White People, It’s Time to Look in the Mirror

Ayesha Ali asks white people to examine their life and privilege—without shame but with deep curiosity about why you don’t really know or understand her.

Ayesha Ali
13 August 2020
Photo © Andrey Pavlov / Stocksy United

I am a crone and was around the last time Black people were feared, and thus brought into white awareness. At times like these, white people, and white institutions, reach out to Black people they barely know or have forgotten about over time. As a crone, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness, I choose to understand this reaching out toward us instead of reaching in to understand themselves.

Reaching in is the first obligation of meditation practice. It is by this practice that I have found space and freedom. I have found a space—one not afforded to me as a Black, female body in this world—to discover my body, my breath, and the contours of my life. It has given me the opportunity to really see the ways in which white supremacy has shaped my vision, my possibilities, even how I might choose to love.

I have been unsafe since the day I was born.

It is through this practice that I have understood white people to be human. This did not come from a home that trained me “to be kind to everybody.” That mantra was often rooted in fear and its real message was to be watchful, because you never know when that white person who seemed so nice would turn and cause you to lose your job or your life.

I have learned about white humanity from sitting in spaces where I am one of few people of color and often the only person who lives at the intersection of Blackness, age, working-class roots, queerness. Over the years, I have heard the broken-heartedness of the lives of white people, even as that heartbreak sits atop a skyscraper of privilege granted by the white supremacy system that has encased my life and the lives of all Black people.

It is also through practice that I have seen the deep chasm between our lives. We come together to share spaces and then separate as they go to Johannesburg and I return to Soweto. We live in different geographic and spiritual places.

Our histories are so divergent that even those who have studied and worked with Black people have only a prophylactic awareness of my life. I have chosen to share my heart and my life in the circles over many years. Yet I have often struggled with the idea that what I share is seen as performative—that my life is an extension of The Wire, to be consumed for how different it is from “real life.”

On the election of Donald Trump, I was not amazed but I was saddened by the surprise and shock of many of these practitioners. I was frankly angry at the new awareness of being unsafe. I have been unsafe since the day I was born. I was, and sometimes still am, so angry at this new awareness.

Those who know me are aware that the beginning and ending for me is the Buddha’s understanding that the delusion of separation is a core reason for the suffering in this world. It is this delusion that allowed for the genocide of Indigenous people in this country. It is this delusion that allowed for the enslavement, torture, rape, and murder of my ancestors. It is this delusion that has allowed for the continued effort to destroy the lives of all People of Color through a system that holds the people who benefit from it blameless.

It is from this understanding that I choose to continue to open my heart to white people, even as I keep using the historical eyes of wisdom through which I view them. I want to ask white people to reach in to discover the contours of their lives as white people. To question why it is they have no Black friends or colleagues. I ask that they look at the power relationships that almost certainly inform their relationships with Black people.

I want white practitioners to look at the way “mindful communication” serves to protect their innocence. Too many white people have Black Lives Matter signs in their yards, but they fear my son and have called the police if he and a friend were walking too slowly past their newly colonized streets.

I am curious about my own willingness to be connected with white people. Is it some sad holdover from slavery? Am I that “house nigger” that is so reviled by my community? Am I using Buddhism to “take care of Massa”? My younger self would certainly have made this critique. She would say, I am not so open-hearted as I am bound by a “love” defined by white people that has carried over into this practice. A love that cushions white people from their history and their pain.

I hear her and understand, but this journey as a practitioner has allowed me to reconnect, not with a white construct that demands forgiveness, but with the ancient understanding of my ancestors who proclaimed, “I am because we are.” I am connecting with the sometimes unbearable and unending call to the truth that we are all one, and it is through our connection that we can and must all finally be liberated.

I ask you, my fellow practitioners, to examine your life and privilege without shame, but with a deep curiosity about the fact that I sat with you for years and you felt no need to know me, and you can’t call me now because you don’t have my phone number.

Ayesha Ali

Ayesha Ali

Ayesha Ali is a lesbian, femme, crone, mother, teacher, and writer. She is the co-founder of the Heart Refuge Community for People of Color. All of the descriptors are centered around her deepest intention to be free through to practices of the wisdom of the dharma and her ancestors.