Zen teacher and blogger Brad Warner is generating lively discussion on his post “Racism Isn’t the Problem” published on Hardcore Zen. But does he succeed in shedding light on racism?
The post’s headline is intentionally provocative and doesn’t reveal the author’s actual beliefs, which he later says to be “Racism is real. Racism is a problem. It’s just not the root problem.”
Warner traces the crux of the problem to human nature, specifically its “pack” mentality owing to our social nature. He was brought up to be anything but racist, and even so deeply held prejudices and fears arose in him when he sat on the zen cushion.
“I wanted to deny the garbage was in there,” he writes, “but the harder I tried, the fiercer it fought back.”
He concludes, “If you want to really eradicate racism, you have to disappear completely… Racism is not the root problem. You are the root problem.”
Some commenters on the post reminded Brad that racism “refers to systemic and institutional power structures not individual prejudices. And by that definition, racism IS the problem.” (This is partly true. Good point.)
Justlui says “What’s tough about what I think Brad is saying here is that almost nobody on the planet can actually approach ending racism through emptiness. So unfortunately, Brad probably sounds crazy to most people.” (This too is partly true.)
And Jinzang offers his own spin: “I think wht Brad is talking about is that people make a distinction between good and bad when there’s none to be made. Racism is just one manifestation of this underlying problem.” (Yes.)
I think this is an interesting discussion, but moreso for what it says about our ability to bring spiritual concepts into public discourse than about racism per se. Had Brad taken on any issue owing to the “pack” mentality of human beings — our imperialism, our gang violence, our will to dominate others, and so on — the discussion would be nearly identical.
From an Integral standpoint, I think Brad’s difficulties begin with his desire to find the “root” problem, and then trace that to a particular location in the Upper Left quadrant (the individual subjective domain). There, it is the failure to “disappear” — i.e., to attain a no-self realization or a causal state of consciousness — that he says is “root”.
He makes a perfectly valid observation from the perspective of the causal mind, but it is not the “root”. It is an absolute prioritization of the Upper Left quarant over Upper Right (the behaviors of the individual), the Lower Left (cultural concepts of power and racism), and the Lower Right (the structural societal factors involved in racism). Brad’s prioritization of his perspective over the others is known in Integral discussion as Quadrant Absolutism.
For an example of a more Integral approach, you can check out “Beyond Race and Racism: An Integral Approach”. The problem of Quadrant Absolutism is tackled by acknowleging the tetra-arising of the quadrants and the need to address problems in all four dimensions.
There is another big problem in Warner’s analysis. Concluding that failure to “disappear” the self is the problem’s root, he urges everyone to transform. But he does not distinguish between states of consciousness and structures of consciousness, and therefore appears to be unaware of the fact that the problem of racism is at its worst at a particular level or stage of human development: the ethnocentric stage.
Brad thinks human nature’s tribalism is the problem, but he misses the fact that tribalism is one part of human development at a given stage, and not an essential, unchanging nature. Tribalism can never be fully eradicted, but I think it can be checked and channeled into healthy, non-racist rather than unhealthy, racist expressions.
Urging someone at an ethnocentric stage of consciousness to “disappear” the self still leaves intact the ethocentric structure which means the moment they return from the temporary causal state of mind, the racism returns. Hardcore training in causal states ought to be recommended on its own merits, but as a cure for racism it is probably much less effective than anti-racism training and other interventions intended to break the grip of ethnocentrism for a more world-centric consciousness.