Friday, August 27, 2010

Race, Racism, and the Buddhoblogosphere

As seems to be the case about every three or four months, there has been a lot of discussion in the Buddhoblogosphere about race, racism, and dharma practice. It's very telling how race and racism tend to tip over people who otherwise demonstrate clear thinking and compassion in their words. People just struggle terribly with these issues.

Obviously, the generations and generations of hatred and ignorance spawned by both individual and systemic racism aren't going to suddenly disappear. It's going to take a hell of a lot more listening, a hell of a lot more refraining from spouting off from whatever woundedness we each have, and a hell of a lot more willingness to change (individually and collectively) in order for a more just world to emerge.

Here are a few quotes from different posts addressing the race and racism. The first is from a more secular source, the blog Feministe. Tami, a woman of color, writes:

Today, when an “ism” shows its face, too much public sympathy rests with the offender and not the offended. As I’ve written before, in these times, hearing someone branded a racist is likely to upset more folks than encountered racism. Stick any bias in there–sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia…and the result is the same. It is, I think, the way the status quo defends itself when it gets tired of treating certain people equally.

One thing I will quibble with is labeling "people" racist because it's really a particular set of thoughts, words, and actions that are racist, and not any entire person. In addition, anyone wanting to have a dialogue with others whose thoughts, words, and/or actions are racist probably shouldn't begin with labeling said folks "racist."

With that said, I really find Tami's points so painfully true, at least in the United States right now. The reality, President Obama notwithstanding, is that the lion's share of power and privilege in this country still lies with white folks, individually and collectively. The historical legacy, which continues to play out today, very clearly favored white Americans in every sense from the nation's founding. This is our collective karma, whether you like it or not. As a white male, even though I have had my struggles, and have experienced direct injustice, it in no way, shape or form is equivalent to that of people of color living in my nation. I don't walk around feeling guilty about this, but I do make every effort to listen, pause, and re-examine my views around these issues - precisely because as a member of the most privileged group in my society, it's so easy for me not to. Just as the practice of meditation might be viewed as a radical act in a society addicted to speed and instant gratification, so, too, I think is the act of remaining vigilant about race and racism when everything in society supports doing the opposite.

Adam, over at Fly Like a Crow, recently wrote this:

Recently, a fellow blogger Kyle wrote a bit about race and privilege and then there was quite a discussion in the comments. Check it out if you want, though you won’t see any comments by me.

That’s because I don’t want to talk about race. I know that it is an important issue. I know that issues about race are bound to come up when dealing with Buddhism, bloggers, and inflated egos on the internet. Some of these discussions are very important. But I don’t want any part of them. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m white. I’ve simply had it with issues of race. (and yes, I understand the irony of this post)

I think most every has had it with issues of race. I know I have. I'd love to dump all the samsara on the planet into a garbage can and go on with my life, too, but it's not going to happen.

Before you take this as a condemnation of Adam's view, I think it's important to recognize that where he is coming from right now is a place all of us have been about some issue or another in our lives. Exhaustion and burn out happen, and during those times, it's best to do what you can to rest. I think it's important when considering large scale social issues that have impacted people for generations, to realize that they require a wide variety of responses over a very long period of time from many, many, many people. No one person will end racism and the suffering behind it. And I really think that sometimes, the most appropriate response one can offer is simply to offer metta to all beings during your meditation - that we all may be liberated from the misery of racism.

On the other hand, it's vitally important to recognize that opportunities to rest are not equivalent. I remember what it was like to be a white teenager hanging out on the streets, in parks, at school, and in other public places with black and latino teenagers. Whenever authority figured entered the picture, it was rarely I who had pressure or heavy questioning placed upon me. And it was often I who received comments like "You're smart. You should do something more with your life than hang around with these guys." In fact, some of those guys even said as much, never mind that they were intelligent and capable themselves. When I behaved "badly" or questionably, the presence of my "smarts" alone seemed to allow me a pass most of the time with teachers, school administration, and other authorities that came into my life. The same wasn't true for my friends of color.

So, I'm convinced that both the opportunity to rest, and the quality of that rest, are privileged. Race, class, gender, and sexual orientation all play roles in how much opportunity people have to step away from any given social problem that's impacting their lives. (Hint: every social problem impacts all of us, regardless of who we are.)

The wonderful thing about Buddhist teachings is that even though these disparities are present, anyone, from any background, can learn to how to rest better, listen better, respond better - and most importantly, anyone can be liberated through practice, regardless of circumstances.

However, part of awakening in my view is learning to be fully present to our conditioning, to see that how we are cannot be divorced from the history of where we grew up, as well as the actual people and places we experienced.

Maia, over at Jizo Chronicles, provides some of this wider perspective in comments she wrote right after Hurricane Katrina five years ago. As the people down there continue to struggle in many ways, it's vital to continue to consider why it is that certain groups in certain places are allowed to suffer more than others.

To witness the travesty that has been New Orleans over these past five days is heartbreaking beyond belief. And outrageous.

Phrases comes to my mind, and at first I thought them too inflammatory to write here. But I will anyway, because I want to wake us up. I want to wake myself up. Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes? And not just any death – excruciating deaths, brought about by lack of food, water… drowning deaths because people have waited for rooftop rescues which never came, and while they watched other corpses float by… children dying, old people dying, disabled people dying.

The really sad thing is, I’m not sure much has changed since August 2005.

May all beings be safe.

And may we all be liberated. Peace.


Adam said...

"So, I'm convinced that both the opportunity to rest, and the quality of that rest, are privileged. Race, class, gender, and sexual orientation all play roles in how much opportunity people have to step away from any given social problem that's impacting their lives. (Hint: every social problem impacts all of us, regardless of who we are.)"

Ha! I knew someone was going to bring that up. I had a written a bit about it in my first draft, but deleted it. I believe that you are correct in most contexts. Clearly being a white male in the society that I live in affoards me some of that "rest" you speak of, yet I believe this is only true if we allow our lives to go un-examined (which most of us do!) and never consider factors of race when we do so.

When I spoke of the "rest", I was mainly speaking about not wanting to blog about it, or confront those issues in the blogosphere. In the past I put up links on my blog linking to charities for the Dzud, Katrina, and the American Red Cross in helping with the snow-related disasters on tribal lands here in the states. I didn't do anything there for the floods in Pakistan. Not because I don't care. I put up that link here on your blog, and have sent out more than a few tweets about how to help as well. I just didn't want that on my space, in the new blog I created.

And I'm attempting to be much more mindful when commenting on blogs and message boards these days. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes that means that I re-write a comment after the passion has died down. And sometimes I just "walk" away.

I have plenty to say about issues of race. I just don't want to. There are other issues that will forever remain as "draft" posts as well. And this is where my practice and my blogging meet.

Great examination post by the way Nathan. :)

Nathan said...

Hey Adam,

I've seen enough of your writing to know you're thoughtful on all of this, and wanted to make sure people didn't think I was ripping your comments in that post.

And I totally get the rest from blogging about such things. I have to break from writing about hot button topics at times too. It's a lot of work to do it well, and respond kindly and intelligently to what comes back at you. Sometimes, I'm not up to it. And sometimes I'd rather write about my personal life, or some piece of dharma, or something else.

Kyle said...

I'm starting to take Adam's view of all this. We can try to listen more, not to be so reactive, but this is a lot more difficult that it seems. However systemic, it is the individual events that usually spark someone to speak up and take notice.

The truth is, there are such things called non-starters, or remarks made which are so inflammatory, they can't possibly led to a genuine discussion about race without first acknowledging how bias or ignorant they are. Yes, these are single events that are symptoms of the larger disease, and by only fighting the symptoms, one can never cure the disease. But you can't ignore a 103 fever either.

There is a bit of a double standard I think, as the post of mine Adam was referring to, if it was a white man saying those kinds of things that were said about a non-white person, there would have been many people quoting it as proof of racism. So, I challenge those that made the point that the bigger picture was being missed to say that an event like this would become the subject of harsh treatment if the tables were turned.

I don't know what the answer is, but frankly, I am so burned out on it. I don't want anything more to do with the subject for now. There are too many landmines between Us and Them that stand in the way.

Nathan said...


Having spent years talking about these issues, working at a legislative level to deal with a subset of these issues (i.e. discriminatory immigration policies), it's going to be a long time before major breakthroughs come on a large scale.

I also think that some of that exhaustion comes, at least when I experience it, from attachment to certain outcomes. When I'm able to say what I think, and listen to what comes back without clinging to wanting something else to come back, I seem to handle it all better. And it also seems easier to have those conversations, be it with a family member, someone online, or someone in government.