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Feb 25
Opinion Pieces
The Inheritance of Race in an Enlightened Diverse Society
Photo courtesty of Marc Matheson and Christopher Miles

Photo courtesty of Marc Matheson & Christopher Miles

By Gale Young

“It’s okay Gale” my long time professional partner, an African American, said in 1992, “Sunday is the most segregated time in America. Relax. It’s your white ethnic experience”.  Except for the Level One instructor, I hadn’t seen another person of color in either the San Francisco or Berkeley Centers and inquiries about the role of diversity in an enlightened society elicited visible discomfort.

Eighteen years later thanks to the dedication of the Diversity Working Group (DWG), (constituted by Shambhala International in 2005) with inspired leadership from Cortez Rainey and now Sekayi Stringer all centers are encouraged to display the Shambhala Diversity Aspirations, we have scholarships for People of Color to attend programs, and a magnificent Shambhala Diversity web page with an abundant array of resources including listservs, programs, books and articles, contemplations, simulations, speeches, research results,  DWG annual reports and much more.  Some Centers offer special sits and groups for a variety of diversity groups, e.g. LBGT, People of Color. The home page acknowledges that although our practice of meditation cultivates the capacity to open to all individuals, social groups and cultures that

“This does not mean that Shambhala is a perfect society. If you visit one of our centres, you may find that it does not mirror in every way the characteristics of the people who live in the cities or towns where our centres are located. But please note that it is the intention—and the stated policy—of our centres to welcome everyone who enters. This intention is at the very core of the Shambhala Buddhist teachings.”

There is a saying that the “answer to how is yes”. Principles are in place with all the right resources and available means to manifest genuine diversity. We have the how.  Yet I remain reluctant when friends and colleagues of color express interest in coming to meditate with me.  That our primarily White sangha, in leadership, membership, curriculum, and outreach blares a glaring message is true but what makes me most hesitant, and many would suggest underlies the problem, is the visible discomfort among many White Shambhalians around issues of race and diversity. I believe as White Anglo European Americans, and especially as White Shambhalians we have two special responsibilities: (1) To study and contemplate the inheritance of race and its embodiment in our body, speech, and mind; and (2) To develop skillful and compassionate means to listen and speak cross race lines and about difficult issues.

In this year of the Earth Ox, I dream of White Shambhalians saying YES to an Enlightened Diverse Society in four ways:

Study. We will read and talk about the karma of Benjamin Franklin advocating for the U.S. to be for the “lovely whites” studying history texts, essays, stories documentaries, films by and about people of color including those written by Buddhists of color. We will understand that race, a social construction, without a trace of DNA to support it, emerged in the U.S. as an economic and efficient way to access and control cheap labor and the oft-times unconscious possessive investment in this construction, has mutated into today’s laws, public policies and accepted norms perpetuating both discrimination against people of color and privileging Whites. *

Contemplate. We will contemplate, alone and in group practice, the inheritance of race and how it affects our own perceptions and attitudes about ourselves, other whites, and those we see as racially different. We will understand the research results that show a persistent and significant discrepancy between how People of Color and Whites experience the racial climate in the U.S. and the levels of discrimination.  We will contemplate the unconscious and unearned privilege that comes with being racially similar to other members of the dominant group manifest in such comments as “I don’t see color, I see human beings, a man or a woman, an American”.**

Practice. We will mindfully and bravely engage racially potent messages such as white privilege and white racism, and the absence of diversity. When, for example, U.S. Attorney General Holder recently said that we are “a nation of cowards when it comes to having frank conversations about race”, we can ask ourselves in what ways do we each manifest that forwardness? We will notice when we want to space out, change the topic, get defensive, argue, remain silent, tend to globalize our own experience and assume intentions and the dharma are enough. Gambill’s searing 1958 speech on ways to steal human rights from American Indians will remind us of the everyday choices we make.***  Three such choices involve: Consistently choosing to place Diversity issues as the item last on the agenda or as ITA, “if time allows”; Choosing to place a few people of color in the upper echelons of the organization, hold them up as examples of the lack of bias while maintaining the status quo; or Choosing to view diversity in competition with other ‘more important concerns’.

Sangha. As White Shambhalians we will support people of color programs and groups and will organize Whiteness groups to study, contemplate, and practice our growing understanding of America’s race karma. I imagine us integrating the study, contemplation and practice of diversity and intercultural relations into all that we do for the dream of an Enlightened Diverse Society.

* Lipsitz, G. (1998). The possessive investment in whiteness: How white people profit from identity politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
**  Young, G. (1998) Leonard’s Yard: Pulling at the roots and responsibilities of my whiteness in Among us: Essays on identity, belonging, and intercultural competence. Eds M.Lustig and  J. Koester. New York: Longman Inc
***  Gambill., J. (1983). On the art of stealing human rights. Knepler, H.W., Knepler, M. Kane,K. Crossing cultures:. Readings for composition.  New York

Gale Young, Ph.D, a white European American middle class heterosexual able bodied woman with the great good fortune to have mentors, colleagues, and friends of color, different genders and sexual orientations as collaborators, co-authors, co-coordinators, and co-directors of projects seeking to move the higher education toward an inclusive multicultural learning experience.  A professor of intercultural and conflict communication, she has served as Co-Director for the Study of Intercultural Relations, Affirmative Action Liaison Officer and currently is an Associate Dean, and the Chair of the Communication Department at Cal-State University East Bay in Northern California. She is a devoted student of Sakyong Mipham.

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1 response to “ The Inheritance of Race in an Enlightened Diverse Society ”
  1. Thank you so much for this, Gale! It is so good to have the lens of race turned towards us white folks, who are trained to think it’s all about someone else. I’ve been looking at the subtleties of white cultural conditioning for many years now and am amazed at how deeply and pervasively it is built into my habitual patterns of body, speech, and mind. Even when I am aware of them, they still persist. However, the awareness, as with any insight into habitual patterns, does allow me to cut the karmic momentum and hold myself in basic goodness. And to begin to take responsibility for myself as a white person in situations around race.

    One of my privileges as a white person is being able to see myself as an individual without being judged as a member of my race. (And how insulted/dismayed/defensive/guilty we can get when this idea of “white privilege” is brought up!) One of the first steps is making whiteness visible. The key is realizing we still have basic goodness even though we have this cultural conditioning of ignorance. I could go on and on… I appreciate that you’ve called us out.

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