Posts Tagged ‘Racism & Buddhism’

This week I was faced with a question/dilemma/problem, it was all born out of a harmless comment in someone’s eyes I am sure, but these words maybe me look within and turn to the dharma for guidance. The dharma has never steered me wrong, it has always cleared everything up for me, but this case was not immediately cleared and I am asking all of you. What is right speech? And what does it mean to practice right speech? Let me put everyone to speed, I find that most will see how it is not as easy as one might think.

I was at work, a good day, I was wearing a new Fred Perry polo (I must admit that I am a total fan of this clothing line, bordering on obsession!) and one of my bosses was also wearing a new Fred Perry sweater. I always feel a certain feeling of joy when I wear a new item by this designer and I can see that I am not the only one that feels that way when we find that awesome shirt and get to share it with those around us. My boss was wearing a colour that some might say was more “effeminate” than the green that I was wearing. A colleague of mine asked me if I had seen his new sweater and I said yes in a tone that clearly stated my approval of his new digs, he then proceeded to say “I asked him if he switched teams and this is his way of telling us”, and this is where my debate and reflection starts. Is it right speech for me to call him on his homophobic statement and get to question why he thinks that first of all being gay is derogatory, that the colour that we were explains our sexual orientation, and lastly, seeing as how he is newly a father, what kind of role model is he being for his son and how he will view the world in the future.

Right speech is usually understood as one of the ethical conducts in the eightfold path as:

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

As one quickly understands, this is aimed at the individual and the actions that the individual does in the world. I am really questioning, if we are to practice engaged buddhism, if this act of calling people out on their racist or homophobic comments not a part of right speech. It is slanderous speech, the words that are used are malicious and create a world where it is Ok to use homophobia as an insult towards someone. I have always had a hard time when people use terms like faggot to joke around when someone is not being manly enough or good at a certain task, to the point that I am seen as a hyper sensitive person that has no sense of humour because I object to the fact that this term is being used. I should know that it is not what they mean and should not take it so seriously, I find the phenomenon of the normalisation of hate to be a plague in our society and assures that prejudice will continue for many generations to come.

What I wish I said to my co-worker, instead of simply ignoring the homophobic statement and saying that I was glad that at least one person had taste in clothing in the office, I wish I would have asked him first of all why he finds homosexuality to be derogatory, that he should take some time to reflect on what kind of role model is he being for his newborn son, and how would he react if one day he learns that his son was gay (would his vocabulary change)? I find that it is important to study the normalization of hate in our society, language is an extremely subtle tool for hate, the more we hear something the easier it is for us to use it in the same context. I am trying to be as mindful and aware with my dharma practice, so why would I not stand up to hate and respond with love, teaching others how they can be less hateful on a daily basis? I find that it is my duty to stand up and call people out on their ignorant comments, that is what right speech is, speaking out to help others suffer less. I owe it to my colleague to let him know what happened to me when he uttered what he believed to be “harmless” words, I owe it to him, and I especially owe it to his son!


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What is the first images that appear in your mind when you think of racism, most people would probably have images of swastikas, slavery and Ku Klux Klan members, these are the images that have been ingrained in our minds for the subject. They are not false, the Nazis and KKK have become the images of intolerance and rightfully so. Racism, as a term, was coined in the 1930s, primarily as a response to the Nazi project of making Germany judenrein (‘clean of Jews’), the Nazis claimed that the Jewish people were a race. They were a distinct race that posed a threat to the Aryan race, the race that authentic Germans supposedly belonged. This idea that Jewish people were a distinct race gave currency by Nazi racial science. Also, what the Nazis did can now be seen as what we call ethnic cleansing. The idea of anti-Semitism, which is the longest form of racism or the oldest hatred, was coined in the 1870s by German Wilhem Marr to characterize his anti-Jewish movement “the anti-Semitism League”. Anti-Semitism had the advantage of sounding scientific instead of plain old religious bigotry.

We can all agree that it is now accepted and truly believed that it is morally wrong to judge someone by the colour of their skin, or of reliving the Anti-Semite sentiment.  This I think can be agreed upon, with maybe the exception of radical hate groups like Neo-Nazis etc. Racism can not be so clear-cut, it is much more complex and ambiguous. Let me explain, is racist intolerance just based on what we call a “race”? What about homophobia? What about Islamophobia?  It has been commonly believed that Prejudice + Power = Racism, but it is not so simple. There is also the problem of institutionalized racism, there have been many cases in England of prejudice based on class, gender, and race in the past years. This is much more widespread than we might think, I read once that people in the south of the USA after the civil war (the war that was about many issues, but slavery is definitely the one that trumps all issues) that people’s heritage played a part in the land that you were able to buy and have. This became the history of US debates and legislation that revealed the consistent difficulties in defining what the black population was. Here is where the ‘one drop’ rule was born in the Southern states:

which implied that any black ancestry, however far back, consigned an individual to the wrong side of the white/black divide, determining (disadvantaging) where s/he could live, what kind of work was available, and whether marriage or even relationships could take place with a white partner. One drop of ‘white blood’, though, did not carry the same weight in defining racial status.

Like Ali Rattansi states in the quote before, racism was clearly based on race at first, but in our post 9/11 world, it has delved into many more areas of society and daily life. This has become obvious the many protests that have occurred during the construction of Mosques in the US, of profiling in airports and the unfair deportations of American and Canadian citizens to Islamic countries or off-shore penitentiaries. Institutional racism is very much ingrained in our societies.  In the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Amnesty International reported in 2004, black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. I think that we can all agree that there is still a lot of work to do in terms of educating people that these outdated beliefs are wrong and completely not true, that racism is a vehicle of fear and causes only harm and that tolerance and acceptance is the only right answer. I also want to be clear, racism doesn’t only apply to whites (I know that these are the examples that are used here, but there is also prejudice against whites, we have to change our attitudes towards everyone, visible minorities included. There is a lot of healing that must be done so we can be able to live in a society that is kind and caring, no matter what we believe and look like, as long as we are tolerant and open to everyone.), this is a problem that is everywhere and must stop! Education, compassion, understanding, love, and forgiveness are the only answers that I see fit.

I am left with a question, seeing that I am a Buddhist, I ask myself, what can I do with my practice to combat ignorance and hatred like this? What is a Buddhist to do about racism? So I am asking myself WWBD or WWBS (What Would Buddha DO? or What Would Buddha Say?) about all of this. The closest thing to “races” in the Buddha’s time would be the caste system and he spoke out against it, seeing as all being have to ability to be enlightened, no matter what caste, he saw the value in all beings. Buddhism is a philosophy that is born out the idea that there are no differences between men and women in society, I must admit that it would be hard for the Buddha to approve any form of racism with that statement. The Buddha would also tell us that our Body and Mind are borrowed from the earth. We don’t own them. We also suffer from sickness, old age, death, and mental illnesses. These mental illnesses are greed, hatred, and ignorance of the true reality of the world. So-called countries, religion, gender, land, etc. are all man-made. We live temporarily inhabit our bodies, homes, land and eventually give them back to the earth. If we all realize this fact, there should be no racism, fighting or any other unnecessary activities.

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha states:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

If one truly understands this, there is no need for racism and no way that one could believe this theory of hate and ignorance to have any ground. I truly believe that this path that stresses loving-kindness, and living a life a wisdom and compassion; there is no place in this world for such hatred and ignorance. I have always felt that people who hold prejudice towards any group of human beings is born out of fear because they do not understand the difference that they have with this group. It is clear that with some openness and education, we can all learn to appreciate the differences that we have with them and learn to love one another. So the next time that you see someone and are struck with prejudice or fear, take a moment to reflect why exactly you are feeling the way that your are and then think how it must feel if the shoe was on the other foot. I am sure that in no time you will see that your fears are unjustified and that you will approach the world with more openness and compassion. Also, do not be afraid to ask others when you hear ignorant comments coming out of their mouths, help them reflect on the ignorance that is in their hearts. Racism is not just based on the colour of your skin, it is from any judgments that you hold against someone without cause. We must learn to be more open to what is different if we want the world to have peace.

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