on asavas and whiteness

Last week I presented in my graduate colloquium on my current projects, including the reading/writing process I recently started with Jesse Marshall. We are calling this work against toxic optimism. It’s an approach to researching whiteness in an embodied way, utilizing the curriculum from Roots Deeper Than Whiteness, a course offered by White Awake, as a starting point. 

 (future posts to come on toxic optimism and on Jesse and my embodied approaches to reading and responding) 

Roots Deeper Than Whiteness asserts that those of us who are socially classified as white have roots deeper than “whiteness.” We are people – or, more accurately, peoples – whose identity and cultural center has been manipulated to serve a very specific function within capitalism. When we understand this story, we can more easily divest ourselves of the dysfunctional role we have been groomed to play, and join with people of color in the creation of a life sustaining society.

At the end of my presentation one of my classmates wanted to know more about this whiteness thing. She questioned the usefulness and validity of discussing whiteness as a white person, and particularly of discussing whiteness with other white people (not everyone in our cohort is in fact white though). I failed pretty miserably at explaining my core reasons for attempting to bring awareness to how whiteness is operating in stuff I make and spaces I initiate and engage in. 

After the presentation my mind looped: regret, embarrassment, shame, annoyance. Asava is a Pali word sometimes translated as outflow or flood. It is a core concept in the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Asavas are the phenomena that take over the mind, flooding it with wrong view, obsession, and grasping, and clouding it from right view: the understanding of impermanence, no self, and the impossibility for any thought, sensation, experience, or material thing to permanently satisfy the mind. I alternated between replaying what I should have said and rehearsing what I might say in a future meeting or email to secure importance, rightness, perfection, admiration, and therefor safety, for this SELF I so deeply and ignorantly identify with. 

The mind rarely rests, whether we are conscious of it or not, from working to secure a place for the self in the future. It incessantly comes up with plans, theories and concepts, ideas of who I am, all in an effort to make sure I will be in the future, an elaborate avoidance of the truth of impermanence/death. I watched this panicked effort, the oscillation between thinking about the past and planning for the future, the fears of failure, unimportance, even total disappearance, and tried to bring awareness to the contraction and tension all that thinking and effort was producing in my body/heart. I said to myself, as my teacher Pascal Auclair would say, talking to himself, “oh my love, you’re really suffering right now!” This gentle acknowledgment soothed me enough to be able to see the planning and regretting for what it was, a delusional response to delusional perceptions, even though it didn’t stop the pain right away. When my mind settled a bit, with the support of meditation and multiple brilliant friends who showed up to hear, recognize and laugh with me about the fears, fears connected to deeply conditioned expectations of perfection I learned to internalize a long time ago, I could calmly turn again to better articulating why I talk and think about whiteness. 

I have come to see that white people, that I, won’t have the capacity to truly participate in dismantling white supremacy until we/I can look squarely at how this identity of ‘white’ has even come to be and at how it continues to shape how I, and many of us, move through the world. Systemic lies were put in place a long time ago, and are kept in place today in order to perpetuate inequity and keep people feeling different from and scared of one another. On the surface I benefit from these lies. At a deeper level am profoundly harmed by them. They keep me separate from and caught in a delusion of superiority over the vast majority of the world. This is profoundly painful to feel and recognize. 

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and went to a liberal, private school, the graduates of which mostly went on to colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. There were a handful of students of color in my class (and some white kids from lower class backgrounds), but looking back on my experience there I can now easily see how much we were all being trained for a very specific and pre-determined path, one that did not begin to have space for a breadth of ways of knowing, being, and working, let alone a breadth of cultures, cultural values, and bodies. POC kids were accepted as long as their behavior did not rock the boat or throw into question the ways of thinking and acting we were all being groomed to follow. This was not done hatefully, at least not overtly, but it was certainly done. The long-standing American tradition of assimilation was in full operation. We learned about other cultures, sang their songs, imitated their creative practices, but when it came down to it we were part of the American melting pot project. This project pays lip service to appreciation of difference, but doesn’t think hard enough at all about what real diversity, equity, and coalition might look like. We learned to talk, gesture, and think within a relatively narrow range of possibilities. Certain values and life trajectories were obviously privileged. And all the while our diverse backgrounds, diverse approaches to living and being, were slowly erased or at least muted. What makes all of this all the more disturbing as I look back on it now is the fact that through this training project we listened to an incessant rhetoric about our greatness. Not in a KKK, overt white supremacist kind of way, but in a delusional optimism kind of way that said we would think the best thoughts, dream up the best ideas, and save the world from itself. 

POC artists and non-American artists working in the U.S. are constantly asked to account for how their practice is born out of or speaks to their racial and cultural identity. White artists are not. White artists are not asked about their ancestry or the cultural traditions they come from, but of course what I imagine and produce as an artist is conditioned by or in direct response to the setting and culture I grew up in as well. White people are assumed to be the norm, setting up a situation in which whites have the protection of normalcy and neutrality with which to ‘offer’ ‘inclusion’ to non-whites. This not only diminishes non-white people, but erases the nuances of white people’s different cultures and identities as well. This is not only violent, but boring and deeply incomplete. Without talking about whiteness we miss looking at what is more deeply at play in the work we’re making as white people, and in the institutions that work is supported by. When we fail to look at how this ‘white’ identity has been constructed and perpetuated we are stunted, can’t bear witness to the the past and, I believe, have difficulty imagining futures both within and outside of art. 

What kind of stories am I forgetting to tell or have never known in the first place? What forms and colors are privileged in my eye? What qualities of thinking, feeling, and acting pervade my work unconsciously? What relationships to time am I cultivating/not cultivating? What kind of unnamed violence and erasure, of myself and others, am I perpetuating? 

We are poised at the brink of a very likely sixth mass extinction. It is very uncomfortable, and in fact, nearly psychologically impossible, to face. This civilization is over. It’s over either because we will wipe ourselves out in the next 100 years, or a very large number of us will be wiped out and something else will have to emerge, or we will have to change our societies so drastically in order to survive so as to render them unrecognizable. If number 2 or 3 of these options is what comes to pass then the people living in one of these new realities will need immense imaginations to know what to do next. I believe humanity is wildly far from equipped to engage in this kind of imagining. Assimilation, globalization, and white supremacy devastate the capacity to imagine a way beyond our completely unsustainable, deeply violent, and profoundly inequitable global situation. Naming whiteness, understanding what it is, how it came to be, and dreaming how to dismantle its lie and its supremacy is intimately entwined with our future as a planet in relationship to the climate crisis. I am not interested in going on making art or facilitating and participating in containers of healing, experimentation, community-making and celebration without deeply examining what it means to be ‘white’ and maybe, slowly, dismantling its hold on my body and imagination for my own benefit and the benefit of all. That’s why I think and talk so much about whiteness.