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Lions Roar : September 2018
according to Ve g Ne w s , are the most influential animal-rights activists ever. Firstly, she points out, there’s the issue that Ve g - News used Mount Rushmore. For indigenous people, it’s a sacred site, which was desecrated by the faces of white presi- dents who, for them, represent genocide. In addition to that, there’s a subtler, but troubling, assumption at play in this image. In society at large, there’s the idea that there are makers and takers. “We’re taught that the makers in society make advances in science, food, technology, and philosophy, and they’re always white people,” says Harper. “And then there’s the narrative that it’s usually the others—the nonwhite populations—that are the takers. They don’t pull their weight in society and they don’t really have much to offer intellectually.” Ve g Ne w s ’s image of Mount Rushmore implies that the mak- ers of veganism are all white. But what about the nonwhite laborers who harvest the foods, often under abysmal condi- tions? It’s their work, says Harper, which gives “vegans, mostly white vegans, the food choice and food access to enact their ethical practice of being vegan.” As Harper says, “Ve g Ne w s has really good intentions. They’re trying to celebrate who they think are the makers of the vegan and animal-rights movement.” But unless they can learn to think outside of the white box, their message about protecting animals won’t be heard outside of white communities. It’s not enough for organizations to say they’re against racism; they need to dig deeper and actually educate themselves. “FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, when my husband and I first started dating,” Breeze Harper remembers, “I spoke a lot about my frustrations with white supremacy and racism in this coun- try. Anger isn’t bad or good, but he noticed that it wasn’t neces- sarily productive the way I was engaging with it, so he said, ‘You should consider reading this book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Anger.’ So I read it, and it was life changing. “Then I discovered Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book Seeking Enchantment. She grew up as a dark-skinned, Black woman in a generation of intense racial hostility, and she really dealt with that pain, which was profound for me. Those two texts made me realize what engaged Buddhism has to offer me as someone who’s focused on social justice and has struggled for years with resentment toward white society’s refusal to take seriously that systemic racism and white supremacy are significant impedi- ments to happiness and justice—not just for people of color, but for all people.” Buddhist teachings “helped me reformulate how I went about my anti-racism work, scholarship, and activism,” says Harper. They helped her develop compassion for herself, her anger, and those she considered her enemies. These, she says, are some of the hard questions she learned to navigate: “How do you have conversations and enact action plans that don’t just involve Black women or women of color doing all the work, but rather engage those with the power in the racial status quo? How do you engage white people to do this work without them either getting angry with you or stewing in their own white guilt? How do you create tools using Buddhism to strip away delusion and replace it with mindfulness and compassion? “When I show up to do a workshop or a talk, I say, ‘This a safer space. There will be accountability and responsibility, but there isn’t going to be shaming. We’re all on a spectrum, so you’re not a good white person or a bad white person.’ I try to get out of the binary thinking. I also explain to people my own stories of power, privilege, or lack thereof. I say to them, ‘I’m not just Breeze Harper, a Black woman who is the victim of systemic racism. I am Breeze Harper who also is a cisgender woman, who because of my own ignorance and delusion has upheld systems of transphobia and cis-sexism because I was ignorant that I even had cisgender privilege.’ And I talk about my own responses to being called out on my privileges and hav- ing discomfort with that. “I go back to Buddhism,” says Harper, and its teachings on interconnectedness. “I try to explain to my white audiences that systemic racism doesn’t just hurt people of color, it also hurts you too, because it takes away who you really are.” Harper says that before reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s and Earthlyn Manuel’s books, she had a misinformed image of what Buddhism was. She recalls, “I thought it was something, in the context of the United States, that white people do—using it to spiritually bypass or not really engage in race, class, and gender.” That perception was not entirely unfounded. “In my own experience and in that of many Buddhists of color in the United States,” says Harper, “if we tried to talk about race and systemic racism pre-Trump, we were told we weren’t mature with our practice and that we were holding on to the ego. We were told we shouldn’t be so obsessed with this race problem. We’re all human beings and there is only the human race. The spiritually advanced person is a person who doesn’t have to think about race.” Trump winning the presidency has forced many white Bud- dhists to reconsider their position, as—clearly—ignoring the white elephant in the room did not make it go away. In Buddhism, there are two truths: absolute and relative. At the absolute level, skin color is immaterial. But, at the relative, racism is real and causes very real suffering. Understanding the causes of suffering and finding a path out of that suffering—isn’t that what Bud- dhism is all about? Harper is glad that predominantly white Buddhist commu- nities are finally starting to talk about race and racism and how it plays out in the sangha. “It took thousands of years to build systemic racism,” says Harper, “It’s not going to end in a hun- dred years, or even in my lifetime so easily.” Having these diffi- cult conversations is a good first step. ♦ LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 70