Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Two Things: The Middle Way (Duncan Ryuken Williams on Identity)

On Two Things is a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Project based on the premise that we are all affected by how society categorizes us, and as such, we have our own experiences to share. I have asked people I know to distill their understanding of a particular aspect of D&I into two things.


Duncan Ryuken Williams was few years ahead of me at Reed College. Back then, Reed was a very white school, so despite most of us not having sufficient social skills to make friends outside of classes, the international students sought each other out. With Duncan’s quiet openness holding space for all of us, we shared our idealism: What if we could get corporate leaders to walk into the forest barefooted and hug the Redwood trees? Would they still mindlessly optimize for profit without considering environmental extranalities?

Other conversations focused more on our identities and experiences: both of us having attended international schools in Japan, we would plot to replace the term “hāfu*” (Japanese pronunciation of the English word, half), with “daburu“, or double. It was personal for Duncan who was hāfu. A Japanese-superiority outlook would only count you as half, but as a world citizen, they had double the culture. Looking back at it now, the term should have been “daburu purasu” (double plus), because hāfu kids also lived in the space between where they felt they weren’t accepted fully by either half. There is both pain associated with that neutral zone but also freedom to be able to transcend categories, and the societal expectations built into them. Duncan is one of those folks who have internalized both sides and transcended them.

*hāfu/half: term given to mixed race folks (and more often used to refer to a child of a Japanese parent and a non-Japanese parent)

His Lens
His upbringing as “daburu purasu” certainly shaped his outlook. I remember him as an environmentalist, a Buddhist activist (when arrested, he signed his name Karuna, compassion in Sanskrit), and a religion major. Most recently, he has published a book called American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Harvard University Press).

His Two Things


  1. Identity is self-generated
  2. Identity is other-generated

Duncan noticed that “we straddle the Middle Path, a Buddhist notion, between identity as self-generated (i.e., that we have agency over how we define ourselves) and identity as other-generated (i.e., that we face assumptions, stereotypes, and constraints based on how social at large might view us). And somewhere in the middle is where the dynamics of identity formation is at work. ”

While conducting extensive research and interviews for his latest book about the Japanese American experience during WWII, he had an insight that inclusion and/or exclusion can happen on more than one level. For example, the incarceration camp was “based not just on racial exclusion, but religious exclusion based on presumption that non-White and non-Christian persons were deemed either second-class Americans or even un/anti-American,” Duncan explained. His book is also about “how religious diversity is essential to fulfilling America’s constitutional promise of religious freedom.”

I look forward to more conversations with Duncan when he visits San Francisco on his book tour! In documenting the personal experiences of Buddhist Japanese Americans when they were put in incarceration camps without due process, it also challenges us to view our whole identities if we were to address gaps created by politics, socio-economics, and systemic power gradient that exist today.

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This entry was posted on February 8, 2019 by in Uncategorized.
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