Reflections on Repatterning Whiteness

:: Post submitted by Or Levinson ::

I was introduced to the Clouds in Water community several years ago through my work with Marcus Young and Don’t You Feel It Too. Our two organizations have worked closely together on issues of race, embodiment, healing and justice since 2017, when Rev. angel Kyodo williams made her first visit to the Twin Cities. This fall, I was honored to work with a group of about 20 sangha members oriented toward better understanding – and taking responsibility for – what it means to walk through the world today in a body that is coded as white. I called this series “Repatterning Whiteness: Shifting Culture from the Inside Out.” 

To offer just a taste of the body-based work we do together in a class like this, I invite you to take just a few minutes now to tune into the connection between your body, your ancestors, and the earth, before you read on:

Feel your feet or your seat touching the ground, acknowledging this place where the story of your own bones and ancestors meets the story of this Dakota homeland. 

With a hand on your belly or your heart, breathe in the knowing that you are innately good, and that your desire to engage in the difficult work of racial healing is evidence that you deeply, fiercely care.

Exhale the need to be “right” or “good” in order to be deserving of life and love. 

Invite a wise, well ancestor – of blood and bone, chosen family, or other lineage ties – to come and support you, to be at your back. You can place a hand somewhere on your spine to help your body feel this support.

Take a moment to allow your head, neck, and spine to move in any way that feels good to you. 

Take a few slow, deep breaths… in, and out. 

If your eyes are closed, open them. Scan the nooks and crannies of whatever space you are in, including behind you. Offer appreciation and gratitude for the way this place offers you shelter, protection, and comfort.    

My facilitation approach draws on the teachings of many teachers and mentors in the realms of antiracism theory and praxis, somatics, and social justice choreography. These mentors include Susan Raffo, Thea Lee, Marcus Young, Ananya Chatterjea, and Arwen Wilder. They have taught me to listen, not just with my intellect or even my heart, but with my whole body. My class is different, perhaps, than the type of antiracism workshop that many are used to. Rather than focusing on sharing theory and information, much of my attention as a facilitator is on slowing down the dynamics of the room… so that participants can actually feel how we are relating to ourselves, our stories, and one another in real time. How does whiteness emerge, often unbidden, inside and between us in every space we inhabit? Sometimes it is loud, sometimes it is very subtle.

The goal in this way of working is to help retrain our muscles of empathy, full body awareness, relational attunement, and conscious empowered choice-making – all things that white body conditioning so relentlessly works to override. 

What was special about this class series in particular, was that it gave me the chance to expand my seven years’ experience guiding workshops on understanding and unraveling whiteness into a spacious nine-week course. As the trust and ease grows in a room full of consistent participants, the learning can deepen. We touched on a LOT of different angles and inroads to understanding whiteness – what it is, how it feels, how it came to be embedded in individual and collective systems, and how we might approach reshaping the patterns it sets. Words are a slippery thing to wrap around a wound as deep as race. Nevertheless, here are some that emerged during our time together. We looked at whiteness as: 

  • Unresolved cultural grief
  • Assimilation trauma
  • Enforced forgetting 
  • Unwell spiritual boundaries
  • Insecure attachment – not just to primary caregivers, but also to peoplehood and to the earth
  • Christian hegemony
  • Fear – of the pelvis, the earth, each other, as well as fear of punishment  

How does it feel in your body to read these words? By touching on many different ways of understanding this thing called whiteness, my hope is that each and every person in the room can pick up, sit with, chew on, and keep asking questions about those seeds that resonate with them the most. This is lifelong work. If you are someone who identifies as white, I hope you will join us when we offer this series again next fall. Together, we are transforming the violence of our lineage so that the generations who come after us do not have to struggle so hard to come home to themselves.    

Or Levinson is a is a movement artist, healer, and deep believer in the power of communities to hold one another lovingly accountable through growth and change. Laura has been performing and creating work in the Twin Cities for the past 6 years with Aniccha Arts, BareBones Puppets, and a variety of other beloved collaborators.

:: Below are reflections from sangha members who took the class in Fall 2022 ::

For me, many of the themes and topics covered in the class were not new, but it was definitely worthwhile to further unpack & explore whiteness in a group setting and take some small steps in working with & through my own patterns of whiteness. This is slow and challenging work (at least for me) but very worth doing. I appreciated Or’s energy as a facilitator and their ability to both support and challenge participants, and I appreciated the opportunity to do this work together & in-person. And I did learn some new body-centered practices that I will take with me in my daily life!

  • Steve Plachinski

During each class, we broke into small groups for further discussion.  The groups were based on a range of demographics such as men, women, Jewish, GLBT etc.  I ended up in the women’s group as a default – the other demographics did not apply.  During one of the last classes, we spent some time in our groups and were given some questions to discuss.  The group that evening was small and included 2 others whom I do not know very well.  We went around and all answered the given questions.  I noticed that I was feeling uncomfortable because I didn’t know the others very well and didn’t really want to just answer the questions that were actually a bit personal.  But, I followed through.  

During an earlier class, Or had discussed “somatic override” – suppressing the body’s natural needs in order to just push through something uncomfortable, get it done etc.  

Looking back, I would have said – “No, I am not going to just answer these questions, because they are personal, and I don’t yet feel the necessary trust between us to go that deep”.  “How are you all feeling about sharing this information?”  I think I most feared their reaction, and potential rejection to my being so bold.  So, in the end it was a perfunctory and lifeless conversation, when maybe it could have been something rich and meaningful, who knows…… 

  • Julie Warner

White people need spaces like this to come to terms with what white supremacy means and how it has shaped our lives. I stay with Clouds because it is committed to this struggle — and I trust that it will continue to push through the didactic and the rote response to deeper levels of honesty and vulnerability. In the class, I felt glimmers of this but wish there had been more attention to unpacking the cultural, social, and emotional baggage that comes along with an identification with/immersion in white culture. I learn from stories and examples, not from lists, not from carefully crafted statements. So I hope the next class can spend more time telling those stories, and digging into examples. It’s only in this way that the Statement on Non-Harming can come alive — as a living, breathing challenge to examine ourselves, our interactions, our sangha.

  • Patricia DeBoer

I found the Repatterning Whiteness class to be very helpful.  It pointed out how I, as a white person, did not think of myself as having any racial characteristics at all.  I considered myself as having the characteristics of a typical American male of my age and background.  But I now see that I have certain characteristics that are typical of a white American male of my age and background, in terms of how I assume I will be perceived by others as capable, worthy of being listened to, and entitled to being treated courteously and respectfully. Furthermore, if not treated that way, I do not immediately become concerned about my social status or physical safety.  The assurance of acceptance and safety that I have had as I moved through the world, I now realize, has been based on me being a white male, without regard to whether I’m a capable person worthy of being listened to and treated courteously and respectfully.  The class helped me see the advantage I have enjoyed in everyday life as a result of my race, and to see more clearly that this is an advantage that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color do not enjoy by virtue of their race.

– this person wishes to remain anonymous

What I most appreciated about the approach to this work was how we were encouraged to discover where we feel white supremacy in our body, and to also link that to epigenetics and the generational trauma that plays a part in inherited white supremacy. In being encouraged to research our ancestry and consider where white supremacy might have arisen – and how this orientation is encouraged by those in power – was really impactful.

  • Heather Fehst

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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