The following article is excerpted from Radical Dharma, by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Sensei and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD, published by North Atlantic Books.
I’ve lived in predominantly white spaces my whole life. Though it wasn’t ever easy, I was about twenty or so before I began to experience the ubiquity of whiteness as a real problem. By the time I entered my first predominantly white private school in Brooklyn I was already primed for the immersion. As a young person in the Midwest, I could not escape the everyday supremacy of whiteness. It saturated my Saturday morning television shows, my young adult reading practices. It followed me to school and found me in dreams.
I learned to appear unflappable under pressure, and I could bear a lot. I made friends, paid attention, followed instructions, and was generally rewarded for being articulate, bright, curious, but conflict adverse. My time was split between home and church. My family home was itself the property of the church, the rectory of the parish of which my father was priest. The places we called home were owned by others, by institutions. The impositions of whiteness became an existential crisis. I had to unseat myself from the hearth of whiteness and find another place to call home.
I began to sit in college, which was the “lab” assignment of a religious studies course on theories and practices of Buddhism I found my junior year. I was looking for a major, but what I found beneath the veil of the good student, the model minority, the happy sidekick, was someone else and she was screaming. I could not bear to hear her at all until I arrived at my cushion. There was nothing special about that morning except that I recall the room feeling especially still. After a few moments my breathing exercises fell away and the racing thoughts ran out of fuel. There was just the feeling of breathing, following my breath as it filled my body, gently rising and cresting like waves through the pores of my skin. Then I felt it. It was not bliss; it was not nirvana. It started in my stomach, a violent kind of grief-like pain—the slow eruption of shattered glass began to rise like a volcano up from my core like so much indigestible garbage. I did not dare move. I did not yet know what I was feeling. I would only put words to it later. It was a blinding rage. It was a bottomless sadness. I had been at home in whiteness so long I had no idea how abandoned I felt in my own body. I kept breathing. I did not want to run from it, from myself. This feeling was a part of me that had been there a long time, but I’d been failing to pay attention. Later I would wonder how I had managed to keep all that inside without feeling it, to stay so distracted from myself I could not even hear myself screaming. For days afterward I walked around campus like my best friend had betrayed me. She had. I could not trust myself. I found myself a stranger.
Though I did not know it yet, this was the first leg of my escape from whiteness. One of the things that had drawn me to Buddhism was the notion of no self. I was fascinated by the prospect of being Jasmine and not being Jasmine. I did not realize that before I could decenter myself, there had to be a self to decenter. I would have to discover who I was beneath all that self-hatred. It did not feel like transcendence. It felt more like heartbreak. Racism was not the only thing curdling my insides. It was all the things—I was not becoming what my world expected me to be, and it was not something I was supposed to fix or overcome. It was something I would have to sit with. So I did. Even though it brought me to tears, I kept sitting—at first because my semester grade counted on it, but then because sitting informally with friends on the campus green or in the chapel or by myself in my room was waking something up. A sadness. A loneliness I did not understand but did not want to go away. I was learning to tell the truth about myself. To stand up for her instead of run away. I was mining the painful ruins of my efforts to overcome this tokenized exceptionalism, the precarity of model minority meritocracy. I had been struggling to pass—not with my skin because, as the darkest in my family, looking white was far from fathomable— but by acting like my Blackness didn’t really matter. I had been unwittingly passing off rage as charm, and I had no clue how to stop. Who to tell?
My rage became this strange new companion that I had no idea how to integrate with the total eclipse of my own happily assimilated performance of self. After I tried to talk to my parents, I tried to talk to my friends. Most of them were white. My boyfriend was white. My first heartbreak was a white woman. All but two of my professors, all but one of my teaching assistants. I was picking fights with my roommates. I resented their gait, their cadence, the casual gestures with which they signified entitlement, with which they moved the world. I did not love sitting, but I did it because it was giving me space to see myself more clearly. I was starting to see all the ways I write myself off, lock myself out, or straight-up shut myself down. I could see how I was not acting alone. Many of the people, places, and activities I invested in reinforced my self-erasure. I needed to go.
I moved from Providence to San Francisco in the summer of 2002. I got a part-time job at a drop-in center at the YMCA in the Tenderloin.There was a large floor-to-ceiling window in the game room that looked out onto the streets of San Francisco. Outside the window, lines of houseless folks lined the block at least once a week to receive life-saving AIDS/HIV drugs. Outside the window police body-tackled Black and brown brothers to the ground and forcibly probed their privacy on the concrete for contraband. I wrote poetry. I found family in a hip-hop guerrilla-theater, spoken-word, sketch activism-performance troupe. I found family with the founders of POOR Magazine, led by the dear poverty scholar and spiritual guide Dee and her daughter Tiny on Sixth and Market. I found myself at the all-girl dive bar on Lexington and Nineteenth. There were many new outlets for the screaming.They were not all safe, but they were far healthier than snuffing out my light in a veil of silence. The problem with being at home in whiteness is that it goes hand-in-glove with the presumption that everything whiteness does must be best, right, noble, beautiful, moral, and productive. The problem with becoming myself was that, no matter how nice I had learned to be, no matter how smart or accommodating, sitting with myself meant I was becoming more myself, more Black. As soon as I started getting good at being human I was increasingly perceived as a threat.
Dharma practice called my attention to the deepest of my investments in white supremacy and made me feel, without sugar coats, without apology or redemption, how deeply destructive it is to live in the afterlife of slavery as the embodied and constant reminder of the unexamined trauma of the white experience. Homeleaving began on the cushion, as a sometime mediation pastime curated by a tenured professor at an Ivy League school. It became a practice when I met my dharma teacher. She is an angel in the form of a dragon. Her dharma was not all Namaste Namaste. Her practice was fiery, full-on gangster compassion, unapologetically Black. It queered the calm of the sitting sensibility I had seen elsewhere, and it was not a practice afraid of sound, of sorrow or song, of people catching the spirit and making joyful noises even in the stillness of the zendo. Rev. angel’s practice evolved a lot over the years I sat with her, but the feeling of belonging in a deep sense was always there—welcoming my Blackness.
I had been to many practice centers—Zen,Vipassana. I was turned off to nearly every single one and almost never returned after the first visit. When I walked through the door, I saw no one like me there. It did not matter how nice folks were. With no one of color, at least no one relatable, I felt like I needed to maintain that appearance of self-sufficiency I had picked up in school, being both good and unflappable. I did not want to have to be charming to belong. I could not be in one more place where my fury or grief or truth of my feelings of isolation might be misread or become an imposition. I needed the people around me holding my practice to get that more than I did.
By the time I met Rev. angel, my anger had developed a voice but not a center. I was not quite out of control, but lack of an ability to center meant I was reactionary, compulsive. I was learning to pay attention to myself, to my feelings, but they felt uncontainable, like they were consuming me. Rev. angel was a beacon in a storm felt too capsized to reach. But I kept swimming. We met at a Black Health Summit in Oakland, and I recall feeling both enchanted by her presence and her voice and combative with her insistence that, if you don’t know what to do, just keep sitting. Well, I already know that, I thought to myself. “What if you don’t like what all you find there?” I asked. “Just keep sitting,” she said. I was not satisfied, but I was not ready to walk away either. It took a few months for me to let that land.When I took the leap and biked the whole ten blocks to her Center, located at that time on the border of North Oakland and South Berkeley, I went because, despite the fact that I felt like she did not answer my question, I still felt scattered, easily overstretched, overwhelmed, and distracted. I had the feeling that I might finally be finding my way toward myself by biking to her practice hall—that I might have found in a teacher someone who might be able to hear me scream. I could sit with her. Screaming inside. And it would be OK.
She, along with the incredible crew, the sangha I found there—ringing bells, sweeping floors, arranging flowers, making dinner—never policed how I showed up.They were just genuinely happy that I did, even when there were lapses. Even if I didn’t call. There was no pretense. I was not their token. Rev. angel would actually call out whatever felt funky as soon as it arose, and we faced it as a group. She wouldn’t let me disappear into myself. She would name it, if she saw me trying to be at home in whiteness, exceptionalism, mammie mentality, and would have no qualms asking me to stop, adjust my posture, and take up the room I occupy and no more. Mind your business is one of her favorite teachings. I needed someone to give me permission to leave pretense and find home in myself, in my own power before I could decenter my ego. I needed directions about how to keep going in the face of institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia. I needed someone strong enough to hold the space of my practice without being nice, with no apologies for the way she expressed her love. I needed a sangha led by fierce-ass emotionally expressive passionate queer women of color. I needed to be surrounded by role models/practitioners who were, like me, extraordinary and perfectly imperfect.
We were waking up together, with and against the grain of each other’s practice, and it could get messy. The harder it got to stay, the more we learned to reflect to each other the costs of the other’s attachments to perfection, to exceptionalism, to status.We could be angry in the service to our liberation, and even when it didn’t “work,” it was a blessing. It was a blessing to be practicing with people who were invested in falling out of love with innocence, invisibility, and compartmentalization. As practitioners within a variation on the theme of Zen, nobility, beauty, morality, and efficiency were integral. It was inevitable that our most deft expressions of them could also lack integrity, cause injury, and perpetuate harm. The point wasn’t to try to be utterly extraordinary, it was that the utterly extraordinary also made mistakes.
The tiptoeing around race and other forms of difference as if in fear of waking a sleeping lion is one of the most subtly toxic attributes of whiteness in our culture right now. Everyone fears making mistakes. For white folks, though, the coexistence of being historically lauded as the creators of what is right, making mistakes must be hard. We are all waking up. It is going to get messy. The good news is there are brooms, and there are rags. Domestic labor has long fallen from a place of culturally respected work—something about it being the badge of submission for many thousands gone, bodies stolen, forcibly extracted from homelands, and scattered throughout the globe to modernize the new world. The practice of sitting required me to abolish the supremacy of whiteness that lived in myself and make a practice of doing so on the regular, with every breath so the volcanic pressure, the grief, and rage have witness and release without boiling up and exploding all over my newly found sense of self.
From the cushion to the teacher to the sangha there was not a lack, an insufficiency to be overcome, an imperfection to be corrected. I just needed to be loved and learn to love myself not because of what I could do, or how well I could do it, but just because I showed up on this planet and deserve to feel like it wasn’t a bad idea for me to be here. Sangha is a Sanskrit word meaning association, assembly, company, or community. Sangha taught me that homeleaving means letting go of the desire to save master from himself. It means learning to let people go, and to even let them go back home. Sangha has taught me to mind the gap between what we say and what we do. The practice pulls us together, but we are not all headed in the same direction at the same time. We long for community but do not know how to sit with difference. We try to take connection and eviscerate what makes us distinct. Just as the commuter watches for the train from the busy platform, I have watched the crowds try to form community, peeling into the station, pooling together, waiting on the arrival of their most trusted form of transportation. Time passes, and we grow anxious. So many promises. Such promising destinations. We can get lost in all the excitement of waiting for deliverance from the presence of what bell hooks so wisely names white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.We can get so obsessed in the anticipation of reaching a sense of escape, of touching this shiny, intoxicating promise that when the train arrives, we don’t think. We jump on board! Won’t any way out of isolation do? Maybe if we all just board the next one, we can get there all at once. We might all shuttle ourselves onto the train and just as the doors close we hear the station announcer call out, “Come on! Whiteness is waiting!” But, wait, we think. Wasn’t this supposed to be the train to awakening, away from whiteness? We misread the signs again and again.
So we get off at the next station. We sit and practice staying on the platform. We find ourselves practicing everywhere. On the cushion. On the train. With the sangha. Off the path. On the way. Everywhere whiteness appears to be the golden ticket. The short cut. The glory of the few. The chosen. The entitled. The justification for injury. The use of force. The state of the exceptional. We wonder how whiteness could be both the problem and the best exit strategy. The problem and the final solution.
I’ve mistakenly stumbled back homebound on the bullet train time and time again. Though I am sure I will find myself there again, after years and years of being home in the exception, in the aggravated assault of its domestic violence, I am no longer enjoying the ride. I am just sick and bored. Bored to death and frustrated with this habituation toward the supremacy of whiteness. We’ve been in this station for a long time. It is clear now. There is no train other than those that take us backward. There is no deliverance. We are not going anywhere. It’s time to stop waiting. It is time to connect some other way, turn to each other, turn the station into a new homestead and find new ways to imagine progress, practice new protocols of connection. What began as individual acts of rebellion, desires to be exceptional, can become a collective opportunity for a reorientation of our shared fugitivity. Whiteness is not the frontier. It is not an adventure. It’s a road to nowhere. It’s a captivity narrative. And there is another way out of its domain. Just keep sitting, she said.