This feels a little awkward to be writing, but nevertheless I want to give it a try.
Almost twenty years ago, I took a holiday in Zanzibar. In Stone Town, I spent some time with a local guy, Hafidh, who pitched himself as a guide. I didn’t really want a guide, but he was pretty laid back, so we did a few things together, hampered though we were by limited common language. One evening we went to a football match at the local stadium; I think it was part of a regional tournament. What I remember most distinctly is that in the excited and joyful crowd of maybe ten thousand, I saw only perhaps a dozen white faces. I had a sudden strong sense of African skin as the original and natural colour of humankind, and that I, and those who looked like me, had had the colour drained out of us by some process of loss.
My background is one of stability and comfort. In my twenties I learned of the deep roots on one side of the family: my father’s ancestors had lived in the same spot in Cornwall for about six hundred years, and there were records and documents going back for almost all that time. I felt so held by these deep roots, having already experienced a strong connection with the land without knowing how long this association had been, and I still usually refer to Cornwall as my home without my having really lived there. My patriarchal forebears had been landowners, occasionally political non-conformists, and, I imagined, broody melancholic Cornishmen such as I read about in Daphne du Maurier novels.
Growing up, I was constantly told that I was just like my father. This usually worried me, as he was a person inclined to irritation and anger rather than happiness, seemingly inarticulate around emotions, and I did not especially want to emulate his way of moving through life. My grandfathers both died before I was old enough to remember them, but my two grandmothers, dissimilar as they were, were wonderful teachers and examples; all of that may have contributed to my being more inclined to look to women as teachers.
Having had a materially comfortable middle-class upbringing, I went to university with a very limited world view. The political culture of the early eighties was lively enough that many of my ideas got challenged. My girlfriend through some of those years was a radical feminist, and since I loved her, and also deeply trusted her critical intelligence, I allowed my static understandings to shift to newer perspectives. I have been grateful for this ever since.
When I moved to San Francisco after a dozen years of living in London, I experienced the city as very backward in terms of racial integration. I had been living in a diverse neighbourhood in London, and working at one of the most multi-cultural organisations anywhere – the BBC World Service, where any time you got in a lift, you would likely be sharing it with people from several continents. Zen Center itself had historically been largely white and middle class, and was working to broaden its scope (there is still work being done on this). I remember a diversity training for residents where we stepped forward if we were part of the dominant group in various categories, back if we were on the less privileged side. The only backward step I had to take was as a first-generation immigrant, but, given all my other advantages – male, white, heterosexual, middle class, temporarily able-bodied (as Ryumon wonderfully put it), with English as a first language – I knew I was not really disadvantaged.
More recently, at a teachers’ conference, I was part of an exercise called ‘crossing the line’, where you stepped forward if you had experienced various things, usually undermining or traumatic. For the first dozen examples I did not have to move, and I had moments of feeling ashamed as I saw my peers taking steps across the line again and again, having undergone experiences that I had been spared because of my upbringing and who I was.
As a teenager and young adult, I remember disliking in my middle class peers a sense of entitlement about what they were able to do through money or ease of social connection. Perhaps because of my place in my family system – the youngest of three – I have long felt my sympathies going instinctively to the underdog. What I learnt through the feminism of the eighties is that power was at the root of all the different kinds of imbalances in sex, gender, race, class and identity. Now I understand that compared to so many people, I have been accorded enormous privilege throughout my life; I have power in many realms. I know that, no matter how well-intentioned I have been, or how aware I have tried to become of these issues, my awareness is limited, and thus I have caused pain and hurt to people – to women, to people of colour, to differently-abled people – because of my insensitivities and my place of relative ease in the world.
I pledge to do better, knowing that I will continue to make mistakes, and I pledge to keep learning how privilege enables me to live in ways that are not so readily available to others. Our practice teaches us to meet everyone we encounter as a buddha, and I continue to work on that as part of a practice of loving-kindness and compassion. I still have my blind spots, and I still get outbursts from my chattering mind delivering judgements on others, but I never want to think of anyone, or treat anyone, as ‘less than’.
There are many websites and articles that address these issues better than I can; here are three articles that helped me understand different perspectives: first, helping explain privilege to those who might resist the idea; second, helping explain women’s fears (as an aside to this, I found this video to be wonderfully to the point); third, helping explain fluidity of identities (which should not be at all problematic for Buddhists).
PS: Just read this one yesterday, and it also helped.