Should We Take Racism Personally?
There’s a Buddhist teaching I love that Ruth King often shares: nothing is perfect, permanent, or personal.
How can we not take racism personally?
Racism hurts—it hurts bodies, minds, and spirits. Racism kills people—it provides a justification for dehumanization. Racism has shattered families, communities, and continents. Racism exists because of the ideology of white supremacy—the belief that white people are superior. This ideology began as a way to justify the transatlantic slave trade and has been institutionalized for over 500 years in the United States and in white settler societies. It manifests in a myriad of forms and impacts everyone in the world in innumerable ways.
I identify as a person of color, and when someone says, “don’t take it personally,” what I hear is, don’t feel sad or angry. This is a form of toxic positivity. The implication is that my strong emotions don’t belong. That there’s something wrong with me for feeling sad or angry. I also think sometimes people say, “don’t take it personally” to avoid taking responsibility for the harm that they’ve contributed to inflicting on marginalized people. When this happens, I feel dehumanized. Unseen. Invalidated. Like there’s something wrong with me for feeling hurt by injustice.
I do take racism personally. And I don’t.
If you feel racism is personal, it means you’re hurting. It means there’s pain to surface, acknowledge, unpack, process, and release. You deserve space and time to do that healing. For as long as it takes.
Here’s why I don’t take racism personally: racism is a fiction, a lie, a construct. There’s nothing true about the inferiority of people of color, just like there’s nothing true about the inferiority of any group that’s been marginalized. The more I understand why white supremacy exists and how it came to be (see chapter 3 of Coaching for Equity), the more I understand that I can’t take racism personally. To do so would be to inflict harm on myself.
I live two truths: Racism hurts, and it’s personal, and it’s not personal. Living with paradox is hard and liberating.
A Buddhist teaching called The Two Truths Doctrine has helped me with this paradox. It says that we live in two realities: ultimate reality and relative reality. In relative reality, we live through concepts (including race, gender, and age) and experience life through these concepts—So I am a BIPOC woman in her 50s, a mother, an immigrant, and so on. I experience life through these concepts. In ultimate reality, however, we are empty of self and eternal; we are awareness or consciousness. Other belief systems suggest that beyond our bodies, we are spirit or energy or Christ consciousness.
In relative reality, racism affects me, my husband, our son, and billions of people. And I live with a sense of ultimate reality; I know that I am more than the body I’m in and the concepts that exist about this body.
Two truths: racism hurts—it is personal, and it’s not personal. It’s hard to feel the truth of the impersonal without having processed some grief and rage. Being with these emotions necessitates time, space, and skillful guidance that all people of color need and deserve.
When feeling grounded and empowered, I remember that what’s always been mine is my agency—white supremacy can’t take this from me. I have agency over what I choose to think and believe. I choose to believe that racism isn’t personal. When it does feel personal, I allow myself to fully explore the feelings of pain and anger, and fear. Processing my emotions allows me to find my way back to sensing ultimate reality. This is a choice I make that allows me to feel more empowered in my life and creates more space for joy and ease and connection. This choice gives me more energy to respond to injustice, racism, and inequities in our world. This is my choice to make—to lean into the truth that racism isn’t personal.