Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oh, I get it – you think I’m white

While my three previous posts have been pointedly about race, it is not a “new” subject for me. I have been contemplating this topic for quite some time, not only looking at how others act on the concept of race, how others self-identify in terms of their own race, and how race remains a divisive issue, but also looking at how I internalize race in terms of my own identity and how I project these internalized notions onto others. It has been an uncomfortable journey.

All my scattered thoughts and bits of fleeting insight (if insight it can be called) began to coalesce when my attention was directed toward a post at Firehorse via Progressive Buddhism via (tangentially) Nathan at Dangerous Harvests. But then I encountered the “catalyst,” this time via Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, when I read one of Brad Warner’s posts at Hardcore Zen.

Perhaps I am misstating things, but it seems to me the essential question is whether attachment to identity in terms of race, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation are hindrances. That seems to be what Warner was trying to address. Here’s the question someone sent him:

“Have you ever considered that it may be easier for you to give up attachment to identity because your identities are not problematic, are in fact usually not considered identities at all?”

In other words - perhaps - was the questioner asking this because Warner is white, and being white is not normally considered a "problem?" Warner’s initial response.

“I believe that all of us, no matter what our race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., are socialized to cling tightly to individual identity and to believe in it very strongly. This goes far beyond matters of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Those aspects of identity are very superficial compared to the much deeper issues of seeing oneself as separate from the rest of humanity and from the Universe itself. So my guess is that maybe someone who has forged a strong identity based on his/her/zher race, culture, sexual orientation etc. might have a tiny fraction of a percent more attachment to identity than someone for whom the questioner says identity is not an issue. Maybe. Maybe. Just a teeeny, weeny, itty bitty bit.”

I believe Warner is being way too kind in his assessment of this issue. But here’s the trick as I see it.

I don’t think I can abandon my “self” without first having a firm understanding of who I am. I don’t think you can let go of something unless you know what it is you are letting go of. At the same time, however, I cannot ignore the Buddha’s consistent teaching on self, which was to largely ignore the issue. Thanisarro Bhikkhu explains in “Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha” that the Buddha avoided discussion about self or no-self (anata in Pali) because regardless of how one defines or views “self,” that view is a source of dukkha, a source of suffering.

“So, instead of answering ‘no’ to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no ‘other,’ as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely ‘other’ universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness — one's own or that of others — impossible.”

Race is clearly a part of our self-identification. And I think it is pretty clear that race is also a significant part of our suffering because of how we cling to it as not only being a part of “self,” but also how we cling to it as a general fabrication we use to project identity on the groups “us” and “them.” It is from the development of these fabrications and our adoption of them – either willfully or unconsciously – that our troubles relating to race arise. It is my belief that before any of us, myself included, can let go of race as a source of interpersonal division and as a source of dukkha, we must recognize from where it arises, how it arises, what are its nutriments, and how it creates unhappiness.

“Haughtiness & contempt have been abandoned — rooted out — the conceit ‘I am’ is extracted, all forms of pride, destroyed.” From Jenta, the Royal Chaplain’s Son (Thag 6.9)

The temporary simile of self that I have come up with so far is that it is like a ball of Velcro. It starts with a basic identity, such as I am a boy. But then a lot of other stuff gets picked up along the way and clings to my basic self. And after a while, what started as a simple, single-dimension notion of self has become complicated with multiple layers and dimensions, some of which are buried and hidden. Despite that, I believe many people continue to view “self” in a very simplistic way; so simple, in fact, that many people ignore obvious connections to “self” that come from outside sources.

For example, think of the term “father.” In its simplest form, “father” is merely the male counterpart of a male-female couple that produces offspring: “father” is simply the source of sperm. But I would guess that most men who are fathers have a much more complex notion of what it means to be a father. And I would further guess that these fathers are unconscious of these more complex aspects of their identity. Yet, they behave, act, think and say things predicated on what that notion of father is.

Add to that additional concepts of identity such as a person’s age, ethnicity, race, geographic identity – all these things, and it quickly becomes evident that the simple identity we began with, “father”, has taken on many new dimensions beyond the base term. Yet, a group of fathers will initially identify with each other based solely on the notion that they are the male counterparts of a male-female couple that produce offspring. Given time, they will likely deliberately further compartmentalize themselves (we are good fathers, they are poor fathers), as well as unconsciously draw divisions (we are middle-class fathers, they are lower-class fathers).

I believe there are two primary reasons why most people don’t think about the complexity of their identity. One is a matter of convenience and acquiescence; it is much easier to just simply act within the behavioral norms associated with our identity without thinking about them or being aware of them. I believe the other reason, however, is that to seriously consider the complexity of our identity scares the shit out of most people. And fear, it is important to be aware of, often leads to unskillful – even irrational – behavior. It is much easier for me to think of myself as a “man” in simple terms based upon my genitalia and some other very vague concepts associated with the term “man,” than to seriously consider the collective concept of “men.” Because as soon as I attempt to understand the gestalt of “men,” I must recognize how others might perceive that concept, and that it may differ from mine, even among other men.

It would differ between rich men and poor men; between white men and black men. And it’s my assertion that many men, for example, are afraid to fully evaluate how their race and sex automatically combine to bring them either advantage or disadvantage, privilege or lack of privilege. Because there is this unwillingness to critically evaluate and understand how these notions operate and work together, many are left with this vague uneasiness. This tends to contribute to defensive reactions whenever someone comes along and challenges us to critically look at why we do what we do, instead of just doing it.

Right now I’m thinking of the Bob Dylan song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

“While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits/Can lead to hundred-dollar plates/Goodness hides behind its gates/But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked.”

I was traveling with a companion through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand during March, 2003. We had been staying in larger cities and had recently spent a night on the resort island of Langkawi. Our next stop was Phuket. We took a ferry from Langkawi to Satun in Thailand. Our taxi that was to take us to our bus turned out to be an old, red Datsun pickup with a canopy over the bed. We hopped in the back along with some locals. When we reached Satun, and the driver began dropping off people, we were going through narrow and crowded streets filled with people. I looked about and not a single sign anyway was familiar; everything was Thai script. There were no Coca-Cola signs, nothing in English, not even anything in Malay written with Roman letters. We drove slowly by a fish market that would make Pike’s Place look miniscule; people everywhere, none of them white. For a very brief moment, I felt anxiety. I suddenly felt for the first time, despite having already spent a week in Southeast Asia, that I was truly far away from home: it was my Dorothy in Oz moment when she says, “Toto, I've a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Then just as suddenly, I let go of the anxiety and took in the site. I brought myself into the moment, because by golly, I was there.

“A question in your nerves is lit/Yet you know there is no answer fit/To satisfy, insure you not to quit/To keep it in your mind and not forget/That it is not he or she or them or it/That you belong to.”

I vaguely remember a discussion about race that might have occurred in high school. I can’t remember if this was said by one of my teachers, or a comedian during some routine, or by a teacher recounting a comedian’s routine. But the comment, or rather suggestion, was on how to respond to someone I believe is speaking to me in either an overtly racist tone, or speaking to me because he or she is also white using words he or she probably would not use if speaking with someone of a different race. For example, someone telling me a racist or off-color joke. I would look at them with a puzzled expression, showing a confused response to what was just said. Then I show an expression of “Aha!” and respond with, “Oh, I get it, you think I’m white. That’s why you’re telling me this.”

“While one who sings with his tongue on fire/Gargles in the rat race choir/Bent out of shape from society’s pliers/Cares not to come up any higher/But rather get you down in the hole/That he’s in.”

I realize I may have rambled a bit at the end, but that's the way it is; the path of self-discovery is no simple feat. I hope I am stimulating your own thoughts and inward searching as I continue with mine.


  1. I dig it. I think those 'feeling out of place' moments are key to understanding what life too often feels like for people of color; in fact it can become more than just moments, a pervasive and chronic feeling of not being at home. Yes as practitioners we are to go beyond this, to come home to the breath and present moment. But we also have a responsibility I think to help others come home - and that means pushing for change in the system(s) that make too many people feel 'not at home' for a majority of their lives.

  2. Thanks. I believe you raise an important point. I think some misunderstand the idea of coming to the present moment, and when they find it they merely dwell in it. But the point of focusing ourselves in the present moment is so that we can see things how they really are and develop the wisdom to act skillfully. It's not a retreat, but rather a strategy for skillful engagement.

  3. I wrote a lot about race and identification on my blog...especially towards the end of 2009 when I was taking my African American Studies class...We spoke a lot about race and identity. I always felt out of place because I have very little information about my past or where I "come" from.