Contemplating Complicity in Racist Violence

One of the ways in which I have learned to examine my own racial conditioning, as a white person, is through contemplative practice. So this morning, when I learned of Alton Sterling's death, I decided to contemplate the following phrase: "As a white person in a white supremacist society, I am complicit in Alton Stirling's death." The point is not to intellectually evaluate whether or not that is a true statement, but to see what thoughts, emotions, and feelings come up.

A few things happened. One was that my mind was flooded with images of human beings (Black African human beings) - starved, beaten, and tortured - being forced onto a boat and brought to the United States. Humans being thrown into the ocean if disease or malnutrition took their lives during the journey. Humans enslaved for hundreds of years. Humans forced to work under horrific conditions, on pain of death. Humans locked in cages for decades and lifetimes.

As my mind was flooded with these images, I started to feel ill. I literally felt sick to my stomach. Because I knew that Alton Sterling's death does not exist in isolation. It exists within a context of hundreds of years of brutality, violence, torture, murder, and enslavement perpetrated by people who look like me.

This system exists in order to benefit white people. It has, since the founding of this country. I benefit from all of that. My ancestors did not participate directly in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but they certainly benefited from it. My ancestors, mostly poor, some Irish, some Jewish, didn't have it all that great when they came here. But they did benefit from the racist slave trade that made this country possible. And many of my ancestors participated directly in other forms of racial oppression. Those that didn't participate directly benefited from it. My disgust with all of this (disgust with racial oppression, not with my ancestors) motivates me to want to do something about it. Oppression is just not acceptable.

White people cannot be silent in the face of the brutality that is racism. We cannot hide behind our feelings of guilt and shame. Our guilt and shame are of no use to Alton Stirling or his surviving family members.

We are all hurting. Racism mostly affects Black and Brown people, but it affects white folks too. It separates us from our own humanity. We need to reconnect with that humanity.

People often ask me what they can do to stop this. If you are white, I would suggest that you take a moment to sit and contemplate the phrase I contemplated this morning: "As a white person in a white supremacist society, I am complicit in Alton Sterling's death." Again, the point is not to intellectually evaluate the veracity of that statement. The point is to see what it brings up for you. Do you feel defensive? Angry? Sad? If so, sit with those feelings for a while. Do you have feelings of guilt or shame? If so, sit with those feelings for a while. Do you object to the phrase "white supremacy?" Does it make you feel solid and tense? If so, sit with those feelings. And then think about WHY you have those feelings. Do you have any new insights about race and racism? Do you feel motivated to act? Do you feel shut down? Notice whatever it is. This practice won't solve racism, but it's an important first step. Most of us are pretty ignorant about racism, and we're definitely ignorant about how it works in our own minds. Contemplative practice can help.

No matter what, we have to speak. White people cannot be silent in the face of the brutal killing of yet another Black person. As I have learned again and again doing anti-racism work, silence is complicity.

White folks have to do our own work. We have to speak out against racist violence. We have to act to end it.

Kara Dansky, Director, One Thousand Arms