in with humility but not much grace, that I ask simply of you, if you disagree with me (chances are you are a white male) but are still reading, to please consider the long history behind these killings. Please do not just focus on the facts of the moment. No single moment is made up of just facts. Bias - conscious, unconscious - is deep. You don't have to be a cop hater (I am not) or even be against guns (as I happen to be) to see how far back and deep racism runs in this country. Try to open, especially if you are a white male. Please consider, as best you can, how it would feel to know you, your son, or any of your friends could feel under threat at any moment, for having done something ill-perceived as frightening to someone else.

I am not asking people of color to open right now. They have to right to respond however they need to, even if I cringe when they condemn all police as racist. I am not here to police them. But I am here to speak to my fellow white folks.

This is something I do understand well from my own experience - that it is my job as a white person struggling to awaken to racism to speak to other white people. It is awkward and painful, but I don't believe it is the job of people of color to try to awaken white people. That having been said, one of the best things you can do right now is to read articles, blog posts, essays by people of color about these issues. See if you can see behind the language that triggers you - cop-hating or anti-gun rhetoric - and find the heart. Open. Imagine. Just try, even if it is impossible, to put yourself in someone else's skin.

That having been said, it would be a waste of my time and breath to try and convince all white people that our system is inherently racist - all of our systems are. I am not here to change your mind if your mind will not be changed. And please understand, my mind will not be changed either. I get it. I understand how frustrating it is when the person you are engaging with simply doesn't get it. In that way, we feel exactly the same.

If you want to open more, tools (especially for white folks):
-Read people of color writing about these issues
-Do Tonglen/Maitri/Metta. These really help, even if you feel you are "faking it until you make it"
-Don't overexpose if you are sensitive. So you are a delicate white flower. That's ok. Don't watch the videos if they are too much. Pick your moments, but don't shut down.
-Ask friends - preferably not a person of color, unless you know they are willing to school you - or acquaintances to help you understand more nuance.
-Learn to recognize useless debates. I am still working on this one. It is not closing down to say "This is going nowhere."


  1. Thank you Miriam. I am part of the choir. I am a delicate white flower, but I "made" myself watch Mr. Strongs' murder. I feel it's my work/my vow to bear witness to this incident. Practicing tonglen, especially for the man's 15 year old son. And a big YES! to NOT getting into useless debates; I prefer to be involved in like minded conversations where I'm with other "change-agents".
    much love

  2. Excellent, Miriam. Thanks for writing this.
    Did you mean "condem" instead of "condone"?