What might it feel like to wake up out of whiteness?

It is both good and problematic that terms like “gaslighting” and “white supremacy” have entered the everyday conversation of so many more white people since the murder of George Floyd. It is problematic because what looks like a shift in consciousness can sometimes just be a new manifestation of the same old dynamics. 

As a psychotherapist and a practicing Buddhist, I have a lot of experience with the ability of our minds and individual defenses to morph into different shapes to evade awareness while continuing to perform the same function. For example, I can switch from rationalizing why I should not feel anger to collapsing in tears, and both the rationalizing and the collapse, while they outwardly appear quite different, perform exactly the same function: to ward off anger. When I meditate, I can shift my attention from thinking to my body, and before I know it I am way down another pathway of thought that has pulled me completely out of my body and the present moment without my having noticed.

As I grapple more with how whiteness has lived in me outside my awareness and watch how it is operating unconsciously around me, I am struck by similar qualities in collective white defenses. Collective defenses are not just operating individually, they are evident in and supported by the structures of white supremacist society and the messages we receive every day through the media, the school system, the legal system, etc. The documentary 13th – about the 13th amendment to the US Constitution – documents how the institution of slavery morphed, after it became illegal, into the prison industrial complex.

White people have been conditioned to see ourselves as the hero or victim of every story, and to not have to face the violence done by our ancestors or the ways in which we are complicit in ongoing violence. In elementary school I was taught, for example, about the courageous English and French settlers who came to the “New World” (a term that erases the people living on Turtle Island for 15,000 years before its “discovery” by Europeans). I was not taught about Canada being founded on deliberate genocide or about Residential Schools in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and cultures, suffered horrific abuse, and often died. The history I learned put white people at the centre of the world and me with them, and it also placed all of this in “the past” as if it is not happening right now. My education made me completely ill-equipped to identify with the lived reality of any BIPOC, and it made the truth of their experience opaque and inaccessible to me. In these ways it compromised my humanity.

Some of the defenses against these historical collective truths include denial and avoidance: we live by altered false narratives, and we avoid perspectives that challenge them. So what happens when the denial and avoidance are challenged, as they have been in 2020? What happens when a critical mass of white people can no longer deny the existence of anti-black or structural racism?

The defenses morph.

Like the individual psyche, the collective white psyche is built to remain consistent and intelligible to itself and to resist change and loss – even if the change and loss are healthy – because they are perceived as a threat to its cohesion and existence. White people have too much invested in our unearned privileges, our comfort, our shared narratives of heroism and victimhood, our power, and our sense of ourselves as right and essentially good to allow the collective defenses and the structures erected out of them to simply fall away. This would be an identity crisis on a colossal scale. So, now that it has become harder for us to be in denial about structural racism (though many still are), some of us have moved on to different collective defenses.

We are learning how to “talk the talk” and call out gaslighting and Black Lives Matter. We are reading all the right books and posting on social media. We are investing in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training. But for many of us, these are intellectual and performative exercises: we have gone from avoiding the truth to constructing narratives about it that still fundamentally position us at the centre, maintain our goodness, keep us safe and comfortable, and do not dismantle the structures that maintain the system. The intellectualizing and performance look different from denial (“Look! We’re using all the right words!”) but the function is essentially the same, which is to maintain the status quo. What makes this so dangerous is that, believing ourselves “woke,” we have also remained essentially impenetrable to the lived embodied reality of BIPOC. This maintains the ladder of oppression and the dehumanizing delusions of white supremacy.

In the Buddhist scriptures, it is written that before he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (literally Awake One), Siddhartha was tempted and plagued by the demon Māra, who can be understood variously as the emotions of hate, greed, and fear, and the state of delusion that characterizes our conditioned existence. I refer to this here because I think white people have to be prepared for the fact that waking up to whiteness is not a pleasant experience. If we have been living in, and defending against, a collective delusion for centuries, coming out of that delusion is not going to be a smooth or an easy process. It will activate radical doubt, clinging, (self-)hate, confusion, mental scrabbling, disorientation, and a lot of internal forces pulling us to maintain the status quo.

We will know we have touched a moment of it when we feel terror. Or anguish. Or deep, embodied grief. This will tell us that we are no longer artificially separated from the communal body we have always been a part of; that we are no longer marshalling our intelligence to keep us from the truth. 

The lie of white supremacy keeps us separate, safe, and very, very sick. Waking up and growing up out of it is going to mean repeatedly challenging the lies and defenses that have kept this in place and out of our view, and weathering the horror that we have participated in the banality of evil. The benefit of waking up, if we can persevere in approaching it, will have qualities of what the Buddha experienced. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way: 

“He saw that living beings suffer because they do not understand that they share one common ground with all beings. Ignorance gives rise to a multitude of sorrows, confusions, and troubles. Greed, anger, arrogance, doubt, jealousy and fear all have their roots in ignorance. When we learn to calm our minds in order to look deeply at the true nature of things, we can arrive at full understanding which dissolves every sorrow and anxiety and gives rise to acceptance and love. Gautama now saw that understanding and love are one. Without understanding there can be no love…. understanding is the key to liberation.”