Spiritual white people: do we really want to help heal humanity? If we do, it’s past time to take a long, hard look at the ways we use spiritual beliefs to harm rather than heal.
Spiritual bypassing continues to show up in white-dominated spiritual/personal growth communities and wreak insidious havoc. Sometimes it’s empresses who turn out to be naked, like Danielle LaPorte or Marianne Williamson. Sometimes it’s emperors, like Tony Robbins. At least weekly, a lesser known spiritual entrepreneur—who may not be a household name but still might have followers in the thousands—uses their social media platform to push platitudes that deny and minimize oppression and legitimate suffering. This encourages their followers to follow suit. Just when I think I’ve said all I have to say on this subject, fresh inspiration is always right around the corner.
I’m talking to and about white people living in relative privilege who hold spirituality (not necessarily religion) as part of our identities and value systems. When I say “spiritual white people living in relative privilege,” I’m speaking about us as a collective, not as every single individual. So let’s practice observing our knee-jerk tendency to start concocting #notall type rebuttals, and then let that go, ok? On second thought, I do mean every individual, because we’ve all been complicit in some aspects, to some degree.
The following is a short list of beliefs and behaviors people in white-dominated spirituality/personal growth circles—including way too many “thought leaders” and spiritual business gurus—are very busy selling, buying and feeding each other. Good intentions notwithstanding, this serves to encourage complacency and complicity with the escalating oppression and abuses we are witnessing (or ignoring) in our world. All this from people who claim to be all about love, light, and healing.
Let’s develop a keen eye for recognizing these patterns so we can avoid perpetuating them. Let’s also stop following and spending self care/personal growth dollars on those who peddle them.
1) Creating fancy new language to express thinly veiled, garden variety victim blaming.
If you’ve spent any time at all hanging out in these communities, you’re well acquainted with the themes underlying the common narratives. Victimhood and despair is always or nearly always a chosen state, indicative of lower levels of spiritual evolution. Whatever you resist, persists. We create our reality. We can manifest anything we want if we get this whole mindset thing right. The flip side implication is that if someone is working hard and getting nowhere, or if bad things are happening to them, they created that situation via their thoughts or energy or whatever.
It’s not that these things can’t ever be true. But it’s a slippery slope, especially when we presume to apply this stuff to anyone other than ourselves. Further, it’s abusive and destructive to apply these principles in any situation involving injustice and actual victimization, which are not figments of the unevolved imagination, but are real things that exist and occur. See: separating migrant children from their parents and holding them in cages, state violence against black people, mass incarceration, well documented patterns of racial discrimination in employment and housing, and epidemic rates of sexual violence, to name just a few.
Using discernment with Law of Attraction-esque principles is not typically encouraged within spiritual/personal growth subcultures. It’s bought and sold in oversimplified, mass-produced form for blanket application. And why is that? What does it do for us? Why does it sell so well?
It provides absolution.
Modern life is busy and sometimes overwhelming, even for the relatively privileged among us, right? Some of us care deeply and want to be part of the solutions, but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s happening and where to begin, and some days we’re just dying to be let off the hook from tangibly adding to the to-do lists (raising my hand here). Others are legit self-obsessed, using faux spirituality as little more than a way to feed their egos.
Either way, if we’re encouraged to believe that people cosmically choose varying states of victimhood, then we are likely to feel less compelled to actually do something about the more extreme forms of victimization happening in the world. We can figure we’re all just living out our purpose or karma in this lifetime, or it’s all part of the divine evolution of humanity—hey, whatever works! Even if these beliefs are never spoken aloud, they leave us free to happily carry on with our yoga classes and self-help books, all the while deluding ourselves that our self-obsessive, perpetual (yet selective) introspection means we are “being the change.”
2). Stroking and congratulating ourselves and each other for exuding the groovy feelings we call “love,” and gracing the world with our cultivated auras of positive energy and good vibes.
Getting off on self-proclaimed “badassery” is the sexy, adorably edgy offshoot of the same.
Owning our authentic power and daring to shine in our unique ways are wonderful things to aspire to and embody, but sometimes it’s all code for good old-fashioned grandiosity. I can’t tell you the exact difference, but I know it when I see it.
Relating to ourselves and the people around us with as much love in our hearts as we can is crucially important. But it’s easy to use that as an out so we don’t have to do anything that actually costs us something, whether it’s time, effort, money, or emotional comfort. God forbid we sacrifice a fraction of our carefully nurtured, precious, ecstatic joy by dipping a toe into the trenches.
What a buzzkill for your high-vibing self.
3) Reassuring ourselves and each other that when it comes to the state of the world, as long as we’re doing our own inner healing work, that’s all we need to do.
The inner work spoken about is usually limited to personal issues, traumas and mood states, thinking the correct thoughts (positive ones, of course), managing our energy, and so on. Inner work that involves ongoing untangling of our implicit racism and other biases is rarely included or seen as part of the essential personal growth work.
As for concrete actions in the outer world, those are too often viewed as optional cherries on top, because after all, being our amazing, magical, healed selves is enough, right? (Again with the grandiosity.)
In a step beyond trivializing the value of activism, many will actively denigrate it. The theory is that all forms of “fighting” are cut from the same violent cloth, and actively resisting or working against oppression just creates more of the same. This gross oversimplification fails to honor the role of sacred, righteous anger as an impetus for change. It fails to recognize that love can be fierce. It fails to appreciate that fighting against injustice means fighting for justice. And it ignores the countless historical instances in which activism has resulted in tangible progress and improved lives.
4). Defending and deflecting anytime someone dares to illuminate any aspect of items 1-3.
Sometimes it’s a simple, flat denial—frustrating, but straightforward at least. Often it’s elaborate mental gymnastics, manipulation and gaslighting (sometimes while pretending to apologize!) designed to make the whistle-blower look like the real problem. It’s implied that there’s no reason to challenge harmful behaviors and principles as long as the people engaging in them are “nice” and “well meaning” people. Worse, people who seek to hold others accountable for doing better are—explicitly or subtly—characterized as too dense and unevolved to grasp the big cosmic picture. Either that, or they’re “stuck in negativity” or engaging in “attack” or even “hate.” It’s a masterfully manipulative set-up that allows for automatic dismissal of any challenge to complacency, complicity, or outright harm.
We’re all about growing and evolving until we are shown our privilege and biases. Most would say “Oh, absolutely, of course!” to the general statement, “We all have biases.” But watch how we kick, scream, pout or patronize when someone points out our own blind spots around our privilege and unconscious -isms. Far too few are willing to accept such challenges, demonstrate some genuine humility and begin to unpack this stuff. Too many have little or no real interest in that particular type of shadow work.
Does everyone have to be an activist? Maybe not. Are some of us working with limitations that may not be visible? Yes. Are there times in our lives when we don’t have the logistical, financial, mental or emotional bandwidth to do much more than take care of our own immediate business? Certainly.
And. I would argue that those who are basically doing just fine in life and go around claiming to be truth tellers, agents of healing, and spreaders of love on this planet (especially those who make money from those claims) do have a responsibility to be activists in some form. All have a responsibility to speak up against injustice and violence against entire groups of people who are blocked from advantages we take for granted. All have a responsibility to invest some time, effort and money taking concrete actions. All have a responsibility to encourage those we influence to do the same, whether that’s our friends and family, or in the case of those who position themselves as spiritual “thought leaders,” the almighty email lists, public speaking audiences, and social media followings.
Look, we can keep our vision boards and card decks and crystals. I’m keeping mine. That’s not the point. The question is, what hard truths—within ourselves and in the collective—are we refusing to examine? How does that refusal impact the way we engage the world when we get off our mediation cushions and yoga mats and step away from our altars?
If spiritual white people collectively spent half as much time, energy and verbiage actually introspecting about our biases and taking loving actions as we spend talking about how introspective and loving we are, we could move mountains. We could ease suffering and prevent actual deaths. We could make real strides toward healing humanity.
That would be spiritual.
Black women whose work speaks directly to these issues:
Andréa Ranae Johnson. Check out her Coaching as Activism program. From the website: “What if there are opportunities for you to have greater integrity, deepen your impact, live out your values and truly show up for the change you wish to see?”
L’Erin Alta. Check out her course, Devotion: a yearlong spiritual exploration of race, gender, feminism + liberation for all. (registration closed, but you can check out the description and sign up for the wait list.)
Leesa Renee Hall. She also has a book in the works, and a documentary. Meanwhile, start here, with questions for reflection/writing prompts: #ExpressiveWritingPrompts to Use If You’ve been Accused of #WhiteFragility #Spiritual Bypass or #White Privilege
Alexis P. Morgan. Start with this article: Love and Liberation Require Listening: An Open Essay to Marianne Williamson
Robert Augustus Masters’s book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. The whole book is a must read! But you could start with his article, Spiritual Bypassing: Avoidance in Holy Drag
Abigail Rose Clarke’s course Skeleton Key: Dismantle. From the website, “The course is for white women to examine the specific ways we cause harm, and will offer tools to begin the dismantling of those beliefs and behaviors.”
My own previous blog posts on this topic. Both of these essays contain lists of many more recommended articles and resources:
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