Jared invited us to write on a piece of paper something in the hidden area that we’d like to share anonymously. That is to say, something of which we are aware but hide, about which we are afraid to “come out of the closet.” We mixed them up and read them aloud. I shared I was afraid to reveal my feelings connected to racial privilege. I feared offending others.
I talked about my blind spot later that day with Paco Lugoviña, a senior teacher in the Zen Peacemakers of Puerto Rican descent, who was also at the training. He invited me to a meeting with the folks from the Interdependence Project, whose board he recently joined. We met with a young woman of color involved with IDP. I shared how my earlier experience presenting at IDP shifted my perspective and she told me about anti-racist initiatives in a variety of Buddhist communities, including her own.
After the meeting, I told Paco that I wanted to promote an exploration of racism in the Zen Peacemakers, but I wanted to wait for the right time. I was recently elected to the new ZPO international governance circle and I didn't want to threaten my status by bringing up these complicated and potentially controversial issues.
Relative and Absolute
I’ll digress for a moment to illustrate why I see this as complicated. I see social identity this as a case of the Zen concept of the identity and balance of the relative and the absolute. In the introduction to Infinite Circle in 2001, Bernie Glassman asks “Can this move...towards recognizing that we’re all One, allow for the equal importance of diverse cultures, economies, traditions, and needs? Can we honor each component as One Body rather than honoring the One Body at the expense of its components? This has always been humanity’s great challenge, and it’s equally the great challenge facing peacemakers today.”
On the side of the absolute, we are all One and race doesn’t exist. The history I learned through training and reading claimed that despite how solid it can sometimes seem, race as I know it as an American is a mere social construct without a solid biological basis. Similarly, I was taught in my Buddhist training that clinging to a fixed sense of identity is the cause of suffering. Can identity politics, therefore, reinforce such clinging?
Listening to the voices of American people of color (through trainings like Undoing Racism, books like the New Jim Crow, survey results, social science research and conversations with individuals) sheds light on the relative. On the side of the relative, advocates of racial justice share the perspective that the social construct of race results in harm and that bringing those constructs to conscious awareness can help reduce their grip on us. People of color who left predominantly white progressive communities have told me that a sense of colorblindness and reluctance to discuss race contributed to an environment in which they ultimately did not feel welcome.
I learned about the connection between mindfulness and race in my Mindfulness Facilitator Training with the Engaged Mindfulness Institute. According to John A. Powell Ph.d, the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkley, “Research has uncovered overwhelming evidence that conscious egalitarian goals are often undermined by deeply rooted implicit biases… the goal is not to eliminate bias, but rather the negative effects of bias. We need to create and foster new experiences that can override our biased beliefs in order to build an unconscious that functions from and seeks to reinforce mores of equality and fairness.”
Social psychologists have observed that even when people profess being more or less colorblind, anxiety resulting from encountering racial Others results in people arranging seats farther apart than they otherwise might, over-anticipating disagreement and conflict and avoiding potentially charged topics that actually lead to deeper understanding. Mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce impulsive reactions, including prejudice based on age and race. In my experience, practices in the Zen Peacemakers tradition also reduce prejudice. To be continued.