The Spiritual Opportunity of Working on Your Own Racism

The Spiritual Opportunity of Working on Your Own Racism August 1, 2020

“To know love, become we.”
– Mevlana


Four years ago, as a journalist, I wrote a profile of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Louisville, Kentucky — and the parallel movement of white advocates that had emerged to support it. I took on the assignment because I wanted to understand BLM as a new civil rights movement. But reporting the article took me into unexpected emotional and spiritual territory. I had not felt how terrifying it can be to live as a Black person in America. And I did not fully grasp the part I as a white person play in supporting that racist system.

At the time, it seemed like enough to write the story and see it published. But now, as I have been watching the police brutality protests unfold over the past few weeks around the world, but especially in Louisville, where many of the people I met during my reporting as well as other friends are involved, it feels important to share what I see as the spiritual opportunity of addressing the unconscious racism in oneself.

Race has to be one of the most difficult subjects to talk about, if not the top taboo for white people (at least for Americans). Part of what makes it so vexing is that it is a collective belief, one which underpins our social operating system, and yet it is experienced individually. If you haven’t experienced yourself as a systematically racialized “other”, you might imagine that racism is a personal problem rather than a collective one.

I have only felt hints of what it is like myself. Mostly this has taken the form of one question I have gotten over and over in my life: “Where are you from? No – I mean your ethnic background”. This question is more commonly aimed at people of color and/or Muslims, and can be a subtle way of communicating “I don’t think you belong here.” In my case, I think the question has mostly been motivated by idle curiosity — it has never gotten me pulled aside for extra security screening or cost me a job interview — but it has given me some sense of how much it can damage your sense of yourself as a whole person when others only perceive you as a set of physical features: your hair, your cheekbones, your skin.

I will also say that I have a small experience of what it means to “pass,” albeit through the structures of class rather than race. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were all working people: cleaning ladies, garbage men, gas station attendants, truck drivers. My parents both worked in factories but put all of their resources towards giving my sister and me an education.

College was the family dream as well as my own idea of “making it.” But when I finally went off to the liberal-arts college on the other side of the country that I had chosen so carefully, it was a shock to discover that I did not fit in. Of course my clothes and hair were all wrong, but it was more than that – it was like I spoke a different language. I didn’t get the references the other students made in conversation. They also made fun of my accent, sometimes to the point of saying they couldn’t understand me.

I felt ashamed of who I was and where I had come from. I resolved to “better myself” by becoming like my middle-class peers in every surface way. I imitated their clothes, their hobbies, how they talked and what they talked about until they took me as one of their own: no more curious looks or semi-insulting questions. That first kind of passing allowed me to later make a career out of seeing how far I could pass in the various clubs of the middle-class professional world: corporate America, the art world, high tech.

Yet I still felt “other” on the inside. And I believe this feeling of being outside of the mainstream, of thinking and believing differently, in part because of the experience of being treated differently, helped guide me to the spiritual path. I was especially drawn to Sufism for its emphasis on inner qualities over outer forms, and for its teachings on love as a discipline rather than a sentimental indulgence.

All of this came together when I recently read Layla Saad’s blog post “I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy.” I realized that despite the experiences which have helped me imagine how painful and maddening it must be to live as a person of color in our society, I have been perpetuating that system through my own white silence. I have let comments or situations pass without saying at the very least that the comment made me feel uncomfortable. I let the situations pass for the usual reason: “going along to get along,” out of the fear that I would upset another white person or that it would create some kind of scene I wouldn’t know how to manage or get out of. And when it comes to those I am close to, the fear has been that I probably wouldn’t change their mind but I could end up damaging our relationship.

But in Sufism we are told that a dervish must not fear. The way I understand that injunction is that we must set aside our ego’s fears for its own comfort and security, as these are the main causes of separation from the Divine Reality and an authentic relationship with other people (and what could be a more concise definition of racism)?

If I want to know true love and wholeness for myself then I need to do the work of reconciliation and wholeness, as the Quran reminds us in Surah Maryam*.

Two points in Saad’s piece in particular resonated for me with our Path. For white people who say they want to be allies to people of color, she writes, “Saying ‘Yes’ to doing this work is only the first step. “Your Yes means:

• YES to seeing my spirituality as a way to engage deeper into this work rather than as a way to bypass this work, and to recognizing that being devoted to Spirit means being devoted to social justice.

• YES to doing this work every day, even when I get it wrong, even when it’s hard, even when it feels like I’m not good enough at it – because it’s not about me.”

My dear sister Saimma Dyer’s blog post on sacred activism explains the connection between social justice and Sufism far better than I can. What I can say out of my own observation is that, unlike the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was led by spiritual leaders such as Dr King and Malcolm X, it does not seem that today’s leaders are holding a prophetic vision of a just society. Perhaps it is up to us as everyday spiritual activists to hold that vision ourselves.

Speaking out for, and living in service of a larger ideal, is another way of saying “it’s not about me.” So much of our work as dervishes is already about escaping the prison of “me” to come into the rose garden of friendship. Whiteness is just another layer of the false self to be shed. By embracing the work of undoing our own racial conditioning, there is a spiritual opportunity to embrace humanity not as a lofty ideal but in the day-to-day messiness of real relationships.

In a Hadith Qudsi, the Divine tells us, “When I love my faithful servant, I am the hearing by which she or he hears, the eye by which she or he sees and the foot by which she or he walks.” That is a promise which can also be read in the other direction, as an invitation to step into the Divine perspective. In other words: if Haqq were the lens through which we perceived the world, we would not experience ourselves as a lone being separate from others on the basis of race, gender, nationality, religion, class, or a myriad other identifications. We would experience ourselves instead as an individuated aspect of the Divine Reality: a ray of light refracted into a variety of hues, all emanating from the same Source. Our challenge now as spiritual activists is to speak out for the truth of that perspective and do the work of living it.


*“VERILY, those who attain to faith and do righteous deeds will the Most Gracious endow with love;” Qur’an 19:96, Muhammad Asad translation

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