Photo by Glen Carrie
As a symbol, the November 4, 2008 election of Barack Obama was a big one. It seemed a clear sign that America was changing for the better, becoming more open to honoring the voices of different kinds of people. Millions of Americans of all colors, inspired by the content of his character, voted in a president who looked different than any of his predecessors. Millions more who had supported Senator McCain were nevertheless also moved by significance of that. It was a genuinely hopeful moment.
It can be reasonably argued that all of the ugliness in our politics that has happened since then is a backlash to that day.
I don’t know to what degree white racial discomfort influenced the 2016 election. But it played a role, as it did in the unwavering campaign against the Affordable Care Act. So did the fact that millions of Americans, male and female, were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president. Old prejudices don’t fade away so quickly. Their roots are dug in deep.
But President Obama’s election, the passing of major legislation championed by a black president that affected everyone in the country, and the near-election of Hillary Clinton were all large, highly visible reminders that the traditional, white male dominated power structure is at least on shaky ground.
Why can that feel so threatening to white folks? Some of it, at least, is that it’s making us face an initially frightening truth: that no one is in control.
Human beings are naturally tribal in how we think about the world. Our brains divide everything into groups. If you grew up white in America, you’re used to seeing the entire power structure—the president, the Congress, the courts, business and military leaders, almost everyone really, looking like you. This goes doubly for men. You see this, and you think: these folks are in my group. We’re in control.
If you’re white, it’s comforting to think that. But it’s just a delusion, because no one is in control. Not of what happens in the outside world, where every day, another traffic jam makes us feel powerless, nor of what happens inside us, where we are constantly bombarded by thoughts, feelings and sensations that happen regardless of whether or not we want them to.
This is the heart of the Buddhist teaching of no-self: none of the stuff of life is ours. None of it is under our power. The universe just is. There is no separate self, human or otherwise, that is controlling any of it.
The whole point of any sort of spiritual practice is that deep down, we already understand this. If we're willing to pay attention and touch that understanding, we can experience peace. But most of us are so attached to our desire to feel control that we spend our lives running away from that understanding. We’re constantly deluding ourselves and trying to pretend that we really are in charge, that our lives are actually our own. We inevitably cause ourselves and others tremendous suffering by doing so, but we’re too scared to stop.
This is true for people of all colors and backgrounds, but I think that many white people have had an easier time of running away and maintaining our delusion.
Black people in America have spent hundreds of years being brutally reminded that they are not in control—that they don’t control their bodies, the people around them, the way that they are perceived by their fellows. That has to at least shake up the delusion of control and weaken it. But white people, looking around at a country full of authority figures who look like us, a legal system that at least much of the time tries to do right by us, and a massive wealth gap in our favor, can convincingly believe that things happen because we want them to happen.
A big part of feeling in control is having someone else to control—someone to help you maintain the belief that you are a separate self with power over the world around you. Part of the appeal of white privilege (and male attempts to subjugate women) is that it gives white people that additional pillar to strengthen our delusion of control. It helps us sustain the lie, at the cost of creating pain all around.
As the white-dominated American culture is increasingly challenged, changed and diversified, white folks are having to more clearly face the same truth about the powerlessness and emptiness of the self that black folks have had shoved in their faces for centuries.
I don’t think this is comfortable for anyone, but I do think it can actually be a wonderful opportunity to come together. While a growing awareness of no-self might be scary and vulnerable at first, it’s actually a path to peace and relief. If we can embrace the truth—that we aren’t actually a collection of separate selves, each vying to make a life on our own, living separate lives, but rather pieces of a whole greater than our rational minds can comprehend—we can start living with greater ease.
Maybe we can unite over our shared vulnerability, rather than be divided by our delusions of power and control. Maybe we can laugh about it together. Maybe the solution to a white-dominated power structure isn't another power structure, but letting go of the delusion of power. I think for us white folks especially, confronting our own powerlessness would be liberating, and strengthen our sense of connection to our brothers and sisters of all colors.
The truth can set us all free.
Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.