Making the Unconscious, Conscious: Why Interfaith Communities Struggle with Racial Diversity

Last year, I was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to write, “The Illusion of Separation”. The purpose was to encourage people in Interfaith, Interreligious and Interspiritual communities to move past rhetoric and demonstrate a belief in oneness by actively engaging in a process of undoing systems of oppression. The heart of that article stated,

As people work to dismantle racial profiling and institutionalized racism in all its forms across the country, I expect interfaith communities to become more involved in actively disrupting all systems of oppression. In order to effectively do this, interfaith, interreligious and interspiritual leaders need to become aware of their own unconscious biases and prejudices. When these problems go unchecked, internalized superiority (typically rooted in racism, sexism &/or heterosexism), and privilege supports leaders in their choice to avoid making necessary changes that would benefit the world they claim they want to help improve.”

The tricky thing about internalized superiority as it relates to racism is that it’s often unconscious. It can be expressed in unique and unexpected ways. Several years ago, I heard a white speaker refer to indigenous spiritual traditions as “extinct” and “noncomplex” in comparison to other world religions. African Americans in the room expressed that these traditions were very much alive and practiced by millions of people all over the world. A perfect example is Orisa spiritual traditions. When the number of practitioners in various forms of Orisa worship are combined (practices such as: Ifa, Lukumi, Santeria, Candomble, etc.), some scholars have ranked Orisa as the 8th largest world religion.

While I was unsure as to what the speaker meant by “noncomplex”, it was clear the assumption was African spiritual traditions were not concerned with consciousness or evolving. Yet in the teaching and training I had before becoming initiated, self-actualization and being in alignment with the essence of one’s divinity (a concept known as one’s Ori), is the foundation of Ifa spiritual practice. To my knowledge the speaker was not aware of African based traditions having this component. The assumption of them being “noncomplex” falls in line with the stereotype of African people being simple-minded and unintelligent. This was a subtle example of religious racial stereotyping rooted in the ignorance of lacking knowledge of the other. Had it not been for the black people in attendance speaking up (including myself), I would have left before the speaker ended the presentation. It would have validated my assumption that well-meaning predominantly white spiritual organizations do not value or see other ways of spiritual connection as equal to the religious traditions they are more familiar with.

Shamanism however, is a path that has become quite popular in mainstream spiritual circles over the last decade. Many people drawn to this path care about nature, the environment and sustainability. These are very important issues and I am glad individuals are acknowledging the damage we are doing to our planet. Yet, I do not see the same level of attention given to Native American people and the culturally specific issues they face due to historical trauma and oppression.

Government and church-run boarding schools used to take Native American children from their families at the age of four or five years old and not allow any contact with their Native American relations for a minimum of eight years (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998; Garrett & Pichette, 2000). In 2004, Grace Tsai & Luisa Alanis from the National Association of School Psychologists wrote the following in Native American Culture: A Historical and Reflective Perspective, Another example of colonization through oppressive acts against the Native American people was sexual violence. Historical accounts show, the federal government referred to Native Americans as “dirty” and they were therefore viewed as subhuman.

Before President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, one of the reasons conservative politicians tried to stop it was due to not wanting to provide protections for Native American women. Domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions were very vocal on this issue. Native American activists spoke out as well. While it could have escaped my attention, I did not see communities of new age shamans or practitioners collectively speaking out on behalf of the people their practices originate from.

Perhaps the reason Interfaith, Interreligious and Interspiritual communities lack racial diversity is because they are uncertain about where to start and how to begin. If these circles are genuinely concerned about issues of racial justice and being more inclusive, I would suggest two simple things. First, participate in Undoing Racism workshops. I have personally witnessed social service non-profits, churches and research scientists be transformed in trainings conducted by places like The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond. There are many other organizations doing great work to make the unconscious effects of racism, conscious. Second, put boots on the ground and reach out directly to people of color. If you want more diversity in your community, you have to let people know you want them there and that you care about the issues that matter to them.

Indigenous Aboriginal artist, Lilla Watson credits an Aboriginal activists group in the 1970s from Queensland, as the inspiration for her poignant words spoken in 1985 at the United Nations. They serve as a foundation and guide in doing racial justice work in Interfaith/religious/spiritual/belief settings. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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4 thoughts on “Making the Unconscious, Conscious: Why Interfaith Communities Struggle with Racial Diversity

  1. Preach it!!!!

    In my experiences talking and praying with New Age spiritual seekers, I also “do not see the same level of attention given to Native American people and the culturally specific issues they face due to historical trauma and oppression.” In fact, what I see is a widespread practice of cultural appropriation in which it seems that any spiritual practice is “up for grabs” and can be adopted and modified without permission or care. So-called sweat lodges, vision quests, “tribes”, etc. when created by non-Natives without regard for their context are a form of racism, violence and theft. There is a good resource for non-Native folk who are interested in reading more about this:

    I have also heard scholars and theologians label indigenous spiritual practices as oral or storytelling traditions, and then place oral traditions in a timeline of ‘faith/religious development’ in which written traditions are elevated and preferred. The very obvious subtext is that oral traditions are inferior (‘immature’?), and the feeling that I got from the tone and delivery of these lectures (in seminary) was that written traditions are superior. Vine DeLoria talks about this in his book “God is Red.”

    While I’ve recognized this, I hadn’t yet connected it to my own internalized superiority until I read your article. I see the ways that white cultural norms are elevated and prized because of racism/white supremacy, but I didn’t see until now the ways that this internalized sense of being better makes us elevate our ways of writing and organizing and see them as better. (It isn’t as if indigenous people don’t write!!! Who are we to define what ‘writing’ looks like?? Maybe it only counts when someone white is holding the pen?!) Not to mention, there are a lot of limitations to codifying spiritual practices…it freezes the ideas, is less relational, creates a distance between student and teacher, and more. Yet I think in academic circles this bias toward the codification of religious ideas is VERY prevalent. To succeed in the master of divinity program that I attended, you had to write white.

    When I have attended pow-wows and feasts with my friends, I have noticed when the speakers talk about doing things in a “good way.” There is such a thoughtfulness and intentionality around why things are done a certain way. There is much to value, honor and respect in “oral traditions” and indigenous spiritual practices and cultures.

    Thank you for prompting these reflections…I so appreciate your article. I want to notice my own internalized superiority more, so that I can see myself more clearly. I fall into the trap of thinking that my writing is my ‘real’ work and my painting and dance just ‘side’ projects. I get seduced into wanting to be successful in the white model. I need to be more aware, question more, resist more. Thank you!

    1. Thank you very much for such thoughtful comments. It takes heart, courage and dedication to face and dismantle internalized superiority. Many people either chose to ignore or deny its existence…

      I have friends who walk Native American paths. Their teachers do not refer to themselves as shamans. Their practice and belief systems are a way of life… As an African American who is a practitioner of Ifa, it important for me to be aware of issues Yoruba people in Nigeria may face. For example, The Orisa Community Development Corporation (a New York religious community organization), hosted their 4th annual empowerment retreat for youth at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. According to them, the youth face higher rates of discrimination because they practice indigenous religion. Indigenous traditions have so much beauty and wisdom to offer the world. More people are beginning to realize this. The least we can do is speak up for the people these rich traditions come from when they are suffering or being oppressed.

  2. Dear DeShannon —

    Thank you for this post. Making the unconscious superiority complexes conscious is necessary work indeed. Franz Fanon in his book “Black Skin, White Masks” talks about the in-the-moment dynamic of superiority and inferiority complexes forming together. How might those who are forming inferiority complexes notice the experience in the moment, and transform the dynamic in the moment, in order to identify the superiority complexes that are also forming, leading to the possible transformation of the whole?



    1. This is a deep question Ayo. I believe it is very difficult for someone to be aware of their own internalized inferiority and simultaneously identify internalized superiority in another person to conclude in an experience of wholeness in an instant. I’m not saying its impossible but individuals would have to be willing to come to terms that these dynamics exist. People deny (or are unaware) of internalized inferiority just as much as superiority.

      A dedicated practice (spiritual & psychological) to become self aware and conscious has helped me in my personal journey to identify when I am demonstrating either of these complexes. Gentleness and compassion makes the innerwork a healing experience for me. We need more people willing to do this work if we’re going to come together and effectively face and solve our individual and world problems.

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