A Reconciliation of Two Identities: Understanding Non-Violence as a Person of Colour and a Buddhist Practitioner
New Column: Critical Intent
By Nina Eslambolipour
On a long car ride to Boston, I share with my friend the challenges of implementing non-violent action in the face of micro-aggressions as a young woman of colour. I am hoping that as a practitioner of meditation this friend will understand the difficulty of responding with skillful means to aggression. He explains to me that no matter what, I must always respond with non-violence in the face of aggression because “an eye for an eye makes the world blind.” I should look to Martin Luther King Jr., who is the epitome of correctly responding to violence. He talks about non-violence over aggression as if it were simply a decision between the two.
What I had hoped would be a conversation between the two of us has turned into a monologue. When he finishes, I attempt to articulate that: 1. to consciously sit with the emotions of pain, shock, and anger that arise when processing ignorance takes incredible patience and practice, and 2. to respond in a skillful way does not necessarily mean being “calm” and “rational.”
As I speak I notice him becoming defensive and as a result I become irritated Not realizing it then, I had overlooked the fact that although he is well versed in Buddhist philosophy, he has never had to personally combat the oppression that arises from the ignorance of others. I wonder when he steps out of this car and continues on his journey, will he think about this conversation again? Will it hold the same impact for him as it does for me? I do not think we have heard each other.
When I take a seat on the cushion I look around the room at my Sangha. I notice I am one of only a few people of colour in the room. The reality is that Western Buddhism is generally comprised of older, white, middle- to upper-class people. Most of the time when I have conversations, both within and outside of my Sangha, the conversations are similar to the one I had with my friend: based upon a privileged perspective that doesn’t hear or understand my experience as a person of colour. While I agree that regardless of race, class, and gender, it would be undeniably helpful to ourselves, our communities, and the world, to always be able to respond with non-aggression, this is not realistic. What is often overlooked in the practice of non-violence are the similarities between non-violence and subservience, and how much more challenging a non-violent response can be depending on one’s class, race, and gender. It takes incredible energy and patience for people who experience oppression to choose non-violence. It is not an easy task; it is consuming and informs every aspect of our lives.
I have also noticed in conversations concerning non-violence that MLK Jr. is almost always brought up as an example. When referencing him in these conversations we need to be aware of whom we are speaking to, and depending on the way we craft our language, we may be in danger of reducing him and his work into a monolith of how people of colour should behave. Please do not neglect the fact that his entire life was devoted to combating inhuman manifestations of racism. Non-violence was not something he thought about every so often or sometimes had a casual conversation about. Non-violence was his being and he was murdered for his beliefs. In order to speak of non-violence and be well informed, we must first recognize how our perspectives are informed by our privilege and experience, or lack of experience, with violence.
There is an expectation for individual people of colour to respond with non-violence when confronting violence, rather than focusing on the various factors that cause racial inequality. It is our own responsibility to educate ourselves not only on how oppression works, but how our own perceptions and actions contribute to racial oppression. People of colour are not supposed to be teachers who will peacefully guide you through your ignorance. When, as people of colour, we do speak on these issues the point is not for us to calmly get our message across so as to not hurt your feelings, cause tension, or create a “problem.” For us to try and do so would not necessarily be compassionate.
What does non-violence look like?
In order to practice non-violence it is necessary to have compassion. Typically the characteristics of compassion that we think of are empathy, openness, and understanding. However, there are qualities of compassion less commonly thought of: honesty, sharpness, and firmness. When combating ignorance it is necessary to implement these qualities because there is a difference between skillful compassion and what is referred to as “idiot compassion.”
Idiot compassion is described as shying away from direct action in a situation because we are more concerned with a cliché concept of compassion. Buddhist practitioner Bodhipaksa says, “Idiot compassion lacks courage because ‘being nice’ and ‘being good’ are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary.” In the context of a dialogue about non-violence, pain means feeling uncomfortable. There is no way around this one. If we want to grow we need to feel uncomfortable.
To demonstrate an example of this, my last name is constantly commented on. I can never get around the barrage of comments about how long and “different” it is. One day I was picking up photos from Walgreens when the gentleman who was helping me said, “Oh, you’re the one with the weird last name.” His remark was small and in most cases like this I remain silent. In this instance I chose to be completely honest and said, “Actually my name isn’t weird, it’s just culturally different and I don’t appreciate you saying it’s weird.” He quickly apologized and seemed embarrassed afterwards. Telling him how I felt put us both in an uncomfortable position, but in the end he’s going to think before he speaks that way about someone’s name, and I practiced speaking up instead of remaining silent.
Talking about non-violence and racial justice can be difficult. If you are a person of colour it can feel exceptionally challenging. If you consider yourself an ally, when a person of color opens up to you about their experiences, please just listen. Do not dominate the discussion or approach it as a friendly debate. Your intentions may be good, but in the long run you’re helping perpetuate systematic oppression. People of colour deserve to be listened to – our truth serves as a chance for growth within the mandala and as a larger society.
As a Buddhist practitioner I have placed an expectation upon myself that I should move through life with equanimity and gentleness; especially when I am having these difficult conversations. This is unreasonable because I am misinterpreting what a “good” Buddhist looks like. The greatest teaching I have absorbed from Shambhala is that wherever you are at emotionally or mentally is fine. It is okay for me to be reactive, impatient, and irritable. Thankfully I know all of this about myself and am working on responding to others with skillful compassion. I am slowly coming to understand what it means to be Buddhist as a young woman of colour.
Nina Eslambolipour is a first generation Middle Easterner. She is a recent graduate of Marlboro College and is currently working at a non-profit in Western Massachusetts.