In some parts of this country and this world, people are doing the beautiful work of dismantling systems of oppression. People are taking a look at the ways in which we harm each other, naming those hurts, and inclining their hearts and actions towards love. Whether is the transgender rights movement, or the civil rights movement, or movements for religious freedom, or movements to protect immigrants, there is beautiful work taking place right now. At the heart of this work, we are being asked to see ourselves in another, to imagine their experience, to see the world from their perspective, and to see how our actions might cause them harm on an individual or systemic level.
The work asks us to to operate on two levels at the same time. On the basic level, we have to see and recognize and name and listen to the experiences based on identity. We must recognize that a person’s experience is informed because of the way their body looks, or the cultural group they belong to, or their sexual preferences. In this sense, identities are useful tools for undoing systems of oppression. Yet, in order to be able to see through the eyes of another, we must be able to move past the notion of fixed identities to sense that which is universal – feelings of pain, disconnection, fear and loneliness. We must understand how identities lead to these harms, but we must transcend identity in order to put ourselves in the place of another.
It is tempting to say, “race (or any other identifier) is a false creation of the mind” and leave it at that. But of course, this is a bypass that fails to address the real pain in the world created by false distinctions. Many privileged people have used “I don’t see race” as a dishonest and self-deceptive way of avoiding difficult conversations. It also casts a spiritual veneer of legitimacy over an ignorant statement. “I don’t see race” is not helpful or honest but the origin of the statement “I don’t see race” does points to a real truth. None of our definitions of identity hold up to much scrutiny at all. (The definitions of whiteness, masculinity, sexuality and gender have been changing since the dawn of humanity.) That these labels are fluid and imaginary does not mean we can sweep the problems that they create under the rug. Even as Ta Nehisi Coates argues that race is a false construct created by racism, he also argues for very real reparations toward those who have been harmed. We can use identities as helpful tools for creating supportive communities and safer spaces, naming problems, correcting wounds and injustice, all the while remembering that they are ultimately false creations of the mind.
While we can work diligently to dismantling systems of oppression and making amends, we do not need to wait until these systems are dismantled before allowing ourselves to be free of our identities. In fact, if we cling to our identity, we will be incapable of seeing through the eyes of another and feeling their pain, which is the essential ingredient for dismantling systems of oppression. If we wait until all the old hurts have been healed before we cease identifying with our culture, or our race, or our body, or our religion or our orientation, will miss the opportunity for freedom that is right here, right now.
While these bodies and these minds may do the work of correcting hurts and injustices, the sages tell us that it is a mistake to believe that we are the bodies, these cultures, these sexual desires, these religious affiliations. Nisargadatta says,
“If you seek reality you must set yourself free of all backgrounds, of all cultures, of all patterns of thinking and feeling. Even the idea of being man or woman, or even human, should be discarded. The ocean life contains all, not only humans. So, first of all, abandon all self-identification; stop thinking of yourself as such-and-such, so-an-so, this or that. Abandon all self-concern, worry not about your welfare, material or spiritual, abandon every desire, gross or subtle, stop thinking of achievement of any kind. You are complete here and now — you need absolutely nothing… once you understand that the false needs time and what needs time is false, you are nearer to reality, which is timeless, ever in the now.“
As teachers, we must incline our hearts and minds and bodies towards dismantling systems of oppression, which means recognizing how identity shapes our world, and our experiences. And though we recognize these identities as they are manifested in the world right now, we must not take them as fixed or as our own. We must see the false as false, and remember our connection to all beings everywhere. This is the work of the heart.