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  • Community of “Neighbors”:A Baptist-Buddhist Reflects on the Common Ground of Love
  • Jan Willis

Today we are all aware that the concept of “race” is a mere construction. There is only one “race”: the human race; to think otherwise is like still believing that the earth is flat. But “racism” is a different matter. It exists as a system of beliefs and prejudices that people differ along biological and genetic lines and that one’s own group is superior to another group. When these beliefs and prejudices are coupled with power—especially the power to negatively affect the lives of those perceived to be inferior—we have a serious problem. And no one should downplay or underestimate the harm that such an ideology inflicts upon everyone who participates in it. According to one African American professor of social work, “America’s history is inextricably bound to this racist ideology. From the codifying of slavery, to the belief in ‘Manifest Destiny,’ to the treatment of ‘illegal immigrants,’ many of America’s actions continue to conflict with its creed that ‘All men are created equal.’”1

Over the past decade or so, I have written a number of pieces that focus upon racism in America and racism in so-called American Buddhism.2 Being African American myself, my reasons for this focus may perhaps be clear though not necessarily inevitable. I have written on a number of other topics: Buddhist philosophical discourses and life stories of Buddhist “saints,” for example. In my writings on racism, I have tried to communicate something of the emotional and psychic toll it takes to live in this country as a person of color. In a number of these writings, I have called myself a “Baptist-Buddhist,” and thus this is also one of my “dual belongings,” one of my “multiple identities.”

When I speak of racism, I am not concerned with garnering pity, or playing the “race card” of guilt, or telling you, from some assumed position of superiority on the matter, that there is simply no way for you to understand this toll. I certainly cannot speak for all African Americans, or even for most of them. Early on in the process of writing this paper, I emailed Jung and Paul to say that I found the title of the panel both much too broad and much too narrow. “Too broad” because one person cannot possibly channel and/or verbalize the countless instances of suffering endured by African Americans (and more broadly, by persons of color) throughout space and over centuries in this country owing to slavery and its aftermath. And “too narrow” [End Page 97] because, ultimately, we want to do more than just rehash our many sufferings. We don’t want to wallow in victimhood. We want to move on—from the recognition of that immense suffering, seen and unseen—and to go out into the world and act to bring about social, economic, and ecological justice. That’s what we are called upon to do: to form a new community wherein there is compassion and caring for one another, where there is love and peace, nonviolence, reconciliation, and justice.

So, even though I am quite frankly tired—as are so many people of color—of being the “token” African American who can add visible “diversity” to a group in order to show that it is now more “inclusive” than before, nevertheless, in this so-called postracial society where we have a black president and the demographic of “person of color” now comprises an actual majority of the United States’ population, I must still rise to say that, sadly, racism is not dead in this country! Its painful vestiges exist, and those vestiges are far from being either innocent or unharmful.

I truly believe that—for African Americans, in particular—it is the trauma and the legacy of slavery that haunts us in the deepest recesses of our souls. It is hard to imagine what having been bartered and sold as though mere property does to a human being, what being dehumanized, infanticized, and divested of all rights and liberties does to one’s sense of self-worth and well-being. As...