I’ve been a Buddhist for 27 years. In Buddhism we have these concepts of ‘karma’ and ‘mission’. Karma is the accumulation of every cause you’ve ever made throughout time and how it manifests in this moment. In simple terms it’s cause and effect. Mission is how we use our karma to become happy and help others to become happy too. It is meant to be our constant thought- how can I use the unique circumstances of my life to create a peaceful society?
Before I became a Buddhist I experienced my Blackness as something that marked me as a moving target.
As a child growing up in the 1970s in Canada I experienced so much physical and verbal abuse because of the colour of my skin. I quickly found that the way to survive was to disarm my abusers with humour. This in turn helped me to find my tribe amongst the drama geeks who were also social outliers in their own ways. I was so focussed on building and maintaining friendships based on literal fun and games, that it would always deeply destabilise me if someone I thought was a friend would comment on my skin colour and say something ignorant about Black people in general. I would cut them out of my life and move on. By the time I became an adult working professional I had lived in 3 different countries- Canada, Sweden and the UK.
Everywhere I had lived, put down roots and made friendships, I would be reminded that I was other because I was Black. It created such existential dissonance with how I saw myself. I had always identified with the culture of where I lived because it’s something that you can study, learn and adopt behaviourally.
This is second nature to an actor. When I was married to a Swede I learned the language and participated in the social traditions. When I moved to the UK and got dual Canadian-British citizenship I completely embraced Britishness as a cultural identity. Yet again and again my skin colour was conflated with ‘race’, which tends to go hand in hand with a narrative about class, and I was consistently reduced to an imagined identity entirely tied up with my Blackness. I was so uncomfortable with this dynamic but I never really talked about it because I didn’t have the words to express how I felt.
Then one evening I attended a Buddhist discussion meeting and the subject was karma. One of the Buddhists was trying to explain it to a newcomer and said something to the effect of “You may have the negative karma to be born Black.” I remember that very instant having a deep quiet bubble up from my subconscious. Everything went very silent inside me and also in the room as the man suddenly realised the ludicrousness of what he had said. A smile grew deep from within me, and I said “I love being Black.” Four simple words that I had never said before but were suddenly a life changing, life affirming realisation of my honest feelings, and of my mission.
I realised that I had always experienced my Blackness as my karma - meaning that I had made the causes to be born Black in this lifetime and I had been overwhelmed by the negative effects of that- the abuse, the insecurity, the reduction, the labelling, the imposed narratives. I suddenly realised how all of these negative aspects of having Black skin had the enormously positive impact of absolutely refusing to be made to suffer anymore by the ignorant actions of others. Fundamental to that was loving myself no matter what. My suffering was to become the wellspring of my happiness, and I could use the reframing of my experiences to encourage others to turn poison into medicine as well.
I practice Buddhism to be able to manifest the wisdom, courage, compassion and boundless energy of an enlightened being- a Buddha. This also applies to all of my discussions and activism around racism and allyship. Wisdom has taught me that even the most intransigent of prejudices can be shifted through dialogue. It takes time and great effort. I’ve had to dig deep within me to manifest the courage to get involved with anti-racism work within the organisations for which I volunteer as a trustee. Where I previously would not have been able to find the words to express myself, now I am unafraid to engage in open dialogue about uncomfortable issues while still cultivating friendships by building trust in spite of our differences.
I have also been able to recognise that the pain of my experiences of racial discrimination had gone some way towards making me blinkered about discrimination through a uniquely Black lens. It was at a conference about diversity that I was able for the first time to hear the struggles of a disabled colleague and the discrimination she had battled her whole life and was still facing. I was able to hear when an ex partner told me he was Jewish but that he hid that fact professionally because of the abuse he had endured as a child and at the start of his career. I began to turn down work on scripts that perpetuated Islamophobic tropes through stereotypical terrorist storylines. I became a founding member of a feminist political party when I began to understand that the roots of every erroneous racial narrative is a construct of an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy of which we are all a product.
The little ways I could find to help dismantle these narratives that divide us were to become more active in my industrial union so I could advocate on behalf of our members in any way I could. This included cochairing the union’s first Independent Commission on Race Equality. This work then gave me the courage to accept the role of Anti-Racism Lead on the Council at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, whose wonderful students created an extensive anti-racism action plan towards a happier, more equitable educational environment.
No one’s advancement can happen in a vacuum. A rising tide raises all boats. It is better for 100 people to advance one step together than for 1 person to advance 100 steps and leave everyone else behind.
Sometimes getting involved in anti-racist activism, allyship and equality work has felt heavy, exhausting, frustrating and futile. Then I take a little breather and start again, just putting one foot in front of the other.
The hardest thing about it all is never forgetting that the change I want to see around me first has to happen within me. I am always having to check myself and my anger and prejudices. But I really never want to give up, even though it’s the hardest work on which I have ever embarked. If you’ve read this far into this wonderful resource of a website, thank you so much! You are making a great cause for the blossoming of a more peaceful society.
Tanya trained at RADA. She won the Royal Television Society’s Breakthrough Award 2020 for the role of Meg in BBC’s Motherland. Film roles include General Bellava Parnadee in Star Wars Ep IX- The Rise of Skywalker.
She is a two time Olivier nominee for Outstanding Achievement In An Affiliate Theatre for her performances as Esther in Intimate Apparel, and Makeda in The House That Will Not Stand. Best Actress nominations include the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, and the UK Theatre Awards.