Healing Racism with Dharma

Gloria Gostnell (l.) and Arinna Weisman (r.) leading November's Healing Racism retreat at Nalanda West in Seattle.

Healing Racism with Dharma

On the weekend of November 14-16, a group of nearly forty people gathered in Seattle to explore the effects of racism in their lives and their Dharma practice. What made this particular gathering unique is that it constituted the core of an Insight Meditation retreat entitled Healing Racism: Diversity and the Dharma.

The People of Color and Allies Sangha of Seattle (POCAS), the Lotus Sisters, and Nalanda West cosponsored the racially/culturally diverse non-residential retreat, which took place at Nalanda West. Organizers sought to balance the number of people of color and white retreatants so that both sides of the equation of racism could be examined. Teachers Gloria Gostnell and Arinna Weisman guided the retreat.

Gostnell is a facilitator, educational consultant, and co-founding member of the Dharma Diversity Leadership Council. She has written on the leadership of African American Women and has an ongoing interest in teaching the Dharma so that it is culturally accessible to all. A Community Dharma Leader who has practiced Vipassana meditation for 20 years, she leads a culturally diverse sitting group in Portland, Oregon.

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Vishaka Smith (l.) of POCAS and Annie Clay (r.) of Lotus Sisters, two of the sponsoring groups for the Healing Racism retreat.

Weisman, a student of Ruth Denison, has practiced insight meditation since 1979 and been teaching since 1988. Founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts and co-author of A Beginner's Guide to Insight Meditation, she is well-known in the Northwest where she regularly leads retreats for sexual minorities and the general population. Her teaching is infused with her political activism and commitment to building multicultural spiritual communities.

The weekend began with introductions and personal statements from both retreatants and teachers. Gloria described her experience of being the only person of color at her first Insight Meditation retreat and talked about how, as an African-American woman, she has felt marginalized within her practice community.

Arinna related her experiences growing up in South Africa as the child of white anti-apartheid activists, her separation from them during their imprisonment, and their eventual expulsion from the country.

After the introductions, the participants meditated on mindfulness and loving-kindness—the qualities that the leaders urged the audience to develop as tools for examining the topic of racism and its effects.

Saturday morning was devoted to meditation and silence through lunch. In the afternoon, the retreat broke into two discussion groups: one composed of people of color (known in anti-oppression parlance as “targets”) and the other of white people (“agents). The people of color’s discussion focused on marginality, while the white people examined how they relate to white privilege.

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The fundamental teaching of the retreat was that the tools of mindfulness and lovingkindness can be used for healing.

On Sunday, the retreat re-convened as a single group and participants shared their experiences of the weekend. Some of the themes that emerged were: how few people of color are present in the Western convert groups and sanghas; how alienating certain forms of presenting Buddhism and meditation are for some people; how much pain and damage racism has caused people in both groups; how, for some white people, the experience of being the single member of a racial group in any setting is unimaginable, whereas for all the people of color it has been an ongoing and regular experience, even in the Buddhist sanghas in which they have been involved.

The fundamental teaching of the retreat was that the tools of mindfulness and loving-kindness can be used to heal deep negative social conditioning and ignorance about racism by generating an atmosphere of forgiveness, acceptance, and community. As the retreat concluded on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that many new bonds and friendships had been created.

“Targets” and “Agents”

Anne Phillips, a Seattle psychotherapist and Dharma practitioner with a strong commitment to anti-oppression work, attended November’s Healing Racism retreat. She sees great benefit in offering both separate and collective discussion space for those who occupy the roles of “target of oppression” and “agent of oppression” in a given context. As a white lesbian, she’s looked at the dynamics of oppression from both the “target” and “agent” sides.

“It’s a myth that ‘target only’ retreats or programs perpetuate separation,” she believes. “Having ‘target only’ space is empowering, rejuvenating. Avoiding the exhaustion and stress that comes from having to interact with dominant cultural norms gives people more strength and ability to go back and work in the mainstream. The goal is to work together and opportunities for ‘target only’ space, based on race, sexual orientation, etc., make that possible.”

Exploring and experiencing one’s culture, language, and rituals apart from “the day to day world” leads to a reclamation of identity which benefits all members of the community by offering a more accurate version of “capital ‘T’ Truth.”

From the “agent” point of view she says, “You get to see the cost of racism to white people, the cost of heterosexism to straight people.” Without this perspective, it’s possible to use the Dharma unintentionally as justification for things as they are.

“Together time and separate time”—like that provided at the Healing Racism retreat—“make us stronger when we come back together as a group.”

Contributor: Anne Phillips.

For a concise summary of “Dynamics of Oppression” terminology, see:

Contributor: Timothy O’Brien.
Photos: Kate Forster.