Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I haven't been following the details of the Rachel Dolezal affair, so I have no useful opinions to offer on the specifics. But the framework of ideas in which the issues unfold is quite fascinating. The Buddhist traditions have explored many of these ideas in a deep and rich way and should be able to contribute constructively to the discussion.

Perhaps, though, I should rather say, contribute deconstructively. So much of the problem here is that we often think we mean something specific but the ranges of possible meaning are so wide and so poorly demarcated that ambiguity and misunderstanding are rife. Mapping out a bit of this terrain would seem to be a useful preliminary.

Rachel Dolezal is reported as saying, "I identify as black." What layers of potential meaning are packed into this?

People seem to carry in their minds, in their perceptions, some kind of tribal classification system. When we see someone or meet someone, we tend to situate them as members of some group or other. This classification system tends to be factored into several dimensions, such as gender, class, ethnicity, and race. This classification system is not entirely conscious. It changes and evolves with our experience in the world. And of course if and as we get to know a person, our initial classification of them will both shift and tend to recede into the background.

We never encounter ourselves in the way we encounter others, but still, we will generally situate ourselves in our own tribal classification system. We may come to realize, as we get to know another person, that they are not very comfortable with the identity that others ascribe to them. And of course we ourselves may struggle with the way we fit into the tribal classification system. We may start to see that other people have their own classification systems that might not always line up so well with our own system. And even when the systems are well aligned, we may come to realize that others situate us in a place where we don't see ourselves properly fitting.

These classification systems are also created and enforced by our social institutions. Having one restroom for men and one restroom for women enforces a binary gender system. There is intense pressure for people to conform to one standard gender or the other. In various times and places there have also been racially segregated restrooms, with even less tolerance for nonconformity.

Nowadays there are various documents on which one is asked to mark boxes that correspond to various classification schemes, including especially gender and race. Sometimes the marks in the boxes are just used to gather statistical data. Other times the marks have consequences specific to the individual, e.g. what kind of job they may be able to get, etc.

Why do we ask people to indicate their own gender and racial identity? The whole history of gender and racial bias is filled with such brutal injustice, and that bias is based on discrimination, i.e. on one person classifying another person, especially a more powerful person classifying a less powerful person. If are working to eliminate that unjust bias, it would seem effective to stamp it out wherever possible. So we can let each person indicate their own identity, rather than imposing it.

I am quite unambiguously a white male, so perhaps I can be a good example to use in exploring what it might mean for me to say, "I am a white male."

When I say that I am a white male, do I intend to subscribe to some racial classification system that divides people into white and non-white, and a gender classification system that divides people into male and non-male? I hereby declare that I do not subscribe to any such systems. I think the whole system of racial classification is one of the stupidest and most pernicious heaps of pseudo-science of our modern age. Gender seems not to be such utter pseudo-science, but I know very well that the closer a person looks into reality, the more complex things get. And anyway biology is just one layer of the puzzle.

When I say that I am a white male, mostly what I am saying is that, in the shared tribal classification system that is most common in the society in which I live, most folks encountering me will quickly and easily sort me into the "white, male" pigeon hole.

Sometimes people get caught up in puzzling about, "Who am I really, essentially, under my skin?" Furthermore, a person might try to answer this question in terms of gender and racial labels. One way to go about this might be: given my deep essential qualities, what social identity would give me the best opportunity to express those qualities? With this approach, the question isn't whether deep down inside am I black or am I white? But perhaps because deep down inside I feel very devoted to the Buddha Dharma, maybe I would have been more able to express that devotion had I been born Asian. That is still a very different thing than saying that deep down inside I am Asian.

But what is the point of classifying oneself in terms of gender and race on e.g. a job application? Is this meant to be a question of my deep inner essence? I rather doubt it. A lot of it has to do with measuring how well an employer is doing at overcoming the gender and racial biases that have plagued our recent past. Probably most applicants know very well how others tend to see them and don't have a problem marking the right box. But that easy answer hides so much that deserves to be examined.

For example, our racial and gender roles have a history, a personal, family, and social history. To understand how a person came to be where they are, it is useful to understand the road they walked to get there. Each person's social context has many facets. A person may well be classified one way in one context, and a different way in some other context. To some extent a person can control, by choice of hairstyle or clothing or language training or cosmetic surgery, how others classify them. To what extent is how others classify a person a matter of that person's choice?

I don't really expect to make any actual dent in these tough social problems. My hope is that maybe I can help connect the rich resources of the living Buddhist traditions to the difficult problems of our time.

1 comment:

  1. one fun tool with which to contemplate the severe limits of any biological notion of race: