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Why the Heck Are You White Centering and What to Do About It

Centering whiteness has been a matter of survival for me.

As part of my strategy for staying alive and thriving in a world that privileges whiteness I've been conditioned and learned, like many of us BIPOC, to manage, respond and even cater to white norms. 

This is white centering. 

Layla Saad defines it in her Me and White Supremacy workbook:  "White centering is the centering of white people, white values, white norms and white feelings over everything and everyone else. ...Whiteness is so used to taking up space in all spaces, that when it is restricted or a boundary is put in place to center and protect BIPOC, its reaction is often one of white fragility, tone-policing, white superiority, white exceptionalism or just straight up violence (whether verbal or physical).  So even though I do race equity work and have for decades, I still need to step back and consider my actions, dig deep and explore their impacts as I work for change.  Whiteness often acts as gatekeeper. And to be real, as I move into new territories it's honestly often hard to feel worthy of taking up space. Old habits of bowing to the power structure of whiteness rear up and sometimes take over. And there are moments when I don't even realize this is happening. Because "it's just the way it is." But is it? It's internalized oppression that speaks like a snake in the heads of people of color. Touches on primal fear, hissing that we are "unworthy and undeserving." That we should be "grateful for what we get." This centering whiteness especially happens when we are isolated away from other folks of color and allies, something that happens all to often when we BIPOC are tokenized and brought in as the "diversity" factor. You know what I mean here? When this happens it's hard to feel like we are anything but a caricature of ourselves. Puppets in a story controlled by white puppetmasters. The way things have been continues.  But, in truth, we are our own masters. And we, too, orchestrate the story. Especially as we do race equity work.  And we can dance creatively in our own revolution.

Peter Drucker, 2000

To be fair, this process is far from easy. 

I feel some shame, even now, at acknowledging moments of white centering. Like that means I'm not woke enough or haven't done the work enough or something.  But I call B.S. on that for myself as I know that for me, or any person of color doing this work, let's be real. White centering is often a survival strategy provoked by threat of violence, discrimination, prejudice, retaliation and grave harm.  And let's be clear, just like coping mechanisms and reactions to trauma that are no longer needed long after the trigger event is gone, the trigger of white supremacy is not something we actually get to escape.  White centering has often been a matter of survival. And it can continue in moments beyond where it may actually be needed. Do you ever experience that? Such as catering to a power structure that centers whiteness by "not talking as much about race" for example, to pander to white folks who don't even understand why such conversations apply to them. (The painful epitome of bypassing and fragility, btw!) And judging myself or other BIPOC for making choices oriented towards survival in worlds dedicated to our erasure, silencing, oppression and death reads in this moment to me very much like victim blaming.  A perspective that actually continues to perpetuate a white supremacist culture within a hierarchical paradigm.  Instead of judging myself or others and using that judgement to undermine, divide or discredit another BIPOC, in such moments, I see white centering for what it is. Internalized oppression. When the messages of dominant group have gone inside the minds of the groups they are oppressing. 

This is why yoga as truth force was needed in the nonviolent struggle against British oppression in India. If people don't believe they are worthy or powerful, it's hard to establish self rule, personally or politically. Internalized oppression and white centering occurs when oppressive power insidiously takes up residence in the minds of the BIPOC it targets.  It eats us away from the inside out. A trauma response to a very sad, sick and racist system. 

Instead of blame or censure, undoing internalized oppression and white centering needs love as the fulcrum to move the oppressive wrench stuck in the guts of equality and justice.  I choose to hold myself accountable with the utmost love. It's a radical act to love ourselves in a system set to the dial of hatred and self destruction.  To practice the yogic nonviolence of ahimsa, the truth of satya, and to soften into continuing to confront white centering outside of me and inside of me. You feel me on this one? Personally, I commit and recommit to the ever-expanding spiral of growth and learning. To open to discomfort and not be stopped by it. Because trauma recovery for me takes love and care. I am deserving of this. You are deserving of this.  Moving forward with love and pride is part of healing from the harm of white supremacy. Part of decolonizing my own mind.  And I have questions. Does unpacking white centering by white people need or deserve the same tender love and care as it does for people of color? I don't know. It's a different experience and one I can't imagine.  I mean, if one is white and working on decentering, you really are looking at what you are willing to give up in order for those who haven't been centered to be so. To unpack internalized superiority. To moving aside so others can rise. To actively do this again and again, not performatively but with deep commitment.  Decentering whiteness is part of a greater practice of undoing white supremacy. And may look many different ways. But they all have in common equity rather than tokenism as a goal and practice. For example, for white folks it might be the difference between inviting me in to your program as a diversity speaker, and instead promoting my own program or that of my colleagues of color.  Perhaps radical awakening occurs in different forms depending on positionality. I'm in inquiry around this too.  And I know my experience and that of hundreds of people of color I talk to, coach and work with. And we need centering. By ourselves and each other.  So as I move into creating more new ways of being, for myself and others, creating together a new world that centers BIPOC voices, there will be some things that get surrendered, edited out, left and even things that die along the way.  I'm in a personal process of inquiry for what it might look like in my life and actions to center BIPOC over whiteness.  I'm in the process of daring to hope we are at a time when equity truly doesn't need to be measured by white normativity. It feels like a risky and radical dream.  And I'm here for it.  Y'all, inquiry can be uncomfortable. Discomfort can build to growth. Growth can bloom into new and liberatory ways of being. And liberation is the experience of utmost freedom personally and socially.  Let's walk this edge together.  So, reflect on these questions. 

And take action.  How do you work on centering BIPOC voices? How do you work on decentering whiteness? Both inside and out? Concrete suggestions and actions requested. If you share or repost with your ideas, please identify if you are writing from a BIPOC perspective or a white one. Please also name sources, particularly people of color, who you learn from.  I speak to and write about this from the perspective of my lived experience as a woman of color influenced by my diasporic activist community, bell hooks, Shankara, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Satish Kumar, A. T. Ariyaratne, antiwar movement, Deep Ecology, Black Lives Matter and many other yogic activists who know who you are and impact me and this movement driving us forward together.  Let's get decentering.

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