Sunday, February 14, 2010

More on Race Talk and Buddhism

I had a few misgivings for awhile about the post I made yesterday, but then realized that even a somewhat flawed, incomplete commentary about race that gets people talking is better than nothing. And really, like anyone else, anything I can offer will be incomplete.

One of the commenters, Flying Pig (gotta love that name), brought up some issues I would like to address further.

First off, I'm not at all interested in spearheading a diversity campaign or acting as if I have all the answers. Because I don't. One thing I am interested in is getting more white practitioners to talk about issues of race, and/or reflect on how race does, indeed, impact their lives, even if they don't desire to see it. I am also interested in sharing perspectives of practitioners of color, out of the belief that in doing so, other practitioners of color might find themselves feeling less alone or have some new way to speak about their experiences, and so that white practitioners might have something new to consider. Maybe these intentions are flawed, or misguided - I don't honestly know. I only know that they keep coming up for me, as a sangha leader, dharma practitioner, ESL teacher, and member of a society filled with racialized institutions.

Flying Pig brings up class, and says that the dharma is open to everyone. Yes, I agree, And yet, think about the cost of classes, retreats, etc. at any North American dharma center with a decent sized membership. It's out of reach for many people, including that single mother barely able to feed her children Kyle speaks of in his comment. Sure, almost all centers offer some free services, but there often ends up being a "price" to access working deeper with the dharma in North America. It's one of the reasons, I suspect, that there are more people doing online practice. As the board president of my sangha, I continue to reflect on how best to balance the financial needs of running an institution with making what's offered financially accessible to as many people as possible. There aren't any easy answers, but if we never ask how what we are doing is effecting people, including ways in which we are possibly excluding people, then we're failing to handle the grains of rice as if they are our eye balls, to paraphrase a line from Dogen's "Instructions for the Zen Cook."

Flying Pig asks: "Are we just creating an issue and is our drive to integrate Buddhism evidence of some racist assumption that everyone's practice should look the same?"

A fair question. I think there is some truth to this, especially when narratives about race are solely about "inclusion." I'm trying my best to come at this from a different angle, to not just say we need more people of color in our sanghas. What does that prove anyway? Even if our sanghas remain segregated, our everyday lives are not always so. Many of us walk into work, into the grocery store, into schools, and struggle to relate to each other, in great part because of race. This is increasingly true in suburbs and even in some small towns with factories employing recent immigrants - racial diversity is not just a city thing anymore.

Buddhism, it seems to me, keeps pointing us back to relationships, to how we interact with each other on a moment by moment basis. If you can't communicate effectively with your child's teacher because he or she is of another race, that's kind of a problem don't you think? If you struggle to relate to your boss or your co-workers because of their racial backgrounds, it's hard to get the job done well, don't you think?

Race is political. Race is personal. Race is relational. Even as race is an empty social construct, it still impacts almost everything, from bank lending practices to elementary school test scores. It seems like the perfect dharma topic, because it demonstrates so clearly both the emptiness of forms, as well as the power of forms in everyday life.

As for "creating an issue" from the question above, I've had sangha members of color speak very personally and honestly, both in public and in private about their frustrations with the unexamined assumptions of the white majority in our sangha. And our sangha has made efforts to be more upfront about race, which maybe is why these folks felt ok enough to speak about their experiences. So, this isn't an issue I made up. In fact, our sangha, like some others, have supported people of color practice groups that specifically focus on the intersections of race and dharma - so I don't think this has to be about making everyone's practice the same.

Flying Pig writes: "the women of S.F.Z.C worked hard to make their presence known. No one else could have done it for them." Yes, it's very true that the women of SFZC had to do the work to become leaders. The men of SFZC could not have led the charge to develop and institute female leadership.

But the men there, certainly, didn't remain static in their views. How could they have? My guess is that those men who wanted to maintain a male-dominant practice either left, or have ceased to be in the majority. It was probably a gradual shift, one that's still going on, but there had to be a shift of some sort for conditions to be right enough for women leaders to actually succeed.

As for the correlation between women and practitioners of color Flying Pig made, it remains to be seen. There are far more white women in North American "convert" sanghas than people of color of any gender. And there aren't all that many white people, or non-Asian people for that matter, landing in sanghas that were started by Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in the U.S. and Canada. Spiritual segregation remains the name of the game for the most part.


MuSsang Jaeger said...

Lori's blog is getting hammered by some of the old white male Zen teachers on Zen Forum International.

Nathan said...

hmm - i'll go take a look.

Nathan said...

I thought about making a comment, but it's pointless. Those few guys in there have made their decisions about everything, and their certainty is a wall not worth spending tons of energy on to try and poke holes in it. It's kind of surprising, though, to see seasoned Zen teachers being so fixed in their views and lacking so completely compassion. Just goes to show that we all better keep at our practices, because blind spots can last for a really, really long time.

Anonymous said...

I feel like this discourse has pointed back to my original question when I found out that this Zen stuff isn't about leaving the world behind for some higher road, and that question is what is help? What will help look like? And how do I surrender and accept that it will look different every time?

But I agree, like Katagiri said, we must say something. Can't play perfect souls all our lives...

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a rad continuing discussion. Thanks for commenting on Lori's fine post, and making this site available for further reflection.

Just to add a couple of thoughts to the convo, as a practicing proto-Buddhist of color...

I really appreciate that you brought up the economic/cost thing, and I think that getting meaningfullyly involved in anti-capitalist organizing and activism is a good way for white Buddhists to address issues of race without having to frame it totally in racial terms. Educating ourselves about the ways in which race is used to separate workers and designate certain people for certain production jobs: this is a really key move for any white person truly interested in contributing to the liberation of people of color, in my opinion. And because people of color are, on average, clustered on the lower end of distribution, and tend to be hyper-exploited, working to end capitalism (in a race-conscious fashion) also undermines the racist inequities it reproduces.

Just to give a cute little example, I was at a one-day workshop on dharma and oppression on MLK day, at my home sangha, which is very racially diverse. The facilitator led an exercise where all the participants gathered at one end of the room, and when she made a statement about identity, everyone who identified with the statement would cross to the other side of the room. Then we would all reflect on our assumptions about the people on our side, and the people on the other side.

The statements were things like, "If you identify as a member of the African Diaspora..."

"If you grew up speaking a language other than English..."

"If you are college educated..."

"If you or anyone in your family has ever suffered sexual abuse..."

And on and on. At the end, the facilitator opened the floor for any of us who wished to offer an identity statement. Someone said "If you identify as Chicana or Chicano;" another person said "If you have ever been a runaway or a ward of the state." I raised my hand and said, "If you or anyone in your family has ever been exploited by a capitalist economic system." And every single person in the room crossed to the other side, except one white woman who crossed halfway and seemed nervous, lol.

My point is, organizing around ending capitalism is a very concrete way to contribute toward the liberation of people of color, without having to make race the main focal point. (That doesn't mean, though, that white people should take the lead in those struggles, necessarily.)

Thanks again, and be well. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and another good tactic, I think, is for financially stable white people (and there tend to be more of them than financially stable POC) to contribute materially to the few, precious spaces where practitioners of color can practice together. My current sangha is the East Bay Meditation Center, in downtown Oakland, which is led by people of color and queer folks. I only attend their weekly People of Color (POC) sittings. When white folks donate money to EBMC to sustain the POC nights, to me this is even better allyship than trying to 'diversify' mostly-white sanghas, or pretend that it's possible to create a space on planet earth where everyone feels equally welcome. I just think that's unrealistic, and not necessarily the goal, anyway!

The only other thing I would add to the discussion (it came up in the previous thread, I think) is noting a difference between prejudice/bigotry and racism. The way I understand it, anyone can be prejudiced about damn near anything. So a black person might be prejudiced against whites, or a vegetarian might be prejudiced against meat eaters. But racism requires social power. So realistically, it is usually only white people who are racist, or who prop up racist policies. It's a burden that comes with being the dominant class, even if you personally haven't reaped all the benefits of class membership.

And to tie it back the economics, charging a whole bunch for meditation courses or retreats is effectively racist, in my book, even if it's not consciously prejudiced -- since it effectively discourages people of color, who tend to be poorer on average, from accessing the dharma.

Again, thanks, and hugs.

Nathan said...

"I really appreciate that you brought up the economic/cost thing, and I think that getting meaningfullyly involved in anti-capitalist organizing and activism is a good way for white Buddhists to address issues of race without having to frame it totally in racial terms."

Yeah, I completely agree. Economic injustice is so pervasive, and I think is a way for people from different backgrounds to come together and work towards a better world. Or at the very least, share their experiences and help each other lessen suffering, while attempting to effect the broader, societal level issues.

"When white folks donate money to EBMC to sustain the POC nights, to me this is even better allyship than trying to 'diversify' mostly-white sanghas, or pretend that it's possible to create a space on planet earth where everyone feels equally welcome. I just think that's unrealistic, and not necessarily the goal, anyway!" I there is value in working towards more diverse sanghas, but you're very right that it's unrealistic to think that any community will meet everyone's needs. There are probably ways to do some of both - to support smaller groups like POC Nights/Events, and also to work on the larger groups. I've seen a little bit of effort in my own sangha towards this end, but not enough.

I sometimes wonder how much of it is generational for white folks - i.e. many Boomers seem content that things changed enough during the 60's and 70's, and those of us in younger generations see the glaring issues that are still going on every day. Feels like a generalization to some degree, and I can think of people in my own sangha that don't fit what I just said, but a lot of others never say anything about race or class, and how much intimate suffering arises from these places.

Anonymous said...

Mm, yes, the age thing can be a thing. Even my dad and I have really different perspectives on what racism means, just because of what he's lived through since the mid-20th century and what I've lived through at the turn of the century.