Let’s talk about the archetype of the “conscious white person.”
Specifically in the United States, it appears throughout yoga journals, festival advertisements, New Age publications, and places like right here where you’re reading. And with good reason. There are a lot of us on similar paths.
I’m guessing that if you’re a white person reading this, like me, you also want to cultivate consciousness. You seek to evolve yourself and maybe the planet, too. You’ve devoted a good deal of your life to this path, even though members of your immediate family don’t always get it.
You own your own yoga mat. Maybe you meditate, eat organic food, drink pure water, or all of the above. Perhaps you’ve found your chakras and know how to use them. Certainly, you’ve “worked on” yourself and studied different spiritual or transformational traditions, intending to slough off old patterns and welcome in more expansive ways of meeting the world.
So when George Floyd was murdered, you too felt a stirring in your heart and your gut.
You recognized, instinctively, that something had shifted. You also sensed in your body that you needed to do something different.
Many of you showed up to protest. Some of you displayed “Black Lives Matter” signs, buttons, or stickers. Others of you elevated Black voices on social media for a time. Others read books, listened to podcasts, and joined groups or discussions that they’d never felt motivated to seek out before.
We had a disquieting but perhaps uniquely auspicious context for all this. The COVID-19 pandemic quarantine has literally given us pause.
What might otherwise have been an across-the-board, knee-jerk, flash-in-the-pan reaction got slowed down. We’ve had more time to think about things. For a minute there, it looked like our world might be shifting.
Yet nothing fundamental about the white supremacy myth that undergirds life in these United States of America has changed. What has changed is that a few more of us white people now have a greater glimmer of awareness of just how much needs to change. Black people have known all along that their lives matter and that they are not treated as such.
White Consciousness 2.0
For white people on a path of consciousness, I hope we are at least beginning to see that no true consciousness or evolution is possible without that fundamental shift in awareness to include the reality of life in the U.S., as experienced by people of African, Asian, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous descent. Until now, the white supremacy myth (WSM) has hijacked too much of the white brain to have much leftover to concern ourselves with other lives. The murder of George Floyd, for a moment, offered a crack in that WSM trance. I want to put my foot in and keep it there until it widens to include a commitment on the part of all supposedly “conscious” white people to dismantle that myth.
To be clear, by the “white supremacy myth,” I don’t mean the ideology of overt hate groups who wear hoods and burn crosses on lawns—that’s only the most obvious expression of white supremacy. Instead, I am referring to the collection of attitudes, beliefs, practices, images, and approaches here in the U.S. that treat light-skinned people of European descent (aka white people) as the apex of goodness, merit, beauty, worthiness, trustability, and so on. For example, until recently, all or most superheroes were white, as were mannequins meant to represent images of ideal beauty in clothing stores. For those who still doubt whether white supremacy, aka systemic racism, exists, here are 100 statistics that prove it does.
I asked my longtime friend and mentor, Dr. Cleo Manago, about the new show of white faces at Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder. Dr. Manago has devoted his life to helping people of African descent get out from under this culture’s pervasive white supremacy myth (WSM). He introduced me to the term. He has been featured in numerous publications and appeared on many of the major news networks for his no-holds-barred analyses of race issues. Dr. Manago’s views on race have been the most influential in shaping my own.
Here’s what Dr. Manago had to say:
“In response to national outrage about George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, I have witnessed young whites come out in unprecedented droves to join BLM protests. They seem sincere and also desperate to publicly dissociate themselves from a widely viewed example of an unarmed Black man’s racist slaying.
“They touted signs that read, ‘White Silence = Violence,’ but nothing making it clear to onlookers that they were reflecting on how they benefitted from the same structure leading to the murder they protested. I want to believe their intentions are good.”
When I invited him to work with me to train the next generation (of all ages) of multicultural leaders who are committed to including dismantling the white supremacy myth in their leadership agenda, to my shock and surprise, he agreed. (I had to work up a lot of chutzpah even to ask.)
When I asked him why he agreed to work with glow-in-the-dark-white me and why now, he said,
“I want to tap into the sincerity of young whites, leaders, and others interested in seizing this rare moment of cross-cultural consideration. I believe that together, we can effectively move participants past the desire to dissociate from white racism to a path of real transformation toward achieving multicultural justice and equity.”
In other words, showing up for protests may have been a good start, but now we need some substance underneath it—a path to expand into.
That would entail digging deeper beyond our initial reaction to want to dissociate.
Here’s my premise:
White people’s paths of consciousness or evolution that do not include a commitment to the inner and outer work of dismantling the white supremacy myth are now officially obsolete.
I would go further to say that white people cannot claim even basic human decency without some directed attention to this phenomenon. I realize that the WSM also connects to patriarchy, the environment, and a host of other interrelated expressions of basically the same disconnected orientation to life. For the purpose of this piece, I focus on the expressions of that disconnect that issue from the pernicious white supremacy myth.
Our inner work still holds the power it holds. But suppose we continue to consume the nectar of white privilege without regard to those upon whose necks that elixir was delivered. In that case, our brand of “consciousness” will not help to bring about the world of justice that I think we want our children and our children’s children to live within.
I invite white people who want to bring about a true revolution in consciousness and racial transformation in 2021 to start with these insights, practices, and commitments (add or amend to fit your life):
>> The background: We each have our own WSM distortion
Unless we have done intensive inner and outer work to disentangle ourselves from it, the WSM has a stranglehold on our perception of reality. It intertwines with our own psychological patterns to produce how we, in particular, respond to the WSM. So the equation looks like this:
>> Our individual patterns + WSM indoctrination = our signature WSM distortion
In other words, it is the combination of our own inner defenses, plus how the WSM operates in general, that produces our individual (though probably not unique) WSM distortion of reality.
We adopted our individual patterns for good reasons. Throughout our lives, we accumulate the effects of unreleased pain, adaptive survival patterns, and myriad defenses that we wisely used to get us through less-than-ideal childhoods, but which now no longer serve us. We carry those patterns through to adulthood and filter our entire response to the world through them. It takes work to undo those outdated filters and formulate clear and fresh, intelligent responses to outside stimuli, particularly challenging ones, like the WSM.
>> From the innocence of skin to WSM indoctrination
While we were trying to survive all that, the white supremacy mythology also got installed. We were born innocent little babies, full of joy and hope and faith that our needs would be met. Somewhere along the way, the insidious myths of white supremacy seeped into our consciousness. Most of us didn’t notice. Some of us got the messages driven home with dire consequences attached. (My aunt integrated a segregated bus in 1946 and got ordered off the bus by the driver who called her an n-word lover.)
I think it works like this: we’re all basically good people. (Or most of us, anyway.) When we find ourselves on the perpetrating end of a wrong, we try to fix it. For example, if I stumble and step on your toe, I’ll apologize. If it seems particularly painful, I might offer to get you some ice, rub your foot, or carry your bag, depending on the situation. But when we realize we’re on the receiving end of privileges just because of our skin color, that comes at the expense of African and Indigenous-descended people’s lives and well-being, and that this has gone on for centuries, there is no one thing we can do to make it better.
Even if I donate to an organization, the harm keeps happening. Our individual defenses kick in, and the combination makes us a little crazy—in predictable ways. Between our individual patterns and white supremacy’s patterns, we each have our distorted lens.
Here’s how I suggest we incorporate dismantling the white supremacy myth into our path of consciousness, to upgrade so we can help usher in a brighter, more peaceful 22nd century:
1. Realize the difference between dissociation and transformation.
Now we know that the WSM binds itself to our own persistent early survival patterns and causes a range of reactions in white people, to the extent that we do not yet understand how this works, nor see a clear path forward, our response will be to dissociate in one form or another from the whole phenomenon. As Dr. Manago noted above, when that dissociation comes in the form of performative allyship, it can look like transformation. True transformation involves a lot more.
2. Polish your lens of WSM perception.
Begin to notice all the ways the white supremacy myth operates in the U.S. and in your own culture within the U.S, whether that’s academia, corporate, goth, tantra, sports, or other culture. Also, look within your own family, friendship networks, and relationships. What kinds of practices, values, attitudes, images, media choices, and language do you see around you? Which of those reflect the WSM? How?
3. Leverage your hard-earned self-knowledge as it applies to the landscape of the white supremacy myth.
The white supremacy myth operates on the white psyche in extremely particular ways. Now is the time to leverage all that self-awareness we’ve been cultivating and notice: how do we feel when we hear about white supremacy’s harmful and fatal effects? Typically, our responses fall along a predictable continuum. When we understand how this works, we can better advance our own evolution and connect effectively with other white people to assist them with theirs.
4. Oppose the system, not individual people.
In other words, enlist yourself and other white people as allies and advocates in dismantling the WSM. Realize that the WSM is a system that reproduces itself in the mindsets of all the members of the culture. It remains there and colors (or perhaps bleaches) the thoughts of anyone who does not recognize and dismantle it within themselves. Then we WSM-steeped people, in turn, unawarely reproduce the WSM in our own work. And so it goes.
If we think of any white person as “a racist,” we falsely locate the problem within individuals. Though many individuals do deeply and even horrifically problematic racist things, the larger problem is systemic. Without systemic white supremacy, those “racists” would not even exist. None of this excuses any harmful acts. Rather, it is a direction in which to focus our efforts at dismantling the system and building alternatives to it. That same system that created those who seem “racist” also created us. By pointing the finger at “them” and casting them as “other,” we use our white privilege to abdicate the opportunity to connect and help transform how the system acts upon individuals.
5. Stay in dialogue with the “racists” in your life, especially when you find their views on race repugnant. Here’s why:
>> We’re in a unique position to engage with them. They will listen more to us than to the average person on the street.
>> It’s an expression of our white privilege to abdicate this work.
>> If we choose to abdicate this work, it will be people of African (and Asian and Latino/a/x and Indigenous descent) who will absorb the effects of those same white people’s views.
>> We’re more implicated in this mess than we might think. The same system that created them also created us. Just as individuals create shadow parts of themselves that they don’t want to deal with, so do populations. Those “other white people” are our shadow.
>> As long as we keep the “other white people” in our shadow, we get to avoid looking at our own participation in this system and thus perpetuate it. In other words, if we think the “real racists” are those “other white people,” we’re missing how to clean up our part in this mess.
>> I am part of this system, and so are you. The white supremacist system works to make some of us feel special and exempt, and others look more suspect.
>> A lot of the conservative stereotypes about liberals have at least a grain of truth. We can be insufferable, intolerant, and brash. We have some things to learn. Talking with people whose views are different from our own is good practice in staying humble and, well, useful in this historical moment.
6. Expand the definition of consciousness and evolution to include commitment and action to dismantle the white supremacy myth.
No white person who claims to be on a path of consciousness or evolution can any longer disclaim our place in rectifying these too-long-ignored wrongs. Consciousness demands it. Evolution demands it. Hell, common human decency demands it. It’s time to remove our collective feet from the collective necks of our brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings of African, Indigenous, Latino/a/x, and Asian descent. This is not a one-and-done; it’s a long-haul effort.
By analogy, experts in the realm of nutrition and health advise against dieting, per se. Small lifestyle changes, they say, produce the best results: less sugar, more vegetables, fewer processed foods, more water. Similarly, expanding our notions of what it means to cultivate consciousness and evolve ourselves and the planet to include dismantling the WSM means lifelong shifts in how we define and approach these things. Maybe we start more discussions with other white people in our lives. Maybe we take more action in organizational initiatives.
Perhaps we cultivate ally-hood and advocacy in our social groups or policy-making. Or engage the “racist” high school friends and family we used to run from. In any case, like bodily care changes, this shift works best and is most likely to stick when begun for distinct reasons, from the inside out.
7. Explore the ways that you, too, as a white person, have “skin in the game.”
The white supremacy myth doesn’t just hurt (so-called) people of color. It also hurts us. It keeps us apart from people we might otherwise be close to, shrinking our lives. It teaches us false narratives of how we came to be upon this land. It puts upon our shoulders a burden of historical horror and then tells us there is nothing to grieve. Talk about crazy-making! When combined with how most of us got our feelings stifled as young people, especially young males, it’s a wonder any white person makes it to adulthood with our full humanity intact. I am glad that so many of us do, not the least because this next phase of consciousness development will take a lot of love. I want us all to find copious support, mentorship, and care for the inner and external parts of the journey. We’re worth it, and the 22nd century needs our truly conscious gifts.
8. Get even more education.
Again, depending on where we are, this can be a long process of months, years, even decades, not minutes or hours. So, start now! Find authors, mentors, and teachers who speak the hard truths in constructive ways. I love Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Use your increasingly-polished WSM-detector lens to see who offers truly transformative, rather than dissociative or incomplete resources. Realize that much education offered in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion doesn’t go far enough. If it makes you feel better about yourself without truly challenging the white supremacy myth, or if it doesn’t name white supremacy, it may be part of the many understandable but ultimately inadequate efforts tailored for white comfort zones. The point of this era is to discover our blind spots, and that won’t happen in white accommodationist environments.
9. Find the right place for your unique gifts.
Not everyone is cut out for every type of contribution. You may love to write but feel introverted around live humans. You may be great at helping shape large-scale policies but unable to give money to worthwhile organizations. Your efforts are needed at every level of life on this planet. See if you can find a place where you find sharing your gifts to flow easily and as true joy.
10. Step up.
We need a new generation of leaders with a clean and sharp vision for both their own and others’ set of inner reactions and how to respond constructively to them, and how the WSM reproduces itself through its myriad channels. It is an elaborate, deeply-rooted, historically entrenched system of many components. We need leaders with upgraded consciousness to help other white people understand how the system has warped their thinking and set us against each other, to the detriment of our brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings of Latino/a/x, Asian, African, and Indigenous descent.
Everything we’ve ever done to work on ourselves, become more conscious, or evolve ourselves and others still counts. It’s good work. Our souls are not our whiteness, but our unexamined whiteness can taint our souls. Our work now needs to upgrade to include clearing the white supremacy myth distortion that’s been hijacking our consciousness and causing harm and fatalities to others for far too long.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m delighted to be in this conversation with you. Learn more about this work.