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White Responses to Racism:
A Discussion about Allyship with Ellen Sulser

by Lizzie Stephani '18

A handful of students gathered in Bodman lounge, located in the basement of Helen Hills Hills Chapel, on Thursday, September 22 to discuss white work in anti-racism. The talk touched on a variety of topics within the framework of white allyship and interwove Buddhist practices.

Dr. Catherine Anraku Hondorp Sensei, who led the discussion, is a Buddhist Community Religious Adviser at Smith College. Hondorp grew up as a white, queer dancer and choreographer in a poor, black inner city. She is the co-founder of Two Streams Zen, a multicultural Dharma Movement dedicated to transforming people and communities through fearless intimacy and living compassion.

Hondorp encouraged students attending the talk to see each moment as distinct. She explained that the Koan tradition of Buddhism emphasized the idea of a “true person of no rank,” which brought forth many questions. “Who is this? How can one experience them? How can one experience being a human without an identity?” Pondering these questions, Hondorp organized an exercise where she had attendees bring to mind how these tie with racism and asked them to describe the experience in their bodies.

One of the attendees, Ellen Sulser, who is a third year Environmental Science and Policy major, was generous enough to share her thoughts on the talk with me. When asked why she attended this event, Sulser explained that she was hoping to find a model of positive and effective allyship as well as a space to address confusion on this topic. Growing up in Kirkwood, Missouri which is just 20 minutes away from Ferguson, Sulser saw her community “utterly fail to respond to police brutality and racism” which motivated her to learn how to bring conversations about whiteness and allyship back home. She’d also like to have smaller conversations in her house about these issues.

Sulser was taken by surprise when the talk shifted from “talking about allyship as a concept to allyship as an embodied experience.” She noticed a great deal of physical tension in herself during the exercise aforementioned, resonating strongly with the idea of a “freeze response” to racism. Sulser noted, “the meditative reflection on where there is hurt and healing in my body is a practice I am going to try to keep.”

Sulser is not involved in any religious or spiritual organization on campus, but is an eco-representative for Capen House. When asked about the intersectionality of religion and spiritualty with social justice, Sulser explained that social justice movements need “spiritual underpinnings” to sustain themselves. Sulser spoke to the importance of including spirituality in social justice conversations. She’d highly recommend more students to attend these kinds of events to give a “voice to our experiences where we don’t do so good a job.”  Through naming our wrongs, Sulser hopes we can confront and work towards improving upon them.