Not Ready to Talk about Race

This is Part I 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 II. Part III

“If we truly bear witness to the wholeness of life, then we will bear witness not just to our own lives but to the complex functioning of society as a whole...It wasn’t enough for me to visit everyone and try to see things from their points of view -- or to try to help them see things from my point of view.  We also had to bear witness to a system of racism, poverty, and disempowerment.  We were all part of it, we had formed it together, and it, in turn, was now forming our views and reactions” -Bernie Glassman in Bearing Witness

One of the most meaningful parts to me of being a Zen Peacemakers Minister is going beyond the illusion of separation between self and other. Through numerous bearing witness retreats on the streets and at Auschwitz, I practiced experiencing interconnection. My experience with the many sanghas in the international Zen Peacemakers family has been enriched by diverse cultures, nationalities and languages.  Bearing witness to these differences is a central theme of our retreats.  

I find myself in many communities in the United States that make explicit pronouncements of valuing racial inclusion and diversity while being composed primarily of people of European descent.  In many these communities, I don’t see as many brown-skinned as I see outside of them.  That is to say, they aren’t representative in this regard of the cities and nation in which they are located.  Why is this the case?    

During the early years of my academic study and Zen training, I didn’t explicitly study social identities like race and class. Though they were popular with many of my peers, I didn’t take courses in college that focused on topics like anti-racism and feminism.  I considered myself a liberal. I already believe in that stuff, I thought. No need for me to work on that. Instead, I studied government, history and economics. The vast majority of the voices I studied were those of dead white men.  

In January of 2014, I gave a presentation at the Interdependence Project in New York City.  I gave my usual shtick about the pay-what-you-can community cafe I helped found as part of my training in becoming a Zen Peacemaker Minister. I explained how we use the Way of Council circle and the pay-what-you-can structure to foster connection for people from different class and racial backgrounds.  

When one of the participants asked how we address race, I admitted that I hadn’t focused on it explicitly, but that we try our best to create conditions where everyone will be able to listen deeply to each other. Audience members asked follow-up questions:

“Is passing around the talking stick in council sufficient to overcome unequal power dynamics based on race?”

“Do you think a colorblind approach will help identify and dismantle racism?”

This was about half a year after the Black Lives Matter movement grew in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin.  A renewed conversation on race was emerging in the mainstream and I didn’t know how to participate. There I was, representing a lineage I was proud to consider one of the primary promoters of Socially Engaged Buddhism, and was ignorant about a pressing social issue. To be continued.