Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

race & gender & class, or, how Trayvon Martin died for our sins ~

imageWhen I recently posted a blog concerning white privilege on my FB, a long-time friend & colleague asked, “At what point do we quit beating our chests?” Here’s my answer, and a warning: it’s long. But I did cite resources! :)

I first read Brent Staples a few years after his seminal essay “Black Men and Public Spaces” first came out. Possibly in the late 80s, maybe as late as 1990. It was one of those pieces that you remember as a point in your life: there was before, and then there was after. Nothing was the same after I read it.


The essay is familiar to many American college students — the basic premise is that class complicates white America’s fear of black men. Had Trayvon Martin been wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and whistling Vivaldi, perhaps George Zimmerman wouldn’t have murdered him. Or at least that was Staples’ strategy against the ominous click click click of car window latches that President Obama spoke of. But Staples wrote his essay in 1986. I doubt it would be that simple now.

Race is a difficult topic for white America. At least most of us. The idea of white privilege even more so. There’s an enormous resistance to believing in/ recognising white privilege. Especially among the blue-collar class, who have experienced prejudice as well, in the form of classism. A man (or woman) who has had to work for everything he has doesn’t want to believe it could have/ would have been even worse had he been black or brown.As a first-generation academic, I agree that certainly it is hard enough for many whites. But the white man we’re makingimage an example of made it, he thinks, and so can anyone else who tries. Such a man is rarely interested in seeing his race as a positive factor in his success. Especially if he wasn’t successful. Being white has had no impact, he says. And he may be even more vocal if he is now a ‘self-made’ man. Witness the raging response of “I built this by myself!!”


White privilege is the assumption that you have right to walk the streets at night as who you are, even in a hoodie. That you can walk into a highway McDonald’s with 10 friends and no one will tremble in fear. (My friend Ben, who works at a historically black college, says that all buses with black athletes travelling must have 1+ whites on board to allay the fears of highway restaurants, or the bus doesn’t bother to stop. Too risky, Ben says.)

White privilege means your son will never be Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by New York police, “just for living in [his] American skin,” as Bruce Springsteen sang. Both young men unarmed. Both yet another prompt for black American parents to have the ‘always keep your hands in sight’ talk. A discussion I have never faced with my two white sons.


Being white means my two sons will never be asked for their papers when stopped by a cop for a light out, although my older son’s brother-in-law will. And possibly, if he grows up in Oklahoma, my beloved grandson will… Although I hope that this madness gripping America fades into a gentler picture by then.

imageWhite privilege is so pervasive that like your left knee, you don’t notice it. IF you’re white. Yet, as my cousin Jean wrote in an eloquent FB post, “black men, in this country cannot escape the narrative that we as a culture have painted them in to. The narrative is that they are automatically a threat. If an unarmed, black, teenager is walking down the street, then they must be a threat. They cannot belong there; we as a culture cannot allow it. And this is the message this verdict is sending. It says that black people are not safe in America. Even worse, it is saying that they do not belong. And as a person with white privilege, this verdict, while tragic, will never affect me personallyI am not the one being told that I can be killed at any time with impunity. So, if you feel tired of having to deal with the Trayvon Martin story, please remember that not all of us can afford the luxury of ignoring it.”image


In 1986, what Brent Staples said rang true to me. Today? I suspect it might have saved Trayvon Martin’s life still — you’re far less likely to murder a black guy in a suit than in a hoodie, even if you’re George Zimmerman. But does anyone really believe that a black man who gunned down a white teenager would have gone free? I don’t. And I have no doubt that a black man who gunned down a white guy in a suit would probably get the death sentence.

Given the nightmares a Harvard-educated, suit-wearing, polished & urbane black president ignites in the breasts of far too many Americans, I doubt that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would have lived even in a suit. It would be wonderful to think so. I’d also like to believe that my early family weren’t on the wrong side of Archer Street in the Tulsa Race Riot.


Issues of race are worsening in America, even though — perhaps because? — we have a black president. As Peggy McIntosh said about the same time Staples published his essay, we need to unpack this nation’s knapsack of white privilege. And begin to heal America. Or put it this way: every yellow body bag with a 17-year-old boy’s dead body in it is the direct result of someone’s unpacked knapsack. And no whistling in the dark will bring him back ~


feeling and judging ~

INFJA friend’s blog featured a quick&dirty Jung personality test (the four traits test, some folks call it). I move back & forth on it, but usually I’m about where this one put me: INFJ. A moderate Introvert (which is far more than most of my friends & colleagues would believe); strongly iNtuitive; moderately more Feeling than Perceiving, and very slightly more Judging than Perceiving.

So what, right? Well, it means (according to the short blurb, at least) that I’m in good social justice company. Nelson Mandela and MLK Jr., no less. Not to mention Mother Teresa & Jimmy Carter. That makes me happy.


Some of the other things, maybe not as much. I hate to think of myself as judgmental, but I know I am. While mercy is the ground for most of my beliefs — that & grace — I think there are things that are flat wrong. Harming children? Always wrong. Mean to animals? The same. And things that fall within those categories might not appear to be harmful or mean to others.

A note: if you don’t believe we have a moral right to help those less fortunate, that falls in to things I think are flat wrong. It’s totally WRONG to give money away to rich corporations and do away with food for children and families. W-R-O-N-G.see and hear no evil


It’s also wrong to tell people they’re evil, à la Westboro Church. The Christian Bible doesn’t talk much — at least not in the Jesus part — about evil. Nor does Buddhism. And certainly not Unitarian Universalism, which believes no one is eternally damned. I’m not sure a lot of Unitarians even believe in eternity… :)

I also love that the snapshot talks about writing, and other things I value. So the point? That these kinds of minute windows into who we may, possibly, be…comfort us. At least they do me, and many of my friends. Because the deal is: if MLK Jr. had anything in common with me, I’m okay. Really OK! Like Jimmy Carter, my thoughts are all over the place. :) So it’s very comforting to know that somehow, I’m in the right neighbourhood for goodness. And that’s good news, in a time when the world is often all too short on happy moments.


tattooed women & liminal spaces ~

imageI ‘got inked’ with my younger son when I was in Portland last month. He asked, and I was charmed. I already have one tattoo — a small Chinese character for ‘ink,’ almost unnoticeable on my inside right ankle.

This one is NOT unnoticeable. Friends vary in their reactions. Some were horrified (truly — you can tell). Others (particularly old friends & family) were accepting; they’ve known me to do far weirder things. I’m lucky to have the best of husbands — he said my dragon was beautiful. I think so too.


I’m year of the dragon, which by most Asian standards is a great thing to be. And the dragon seems to me the perfect symbol for the changes I’ve been going through.

The tattoo had been in the back of my head for a long time. In Chinese, Việtnamese, and Thai mythologies, the dragon is ancient & wise. The old I can vouch for feeling these days; the wise I hope to grow into. Dragons in Western mythologies are there primarily, it always seemed to me, to serve as proving grounds for homicidal knights. And/or to devour nubile maidens. But I’ve (obviously) never seen them that way.image


As a child, I went w/ my family every Tết to the annual dragon dance, known sometimes as the lion dance. My mother told me I too was a dragon (I think I’ve known this since was no older than 9). So I never rooted for the ‘heroes’ who slayed the poor dragon. I always rooted for the dragon.

Later, the dragon became a kind of talisman for me. Fearless, winged, wise and just. It’s what I’d like to be. Still. :)

Once, years ago, a man on the bus saw my small ‘ink’ tattoo and said I didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would get a tattoo. Hmmmm. Just what kind of woman DOES get a tattoo, Tom? And what kind of woman do you think I am? The conversation went downhill pretty quickly ~


Because poets are EXACTLY the kind of people to make metaphors concrete, tangible. I wanted ‘ink’ in my blood, hence my first tattoo so many years ago, while I was working hard to perfect my craft. Now? I want to go forward into these next years with wings. I want to fight for what’s right, and be able to tell the difference between attachment and justice. So my dragon is a doorway into that next place, a threshold space, if you will. A liminal space where beginner’s heart can continue growing.

imageIt’s also art. Body art, yes, but I think it’s beautiful. I like the colours (each of which I discussed ad infinitum nauseaum w/ Sean, at Infinity Tattoo in Portland. And art — whether with a big A or a small a — is good, as Sean says. Always. :)


I don’t think everyone gets a tattoo for the same reasons I have. But then, how many retired college professors have sons who want to go get tattooed together? And a fixation on dragons…? :)



my own sangha ~

I don’t have a true sangha — that community of Buddhist believers who  journey with you along your spiritual path. I have fellow travelers, certainly, and I’d like to think my approach to belief is eclectic enough that my ersatz sangha is pretty ecumenical.

My cousin Sally, a born-Methodist who converted to Judaism for her ex; my friend Pat, a devout Christian; my sisters — one a devout Christian, one an atheist, the third a pagan Buddhist; my sons — one an agnostic, one a Wiccan; my wonderful husband, whose spiritual breadth & depth defy easy classification… And the many men & women (Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian, Jewish…) whose own paths twine through mine like moonflower vine — brightly shining in the darkness. moonflower vine


Moonflower is an amazing flower — it blooms in the evening, on through the night. Luminously fragrant, bats & moths love it. If you plant a night garden — full of white flowers, and silver-leaved plants to shine softly after dusk — it’s a must.

My sangha — at least what serves me as one — is full of moonflower friends. Sometimes not visible in the happy daytime hours, but always there when it’s darkest. I love that metaphor (surprise), as it seems easy to me to be there to celebrate good times. I’d like to be the friend who manages to listen (not my strongest asset!), and helps you heal. Healing is kind of like moonflower’s night fragrance, I think. Not there in the bright times, but in the darkness.


Now that I’ve beat that metaphor to death… :)

Holocaust Selection_Birkenau_ramp

“Selektion” on the Judenrampe, Auschwitz, May/June 1944. To be sent to the right meant slave labor; to the left, the gas chamber. This image shows the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia, many of them from the Berehov ghetto. The photographer was Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.


More seriously? This blog is as much a sangha as any. Writing what it means to search for beginner’s heart, how hard it is to keep sight of that in the middle of politics, racism, social injustice… I don’t know that any community could be more helpful.

This is one of those moments in my life when my faith in people isn’t as strong as usual. Normally, I feel like most folks are okay. But lately, in the wake of Buddhists killing Muslims, and Muslims killing each other, and whites declaring open season on difference…? It’s hard.

Once, many years ago, I hit a comparable spiritual impasse. There were three murders close to me — no one I knew well, but the aunt of my son’s best friend, the dear friend of a sister-in-law, and a stranger I never met. It was too much for me. I went to a dear mentor — a brilliant Sho’ah scholar — who had studied the impact of the Holocaust through history. I asked him how he managed to look at the horrible things people did to each other, often in the name of God. And because my beliefs call me to compassion — if not love — I asked him how to love these murderers. A question I face once again.


Hank, that wise and gentle friend, told me, It’s not your job to love them, Britton. It’s God’s job. You can’t hate them, but you don’t have to love them. They turned their faces from God. God did not turn away from them.

I can’t tell you how that healed me. I only have to work on my compassion — hard enough! To have compassion for people who believe that guns solve anything? To have compassion for racists and murderers and rapists and men (& women) who want to relegate women to child-bearing machines? To have compassion for people who refuse to feel any for hungry children, veterans, elderly? This is difficult enough.

I don’t have to love the people who break my heart. That’s not my job. I just have to learn compassion. Thankfully, I have this amazing  sangha to help me.

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