Zen and Racism

Zen and Racism:

The National Post sent someone to attend an anti-racism seminar, at which some remarkably bad advice was given.

Sandy, Jim and Karen work at a downtown community centre where they help low-income residents apply for rental housing. Sandy has a bad feeling about Jim: She notices that when black clients come in, he tends to drift to the back of the office. Sandy suspects racism (she and Jim are both white). On the other hand, she also notices that Jim seems to get along well with Karen, who is black. As the weeks go by, Sandy becomes more uncomfortable with the situation. But she feels uncertain about how to handle it. Test question: What should Sandy do?

If you answered that Sandy's first move should be to talk to Karen, and ask how Jim's behaviour made her feel, you are apparently a better anti-racist than me.

That, for what it's worth, was the preferred solution offered by my instructor at "Thinking About Whiteness and Doing Anti-Racism," a four-part evening workshop for community activists, presented earlier this year at the Toronto Women's Bookstore.

My own answer, announced in class, was that Sandy should approach Jim discreetly, explaining to him how others in the office might perceive his actions. Or perhaps the manager of the community centre could give a generic presentation about the need to treat clients in a colour-blind manner, on a no-names basis.

The problem with my approach, the instructor indicated, lay in the fact that I was primarily concerned with the feelings of my fellow Caucasian, Jim. I wasn't treating Karen like a "full human being" who might have thoughts and worries at variance with the superficially friendly workplace attitude.

Moreover, I was guilty of "democratic racism" -- by which we apply ostensibly race-neutral principles such as "due process," constantly demanding clear "evidence" of wrongdoing, rather than confronting prima facie instances of racism head-on. "It seems we're always looking for more proof," said the instructor, an energetic left-wing activist who's been teaching this course for several years. "When it comes to racism, you have to trust your gut."
A number of problems with this approach leap to mind, especially the idea that we should dispense with due process before throwing around charges of racism; but let's focus on just one specific problem. If I go to Karen in the way the speaker suggests, I am forcing her into a role that is based on her being black. Far from treating her as a "full human being," I'm treating her as an explicitly black human being. After all, why am I assuming that she has "thoughts and worries" about Jim, with whom she is apparently friendly and on good terms? Because she's black. Why should she be the person I go to, instead of the person who is exhibiting behavior that may (or may not) be racist in motivation? Because she's black.

My own answer to the test question would have been more along the lines of, "Mind your own business," but I imagine that was not an option on the quiz. If Karen is indeed a "full human being," however, surely she ought to be trusted to handle her own problems -- if indeed she has problems, which she doesn't seem to have; and if indeed she is worried or secretly angry at Jim, which she shows no sign of being.

Now, how about an answer to a better question: not, "How should I respond if I suspect racism in others?" but the real question these young activists should ask, "How should I respond if I suspect racism in myself?"
[M]ost were involved in what might broadly be termed the anti-racism industry -- an overlapping hodgepodge of community-outreach activists, equity officers, women's studies instructors and the like. Most said they'd come so they could integrate anti-racism into their work. Yet a good deal of the course consisted of them unburdening themselves of their own racist guilt.
Well, how should you respond to that? Ideas about race have been a factor in our society, with a deep and troubled history; and so many people remain focused on the notion that race is real and important that it's difficult to move about without rubbing up against someone who really wants you to be conscious of his or her race (as they define it, of course).

(Cf. with the person in this story who objects, in the strongest terms, to people attempting to be 'color-blind.')

So you're aware of race, because of the history and because it continues to be brought forward as relevant by people you meet. On the other hand, you wish to treat people as -- well, let's stick with the term "full human beings." So how do you do this?

Anyone who has done Zen-type meditation knows the answer. You can't really control what you think: conscious control of consciousness is surprisingly limited. For example, if I tell you not to think of a purple elephant, at once you are forced to think of one: there's nothing you can do about it. By the same token, learning to quiet you mind in meditation is quite hard, as thoughts continue to arise long after you've decided to stop thinking and breathe.

What you're supposed to do, to make it work, is just this: recognize the thought you're having, and let it go. Go back to doing what you're supposed to be doing, which in the case of zazen meditation is just sitting and breathing.

In a while, you'll probably have another thought, but it's no big deal. Just recognize it, and let it go. There's no penalty for failure, because there's no failure; we don't have perfect control over our thoughts. Just let it go, don't worry about it, and get back to what you're supposed to be doing.

Race is like that too. You know how you're supposed to treat people. Do that. If you find yourself having a race-oriented thought you don't want, recognize it... and let it go. Get back to what you're supposed to be doing, which is talking to and working with another human being.

Anybody who's been in the military understands all this. It's funny, because these same anti-racist/anti-capitalist activists doubtless consider us the worst kind of oppressors (and racists!). Yet the American military's actual behavior has stood as an example before the entire world of what true anti-racism looks like, and of practical friendship between peoples of different origin.


Derk Rogus said...

There is a very important missing piece in you "analysis". That is, the existence of systemic racism. Racism isn't merely what is called (by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond) race prejudice. It is at least race prejudice + power (systemic and cultural). Racism does not merely exist on the interpersonal level. We continue to have laws and policies that maintain white supremacy in our country. There are copious studies which document this and if you have any doubts ask a black person if they can ever pretend like they aren't black in this country. A black man in an urban area can be color-blind all he wants, but that won't keep him from being profiled by the police. The history and dynamics of racism in this country requires serious ongoing study to understand. This understanding requires regular maintenance, just like zen practice. Check out this video:


Be careful not to deceive yourself that you don't have more to learn. It may be scary to face your white privilege, but it's more rewarding than you might think and your practice will help you. Good luck and keep on truckin. :)


Grim said...


Thanks for coming by.

I'm familiar with that model of reading racism, but it isn't mine. I grew up around the racism of the north Georgia mountains; we had the Klan handing out their stuff on the town square, some days. It's of a different order than what you're talking about when you talk about privileges maintained through laws and policies that have differential effects (which can be challenged in court, and which challenges often prove fruitful).

Nevertheless, notice that I'm not suggesting that anyone pretend to be color blind. I'm suggesting that they recognize the racist thoughts that may arise in their minds, admit their existence, and then let them go. That leads not to a sense of being color blind, but to the sense of being (at least subconsciously) racist; which admission, made internally, can let you move on to do what is actually right.

My hope is that a lot of these subconscious attitudes may be inherited by being raised in a society in which racism was very important to the social structure; by refusing to pass them on, perhaps we can come to a place where (for our children or grandchildren) they really aren't important. That really would be color-blind, and I think that's a worthy goal. Insofar as there are laws or policies of the type you mention, it will be easier to overturn them when we get to the place where nobody sees the point in them any more.

In the meanwhile, if we treat each other right, we can have something very much like a just society. I think the military experience demonstrates that this is possible, even in a society in which our subconscious minds may have been trained for racism.