How Spirituality Helps Allyship
Before I go in, this is for other uncertain white folks. I’m not about to tell black people and other communities of color what they should be doing, or how they should be protesting, or how MLK III should be interpreting MLK Jr.’s words—those are their decisions to make. Safe to say the III knows Jr. better than literally any other person on this planet. But for the uncertain whites, we’re getting a lot of info right now and this piece is written purely to offer a few suggestions on how to become a more integrated, conscious member of a radically unequal society. Who am I? A mystic making advocacy films. I’m always learning but I’m not starting at square one. I’m at least at square 1.3. And I’m thankful for my black, white and other non-white activist collaborators who helped strengthen this piece.
There’s a trend emerging across current takes on social — that spirituality is privileged, and that despite its importance for well-being, it’s reserved for comfortable cushions, not community organizing or social justice. I’m all for self-awareness. Analyzing one’s own practice in the grander societal picture is extremely useful and I honor that, but I disagree with this premise.
In all actuality, spiritual work can be hugely impactful in benefiting racial and societal harmony.
The two greatest heroes of social action of the 20th century, Gandhi and MLK, were intensely spiritual. Gandhi’s movement removed the British Empire from India without firing a bullet. When he was assassinated, his dying words were “Ram Ram”, a mantra of divine worship. King was of course a Christian minister, who once said, “I have so much to do today that I had better spend another hour on my knees” — implying that his spiritual practice of contemplative prayer fueled his productivity and passion as America’s most legendary community organizer.
Reader’s note: Figures of this magnitude are complex, as they are indeed humans underneath. There is a tense scholarly debate about racist comments Gandhi made during his colonial beginnings as a lawyer in South Africa. I personally side with scholars who maintain that they were before his vigilantly anti-colonial, universalist evolution but you can decide for yourself.
Beyond these two massive figures, true spirituality has to do with the evolution of the conscious individual.
Society will only advance to the level at which we all expect and demand it to become, when every person is focused on our own conscious transformation.
From the ancient Taoist text, the Hua Hu Ching:
“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself.
If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself.
Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”
The above quote is absolutely mind-meltingly true, that self-transformation is the answer— but in order to avoid trivializing the suffering of the current cultural climate, let’s be especially clear here: privilege can create blind spots. It actually could be considered an aspect of “all that is dark and negative in yourself.”
Privilege contributes to this perpetual status quo of seemingly endless heartbreak, one gut-wrenching black tragedy (Ahmaud Arbery) immediately followed by another gut-wrenching black tragedy (Breonna Taylor). And by another (George Floyd). And these disgusting murderous incidents of police brutality were not decades ago, or even a few years ago. They all took place in the first half of 2020.
Privilege is an uneducated, or worse — intentionally-ignorant—avoidance of the suffering of marginalized people, which needs to be called out directly through education and awareness.
And spirituality can help. Quoting the 13th century Christian mystic and philosopher, Meister Eckhart:
Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world.
Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be.
Jesus of Nazareth shared this viewpoint. He was clearly concerned about uplifting the lowest members of society, stating explicitly that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In Luke 10:30, he specifically uses the illustration of the Good Samaritan — a despised ethnic outcast to his Jewish audience—as the hero of a story about becoming a loving neighbor.
The Buddha taught metta, or lovingkindness to all beings. Krishna explained that service to others is not only useful but actually a form of divine worship. The true teachings of spiritual principles across a variety of world religions and spiritual systems from the common to the esoteric understand unity and emphasize compassion, solidarity, and love.
Unfortunately these truths are often twisted by institutional religion into egoistic judgements and hypocritical tirades of faux-moral-righteousness. This frustratingly prevalent ‘high-horse-ness’ afflicts all exoteric religions, including American Christianity, diluting the true teaching underneath. But that’s a whole ‘nother article!
The traits that I keep seeing in helpful articles like these, and guides like these, are requesting traits from allies that, in my view, can be aided by and established through sincere spiritual work.
Speaking as an ally, on behalf of allies and allies-to-be, the first step in allyship is listening.
Within the Buddhist tradition, there is a practice called mindful listening. It’s a “way of listening without judgment, criticism or interruption, while being aware of internal thoughts and reactions that may get in the way of people communicating with you effectively.”
It’s as simple as sitting, resolutely in the present moment with the other person: open ears without bringing anything else to the table.
This practice can be uncomfortable. Because I’m a talkative person. I want to respond to you right away, but in my tendency to respond and acknowledge, I can bring my preconceived thoughts and feelings to my response without fully hearing the extent of what you said.
And this applies directly to race relations.
Racial conversations are emotionally heavy. We can be so quick to jump to a conclusion without really hearing the other person. Our inability to listen to (and to really, truly hear) the experience of our black sisters, brothers, and gender non-conforming people is preventing us from acknowledging the current state of disharmony, which consequently prevents us from moving forward together in a more harmonious way.
Here are just a few examples of racial disparity in America:
- unarmed black Americans are roughly five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer
- black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20 percent longer
- black school districts were underfunded by $23 billion
- white schools have more books in their libraries and more computers in their classrooms
- black people make up 40 percent of the homeless population despite only representing 13 percent of the general population
- the black imprisonment rate for drug offenses is about 5.8 times higher than it is for whites
Differences exist. Factually. Statistically.
Structural injustice is real and it needs to be understood thoroughly. The white experience is considerably less vulnerable than the black experience in America. There are less opportunities for black people and more obstacles. Admitting these inequalities and calling attention to them must occur before we can move forward.
A best-selling book by Robin DiAngelo called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism emphasizes the importance of not avoiding the discomfort in great detail.
“The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out — blame the messenger and disregard the message.
Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”
My spiritual work is very clear about the fact that not only are we all one family, but both Buddhist and Vedic philosophy even take it a step further: that we are all ultimately One. Each cell makes up the body. Each drop makes up the ocean. The mystics tell us that we are all merely separate masks of the same Being, the All masquerading as the Many.
So let’s work toward having that recognition in our daily lives — Oneness is indeed the end-goal — but before we can acknowledge this inherent unity, we have to first recognize the differences. As we start to become more aware of the disparities between white and non-white communities (through listening and education), the logical next step is to share this information, with other masks of our Self, in a loving way.
The late great James Baldwin, the famous black novelist and Civil Rights activist said:
“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
What I’m calling “Amplification”, includes a few subheadings.
Educating others by sign-pointing to relevant informational material by non-white educators, writers, and activists
A huge component of allyship is giving a voice to the voiceless and using our privilege of influence, no matter how significant, to help spread awareness. So please, follow these accounts and retweet, reblog, restory.
- Antiracism Center: Twitter
- Audre Lorde Project: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Black Women’s Blueprint: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Color Of Change: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Colorlines: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- The Conscious Kid: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Equal Justice Initiative (EJI): Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Families Belong Together: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- MPowerChange: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Muslim Girl: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- NAACP: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- National Domestic Workers Alliance: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- RAICES: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ): Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- SisterSong: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- United We Dream: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
Actively confronting falsehoods about race either online or in-person
In the summer of 2016, someone I considered an ally stood by and watched as I, a Black person, was berated by a racist. To make matters worse, I had a conversation with this person earlier in the day about the power allies can wield in situations of discrimination. But when the time came for them to take action, they were more interested in protecting their comfort.
Authentic spirituality prioritizes bravery over cowardice.
The Shaolin monks of ancient China. The Freedom Riders in Selma, Alabama. The Japanese samurai. The Indigenous tribes of Latin America: from the Toltecs to the Maya. Spiritual inner work can help strengthen our courage when it’s time for worldly outer work.
“If there is one word that you find coming out like a bomb from the Upanishads, bursting like a bombshell upon masses of ignorance, it is the word ‘fearlessness.’”
— Swami Vivekananda
If we’ve become truly aware of the disparity of racial experiences, and then we see racism occur online or in-person and we are too afraid to act, we are condoning the continuation of the inequality.
Don’t go on a blocking spree. Share what you’ve learned, reference non-white perspectives and cite statistical evidence of inequality. Engage from a place of calmness and unity.
Funding grassroots organizations made up by people of color who are doing this work on a day-to-day basis
You’ve heard of tithing, right? Giving the church 10%? Money can help advance equality too, when it goes to the hands of organizations working towards justice.
- National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
- The NAACP
- United Negro College Fund
- Black Youth Project 100
- Color of Change
- The Sentencing Project
- Families against Mandatory Minimums
- A New Way of Life
- Dream Defenders
Lastly, the contemporary racial and cultural climate can be difficult to navigate.
Allies, we have to be hyper vigilant in discerning the right course of action. Lots of white people want to help, but we have to careful not to veer too far into either “white-splaining” on one end, or into apathetic silence on the other.
Contemplative practices like meditation expand our intuitive awareness and sense of the subtler qualities of the present moment. Community work like feeding the less fortunate brings us face-to-face with difficult socioeconomic issues, increasing our own perspective and empathy for those of different cultural backgrounds. These practices can help us evolve as individuals to be able to understand more clearly which situation calls for which action, and how to find the balance between listening and amplification.
And I can’t end this piece without emphasizing the importance of relentless, continual self-examination. Within a system of structural inequality, we’re constantly being programmed. I may think I’m so ahead of the curve but then another implicit bias pops up. I am a work in progress and I’m continually learning how to be more useful, more connective, and more focused on liberating myself and my community. The brilliant Angela Davis’s latest book is called Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Spirituality is intent on this aspect of steady, incremental personal growth.
Dr. Carl Jung who transformed not just psychotherapy but also anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, and religious studies, wrote in The Undiscovered Self (1957):
“It is, unfortunately, only too clear that if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.”
I’m not saying that spirituality will magically erase every problem.
We need to continually root out racism wherever it exists — from racist individuals to racist institutions to aspects of racism in ourselves. We need to retrain and demilitarize police departments (or rethink them altogether). We need more balanced education curriculums. We need more non-white legislators. We have to work to do, and we can all contribute in some way.
But spirituality is not reserved for a cave in the Himalayas, or a boujee yoga studio next to an expensive coffee shop. The timeless message of our inherent unity powerfully applies for the here and now, and can help us achieve a more equal, harmonious future.
The black experience in America:
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X Kendi
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis
The spirituality of social action:
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi
The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung
The Trumpet of Conscience by Martin Luther King Jr.
How Can I Help? by Ram Dass
Subtle Activism by David Nicol