On Human Fictions and Constructions of Race

by Latoya Peterson
While reading Brad Warner’s Zen Wrapped Karma Dipped in Chocolate, I stumbled across a passage that explained something I’ve been trying to convey for years (emphasis mine):

While I was at [Zen teacher] Nishijima’s place, I told him about what had been going on with Nakano Productions.  I said they had absolutely no goal for their international business.  “In Zen it’s important to have no goal,” he said.  “But in business, a goal is absolutely necessary.”

When I tell this story people often have difficulty accepting its apparent dichotomy.  How can a Zen teacher, dedicated to a goalless practice, function in a business world where goals are essential?  But this is only a problem if you are too caught up in words and images and too insistent on maintaining the fiction that all aspects of life must be consistent.

Of course it’s important not to be a hypocrite.  But there’s nothing hypocritical about practicing goallessness in Zen and making specific, goal-oriented plans when you are in a business meeting.  Here’s how it works.  In terms of the Zen view of the true nature of time, the idea of having a goal breaks down into absurdity.  There is only the eternal now, so when would you realize your goal?

But human business affairs take place in a different realm.  This realm is essentially an artificial construct of the human mind.  As human beings we need to interact with other humans.  We provide ourselves with means of support from the wider human community by engaging in useful fictions together.

Even though, in Buddhist terms, there is no real future, I still have a retirement fund.  When I go out for public appearances, I plan ahead – not very well, mind you – but I do.  I need to know where I’m going, how long it will take to get there, how long I’m supposed to speak, and what Thai restaurants in the area will be open when I’m done.  You can’t function in a society if you don’t involve yourself in the fictions society accepts about time.  But you do so with the understanding you’re playing a game. (p. 69-70)

When I say race is a social construct, I’m not putting forth some radical new idea.  Many, many theorists and biologists have said this before, and yet the idea of race as a social construct seems difficult to grasp.  Some people seem to think that if they reject this construct, it will cease to exist.  They leave comments here like “there is no race but the human race!” deftly ignoring how this social construction has social consequences and contributes to a global social hierarchy.  Others cannot grasp the idea of race being a social construct, but their ideas always boil down to how people look.  But categories shift, our ideas about who can be what shifts, and we are continually negotiating and renegotiating these boundaries.

Case in point – the changing nature of how we record race.  I shot a (shaky, hasty) video while I was at the AAA Symposium on Race on The Census, and how the terminology for identifying race has been in a continual state of change:

Census Exhibit from Latoya Peterson on Vimeo.
So I really liked Warner’s ideas on time and constructs because they parallel with race.  Yes, it is ultimately fiction.  But it is of vital importance to negotiating society.

At least it is this past millennium.  Who knows what the next one will bring?