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I’m probably racist. I don’t think I am, but that’s probably what makes me racist. After all, I never used to think that I was racist until I became a little less racist, at which point it became glaringly obvious how absurdly racist I used to be.
I don’t want to be racist, but I am. How could I not be? I grew up in an almost all-white suburb within a country that was built on racism; almost every day, I was presented with racist imagery and speech—sometimes implicit bias and ignorance and other times explicit hate. Even as I write this, I have to admit that I’m only doing so because a cop killed George Floyd—or rather only because so many people spoke out and took to the streets that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Racists like me have the privilege of forgetting about racism.
I look back on the times when I was racist and didn’t know it, and I am ashamed at my lack of compassion. Sure, I voted for Barack Obama and decried the most vile forms of hate. But when activists and thinkers of color made claims that challenged my worldview and my self-image, I didn’t really listen. I had some common white-person reactions: Isn’t this a slippery slope? Isn’t that reverse racism? What about free speech? Appropriation and microaggressions—aren’t we splitting hairs?
It’s easy to see now my unwillingness or inability to extend the sort of compassion that would allow me to see the situation from another perspective. This conversation is nuanced, and being told, for instance, to listen to black people one moment and that black people shouldn’t be burdened with educating us the next can feel like a catch-22. But from another point of view, it’s totally reasonable to expect people to listen when you speak and not to demand that you speak on command.
The Buddhist view of compassion calls for a degree of faith. We’re taught that if you do not understand the suffering, have compassion anyway. Because if you hold compassion, you will begin to understand.
Slippery-slope arguments around representation and reparations are not compassionate. If someone is hungry, for example, and you give them your food, it would be senseless to fret about where the line is drawn. Buddhism would say it’s better that you starve if it saves someone else a day of starvation. But the dharma also says that would never happen because compassion begets compassion.
When one sees “reverse racism” in cries of Black Lives Matter or bristles at being told that their life is easier because of white privilege, that, too, comes from a lack of compassion. Having one’s privilege pointed out may sound like an attack, but that is a mistake: it is really an invitation to empathy. Even if one is called out in a way that is perceived as abrasive or accusatory, it’s up to the privileged person to strive for understanding. When someone is suffering, we cannot dictate how they express their pain. Focusing on how the message is delivered rather than the message itself is uncompassionate as well.
We all have an individual responsibility to help end racism and racial injustices, but we must also recognize that this is a systemic issue that is larger than any individual. Again, we can find guidance in the Buddhist teachings on compassion. The concept of bodhicitta—the enlightened mind that is awakened through a wish to end suffering for all sentient beings—is spoken of in terms of relative experience and absolute reality. This can be taken to mean that, while compassion is cultivated on the individual level, it is not fully realized until one is wise enough to see the complex web of interconnected causes and effects that lead to suffering. A fully enlightened buddha would understand the difference between systemic and anecdotal suffering. So if, for example, I feel wounded by “call out culture,” I can see how it comes from my karma, in the sense of my actions (or inactions) throughout my life of benefiting from a racist system.
That is the compassionate view. It is not always easy to hold, especially in moments of reactivity. But practitioners admire and aspire to the Buddha’s compassion because it is so difficult. In the Zen tradition, Buddhists recite the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows:
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires [kleshas, afflictions or delusions] are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.
Fully aware that the task ahead is insurmountable, practitioners nonetheless vow to transcend what is currently possible.
Zen teachings are often concerned with human limitation. Students are told to cultivate a don’t-know mind, sometimes through koan practice, which challenges us to bring to face paradoxes with openness and humility. Often don’t-know mind is taught in terms of cultivating wisdom, but it can also be applied toward compassion.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being racist. I don’t even know just how racist I really am. But if a person from a marginalized group is telling me about their experience and I am having trouble understanding their perspective, I’ll try to approach it as a koan. I’ll reflect on it with compassion and try to take my ego out of the equation. And eventually, I believe that I will start to understand.
Odds are that I will always be racist. Nonetheless, I vow to put an end to racism.
Want to learn more about the work of undoing racism? Tricycle is offering free access to a selection of articles about race, dharma, and practice by Buddhist practitioners and teachers of color. You can also consult Insight Meditation teacher Oren Jay Sofer’s list of helpful guidelines, “10 Things White People Can Do to Work for Racial Justice.”
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