Finding Our Blind Spots
Communities Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns
In the past few years, caring communities have become increasingly conscious of entrenched patterns of previously unrecognized privilege and are now cognizant that this is a form of racism. While most homogenous communities generally do not intend to make people feel unwelcome, their lack of cultural sensitivity is not inclusive, especially to those who don’t belong in the majority culture.
By participating in a system of dominance and privilege, white culture has carved itself out of belonging to a greater humanity, with devastating consequences. To belong to the world in a psychically healthy way, the groups whose ancestors caused harm and continue to cause harm themselves to this day must acknowledge the past (and present) and make amends. Only when we face conditions as they exist can we grieve, which is an important first step to healing and experiencing true belonging.
Opening our language to include different perspectives and changing the way we do things, in order to move towards true inclusion, doesn’t detract from a community’s mission. In fact, doing so is the only way to enable a community to stay vibrant and maintain its healthy sense of belonging.
Making room for different perspectives liberates us from the illusion that we and those people we view as being like us have the answers or are best equipped to solve complex problems. This is fortunate because interdependence is our reality, and recognizing this fact is the only thing that will save us from the existential challenges we face.
Many attempts at diversity do not bear fruit because they aren’t undertaken with a tangible plan and an ongoing commitment to stay the course. When becoming more welcoming is not partnered with a necessary perceptual shift, the invitation is conditional.
Ever since Western Buddhist meditation centers were first founded in this country, their membership has been overwhelmingly middle class and white. Around 20 years ago, Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a retreat center founded in 1975 by a small group of Western practitioners, began to actively address their lack of diversity. This initiative, led by teachers of color, raised awareness for the first time of how the culture’s oppressive dynamics were being repeated within their spiritual centers. Change at IMS was slow and required involvement at every level of the institution. Along the way, addressing resistance to that change is an inevitable part of growth in all communities.
IMS began to offer retreats specifically to those who self-identified as people of color (POC), led by teachers self-identifying as a POC as well. In addition, IMS worked hard to attract practitioners to train as teachers, who now run retreats there and across the country. When the teachings are taught and shared by people with a broad range of backgrounds and experience, it deepens the knowledge base of the spiritual teachings for everyone.
In addition to these retreats, IMS introduced affinity groups within the general retreats, which are smaller groups that meet during one or more of the daily meditation periods. These were offered to people who identify as POC and LGBTQIA+, groups that have a history of underrepresentation in the community. For those who choose these break out groups, they offer a place of safety against the tensions that can be experienced in predominantly white, cis, and straight communities.
Beyond changes in the retreats themselves, an investment at every level of the organization was needed. The board diversified to include at least one third of people from nondominant groups in order to hold power differently. There needed to be greater transparency and a system that not only welcomed feedback but actively sought it out, even feedback that was difficult to hear.
DaRa Williams, a teacher at IMS who has been working in the mental health field for as long as she has practiced Buddhism, explains:
“A lot of people still miss that even though they are not consciously, personally racist, systemic oppressions exist in spaces where they participate – whether racism or genderism or homophobia or other oppressions. These are systemic structures existing within our communities, which don’t allow people to actualize themselves. They prevent people from accessing what everyone wants to access – love, food, shelter, the ability to make a living.
“White people are just as damaged by the experience of oppression … in different ways, but just as damaged. We have not reckoned with this in our culture. If America could realize its dream [of equality and self-actualization], wow, imagine what this place could be like.”
For communities of faith that resist healthy change in the name of tradition, I find DaRa’s thoughts about her own Buddhist tradition comforting. “Given that the dharma has been around for 2600 years, I don’t think there is anything we can do that is going to break it up.”
In every country where Buddhism has migrated, it has been reinvented while the core teachings have remained intact. It follows that the practice of the dharma within the United States, which is still in its infancy, will also change to meet the needs of its communities.
The goal of dharma practice, and I hope all faith traditions, is to end individual and collective suffering, and to find freedom and joy while caring for each other. Our communities are vibrant only when we engage and ignite compassion within them to tear down the imbalances that cause harm and rebuild systems that honor the dignity and worth of all. By leading the charge from within our spiritual communities and channeling compassion into real change, we can finally, truly begin to belong to each other in this beautifully diverse world.
We can’t make change until we first identify what needs changing within ourselves and our communities. Pádraig Ó Tuama offered the L’Arche community the following questions to ask ourselves and each other within our communities:
What do we really need to keep?
What are we afraid of losing?
What needs to grow in us?
What are we willing to let go of?
Are we willing to have our heart broken to let in the light?
If you'd like more information on how IMS did the important work of greater inclusion, read my book "The Practice of Belonging."
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