Youth and Buddhist Activism

By Swan Keyes
Turning Wheel magazine, Fall 2002

This society demands that young people be less than we are. From the moment we enter the school system, we are pressured to shut down, be still, stop asking questions, follow the rules, stop dreaming, be “realistic,” be productive. Until we are taught our place in the social system we are a threat. We rage against the system and its injustices. Sometimes we just cry. Other times we educate, overturn, create new possibilities.

Buddhist communities offer an interesting home to young people, alternatively welcoming, inspiring, confining and uptight. I’ve been finding a sometime-home in various Buddhist communities since I was 16. Often frustrating but offering the treasures I seek: practice, awareness, relief from dualism.

Before I came to the West Coast and found BPF, those communities were always apolitical. During the Gulf War it was fine to send metta to the victims of our bombs, but to want to get off my cushion and do something showed attachment. There was no place in my sanghas for outrage. I can’t count the times a grown-up shook his head at me, saying, “When I was your age I was like that, too” (read: Don’t worry, honey, you’ll grow out of it).

Fortunately, I’ve also encountered those people who are always busy being born. My stepdad is a 60-year-old perpetual teenager, using hip hop and Zen in his high school classes. At 81, my grandmother has breakthroughs using imagery and meditation to help kids with disabilities learn to read.

We young people can’t keep our spirits alive in this society without the support of elders who know the struggle and are able to keep their hearts and minds open. I realized when I met vipassana teacher Sylvia Boorstein last year that I needed to cry on this grandmother’s lap. She offered that lap, didn’t try to fix me, just held me and cried with me.

So when Sue Moon asked me what I’d like to tell older people with this editorial, I thought of Sylvia and other friends and came up with this recipe. Here are a few things everyone can do to be an ally to younger generations:

1) Listen to and engage young people. Take us seriously. We are teachers as well as students. Don’t be afraid to offer support, but also don’t assume we want advice. Ask what is needed to make y/our sangha welcoming to us. Help us take positions of leadership.

2) Cultivate your own wholeness. As a teacher of mine once said, if you can fully feel your own outrage, grief, fear, joy, sexuality, love, then the scapegoats of society—youth, people of color, people with mental illnesses, seniors and others—don’t have to hold those feelings for you.

3) Educate yourself about your identity in our oppressive social system. In what ways are you targeted? How are you privileged? Do you remember the ageism you experienced as a child or teen? Maybe you are suffering from it again as a senior. If you are white and liberal, have you learned about how your “color blindness” can cause suffering? Meditation alone will not teach you these things. Books, groups, and allies are necessary. It’s not enough to say, “We’re all human,” and ignore power differentials. In closing, I give a deep bow of gratitude to all of you and say farewell, as I will be leaving my position as Development Director of BPF shortly. I have felt respected and heard as a young person here and I know I have made a difference. I am glad to be part of this community that uses spiritual practice to make our world a more humane place.

Doing the White Thing

by Swan Keyes
Turning Wheel magazine, Spring 2007

As we pull into our driveway, I notice a young black man walking down the sidewalk toward us, a brown paper bag full of flowers in his hands. I can see that he wants to engage and I just want to go to bed. It's not been a fun evening and I'm extraordinarily grouchy.

I step out of the car to hear him say hello. He extends his hand and introduces himself. Mustering up all the friendliness I can, offer a weak smile and ask him if he is selling flowers.

"Uh, no," he says, looking surprised. "I'm here to see Alicia." Alicia is my neighbor of many years.

Ah. Now I notice that this young man is in a fine suit. I realize that instead of seeing him, I just projected an image of one of the many black men who approach me downtown selling Street Spirit, the local homeless newspaper, or asking for change for the bus. Considering that I've never actually met a homeless person selling Street Spirit in my neighborhood up in the Oakland foothills, how is it that instead of seeing this sharply-dressed young man bringing flowers for his date, I am seeing some kind of salesman or beggar?

I start to backpedal, fast, hoping he has no idea what has just passed through my mind.

"Oh, I was hoping for some flowers," I stammer.

He looks embarrassed (probably for me) and asks if I want some from his bag.

"Oh, no, no, Alicia deserves them. Thank you so much. It's really great to meet you." We shake hands and quickly part.

My partner, Kenji, who has witnessed the interaction, says hi to the man and we walk into our house.

"Damn!" is all I can say.

"Yeah," Kenji says, shaking his head.

Such a vivid illustration of how my mind has been trained to see a stereotype, rather than a person. Does this young man see how quickly I projected the image of a homeless person onto him? If so, is he hurt or angry, or just laughing it off?

Maybe he didn't even notice it, maybe it was a subtle mistake, surely one that anyone could make. But did he notice my silly attempt to mask that mistake? From what friends of color tell me, this kind of thing happens to them all the time--the erroneous assumptions and then (sometimes) the attempted cover-up or overfriendliness.

I want to pretend this incident has no impact. But if it's no big deal, why is my stomach in knots? I feel like a jerk, anxious and ashamed, wanting to shrink into the floorboards. I am embarrassed even of the guilt and how small it makes me feel. I just want to purge the image of the beggar from my mind, eliminate the part of me that can see this young man in that way--the entwined racial and class training embedded in my psyche.

I don't want to be the guilty white person falling all over herself to be nice. I want to be an expert who always knows and does the right thing, winning the respect and admiration of white folks and people of color everywhere. I want to be the heroine who single-handedly makes the difference, like in all those lame Hollywood films where the white hero steps up against all odds to show that they are beyond racism. Think Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Save the Last Dance, etc.

But I see that my white conditioning isn't just going to evaporate due to my good intentions. So disappointing. I wish intention was everything. Unfortunately, I know that my actions can have harmful affects even when my intentions are great. So my practice is to try to put the positive intentions into action to learn as much as possible about this racial conditioning and how it affects people of whiteness and people of color. Although I may not eliminate the mental conditioning that sees a young black man as a nuisance, I can develop awareness of it and eventually learn to respond in better ways.

But I'm Not a Racist :::

I like to think of myself as a very open person, dedicated to social justice. Yet I see that when that incident occurred with my neighbor's date, there were very few African Americans in my life. I had plenty of acquaintances of color whom I proudly called friends but very few truly intimate relationships. Living in one of the most diverse regions in the country, I socialized mostly with white people--at work, at home, at school, at my meditation center, at parties. At all of these places I can expect the majority of people to look like me. However, Kenji and other people of color tell me that for them there is often no choice but to interact with the white world, as the schools, banks, companies, non-profit organizations and other institutions are generally run by white people. On the whole, white people are the gatekeepers to privilege in this society, with few exceptions.

My lack of close relationships with people of color meant that I rarely had to confront my racial conditioning. This is one of the privileges of being white in U.S. society, as Peggy McIntosh and many others point out (see White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack for a very basic description of white privileges). For the most part, I can choose whether and when to acknowledge or address racism. I choose not to think about race a good deal of the time. I enjoy films, books and other media that focus almost entirely on white characters without having to think of this as a racial experience. I go to restaurants, night clubs and beaches that are predominantly white without thinking about why it is that some spots remain so exclusive. I can just see myself and other white people as the norm (as "human"), and see race only when it comes to people outside of that norm. And I can live in a way where I rarely have to engage the "other." I can say, "Why aren't there more people of color in this group?" and feel good about myself for noticing the lack of diversity, while doing nothing more. Or I can go one step further and try to recruit a few people of color to my organization, workplace, or sangha, without doing anything to create a truly respectful and inclusive environment. But if I am concerned about social justice then it is my responsibility to investigate the full implications of the racial privilege I and all whites unconsciously benefit from.

So what is this white racial conditioning, or training, and how does it work in the U.S. today? White training is how people are taught to be white. People of all different European ethnicities come to the U.S. and through a process of assimilation, accrue unearned benefits due to light skin color and other features that allow them to be considered "white". People often give up their ethnic identities (a struggle for many Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, and other immigrants) to blend in to the mainstream white culture, which is dominated by Christian values and customs, and is the "norm" seen on TV and in movies, magazines, billboards, etc. To be successful requires one to blend in and seek economic privilege and independence within the system. This white training tells us what it means to be "civilized": polite, rational, calm, educated, responsible. The training tells us who is outside of this norm, and bombards us daily with images of the Other; as strange, deviant, dirty, loud, ignorant, rude, lazy, sneaky, exotic, sexual, dangerous, either overly dominant or submissive, mysterious, soulful, musical, spiritual, etc. The stereotypes are sometimes negative, sometimes positive, but always a projection of the parts not recognized within the norm of the dominant culture.

Becoming White :::

As a child when my hippie father would take me to visit his working-class family, descendents of English Protestant early colonial settlers, I knew I did not fit in. Growing up on a commune with a Jewish mother, I was embarrassed at not knowing the social customs of this "normal" family. I knew my father had stepped outside of the bounds of conventional whiteness (though I didn't yet think of it in racial terms), both in his counterculture lifestyle and in marrying my mother, who was too loud, too emotional, too intellectual, too opinionated, too expressive, too sexual, too much for a white Christian family to have any idea what to do with.

I learned that to fit in (to become like them--culturally white) meant to make myself very small. So I became a very nice girl. I spoke softly, observed their table manners, didn't talk about politics, religion or sex, and generally left most of myself at the door in order to gain entrance to this world that I saw on TV, the world I craved so much to be part of.

In this mainstream white world, no one speaks up when they hear a racist joke. No one questions the images of black people on TV, the demonizing of Arabs, the exotifying of Asians or the romanticizing of Native Americans. In the twenty first century, most people in these households know it is impolite to use the N word, and people may be proud to know a black person by name, but there is no acknowledgment of systemic racism or white privilege. People in families like my father's think that racism is not really an issue today, and that the histories of slavery, internment, annihilation of Native peoples, conquest of Mexico, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc. have little if any bearing on anyone's ability to succeed today. They think that people should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps a la Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell. Oy vey. Yet it is precisely these histories of oppression that have created a system of unearned advantage for me, in a white-dominated society where I can almost unquestioningly assume that a young black man in my neighborhood has no other role but to offer me something to buy.

Author Beverly Daniel Tatum compares this racial conditioning to smog. We do not choose to breathe in smog but we are nonetheless affected by it, even when we cannot see those affects. The conditioning comes through nursery rhymes, fairy tales, textbooks, teachers, family members, peers, the evening news, images of people in power and of people in poverty, images of criminals and CEOs. We take in these messages daily--everyone does--white people and people of color, even those of us raised with liberal or radical parents; the training is part of the collective unconscious of U.S. society. (For more info, see the book Learning to Be White, by Thandeka.)

Along with the benefits of light skin, there are also many hidden costs to white conditioning. Just as I have learned that to be Jewish is to be "too much" for people to deal with, I have also taken on a feeling that there is some inadequacy in me because I am white. I used to feel terribly insecure in racially-mixed groups, always afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, or else wanting to say something radical to prove my worth.

I have been immobilized at times by white guilt, feeling so much shame at the legacy of racism that I couldn't stand up against racism when I should have. I felt too small, too weak, to incompetent, which is what happens when we are not taught to see our racial conditioning and understand our place in the racial hierarchy. So I let racist comments go by. I remember once as a teenager meeting an elderly African American man coming out of the health food store in the rural town of Shelburne Falls, where I grew up. I saw that the man was upset and asked if he was okay. He told me he had just been informed by another customer that blacks weren't welcome here. I felt so bad all I could do was tell him how sorry I was. In retrospect, I wish I had confronted the customer and the owner of the store, who I knew well, rather than sink into a sense of helplessness. At the time, I had no idea what to say or do, so I did what I had learned to do: nothing. And the cost was guilt, fear, and alienation. I had connected to this man in my grief and sense of injustice but the connection ended in my feeling stuck and ashamed, and I wonder if there might have been a reluctance on my part to engage with African Americans afterward, wanting to avoid that feeling of inadequacy I experienced.

The legacy of assimilation has also cost me a sense of connection to my cultural and spiritual roots, so that I have looked to the traditions of others--Native Americans, Africans, Asians, South Americans--for spirituality and culture, wanting to take on something of theirs to fill the void in myself. I didn't identify with my Jewish roots until I was in my early 20's, when an African priestess told me to study my cultural background. Up until then, I had successfully avoided acknowledging any cultural difference from my white peers of Christian descent (most of whom identified as Buddhist or Hindu, Sufi, Hippie/Raver, or otherwise "alternative"). My mother had cast off her Jewish identity like an old coat when she joined the commune, though this didn't prevent her from being scapegoated for her difference. Decades later, she began investigating the riches of her heritage, finding books on Jewish meditation and Kabbalah. As is the case for many Jews, Buddhism had spoken to something long lost in her own family's traditions.

Finding Sangha :::

When I finally decided that I wanted to learn about racism and racial conditioning, I had no idea where to begin. I wanted a place where I could speak honestly and ask some really basic questions. I had already seen that in mixed-race groups it wasn't always a good idea for me to speak my mind, partly because I was coming from a pre-school level of understanding of race (like most white people) and required people of color in the group to be continually teaching and speaking to my level--exhausting and often not much fun (or safe) for them. I wanted to sit down with some other white people and lay my questions and stereotypes on the table.

Such a group is extraordinarily hard to come by. Yet as soon as I put out this intention, Kenji came home with a flyer from a local library advertising the UNtraining, a program for white people to explore what it means to be white and how we unconsciously participate in racism.

I called and talked for hours with the founder, Robert Horton, a white man who had been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for over 25 years. Having practiced Vipassana since I was 16, I appreciated how his practice influenced every aspect of his work. This fit well with my affinity for socially engaged Buddhism, as it engaged the dharma while insisting that self-inquiry is not enough in itself--we have to take the awareness we develop and apply it to the world in service of building more peaceful and just societies.

Robert's work was founded on the approach of Rita Shimmin, a woman of African American and Filipina descent who he met at a weeklong international Process Work seminar with Arnold Mindell in the early 90's. People of color at the seminar repeatedly requested that the white folks in the room get together and look at whiteness, rather than asking people of color to teach them about racism. At one point, Robert asked, "Why don't white people get together and do this?" to which Rita replied, "Why don't you?"

She began to mentor him in her spiritually-based approach to anti-oppression work as he developed a program to help white people explore racial conditioning. In the UNtraining, we work with the parts of ourselves we most want to disown--including the areas where we see our racial training, as well as what Rita calls our basic "awesomeness" or Buddha nature. Just as we learn in meditation to observe our thoughts, feelings and physical states as they rise and pass, so too we can become familiar with how our racial training works. It takes study, long-term commitment, and community, as we learn to overcome the individualistic white training that tells us that we can "fix it" all on our own.

The UNtraining became my primary anti-racism practice community in 1997 and I was invited to begin teaching the program with Robert in 2001. From body-oriented work to intellectual education to deep emotional healing to building alliances and planning actions to confront racism in our schools, workplaces, families, sanghas, and other communities, we work with a deep grounding in compassionate inquiry and practice of non-duality while struggling in an unjust, dualistic world.

Ways I Avoid Dealing with Racism (and Piss Off People of Color in My Life) :::

One of the things I discovered early on in the work was that the way I was thinking about racism held me back from doing any real work around it. I thought there were two separate kinds of people: good people and racists. I didn't feel hatred toward people of color so I didn't consider myself racist. I was one of those people who might innocently state, "Some of my best friends are Black."

As Robert Horton pointed out, this fallacy that there are two types of people--the racist and the non-racist--is counterproductive. By acknowledging that all people have racial conditioning, and no one chooses it, we stop trying to prove that we are the "right" type of person and we free up energy to develop non-blaming awareness of the stereotypes, fears, and unconscious prejudices we have learned.

I had to give up any attempts at colorblindness, which was a bummer since it's such a nice way out of dealing with race. Growing up in a hippie commune where we considered ourselves all one, I had learned to use spiritual bypass to avoid dealing with social issues. We believed that just because we were good, spiritual people we were somehow immune to social conditioning. We thought that our love was enough to free us from any accountability for the ills of society.

I liked the idea of not seeing race. But how could I deal with inequity in social position if I was seeing everybody as the same? How could I be an ally to a person of color who experienced something I did as racist if I was invested in not seeing their difference? Unfortunately, ignor-ance of issues doesn't make them go away.

As Kenji and I began to take the work we did together in our relationship out into the world, developing groups to work with racism, sexism, heterosexism and class oppression, alliance building became my primary spiritual practice. As with my Vipassana practice, the ability to develop compassionate awareness became a great source of liberation. Today, it is such a relief when I can see my racial conditioning and not hit myself over the head with it, but instead take the opportunity to go a little deeper in inquiry.


Many thanks to those who have informed and supported my anti-racism work over the years: Kenji Liu, Rita Shimmin, Robert Horton, Mushim Ikeda-Nash, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ricky Sherover Marcuse, Ruth Frankenburg, Richard Shapiro, Abbazero, and many others, and to my parents and ancestors;the colonizers, midwives, ministers, and the artists, teachers, seekers, anarchists, and pogrom survivors: those who guide me and those I heal for. Thanks to Kenji Liu and Tova Gabrielle for their feedback and contributions to this article.