In exploring the impact of the diversity trainings, we made sure to talk to some people who had expressed criticism of the workshops. We found that these discussions led to unforeseen shifts in perspective for all of us. The following conversation is condensed from an hour-long discussion among White male Green Gulch resident Lee De Barros, Sala Steinbach and myself.
Lee explained that at the workshop he had made it clear that he did not think that the model presented described him, that he felt unjustly accused of being racist. As he examined his feelings and Sala and I reflected back our understanding of what he was saying, he cautioned against rigid definitions that don’t allow for change. It was not until after he had told us his criticism and articulated his anger and his pain, that Lee turned his critical eye to what he saw as his own area of “rigidity,” his well-fortressed definition of himself. Examining this rigidity through the lens of Zen practice, he was moved to tears. —B.G.
Lee De Barros: Because you are Black, Sala, it felt like a sensitive situation to attack the system that you were using in case it might be seen as an attack on you. I felt like we were all supposed to go along with a closed model. You said that Americans, by definition, were prejudiced. I did not feel that this characterization applied to me.
Sala Steinbach: I don’t usually say the word prejudiced. The analogy I used is that racism is like smog; we all breathe it. But how it affects us is different. The way I get it, as a Black person, is internalized. In the media, Blacks are continuously portrayed as ignorant. Therefore I distrust my own intelligence. Blacks are portrayed as dangerous. I become afraid of people who look just like me and just like my family.
LDB: I said at the workshop that I just don’t have the same feeling about racism being universal. I don’t think it describes me or many other people. So then, based on the assumption that it is universal, your coleader suggested that I was in denial.
I feel like I’m being prejudged. What you are doing to me is exactly what you are trying to eliminate. I’m an American; therefore I’m breathing racism, and therefore I have this problem that I need to look at. Because your system defines me, I feel that you are not trusting me or accepting me. To me, that’s what prejudice is. And I don’t like it [laughs]. Then anger occurs….
I’m making an assertion that your system doesn’t apply to me, that I’m not affected by racism. I don’t actually believe that completely either, you know, but….
Once I feel defined, then I feel that life is denied. The Buddha said, in the first precept, “Disciples of Buddha shall not kill.” Putting a person in a category, characterizing them, is not letting them be alive, which is change. Putting a person in a slot is killing him. And that person doesn’t like being dead; he’ll fight against it….
Of course we all characterize each other to some degree. It’s human nature. I think that’s our practice: to catch ourselves defining life, killing life and then seeing ourselves do it and releasing from it.
I’m an example of human nature manifesting in the way that I am describing; I can become rigid, define how things are, deny change. But I don’t do this so much in the area of race. I have other areas. When I felt falsely accused at that workshop, Sala, you touched my area, my own self-definition—what I can’t look at completely. I tried to maintain my little kingdom, my small self. And I attacked you. I could show you logically how you were doing the same thing to me that you were talking about in the workshop. Then I could feel pretty good about having shown you up, see?
But really, my problem is that I’m having the reaction and I’m not looking at it. I’m bleeding the energy out into this logic/ego conflict with you. But I’m not sitting still with it, as I might in zazen, and turning toward it and saying, “Okay, let’s not move, and let it happen and see what it feels like and where it is.” I’m tearing up here a little bit. Excuse me. [He wipes the tears from his cheek.]
Later in the conversation, I asked Lee if he thought a person could practice zazen for twenty or thirty years and still be locked into racial stereotyping.
LDB: I think it’s a possibility. I think parts of our psyches can be walled off, not accessible. Maybe the exercises that we were doing in that workshop could be helpful as an adjunct to zazen, making those parts more accessible.
But there’s a danger in bringing an agenda to zazen. That silence needs to be protected. If you move in on it too far, you lose something, because when there’s silence at the center, then everything is acknowledged, everything has its life. But if that silence is invaded and is occupied by somebody’s agenda, then everything has to bend to it, and it becomes a very totalitarian system.
Through this conversation, I am reminded of how challenging it is to talk about race without becoming polarized—and then locked into old and set ways of thinking. I am confirmed in my instinct that the understandings of Buddhism offer a rich ground for looking at our differences and separation. If, at the same time, we honor the teachings of nonduality, together we may be able to create a safe space—like the safe space each of us may find on the meditation cushion—where we can be vulnerable enough to see beyond our deeply conditioned ideas and fears, vulnerable enough to see ourselves in one another.