Monday, April 30, 2018

We can stop talking about race when racism is truly gone—Which won’t happen if we keep refusing to talk about it

Race relations is a painful topic to talk about, and it’s always hard to talk about painful topics. It’s hard to write about painful topics, and that’s one reason why my blogging has stalled for so long. I’ve got all this material that’s so hard to talk about, and society is so rife with misunderstandings about it, that I want to make sure I’m presenting my and my friends’ points in the best possible way. I want to be sure I’m not misinterpreting other people’s experiences, not labeling anyone, not putting anyone in a box, not making one group over the other the “bad guy,” and not being reactionary or too simplistic in my argument.

It’s all the more difficult for me because I’m in the process of forming new opinions about all this myself, of fleshing out my own position and how I want to do my part in advocating for change. It wasn’t until I met my current best friends, most of whom are people of color, that I started seeing things differently. Years ago, I probably bought into the “color-blind” argument that so many white people still argue with me will solve the problem of racism, even when I tell them that the experience of black, brown, red, and yellow people I know directly contradicts that assertion.

While my perspective is more in alignment with my friends of color than with white people who don’t understand why we need to keep talking about race, I’m not one of those people who feels the need to reject my own context entirely, as though my own history and cultural conditioning are something I can just take off like an overcoat. Some white people seem to feel they have to loudly and vehemently reject white people and white culture, betray one to support the other. Regardless of any noble intentions, trying to see totally through the eyes of other people is not an authentic way to live.

I’m also striving not to fall into the trap of dividing the world into racists and their victims, which is too simplistic.

In Nichiren Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin and Daisaku Ikeda talk about “sharing the sufferings of others.” This doesn’t mean throwing out all our emotional boundaries or artificially trying to adopt the sufferings of others or getting so wrapped up in each other’s karma that we’re not properly managing our own. What it does mean is truly listening to and witnessing the sufferings of others, instead of focusing on telling them how we think they should fix their problems. It’s about observing what they are actually going through and the effect that what we say and do is actually having on them, not just the effect we assume we’re having simply because we believe our intentions are good.

How good our intentions are is irrelevant if our beliefs and actions are misinformed by cultural conditioning that has been more of an echo-chamber than a marketplace of ideas.

Sharing in other people’s sufferings is about realizing that when they suffer, we suffer. When a white person offends, hurts, or shuts down a person of color by telling them to “stop focusing on race and difference,” that white person loses too, because they’ve let one more opportunity go by to help improve someone else’s life, even if just a little by demonstrating to that person they care enough to hear what that person has to say, and stop defending their own opinions and intentions long enough to really experience someone else’s viewpoint.

White people perpetuate the problem when they tell people of color to stop talking about race and get on with seeing themselves as part of one human family. When the day comes that they are actually treated like equal members of the same human family, they will! When their rights are respected in the same way white people’s are, they will! We need to stop trying to put the cart before the horse!

We still live a world where people complained about the newest Star Wars movie because the cast of heroes was so diverse and the main hero was female, and where people defaced promotional imagery of the movie Black Panther by photo-shopping watermelon into King T’Challa’s hands. We still can’t even simply celebrate the gradual diversification of our entertainment media without plenty of people complaining and acting threatening because they have to actually share that space now.

We need to get through that kind of garbage first before we can start talking about a post-racial society.

Image: Detail from "Fire-Bending in the Underground Forest," by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic Sharpie marker

Monday, March 5, 2018

Some thoughts on Wakanda as a metaphor for what world superpower nations should do, and which none of them have ever actually done

** DISCLAIMER: This post contains PLOT SPOILERS for the recently-released movie Black Panther. **

Not only is Black Panther my new favorite of the almost twenty Marvel Cinematic Universe installments to date, it’s also the first of these movies that I’ve been able to connect with my blog’s subject-matter. In the midst of a movie series primarily focused on intergalactic wars and high-tech military conspiracy-theories come to life, the long-awaited introduction of the fictional African nation of Wakanda is incredibly timely, with its explorations of the clashes between conservative and liberal worldviews, the post-colonial experience of Africans and African-Americans, and responses to the worldwide refugee crisis by nations previously untouched by mass immigration.

The largest of these themes—conserving the nation’s interests above all else versus seeking to benefit the world beyond its borders—was obviously highlighted intentionally by the writers to parallel some of the most prominent international tensions today. It even features the classic anti-immigration argument, presented by Wakanda’s security advisor W’Kabi, his words “You let the refugees in, you let in all their problems” sounding taken straight from a 2016 presidential campaign speech. On the flip-side is Princess Shuri’s counterargument about Wakanda’s moral imperative to share its ample resources to help brighten the technological and humanitarian Dark Ages in the world all around them.

Newly-crowned King T’Challa (the Black Panther) starts the movie following in the footsteps of prior monarchs, squarely on the conservative side of the fence. By the end of the movie, after seeing that conservativism backfire violently with the political coup staged by his bitter American cousin, he finally sees Shuri’s point that helping make the world a better place is more important than trying to forever keep Wakanda pure of contamination from any outside influence. He starts implementing his new worldview through the establishment of international outreach centers, the first being housed in the very building in which his father King T’Chaka was willing to murder his own brother (father of T’Challa’s American cousin) in the name of neutralizing a potential threat to Wakanda’s secrecy.

Contrary to Wakanda being a metaphor for our world’s real-life superpower nations who are seen as having a moral imperative to heavily influence the rest of the world, what Wakanda really shows us is what not a single one of those power-nations has ever actually done. It presents a “what if” scenario showing us what it could be like if, instead of authoritarian empires that destroyed the cultures, governments, and religions of the nations they claimed to know what was best for, nations such as England and the United States and Russia had offered their resources as value-adding additions instead of mandated replacements for resources they wanted to forcefully take from native people.

In contrast, it’s what T’Challa’s cousin Erik Killmonger tried to do that is an exaggerated metaphor for the actual results we see every time a powerful nation has tried to play world-savior by continuing to convert, beat down, belittle, and expect nothing but ignorant savagery from its conquered citizens. He is the poster-child for the oppressed becoming the oppressor, who instead of trying to equalize, seeks only to invert the power-imbalance in a revenge plot fueled by motives that are no more pure than those of the first offenders, and thus only ends up hurting the very people he says he is trying to champion the cause of.

That, however, does not make him a two-dimensional and pure evil villain. While he has obviously become psychotic on his journey along the blood-soaked trajectory he got derailed onto after the murder of his father—which represented not only betrayal by his own family but by a nation that could have but refused to help ease the suffering of people their color everywhere else in the world—Killmonger does make valid points in his condemnation of Wakanda’s historically selfish conservativism that its rulers have always valued above the lives of anyone outside its borders.

If, instead of following his valid points up with violence and talk of a weapon-based Wakandan world empire, Killmonger had instead challenged T’Challa for the throne so he could break the wall between Wakanda and the rest of the world for the purpose of using the nation’s resources to help catch the rest of the world up with what Wakanda has shown is possible with science, healthcare, and resource-management, then instantly T’Challa would have become the villain, and we’d be cheering when Killmonger donned the leftover Black Panther suit to continue his ritual combat with his cousin.

After all that, I’m more excited now about the potential for a sequel to Black Panther than I am about seeing The Avengers: Infinity War. I was glad to see in the trailer that part of Infinity War takes place in Wakanda, so in the meantime at least we'll get a taste of what’s to come for this awe-inspiring African nation that I really, really wish was real.

Image: "Elemental Man" by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic paint pen, white-out pen

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Some Buddhist perspective on why our differences "matter"

At last night’s introduction to Buddhism meeting, we started our dialogue by asking each person to say one change they want to see in the world.

I said that I want people to see difference of race, culture, or religion as an asset, instead of as a potential problem or something that “doesn’t matter.”

I want people to think, “Things just got better and more interesting because this person showed up,” instead of “I don’t see color” or “race doesn’t matter” or “beneath it all we all want the same things—love, community, peace...” When we tell people that our differences don’t matter, that’s just one more way of invalidating people’s heritage, of denying the value of what is important both to them and about them.

We had a variety of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds among the approximately twenty people at the meeting, during which community leaders described some of the most distinguishing characteristics of SGI Nichiren Buddhism, then opened the floor for discussion.

Of the Buddhists present, most originated in another spiritual practice—Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i Faith, spiritual but not religious, or sampling every religion they came across in a many-year quest to find the right fit. Two of our guests, very pleasant and open-minded young men in their early 20s, had been raised Muslim. When their friend Naima asked if they wanted to come to “a meeting” in her Buddhist community, they replied with, “sure.” We were certainly glad to have them, and they appeared to feel right at home among us, told us they were moved by the spiritual musicality of our chanting, and made several valuable contributions to the discussion.

How good that chanting sounded and felt, and how stimulating our dialogue was, demonstrated that the differences among our group—in race, viewpoint, origins, present beliefs, ages, and so on—are why this all works. If we all had said “Let’s check our differences at the door and just embrace and work with what we all have in common as members of the same species living in the same country,” we would have just created an ideological echo-chamber of people expressing or trying to agree with the same set of beliefs and ideas, instead of true dialogue in which we could introduce different viewpoints and see how we can use those differences to help us better understand and relate peacefully with other types of people, and better navigate the increasing diversity within our own communities.

I wrote a lot last fall about race relations in the context of social-justice and promoting dialogue, and in my almost two months this year of being mostly offline (due to illness, and then the post-illness life-adjustments), I have collected a lot more material to continue this series.

One fascinating connection I made recently between my blog’s main subject matter—thinking spirituality and culturally outside the box—and my explorations of race relations is how much of our divisions, misunderstandings, and walls between us are reinforced by tying race to religion. We have, for example, a white version and a black version of the Baptist Christian denomination; even though they share the same denominational designation, in some ways—such as moral priorities, social-justice priorities, and what’s considered “proper” behavior in praise of God at Sunday servicesthey don’t even seem to be the same religion at all.

My point in bringing this up is not to say that the premise of these religious communities is “wrong” or that all such people should move beyond culture-specific worship. My point is to draw attention to the fact that the persistence of this kind of religious self-segregation (regardless of how it started and any reasons why it is still maintained) presents opportunities for people to learn to see these different versions of what started out as the same religion as enriching that religion, instead of as contaminating, diluting, or ruining it.

In my next posts I’ll share some more of the fascinating articles Ive come across from other people who are also having authentic and enlightened dialogues about race, religion, and the intersections of the two, which are well worth the effort it takes to sift them out from among the plethora of content containing the usual socially-useless and cowardly platitudes about being “color-blind” and about the need to move beyond race (which translates as, “Stop making the whites uncomfortable and just assimilate already!)

In the meantime, I’m off to join one of my best friends for a meal at the Michigan pagan community’s annual ConVocation convention in Dearborn.

Image: "One World Heart," by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, gold gel pen

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thoughts for starting the New Year: Positive change is best made a little each day, rather than by trying to live from big milestone to big milestone

Happy 2018!

I know, I know... You may already be annoyed just reading that statement. You may be thinking, “What’s so happy about it?” or, “How is it going to be any different from last year, when 2017 was so bad because of [insert reasons here]?”

These are legitimate concerns, and I see no value in arguing with people who assert that there’s no reason to think anything will change just because it’s a new year. I also see no value in advising people to rationalize away their negative feelings with counter-arguments about “looking on the bright side.” All that we really accomplish if we do that, after all, is demonstrate to them that we don’t think their feelings are valid, and prompt them to stifle (instead of work through) those feelings and cross us off their list of people they can get empathy or any constructive feedback from.

At the same time, we tend to get more of what we focus on. Choosing to focus our attention and efforts on the positive does not have to mean we ignore the negative by viewing the world through the filter of denial, or that we are being childishly naïve. At the very least, we can start giving more respect and credit to people who have more positive outlooks, rather than being quick to dismiss or argue with them that the world around us is too far gone for any of their rainbows-and-unicorns idealism to make any real difference.

While I also felt plenty of disgust and frustration because of specific instances, people, and policies that created so many unnecessary challenges and setbacks for our world last year, I was pleased to conclude December by feeling hopeful. I focused my New Year’s Eve daimoku on kicking off another year of social-justice dialogues, sharing what I learn on my blog so that other people can benefit from my and my friends’ efforts, and seeking out more opportunities to practice taking better care of myself and improving my relationships with other people.

I know that all the bad stuff that’s going on in the world right now can make all of the above that much more difficult, so I also chanted to continue overcoming my tendency to get discouraged, and to instead be a person who treats these challenges as motivation to do more, and do better, in truly walking my talk.

Speaking of my visions for the New Year, I pointed out in my last post of 2016 that I don’t achieve breakthroughs or quantum leaps in my personal-improvement goals by making a once-a-year resolution that I’m at least 50% likely to taper off on, if not stop, within the first month or two of the year. “I’ve always viewed theming my year with a hyper-focus on weight loss, a fitness milestone, a particular financial outcome, or other surface-level personal change as diversionary,” I said. “The marketing and products created to cater to these resolutions seems designed to encourage people to use them as a defense mechanism against doing the hard, often heartbreaking work of developing the courage and skill-sets to confront and resolve the deeper, darker aspects in their lives that need changing,” which is best done a little each day, rather than by trying to live from big milestone to big milestone. 

Believing that nothing can or will ever change is only a lazy excuse for inaction, and implies we expect other people to “fix” the world around us for us. It’s a defense mechanism against making any extra effort to be part of the solution, even in any small, subtle ways that can add up over time.

Mahatma Gandhi instructed us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Daisaku Ikeda tells us that “True happiness can only be attained by praying for a peaceful and prosperous society for all and then working to make it a reality.”1 Leo Tolstoy admonished us that “there is only one way for society to improve. Everyone must improve. To improve everyone, you have only one method under your control—you must become a better person yourself.”2

1  Living Buddhism (SGI Buddhist study magazine),
    September 2016, page 54.

2  World Tribune (SGI Buddhist weekly newspaper),
    November 5, 2010, page 10.

Image: Detail from “Re-Enchantment #1” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker, Prismacolor marker-blender

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We have to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with other people...

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations, and doing a lot of reading, to help find ways to short-circuit the resistance and ambivalence many white people express when invited to (or confronted with) conversations about race relations.

A lot of people are quick to say that they have “candid discussions about race,” as one article put it, on a regular basis. Based on my experience with people who are quick to say that, however, most of the people in this article are probably quick to assert that racism is at an all-time low, that the continued problems of disadvantaged people of color are now their own faults since they have more opportunity now, and then laundry-list ways they think demonstrate their open-mindedness, such as that they have black friends, they personally “don’t discriminate,” played with dolls or action figures of different races without consciously considering those differences relevant, and so on.

Even the assumption itself that race is irrelevant or doesn’t matter at all can do more harm than good, because negating people’s heritage and specific needs with dismissals such as “we’re all human, so individual race shouldn’t matter” is disempowering to people who are still struggling to have their voices heard independently of the negative stereotypes that our white-centric culture has judged them by for so long.

Getting past the filters, misconceptions, and lacks of self-awareness that keep people from honestly acknowledging that racism does in fact still exist, and that they may actually be unwittingly part of the problem, starts with doing two things.

The first is, admitting to ourselves that we are still capable of, and may still actively maintain, prejudices. It doesn’t seem humanly possible to have no prejudice whatsoever. If we are so quick to insist that we have no prejudices of any kind, and quickly shut down any conversation about the subject of prejudice, then we are probably not being honest with ourselves, let alone with anyone else. I admit I still have some: While they aren’t based on race, there are certain categories of people that, after all these years, even after encountering plenty of stereotype-breakers, I still have a really hard time respecting or not wanting to openly repudiate at least 50% of what they say and believe.

When we acknowledge who or what kind(s) of people we are still hard-hearted about, we are taking the first step to keeping those prejudices in check (meaning, not acting on them in any way, including in conversation), and weakening them over time.

The second thing is, not treating ourselves or each other as ambassadors of a whole group. While we each represent a group to some extent, we can only truly represent ourselves when expressing our beliefs and personal experience. When we drop the assumption that all of “our people”—whoever those people are—feel as we do, or have been affected the same way we have by various social-justice challenges, it’s a lot easier to be honest about our experience and to listen to other people expressing their experiences as members from the same or a different group. 

To truly get a good understanding of the experience of a particular racial, cultural, or religious group, it’s essential that we talk with multiple people, not just expect our one friend or coworker from that group to represent the whole. For example, if I’m talking to a friend who’s black about what Detroit is like for him now, I start my question with something like “In your experience…” rather than “As a black person…”

So, thus ends my blogging for 2017. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to sharing with you about my intercultural and interfaith adventures next year. We’re even going to kick off January with some planned, structured discussions about race and intercultural relations, including the topic “What is whiteness?” at a gathering in Romeo next Friday. If another Snowmaggedon or work doesn’t prevent me from attending, I’ll give you a full report. 

Until then, Namaste, and Happy New Year :)

Image: detail from "Re-Enchantment #1" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker-blender

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

More thoughts on the difference between race and socially-contrived identity -- and the dark implications of why our ancestors contrived such identity to begin with

One of the most memorable themes for me this year has been the expansion of my focus from interfaith and intercultural relations into race relations. One of the first crossovers for me was an event at the Holocaust Memorial Center which helped clarify the concept of Jewish identity as a race and not just as a religion. While discussing my blog post about that event with Dan, we attracted the attention—and quickly the friendship—of a Jewish couple who helped us expand our understanding further into the story of the Jewish experience and into the idea of “white” being a social construct instead of a race. We had a few excellent opportunities to discuss race relations in the context of Detroit, both in our private small-group conversations and at the SGI Buddhist Center for the fourth installment of the Vanguard Discussion Series.

I also became aware of the most recent additions to the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s cultural competency guides series, including honest and accurate answers to common questions about Jewish people, African-American people, and certain immigrant groups to the U.S., which can serve as great ice-breakers to help mainstream Americans get over the fear and embarrassment that stops them from truly connecting with people from other colors and cultures.

And during last week’s conversations, both at Starbucks and during a Chanukah celebration, I realized that perhaps the biggest contributor to the recent intensification of racist actions in the U.S. is the idea that for “white” people to make more room for diverse viewpoints in conversation, media, the workplace, and politics, they must forfeit their power and compromise their beliefs and values.

As I pointed out last week, it doesn’t have to happen that way. White people don’t have to forfeit anything that’s truly good for them to help people of other colors and cultures to catch up. Allowing more voices at the table doesn’t have to mean that the voices of the people who’ve been there longest must be silenced or cancelled out. They will have to limit their talk-time, however, and that just means they will benefit all the more by spending more time listening.

As a person who was raised “white,” with no sense of ethnic identity of origin coded into that, I realize that the steep price white people have paid for their cultural dominance is the loss of their identity. “White” is not a race. “American” is not a race or a culture. These designations represent a social construct that resulted from many diverse groups of people forfeiting their original identities to break free of whatever negative value-judgments had been historically used against them to create a new identity in a foreign land based primarily on the achievement of social power and economic prosperity.

It drives me and my friends bonkers when people insist that being German, Croatian, French, Cameroonian, Lebanese, Chinese, Slavic, English, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, or Peruvian is irrelevant to the fact that we’re all “American.” This insistence on being “American” totally misses the point that for many—if not most—people who don’t fit under the white umbrella, the idea of being American means very little in terms of social status or economic power, because their groups have always gotten the short end of the stick in the so-called New World.

A great book I intend to read to help deepen my understanding of this cultural phenomenon is 
Working Toward Whiteness, which covers the creation of the defense-mechanism of European immigrants who de-emphasized, or shed altogether, their original identities as Italian, Irish, German, and so on, to equalize their social ranking.

Such attempts at cultural white-washing are not limited to people of European descent; Dan introduced us to the book Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores the heavy toll of colonization among Filipino people, particularly since they are still surrounded by predominately white beauty standards.

A third book Dan brought to the table is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which can go a long way in helping white people understand that the disproportionate representation of people of color (particularly black men) in prison is a systemic problem that can’t be solved simply by blaming and punishing individual people for their criminal behavior.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about ways we can help bypass or short-circuit the resistance and preconceived notions that block many white people from being willing to listen long enough to understand any of this.

Image: "One World Heart," by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Power is meant to be a shared resource, not a commodity transferred from one group to another

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending my first ever observance of Chanukah with my best friends Dan and Joe, at the home of our new friends Lea and Mikael. Dan and I met Lea and Mikael last month at Starbucks, when they jumped into our conversation upon hearing us discussing my blog post about visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, and we all bonded over our shared passion for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In addition to sharing food, prayers, and lots of laughs, we heard a detailed accounting of the historical events that Chanukah commemorates, which Mikael read to us from the book The Feasts of the Lord (and which you can find a good summary of by clicking here.)

We also continued our ongoing conversation about race and identity. I wrote previously about the idea of “white” being an American social construct rather than a race, and Dan gave more details on what he’s learned in his social-justice classes to help us clarify the true implications of the dark side of this social construct.

Our current “inside joke” (used more to express our exasperation than amusement) that we’ve unfortunately found ourselves saying more and more lately is “only white people say that!” For example, “racism doesn’t exist anymore;” “I grew up poor too, and I managed to overcome it just fine;” “I played with dolls of all colors as a child, and I didn’t discriminate among or rank them;” and, of course, the defensive declaration that “I’m not racist.”

Rather than demonstrate a truly open-minded and diversity-embracing outlook, such comments actually reveal deep ignorance, to think that just because they don’t personally perceive a problem for people of color, the problem must not exist. This belief that the problem of racism no longer exists then makes it easier to dismiss any further grievances as the complaints of bitter people who are stuck in the past, or who aren’t getting what they feel they deserve because they aren’t “working hard enough,” or they “don’t want to work,” they need to try harder to assimilate, or are simply being hostile.

“White fragility” is the buzzword for this phenomenon. “Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture,” Dr. Robin DiAngelo says in her excellent article about the subject (which I encourage you to read by clicking here), and then goes on to point out that the content provided by our education system and info-media are sorely lacking in different perspectives. “Our socialization renders us racially illiterate,” she says; “When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we don’t know what we don’t know), you get the break-down we so often see when trying to engage white people in meaningful conversations about race.”

Since most of my close friends are people of color, it doesn’t faze me to talk about race relations almost every time we get together. That being said, I freely admit that many years before I met them, when I was surrounded almost entirely by people whose skin is as pale as mine, I was clueless about many of the important points I now discuss regularly. My friends have suffered racism since they first came into the world, and I didn’t even start to learn what racism is until I was ten—from the protected perspective of observer rather than from direct experience.

After many conversations and much reading about race relations, it occurred to me that the defensiveness in white fragility comes from a scarcity mindset. Power and privilege in our society have for so long been based on the idea that for one group to have power means that power must be withheld from others, that it’s difficult for people in the group that has always had the social power to realize that power can be a synergistic instead of a finite resource. One of my favorite quotes about empowerment that I read somewhere is “Power: Share it. It grows!” 

Giving social sanction, equal opportunity, and better resources to people of color doesn't have to equate with taking it away from white people, which many white people seem to think it does. This mindset is the first thing that must change in order for the concept of white fragility to be dismantled so that we can treat power as a shared resource instead of as a commodity to be transferred from one group to another.

I’ll go further into this topic in my next post, including some recommended reading from Dan's race and communication class.

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel