How I Continue to Mess Up Being an Ally

How I Continue to Mess Up Being an Ally
with - CNVC Certified Trainer
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Date Posted: July 1, 2020
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“There, do you see?” she said. “You just did it again. It’s all about you.”

Ignorance is so humbling. 

Here I was, a proud would-be ally in the cause of racial justice. I’d read books on anti-racism, learned to see my own white fragility, attended workshops and classes, served on diversity committees. Not to mention that I’d taught thousands how to meditate, communicate better, and live more in line with their values.

And yet I – a white, heterosexual, cisgender male – had just interrupted a multi-racial, queer, indigenous woman of color, even as she was trying to call me in to see a microaggression I’d blundered into .

So much for all that.

As I stood there, I could feel my heart beating. I could feel the urgency of wanting to assert myself, the yearning to be seen and understood, to explain my reality, instead of stepping back and making space to receive hers.

Instead, thanks in large part to my meditation training, I was able to steady myself. I took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m sorry,” I said.

She continued, thankfully without further interruption from me. When she was finished, I expressed my regret for the impact of my actions. I also let her know I was grateful for the generosity and trust inherent in her choice to offer feedback.

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As I’ve reflected on that interaction, I’ve seen how much unconscious white supremacy I still carry within me.

Let’s start with the arrogance: there’s the speed with which I rushed in to assert my reality. Then there’s the assumption that a white individual’s good intentions matter more than a person of color’s pain or history. “But that’s not what I meant,” I wanted to say. As if that’s all that matters here!

From the perspective of meditation, it’s a classic example of how the untrained mind takes everything personally, assuming itself as the center of the universe, the sole arbiter of truth. 

Yet part of working to undo racism is having the humility to know when one’s understanding is limited. In this journey, white-identified people are invited to recognize that our perception of reality is not the only one, and in many cases, it is not the most accurate.

On the contrary, if you, like me, have white-skin privilege, the very structures of our society are designed to prevent you from seeing certain aspects of the truth about the systems we live within. As a result, you see less, not more. You don’t see how marginalized groups experience racism every day, because you don’t experience it. You don’t see how the structures of our society favor those identified as white, because you don’t even know that they’re there.

In fact, after some feedback from a Black colleague, I don’t call myself an ally anymore. Not only is it performative (“the good white person”), but it’s ultimately not mine to say whether or not I’m an ally. In claiming that identity, I’m once again taking center stage. I get to decide who’s an ally. See how it’s once again all about me?

The shift required in working for racial justice is not one of identity. It’s a shift in perspective—a shift in understanding and empathy that leads to a change in our actions: to listen instead of talk, to follow instead of lead, to yield rather than dominate. And, to accept that I will continue to mess this up.

In my experience, this is a natural continuation of the transformative process of meditation.

In meditation practice, we look closely at what it is to be human, peeling away layers of conditioning and false assumptions. We see how we continue to mess up each day, in some very fundamental ways. And with deep care for our own and others’ welfare, we seek to understand the mind: to dispel ignorance, uproot hatred, and release greed from our hearts.

Meditation is the practice of understanding the dynamics of individual suffering. Allyship is the practice of understanding the dynamics of collective suffering. Meditation harnesses the power of the mind to free ourselves. Allyship harnesses one’s privilege to support the movement, led by people of color, to dismantle racism, and anti-Black violence and free one another.

Aspiring to allyship requires many of the qualities we cultivate in meditation: humility, deep listening, empathy, courage, radical self-reflection and honesty, a willingness to let go and take risks.

The deeper I look, the more I understand this is a life-long practice focused on asking deep questions about the basic structure of our society, making changes in my life and following BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) leaders to create a more just and equitable society.

Aspiring to allyship requires many of the qualities we cultivate in meditation: humility, deep listening, empathy, courage, radical self-reflection and honesty, a willingness to let go and take risks.

Of course, there’s an irony in my sharing all this: am I positioning myself as an expert, someone who’s “done the work” on his own racism and can now help you with yours?

Quite the opposite. I’m sharing this with you because I continue to mess up, and because that’s part of this work. What I’ve come to see is that this humbling recognition—rather than being a source of guilt or shame— is precisely what’s needed for a genuine response.

It’s not up to Black folks to cure white people of our racism—that’s our work to do. True, white supremacy and structural racism preceded all of us -- none of us alive today created the illness. But it is our responsibility to be part of the cure.

Now is the time to show up, each of us in different ways. To bear witness. To use our bodies to protect others. To support this Black-led movement for justice. Open your heart and make space to feel what’s there.

And know that we will continue to mess up. Racism and white supremacy are in you, and in me, and in all of us. So put your meditation practice into action. Stay with the discomfort. In the crucible of that pain, transformation happens.

Then we can start making real changes in our lives and our world and say—I’m not going to be a part of this anymore. I’m going to educate myself, I’m going to speak out. I’m going to do something.

(Deepest gratitude to the friends, colleagues and mentors who offered valuable input on this piece.)


This piece originally appeared in the Ten Percent Happier Newsletter. Oren is a regular contributor and teacher on the Ten Percent Happier meditation app.