Delving into “What is Whiteness?”

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Sangha News, Zen Training

by Eve Romm

The first two meetings of the ZMM sangha’s new “What is Whiteness?” (WIW) group began the same way: enlarging the circle of chairs in the Sangha House to accommodate far larger numbers than expected. The overwhelmingly high attendance on Sunday afternoons didn’t come as a surprise. Since the BFOD forum last March which invited the larger sangha into the anti-racism work—which smaller planning groups have been engaged in for a decade—many white sangha members have expressed different versions of the same sentiment: “When can we start?”

The WIW meetings use a format called “the circle way,” a structure designed to encourage receptive listening and thoughtful speaking. At the center of the circle is an altar-in-the round: a pine bough, a lit candle and incense bowl, a place to hold the group’s energy and attention. At each meeting, different members are invited to volunteer for the facilitating roles of host and guardian. The host helps to create a sense of welcome and guide the structure of the meeting, while the guardian times responses and holds a bell which they can ring to call for a short pause.

For the first meeting, attendees were asked to reflect on and, if they choose, to speak about a moment in which they first realized that they were white. Going forward, the group will work with Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, offering responses to readings and prompts. Meetings begin and end with a check-in: going around the circle, participants introduce ourselves and share a word about how we’re feeling. I was surprised by the range of states expressed: “confused,” “calm,” “apprehensive,” “heartened,” “grateful,” “determined,” “saddened,” and many more. I hadn’t really imagined how varied our many experiences of that single moment could be.

For me, recognizing the range of different experiences has been one of the most valuable parts of attending these meetings. In particular I feel grateful to be able to take in the experiences of those older than myself, many of whom shared poignant and formative memories of school desegregation, forced busing, the civil rights movement and its backlash. Despite having studied those events in history classes it never really sank in that many people I know grew up in its midst. Other sangha members experienced race in their early lives so differently, and the widely different reactions articulated at the start and end of each meeting began to make sense. I left with a refreshing appreciation for the limits of my own perspective, eager to hear more.

Below are a few participants sharing about their experience:

“What has surprised me most is the number and range of folks interested in working on this together. It gives me great hope to be in this room of dharma friends from different countries, different stages of life, different experiences, turning towards and taking responsibility for our roles in the traumas inflicted by the narrowness and constrictions of racial bias. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface and even so the experience has been powerful.” —Miryam Gillian Jikai, MRO Student

“Engaging with these teachings from White Fragility and so on has been a challenge. I have experienced many feelings of being blamed for the good things I received due to my social and racial privileges. I have felt under attack, as though I had been hiding from my accusers and were suddenly discovered. It has been difficult to admit that I find it painful to think and speak of privileges I have that belong to me because I am white. I always believed the story that my own personal efforts are the best explanation for my good life. Now that I understand the karma of inheritance more deeply, I wouldn’t go back.” — Frank Kyosho Fallon, Senior Lay Practitioner

“I remember so many times ‘out there’ I felt I must be insane, a crazy person, for the grief I felt about what’s happening in our world. Crazy because I felt lonely in the experience. It seemed like the norm was to shut things out – that what I felt seemed like an exaggeration. But was it like that?

“You must not sleep”, Arnulf Øverland wrote. How can we wake up? How many of us are required to wake up? What should we do? I really believe that if we just wake up, it will be clear to us what we need to do. How do we wake up? I think it will be individual, but a common denominator will be to really open up to our feelings. But to acknowledge them without clinging to them. Recognize, feel and let go. And then, act. And we need to support each other.” — Birgitte Haug, Resident Lay Practitioner

In addition to the What Is Whiteness anti-racist groups, the MRO sangha works on the staff, board and teacher levels to continue addressing structures of oppression and bias. Black and Person of Color (BPOC) sangha gatherings as well as BFoD planning group activities, are also ongoing. If you would like more information please visit our BFoD web page or email

An aspect of BFoD planning includes events such as this celebration and commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Day at ZMM, while a simultaneous event was held by the sangha at the Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, NY

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