Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I struggle with Race

If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!

So goes a traditional Zen kōan. Kōans are used to provoke students of Zen into some sort of response, as a means of testing their understanding of the principles of Zen. Now in theory, there is no set meaning to a kōan: different people can understand it--correctly--in different ways. But there most assuredly are wrong ways to understand them. And in that regard, some kōans do have generally accepted meanings, or impart a specific and agreed-upon understanding. The one above is such a kōan.

It's meaning is easily understand, once one realizes it is all metaphoric. There is no road and there is no Buddha. There is nothing to actually kill. The road is the journey, the path to enlightenment. For a practitioner of Zen, it is a never ending journey. True enlightenment means recognizing this; knowing oneself and the relationship of that self to the universe is a goal that cannot ever be truly reached. If one on that journey believes that they have in fact reached the end, that they have reached the state of the Buddha--i.e. have met the Buddha--they are wrong. The solution? Recognize the mistake, wipe away the false conclusion to the journey, kill the Buddha.

What does any of this have to do with Race? Simply put, every time I think I understand the concept, I discover that I don't. It seems to be something impossible for me to pin down, no matter how hard I try.
Meyers b11 s0476a" by Hermann Rudi Julius, son of Joseph Meyer

One can examine any number of supposedly authoritative tracts on the issue and find just as many definitions of Race. Ask someone "what is Race?" and you will get all manner of responses. Race is presented as a consequence of genetics, of lineage, of culture, of ethnicity, of geography, or as combination of some or all of these. As is the case with many kōans, however, there is some truth in here, insofar as some of the answers one hears are wrong. For instance Race is not genetically determined, with regard to the racial groupings generally in use.

And like the concept of Race itself, there is no set answer for the number of races, of racial groupings. For the sake of simplicity, let's use the groupings of the U.S. Census. When identifying one's Race, there are twelve specific options, along with "other Asian," "other Pacific Islander," and "some other race." Looking at these options relative to the entire world, it's blindingly clear that the entire populations of Europe and Africa--and the diaspora of each--have each been assigned one basic Race: White and Black. In contrast, Asia and the Pacific islands have been divided up according to geography and/or nationality:


If ever there was proof positive that Race isn't generally being used with genetics in mind, this is it. Why do I say that? Simple, from a genetic standpoint there is more variation in the peoples of Africa than there is in the remainder of the world. In other words, two people born in different regions in Africa are likely to share fewer genetic traits than are, say a White European and a Korean.

Of course, most demographic questions on Race aren't this extensive. For instance, the public schools in my neck of the woods have just six options: White non-Hispanic, White Hispanic, Black/African American, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islander. For the sake of even more simplicity, let's just stick to these as the Races of the World. Again, genetics has little to do with these distinctions. They are, first and foremost, geographical, but actually with respect to one's heritage, where one's more distant ancestors come from.

And as a standard, that's somewhat workable. Though it becomes problematic when any sort of limit on the heritage is suggested or imposed. For instance, I can trace my lineage--by my surname--back to the 1600's in North America. Prior to that, the tree goes to Scotland. Prior to that, I don't really know. The Caucasus region? Northern India (the Indo-Aryans of the Vedic period)? East Africa (the birthplace of homo sapiens)? The point is, people have been moving across the globe for millennium. At what moment can it be said that they were separated into independent Races? Geography cannot answer this question.

Which brings us to culture as a determinant of Race. One could argue that a sufficiently homogeneous (in appearance) population that develops its own unique culture constitutes a Race. Many, in fact, do argue this. But of course culture is a changing thing; with non-sedentary populations, cultures mix, as do Races within such a paradigm. The consequence? Appearance becomes the determining factor. Thus, someone who appears Black is Black, someone who appears White is White. Culture, though the basis for Race with regard to the parent, becomes the secondary determinant. Thus, President Obama is Black because he looks Black, because his father was Black by virtue of his culture.

It is, to me, a strange and difficult standard. In fact, I would call it a toxic standard as well, because it goes from an assumption of cultural ownership to what is essentially racial profiling without missing a beat. A person's Race is determined by how others see them, nothing more. If given the opportunity to correct this, they can of course, provided they have parents of different Races. They can say they are of a "mixed" Race (often an option on some demographic questionnaires) or even pick one over the other, though many will not accept the latter, if they don't look like they are members of the race they have picked (in the eyes of others).

And as a consequence of the above, the shortcomings of the various determinants of Race, a new standard seems to be emerging: that of self-identification, as evidenced in the current topic du jour, Rachel Dolezal. Born to White (as is commonly understood) parents, with typically White features, Ms. Dolezal reinvented herself and presented herself as a Black woman, having fully immersed herself in "Black" culture, including altering her appearance, teaching African American studies, and heading a local chapter of the NAACP.

The essential questions arising from her situation: can this be done? Can someone actually change their Race? When is Race determined? And if so, what is the basis for determining Race? She modified her appearance, but was that even necessary? If one can choose to self-identify as any Race (which is what the defenders of her actions are claiming), how could it be? Ditto for the issue of cultural immersion. If Race is a matter of self-identification, culture cannot be a determining factor, since culture is not static in the least, temporally or geographically.

From this, the only conclusion I can logically draw--if what Ms. Dolezal has done is legitimate--is that Race is a wholly arbitrary label. And frankly, from my personal perspective, that's okay. I don't like talking about Race. It's not that it makes me uncomfortable, it's that I don't like using it to divide people up into groups, for one reason or another.

I don't have White friends, or Black friends, or Asian friends (granted, I don't have a lot of friends), I just have friends. I don't care what color they are, what Race they are, I never have. And I've raised my children--or at least tried to--the same way. They don't say "so and so is my Black friend," or "my Asian friend said this," at least not around me. I want them to treat people as individuals, I want to treat people as individuals. Always.

This doesn't mean I don't recognize and appreciate different cultures. I do. Nor does it mean I ignore or want my children to ignore the history of Race and Race relations in the United States and the world. We don't. Understanding those histories is a vital part of understanding the human condition, of learning acceptance and combating racism and discrimination.

But I often find myself on an island in this regard. No one seems to want to let go of Race as a means of labeling and judging others. Some are doing so with the best of intentions, some are doing so with the worst, most are just not really willing to think deeply on the matter at all. And because of all of this, I struggle. Daily.

If you see a White/Black/Asian person on the road, kill them!

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