Learning About Race

This is Part II of a three-part series sharing some of the background of the Land Food and Race Bearing Witness Retreat in September of 2017. Please consider applying by July 17 to join us. Part I. Part III

Seeing an opportunity to grow, I participated in a 3-day Undoing Racism training with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond in May of 2014.  The topics presented resonated deeply to me with the three Peacemaker tenets of Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and doing the Actions that come from them.  According to the way I integrate the three tenets with what I learned at the training, prejudices, both racist and otherwise, are widespread patterns of Knowing that privilege certain identities and perspectives at the expense of others. I refer to Knowing as the opposite of the first Peacemaker tenet of Not-Knowing. Examining privilege therefore provides a lens to question assumptions and reach Not-Knowing. This works, in my opinion, as long as the anti-privilege attitude doesn't become a new rigid assumption. Just like Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness facilitate behavior that heals social divides, Knowing can conversely prevent Bearing Witness and result in behavior that maintains separation and marginalization, misses opportunities for mutual benefit or, worse, commits or sustains abuse and oppression.  

My take on the history I learned at the Undoing Racism training and by reading the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, is that when European indentured servants and African slaves encountered each other in the American colonies, they naturally bore witness to each other, and loving actions ensued... in some cases quite literally. They formed romantic connections and had babies.  They started collaborating to oppose the colonial slaveholders.  Realizing that the subjugated Africans and Europeans would more effectively challenge the dominant powers working together than working apart, the slave-owners created laws that defined the Africans as “black” and the Europeans as “white.” They created punishments for interbreeding between blacks and white and also created different punishments for a variety of crimes for blacks and for whites. In doing so, they created and imposed a concept of race that didn’t previously exist.  Thus, while the slaves and indentured servants previously saw common cause with each other, the prejudice of a racialized worldview encouraged them to see “other.”  The colonizers created a socially reinforced pattern of Knowing that continues today.  

At a Zen Peacemaker Order Council and Bearing Witness training in June 2015, our council trainer Jared Seide introduced four quadrants of the Johari Window:

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.