Privilege, Friendship, Suffering

How do you get privileged folks to care about the suffering of their fellow non-privileged folks?

Ten years ago, I attended a talk by a race scholar, Frank Wu, on racism in America and the role of Asian Americans.

I don’t remember his talk at all. I do remember I was fuming the entire time though. I remember thinking, “you are preaching to the choir here. The problem is how do you convince other people [i.e. white folks, immigrant Asians, etc.] to care about racism? How do you get privileged folks to care about injustice that doesn’t directly affect them?”

I raised my charged question during the Q&A. Professor Wu was very thoughtful and kind. He said personally he became very much focused on racism after the murder of Vincent Chin. Who is Vincent Chin?

According to Wikipedia:

Vincent Jen Chin was a Chinese American man who was severely beaten in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park, Michigan in June 1982. The beating led to his death four days later.
The perpetrators were Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz. The lenient sentencing of these two men in a plea bargain generated public outrage over the murder attack, which included blows to the head from a baseball bat and possessed attributes consistent with hate crimes. Many of the layoffs in Detroit’s auto industry, including Nitz’s in 1979, had been due to the increasing market share of Japanese automakers, leading to allegations that Vincent Chin received racially charged comments attributing to the layoffs while being beaten.

Ebens and Nitz initially faced a charge of second-degree murder, but were convicted in a county court for manslaughter. Ebens was convicted of violating Chin’s civil rights and was sentenced to 25 years of prison, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. They were both sentenced to three years of probation.

I am paraphrasing, but Professor Wu said that after this blatant form of injustice, he was awakened to the racism in America against Asians. Here was a Chinese American murdered for anti-Japanese sentiment. He was a 27 year old young man beaten to death by two white men. The murder was witnessed by two cops. Yet, neither men faced any prison time.

In recent years, with the recorded incidents of both police and private citizens shooting and killing black men, there has been a growing movement to do something, anything to stop it. At the very least, it’s convincing more people that this is a real problem faced by black men everyday throughout the country. The video tapes and internet make it too difficult to avoid this uncomfortable truth.

So, in both cases, the sense of justice is roused. The evidence is so clear that unarmed, black men are being murdered. Furthermore, the courts consistently do nothing to serve justice and accountability.

That’s murder. But what about all the other forms of racism that play out everyday?

What has struck me the most recently was what I saw and see in my Buddhist communities in Boston. Specifically, people of color groups formed to help support people to heal from the wounds of racism. And from that, more and more discussions with the entire sangha or community regarding race. Having whites, blacks, Asians, and the community as a whole talking about their experience of race. Seeing white friends slowly but surely begin to educate themselves because it’s too painful to see their other friends suffering from a difference in race. And if I was honest I would include people of color in here too. Because for a long time and even now, it’s very tempting for me to try and ignore the race issue as if it doesn’t exist in my daily life although I know it’s present. But seeing other role models be able to express that pain gave me the confidence to do so too.

Fortunately, you see other similar examples throughout the US Buddhist communities such as Harvard Divinity’s Buddhism & Race Annual Conference, Brooklyn Zen’s commitment to inclusivity, and Spirit Rock’s call for a more inclusive group of student teachers.

I’ve been firsthand in a lot of these discussion circles where each of us speak about our experience of pain with racism in America. And it’s been encouraging to see this dialogue between racial groups as a way to bring privileged folks into awareness of the suffering of others different from them. To make a safe space that can hold that confusion, discomfort, and pain. To simply be with the experience without having to be right or be helping or anything. To just feel the suffering and confusion that’s already present.

By speaking our truths about the suffering we experience from a social level, we share that tender vulnerability with others. We let others see the pain and impact racism has for our lives. And it hopefully stirs their hearts and our own hearts to want, to need to do something, anything. To begin the work of healing and thereby able to provide more space and healing for others. Others that may be very different from us.

Yesterday, I spoke up at a talking retreat and opened the opportunity to not forget our non-human friends too. The sky, the water, the earth. The birds, the beasts, the plants. Because once we are able to carry our own pain well, we can see the pain of others including those not even our own species.


I subsequently brought and read Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White after his talk and highly recommend it.