I have said before that this blog is intentionally parochial, but I might go out on a limb here. It is a safe thing for me to do really, given the context and my 'location within the matrix of domination', as a good dharma friend just expressed it.
There have been a number of trainings in diversity and multi-cultural awareness in the years I have been at Zen Center. One exercise I remember particularly well had all the participants lined up on one side of the room. Each time a category was announced, members of the dominant, privileged group stepped forward, members of the less privileged group stepped back. I ended up a long way forward: white, male, middle class, heterosexual, English as a first language. The only backward step I needed to take was as a first-generation immigrant, though, with the cushioning of the above categories, this barely qualifies me as oppressed.
Growing up in blithely privileged circumstances, I nonetheless found myself increasingly uncomfortable at school and college with the sense of entitlement many of my peers seem to have been imbued with; I resisted being identified with the class I was born into, and tried to find my own way, starting to learn about different forms of power and oppression - which is part of the reason I found moving to America appealing, as I was able to side-step the constricting categories of the old country.
That said, I always felt lucky to have lived and worked in London where I did; the World Service is pretty much the most culturally diverse work-place you could find. For ten years, I worked, ate, drank and partied with colleagues who came from forty or more countries - the only place I have ever been that topped that was the United Nations canteen in New York. The area I lived in was also racially mixed, lower-middle class in those days, now rather gentrified by all accounts. When I moved to San Francisco, I was quite shocked at what I perceived to be the cultural and racial divides that surrounded me - not to mention dismayed at the conversations about capital punishment, gun laws and abortion rights. I felt I had stepped back a couple of generations.
Zen Center, along with other sanghas in America, has been historically very white; there has been, and continues to be, an effort to be more welcoming, more inclusive, more diverse. We are not there yet. I take a glimmer of hope from the fact that the members of Young Urban Zen come a little closer to representing the general demographics of the city, but there is still a lot of work for everybody to do.
So why I am writing about this? A couple of my sangha friends, who work more deeply on these issues, forwarded me this piece, written after the anniversary events. I had responses to different points the author brings up, which I recognised were largely driven by defensiveness. I sat with that for a while, and then articulated them to those friends. One of them then sent me a link to this, which, along with Mushim's talk last week, has helped triangulate the conversation in a way that turned my defensiveness more towards gratitude that people are able to bring forward their stories. I was glad to be reminded that I need to listen. It is a question of mindfulness, remembering not to fall into complacency, and, here just as in other areas of life and practice, to be able to hold deeply the simultaneous understanding of difference and sameness within the whole working of reality.