Buddhists in the United States include fifth-generation Americans of Chinese and Japanese heritage, second-generation Korean-Americans, recent immigrants from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their American children, along with converts from European, African, and Latino backgrounds. As with other groups, Buddhists with common cultural and sectarian orientations have tended to stick together. With the end of the melting pot ideal, issues that once addressed racial and cultural diversity have been redefined in the political terms of multiculturalism. As this special section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race suggests, the views of Buddhists from different races and traditions reflect the society at large.

Homeless Buddha, Izhar Patkin and Nam June Paik collaboration, 1992. Photo by Chris Gomien, Courtesy Carl Solway Gallery.
Homeless Buddha, Izhar Patkin and Nam June Paik collaboration, 1992. Photo by Chris Gomien, Courtesy Carl Solway Gallery.

I was named after Frederick Douglass, though my parents left the last “s” off my middle name. “We figured that we’d give you an option,” my father half-joked. “If you wanted to you could always say you were named after Douglas MacArthur.”

Actually, it was hardly ever a problem. None of my white friends would’ve known that I Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who 1 became a leading abolitionist. And none of my black high school friends who might have known would have made the connection. My childhood nickname had long since taken over—I was Ricky and still am Rick.

But one person did know. And she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. She was my social studies teacher at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens—a black social studies teacher. When she read my name on some official document, she said to me (after class): “Now isn’t this something! I have heard of black—she probably said “Negro”; we’re talking 1958 or so—kids called George Washington This and Thomas Jefferson That. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a white boy being named after a black!” And she laughed, with real delight, and I felt that the name I bore, if not exactly secret but still in hiding, was an occasion for pride.

But the most telling part of this tale, so to speak, is that, if it suited me, I could keep it a secret. The bureaucrats who stamped driver’s licenses and entered Social Security numbers would have been the last to know, and anyhow, the life story of Frederick Douglass was hardly on the required reading list in those pre-multicultural years. My secret was my own—I could pass.

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