Standing in the Fire: the Spiritual Practice of Untraining Whiteness
By Swan Keyes
— Excerpt from Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s The Invitation
The work of racial justice requires white people to grow on spiritual, emotional, and psychological levels in ways that we are rarely called to do. This work requires us to go to the center of our being and challenge all the ways we have been conditioned to think, feel, behave, and relate in a white-dominated society. It requires us to peel back the layers of our social conditioning, deeply examine aspects of our personalities, and rekindle an authentic relationship with our innermost being.
It is a type of soul retrieval work. And it is a critical aspect of the spiritual journey of anyone wishing to radically transform society and contribute to building a future where all people on the planet feel safe, welcome, respected, and interconnected. It requires us to Stand in the Fire and not shrink back.
What is white cultural conditioning?
Cultural conditioning includes all the messages we receive growing up that tell us what is acceptable in our culture and how we are expected to behave to fit in with that culture. This includes how we perform our assigned class and gender roles, how we communicate, dress, wear our hair and hold our bodies, what activities we engage in, where we live, who we associate with, who we sleep with, and who we marry.
White conditioning includes all the messages that teach us what it means to be white. “White” people are trained from birth to participate in maintaining a white-dominant culture, even when we don’t want to. We did not choose this training. In fact, it is toxic to us. It is killing us, though we generally don’t know it. The conditioning requires us to suppress parts of ourselves and unconsciously participate in the oppression of others.
White conditioning is instrumental in ensuring that people of other racial categories are kept from being accepted as full human beings with equal access to resources and institutions of power in our society.
It is hard for white people to talk about whiteness for many reasons, one of which is that race is fabricated; it is a false construct. There is no biological basis for the concept of a race, as any knowledgeable biologist will tell you. There are species, and there is only one species of human beings. Within that species there are many different physical traits, with genes that determine characteristics such as sex, height, skin tone, hair type, and eye color.
Genetic variance is real, and differences in visible traits are real. However, the concept of races based on those traits is an idea people made up and that changes over time and across location. The racial categories themselves are continually changing.
For example, I have a friend from Ecuador whose ancestry is mostly European with some Indigenous South American and a trace of North African. In Ecuador she was considered white and enjoyed all the privileges of the ruling class. However, when she moved to the U.S. her racial category promptly changed. She maintained her economic status but, because she was from South America and had a Spanish accent, she suddenly came to know what it is to be seen as a “person of color.” She lost some of her white privilege and in the process discovered what it means to be white — and what it means to be excluded from whiteness.
Another friend moved from an elite neighborhood in Mexico to Tiburon, California, where she experienced racism for the first time when she went to meet her new neighbors who immediately assumed she was a nanny. Speaking Spanish was enough to designate her as “Other” and to incur their unconscious stereotypes and assumptions about the position she fit in their racial hierarchy (also known as their implicit bias).
My own ancestry includes English, French, Irish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian. My father’s people in England viewed the Irish as an inferior race and treated them as such when they colonized Ireland and let one million people starve to death in the Irish Potato Famine.
The first time we saw the term “white” used in a legal sense in the U.S. was when naturalization laws said only free white people could be granted full citizenship. This set in motion decades of court disputes over who would be considered white.
In time, Irish in the New World were granted rights denied to people of African descent, including the right to own land, vote, and testify in court. Bringing them into the fold of whiteness helped ensure that Irish indentured servants would not find common cause for revolt with free and enslaved people of African descent against their English oppressors. Whiteness was an excellent tool for dividing and subduing the underclasses. In later generations, Italian and Jews would also gain the privileges of white status in the U.S.
My mother’s Eastern European Jewish side never fully fit in with the mainstream white norm — the white Anglo-Saxon protestant “Leave It to Beaver” or “Friends” norm that we’ve seen on TV as the standard of whiteness for generations. Jews remain a perpetual Other but have gained much of the privilege and status of white people in the U.S. today. Yet, Jews regularly receive reminders that this status is fragile and can be revoked at any time, with deadly consequences.
Everyone is shown what it means to be white in this society — in our fairy tales, textbooks, billboards, the evening news. All we need to do is look at who is in charge of our institutions. Who are the CEOs, the congresspeople, the school administrators, the doctors, teachers, therapists, and wardens? There are exceptions, of course, and any person of color who makes it to the top of any of these institutions will tell you how much work it is for them to be who they are in those roles, and how they are continually reminded that they are not white and don’t fully belong. In fact, any Black person in congress will tell you that they have received death threats just for the crime of being Black and having the gumption to step into a position of institutional power. And if a Black person does make it, let’s say to the White House, they are continually reminded of why it is not the Black house. They will have to help maintain the very system that keeps white people in power on a global level.
Our image of who is civilized, professional, and trustworthy remains the image of the Euro-American or Northern European. And the image of the Black male continues to hold a stereotype of danger. We are actively conditioned from early childhood to see Black men as scary. We don’t even notice that we see them this way most of the time, or don’t admit to it. Because it is shameful. And lethal. Again, we didn’t choose to take in this conditioning, these stereotypes, but here they are, fed to us in movies and on the evening news every day of our childhoods. And then we wonder why white police shoot unarmed Black men and why white juries are so quick to convict Black suspects with little or no evidence. It’s not because all of those police are consciously racist. Some are, but the vast majority are just “normal” white folks who have been conditioned from birth to see Black people as threats. Because of this, we cannot be content to cast out the “bad apples”; we have to uproot the whole system.
And to uproot the system we have to begin with pulling the rotten roots out of our own consciousness for deep examination and transformation. This is surgery. It is hard work. But removing toxins from the body and mind sets our spirits free. It is a work of love and mending what is broken, not something we do just because we feel guilty or want to be a hero to people of color, but because we know that our own liberation depends on it. And because we want to see a different kind of world. Because we want to live in a society where people value each other — all people, and where all children are safe and welcome.
So that work is a spiritual journey. A lifelong journey. Like any spiritual practice, what we call “diversity work” or “anti-racism” or racial justice work, is not something that we can just take a class in or practice for a little while and be done. It is a meditation, a path of growth and transformation that is ongoing and pays off in all the ways a good spiritual practice does, helping us develop a deeper connection to ourselves, our basic goodness, and a connection to others, and ultimately enables us to be much more effective at making the kinds of changes we want to make in the world.
How do we untrain our white conditioning?
I was born and raised in a spiritual community in the hill towns of rural, white, Western Massachusetts. When I transferred from Bennington College in Vermont to Mills College in Oakland in 1996, I was suddenly surrounded by politically educated people of many different ethnic backgrounds and I discovered that I had no idea how to join the conversations about racism that were going on around me — and I wanted to.
I was used to being at the top of my class in most everything and now I felt like a preschooler in with the grad students talking about racial identity in the U.S. That’s what happens to white people when we start the work. It’s embarrassing and scary. For a long time we will be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. And we will say and do the wrong things — things that will hurt or piss off people of color, even when we are trying to be anti-racist. (Perhaps we also say some great things that will hurt and piss off white people in our lives who aren’t trying to be anti-racist.) And we will have to learn how to endure that discomfort, stay engaged, and keep learning so we can do better. To stand in the fire and not turn away.
I realized pretty quickly that I needed a space to explore my own racial conditioning and racist stereotypes in a setting where people of color would not have to listen to or accommodate my learning.
In mixed-race groups, people of color almost always have to take on the burden of educating white people about the subtle and not-so-subtle racism we are trained not to see. It can take us a while to understand that because racism is essentially a white problem, it should be a white person’s responsibility to learn about it and change it without people of color always having to do the unpaid emotional labor of bringing us up to speed.
When this was pointed out to me I was puzzled. How could I do the work of learning about race without having anyone to talk with about it? This was before conversations about whiteness had entered mainstream (white) dialogue. I remember wishing out loud that there were white people to explore this with. Ask and you shall receive. Soon after I expressed this wish, my partner came home with a flyer he found at the library advertising a new program called UNtraining White Liberal Racism.
“Do you wonder what it means to be white in a white-dominated society?” the flyer read. Yes! I called the number on the flyer and spent hours talking to the program’s co-founder, a white man named Robert (a.k.a. Ro) Horton, who offered six-month trainings in the Bay Area. It was amazing to meet someone who was actively unearthing his own racial programming and helping others do the same. Like me, he had a longtime Buddhist practice and philosophy that informed his approach.
I joined the very next group— and after a few years became a teacher in the UNtraining. I was struck by the genuine love and growth the program promoted, influenced by the co-founder and mentor to the UNtraining, Rita Shimmin, a woman of African American and Filipina descent who offers a profound approach to teaching multidimensional consciousness. She insists that we learn to hold more than one reality at a time, including our basic goodness and our oppressive conditioning. To take on the heavy work of undoing racism we have to maintain a strong connection to our sense of inherent value, and learn to love the parts of ourselves we don’t want to see.
With Rita’s guidance, Robert developed techniques to help white people get out of the dichotomies we are trained to see the world in — to get out of the boxes that train us to see things solely in terms of black/white, wrong/right, either/or modes.
Freeing oneself from “black and white thinking” does not mean that we stop referring to people’s racial designations and the boxes we are put in. We know that racial categories like black and white are made up but we also know that the problems of racial justice will not just disappear if we ignore them and stop using these terms. We have to see the political purposes for these categories and directly address them. While race is a construct, racism is very real — a reality that billions of people suffer under. We have to give up any notion that talking about a problem makes it worse or that colorblindness is the answer for where we are at right now. When people say that we have to stop focusing on our differences, it indicates that difference is seen as a bad thing. Difference is not the problem. Power imbalance is the problem.
One of our first pieces of work in a white UNtraining group is to get out of the idea that there are two types of white people — good white people (non-racist or anti-racist) and bad white people (racists). As long as we are seeing people through these polarized lenses, we are seriously hindered in our ability to recognize our own racist programming and to align with others to help them develop awareness of their own racist training, and the impact that our racism has on others.
When we drop the notion that there are two kinds of white people, we can stop trying to prove that we are the “good” kind. We can release the performative aspect of white liberal/progressive/radical identity that is heavily invested in being recognized as anti-racist. We can stop trying to prove how “woke” we are. And we can get on with the work.
We accept that all people have unconsciously absorbed their culture’s racist training, and although we didn’t choose the training we can choose to become aware of it and stop letting it run the show unchecked. With that awareness we bring compassion — for ourselves, other white people, and people of color who bear the brunt of racism.
Multidimensional awareness allows us to move beyond “call-out” culture and into “call-in” culture, where we continually call each other in to deeper engagement.
To develop multidimensional consciousness is to build a strong inner knowing of our basic goodness — the underlying inclination toward growth, love, and connection with other humans and with the planet. We have to root deeply in this knowing and learn to call on it when we are facing the pain of racism, because when we start to really learn about racism we will feel a lot of pain. After all, we are touching into centuries of brutal oppression. We should feel it. Not feeling it is what has allowed it to go on for so long. We have been desensitized and kept ignorant. And for the most part we aren’t trained to be able to move through this kind of pain, so it takes us a while to build our capacity to be with it and not shrink or turn away. We have to learn to be spiritual warriors.
A lot of shame is likely to surface as we examine whiteness, and we have to go through it and find the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of. As a psychotherapist, I am professionally trained to help people access their buried shame and the parts of themselves they have learned to hide. I help people come to terms with the trauma that has caused them to repress feelings and cut off parts of themselves. In the UNtraining we take that to very deep levels, linking personal pain to the collective trauma inflicted by all of society’s “isms.”
The ability to maintain connection to our basic goodness while navigating the painful parts of the psyche and society allows us to delve into places we would otherwise be too afraid to go. We can see parts of ourselves and recognize the impact of our conditioning without being completely immobilized by shame, pain, anger or fear. Developing multidimensional awareness practices helps us do the inner and outer work of liberation without going to pieces. This is the antidote to white fragility. It enables us to develop resilience so we can stay in the fire, stay in the conversation when it gets heated, jump into conflict zones and cool the flames when needed, and be real partners to other white people and people of color in the struggle for racial justice and deep, lasting systemic change.
Now that large numbers of white people are finally beginning to understand that racism is a white problem, it’s important that we do not try to position ourselves as experts on the topic of racism. White people have been given credit as experts on everything for long enough — even on Indigenous Studies and cultural practices!
As we explore and teach each other about whiteness, let us maintain a beginner's mind — an open state of being where we realize that there will always be more to learn, and know that we will make mistakes along the way.
Let us never think that we discovered this field of knowledge. People of color have had to address racism and whiteness for generations — teaching, preaching, pleading, protesting, praying, nudging, singing, shouting, bleeding, and dying to get these points across. Their work has formed the foundation for the work that white people are now doing in this field.
Much of what I have written about here comes from teachings I have received in the last 20 years from people of African, Native American, Asian and Latinx descent, including Abbazero, Rita Shimmin, Mutabaruka, Kenji Liu, Dennis Banks, Victor Lewis, Roberto Almanzan, Luisah Teish, Mushim Ikeda, and Larry Yang…
... as well as those whose teachings I received through books — Leslie Marmon Silko, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Cheik Anta Diop, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Franz Fanon, Patrice Lamumba, Marcus Garvey, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Malidoma Some, and countless others.
I also give thanks to all the people of European descent who have inspired me as my teachers and students. Every student is a teacher and every good teacher is a perpetual student of life. So let us continue to learn and grow together.
Swan Keyes, LMFT, is a psychotherapist, anti-oppression educator, and nonprofit development consultant with over 20 years’ experience teaching principles and practices of racial justice, cross-cultural communication, and organizational development. She specializes in helping white people understand their racial conditioning and become more effective at fighting racism, and has served for many years as a core trainer in the national UNtraining racism program. She has also designed and led numerous programs addressing classism, sexism, heterosexism and other intersecting oppressions for colleges and universities, nonprofit and civic organizations, and faith-based communities.