Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dharma, Race, and White Privilege

There has been some spirited debate about a post that written concerning race and a meditation retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. Please see the blogs Progressive Buddhism and Angry Asian Buddhist on my sidebar for the thrust of these discussions. (Forgive my lack of in-text links, I can't seem to figure out how to get it in there.)

I believe the following preliminary points are essential when considering issues of race and privilege:

1. Racism, both in individual and institutional manifestations, continues to be pervasive in the United States. We have come a long way as a society, but we have a long way to go still.

2. That pervasiveness includes its presence in our sanghas, no matter how much sensitivity to such issues may be present. This is not to diminish the value of being open and sensitive to racial issues, but to suggest that such sensitivity is not sufficient for eliminating racism in all its forms.

3. White privilege is a separate, but linked, issue. Due to both the historical legacy of oppression, including legalized social and economic favoritism towards whites, and to the continuation today of behaviors and thought patterns that developed during the past, white people (myself included) have privileges that people of color in the U.S. simply do not. One does not need to display racist thoughts of behaviors in order to have white privilege. In fact, often we whites are unaware of how our behavior sometimes falls into these patterns.

4. Buddha's teachings call us to have compassion for each other, and to question all of our stories, including the ones we have about race, racism, white privilege, etc. Above all, I think it's important for each of us, no matter our background, to remain open and to listen deeply when it comes to these issues.

5. Those who suggest that issues of race are distractions to the dharma, and should just be dropped, are wrong, dead wrong.

Here is a conversation from the post on Progressive Buddhism. Arun is the blogger of Angry Asian Buddhist. And Kyle is one of the bloggers on Progressive Buddhism. I want to say beforehand that both Arun and Kyle have been very clear with their comments, and both, in my opinion, take these issues seriously.

Arun wrote to Kyle: "To paraphrase what I’ve written elsewhere, at the very least, being a white American means that you don’t have to deal with the humiliation of your race being shoved in your face day in and day out. After all, you’re the default. When most Americans think of a doctor, soldier, lawyer, engineer, judge, police officer, professor, firefighter or astronaut, they think of white guys. That’s you. Not minorities. Not women. When you apply for a nice white collar job, you fit the subconscious white guy profile they had in mind. You’ve never had someone look at your skin and wonder if you have a criminal record or illegal immigrant in your blood. You’ve never been arrested for opening the door to your own house. It’s nice. It’s a privilege.

The kicker is when your privilege flows thick with entitlement. You know that you enjoy benefits as a white man that people of color don’t. You’re a liberal, well-educated fellow, an ardent Democrat who stays on top of the issues. You’re well aware of the racial inequity that continues to grip our nation. You didn’t ask for this privilege—but that’s the catch. Who asked to be born and raised in the laundry room? Who asked to be the child of migrant workers? Who asked to be the offspring of the plantation hands? They didn’t ask for their socially constructed disadvantages either. It is the apotheosis of white privilege when you can look in the mirror, acknowledge your unearned privilege, and then walk away.

Because I can’t do that. The tens of millions of people of color in this nation can’t look in the mirror, accept that we’ve been given the shaft, and then pretend this socially constructed thing called race doesn’t exist. It is insulting if you expect us to believe that somehow we can live in the same race-free world you enjoy by the very privilege of being a white man in America."

And I wrote: "Kyle, these are important points Arun is making. Recently, I had an experience at our school where these dynamics play out. I am an infrequent visitor to the school I help run, mostly because I'm doing off site work right now. Anyway, the doors of the building are locked, and people either have to be buzzed in or have keys. I have keys and often just key in and go on my way. No questions are ever asked of me, even though a lot of people there don't even know who I am. About a month ago, one of our volunteers, an African-American guy in his mid-20s, was buzzed in. He proceeded to head to the bathroom for about 5 minutes. The office staff decided this was "suspicious" so they confronted him when he came out of the bathroom. He was shocked, and nearly quit volunteering with the school. We had lengthy discussions with the staff on hand, and the person who confronted him apologized, but the whole thing never should have happened. Not in 5 years has anyone asked me, a white male, why I was walking around, in the bathroom, etc. To me, this is just a small example of the way things continue to be in the U.S.

Now, like I've said before, I don't sit around feeling shame or guilt about my status as a white male. Nor do I feel compelled to try and make up for all the misdeeds of the past. That's impossible.

It's very true that race is an arbitrary construction, but it's equally true that our society has loaded this construction with all sorts of associations, and created institutions, laws, and codes of acceptable and not acceptable behavior based on it.

I do think Mr. Le's article was a bit sloppy, and he could have done a better job of drawing out the subtle issues that we at play in the retreat he attended.

I recall years ago sitting in a town hall discussion on race in Milwaukee. It was a messy, kind of miserable experience - mostly because instead of dialogue, it turned into a an argument about who's oppression had been worse. However, I remember at one point, an African-American woman getting up and responding to a white woman's question. The white woman asked 'What should we do about all this?' meaning all the oppression of the past and present. And the African-American woman said, 'Stop asking us what you need to do. Get together and figure out what you need to do yourselves.'

The way I see it, this woman was asking us to a)stop ignoring the issues and b)stop assuming that people of color will hold your hand and give you the answers you need.

I honestly don't know what exactly needs to happen to overturn the current manifestations of racism and privilege. Maybe like you, I sometimes am stumped as to how to respond to comments like Arun is making. But I feel compelled to keep an open mind, and to listen as well as I can, believing that eventually, solutions come from deep listening.

We all end up having partial narratives. You, I, Arun, everyone else: none of our stories about the world, and what is going on, are complete. So, I can definitely question, prod, and respond to what is presented to me. But the moment I assume I know everything is trouble."

And Kyle responded: "Thank you Nathan for those comments. I have very much acknowledged Arun's concerns and I agree with many of them.

Here is what is being missed though, this post is about Mr.Le and his statements. Here is a quote from an another Asian American Buddhist on Arun's site regarding Mr.Le's post:

"What he wrote really didn't sound like something a Buddhist would write - it lacks empathy, understanding, and compassion. I am writing this because I have a higher standard for him, being a rare Asian-American scholar and a Buddhist at the same time. I am, however, disappointed. His post is actually causing MORE rifts between the Asian and Western Buddhists than the offensive Vietnamese native he complaints about, but both you and him fail to see this. There are great examples of white privilege within Buddhist Sanghas which should be made aware by the non-whites, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE. He pursued his agenda with a bad example and now may have ruined the opportunity for real dialog. I am deeply saddened because of this."

While I disagree that Le ruins the chance for dialogue, I think he makes some very valid points. I find it odd that very few people will stand up and say "hey, Mr.Le's comments were very inappropriate and highly offensive." This isn't about Arun's very valid concerns, this is about trying to fix racism with more racism. And just because he is talking about white's doesn't make it one bit less offensive.

But because I am white, am I supposed to not point this out, hold my head in shame and say shame on me for being white? I really like Arun and I think she/he(sorry, I have no clue if Arun is a woman or a man) has a ton of good stuff to say, and I even invited Arun through e-mail to post about these concerns, and help the entire community understand the real pain that minorities go through and how we can best help our community to become more aware and more diverse. And that offer is always open Arun.

The Buddha said 'In this world Hate never yet dispelled Hate, only Love dispels Hate.'"

Now, you might ask - why did I just put my poor readers through all this. Well, partly because I really think it's important for all of us to pay attention to the nuances of each others' stories. It's way too easy to jump on a single phrase or set of comments you disagree with or think are too angry sounding or whatever, and dismiss everything else that is said. But the reality is that it will only be through deep listening, and a willingness to change, if necessary, that these kinds of complex issues will ever change. I have more to say about all this, but instead, I want to invite you to reflect on the conversation above, as well as those in the other blogs, and those in your own lives.


Kyle said...

Nathan - Thank you for this, I really appreciate your very balanced view of this very difficult subject. I don't think I am out of bounds in saying I think both sides benefited from this discussion and perhaps saw things from a more balanced perspective.

This is a very important issue that I believe the Buddhist community in the West needs to stop dodging and openly discuss and communicate.

Thanks again Nathan, I think you give this topic a very balanced view.

Algernon said...

I don't feel up to researching all of these posts on these other blogs, but there is good substance in your analysis of the arguments and the presence of race-conditioning in the western sangha.

A teacher from my Zen school, Jeff Kitzes, leads anti-racism workshops in California with his wife, a vipassana teacher named Sheridan Adams. Approaches like this are a good idea. It seems consistent with our vow to examine our conditioning, and race plays too strong and complex a role in our identity and group dynamics to be denied or ignored.

And even less is being written about class-conditioning in the sanghas, but I won't wear out my welcome on that right now...

Nathan said...

Oh yes, class conditioning and class issues in sanghas - for sure! I've hinted at some of that myself, but you're right that it's a very under examined issue.

Unknown said...

A very nice post, Nathan. Thank you for it.

I agree that there does need to be an open forum on this. Its a shame we all can't just discuss this over a beer.

everything gets solved that way.