Saturday, February 13, 2010

Race Talk and White Dharma Practitioners

In response to a dharma talk she listened to by Noah Levine on MLK day, Lori Pierce over at Urban Refuge had an excellent, and challenging post about white Buddhist teachers and discussions of race. It seems to me this could easily apply to blogging, and I have personally experienced how difficult it is to blog about race and religion effectively and honestly. Just the mention of phrases like "white privilege" can set people off in hard to handle ways.

I personally feel that Buddhist practice isn't worth too much if it doesn't help us address deeply damaging social issues. Clearly, anyone who reads my blog regularly can see that. We have to address the personal and the collective, even if in the end, it's only in tiny ways.

As a white male - the double privileged class - I find it's difficult to travel the path of attempting to be a deliberately anti-racist ally. How often I have found myself in conversations that tread into "dangerous" territory, only to find that my lips can't find a way to word what it is I'm feeling and thinking about the situation at hand.

An example: during a break from a weekend workshop, a visiting white teacher at our center broke into a story about impoverished, young black males who fell into drug dealing. I don't recall why this story even came up, only that it slid quickly into what felt like pity, and that everyone in the room seemed to get increasing uncomfortable. I wanted to say something, but couldn't pinpoint what it was exactly that I was reacting to so strongly. Finally, the only person of color in the room spoke up, saying she was tired of hearing white people endlessly retelling these poor, sorry black people narratives. The rest of us sat in stunned silence as the visiting teacher struggled to apologize, while clearly ignorant of what she was actually doing. Although some of us went up to woman who responded later on, the whole situation felt all to familiar, and I was disappointed that none of us white practitioners had added anything during the actual conversation, or had been the first to interrupt the story in the first place.

I choose to remain focused on issues of race and class. That's the first lesson any white, middle or upper class practitioner must learn. We get to choose; people of color and those in poverty, regardless of race, don't get to choose. It's in their face every day. My choices of careers, as well as who I have made friendships with, definitely have shaped this desire to remain racially conscious, and willing to examine how I live and act within structures that are "raced" in all sorts of troubling ways. However, even with that experience, it's still only been because I have repeatedly made myself keep looking, keep reflecting, keep putting myself on the line in conversations and actions that has brought me to where I am today. It's so easy for us white folks to turn away, to forget, to deny, to blame, or any other number of things rather that simply sit with the uncomfortableness of it all, and try to act as best we can to make some kind of dent in the daily injustices occurring not only nationally and globally, but right on our streets in our own neighborhoods.

One of the criticisms other religious groups in North America have made of Buddhism here is that it's too individualistic, and doesn't seem to have much to say about social issues. Even if it isn't completely accurate, this criticism falls upon all of North American practitioners, whether we are white or practitioners of color. Part of the reason I started this blog was to make a tiny dent in that perception, to be an example of a practitioner who is trying to balance the introspective and socially active elements. And yet, when it comes to race and Buddhism, other than a small spurt last summer, I haven't seen a whole lot of deep examination in the Buddhist blogosphere, especially from white Buddhist bloggers. There are definitely exceptions to this statement, but generally race talk about Buddhist talk seem curiously all too separate.

My guess is that this will be taken as a guilt trip by some - that's not my intent. First off, guilt is a self-focused emotion as far as I'm concerned, and the kind of action it promotes, especially when it comes to things like race, is not very helpful. Secondly, if you never write about race on your blog, that's fine with me. Everyone blogs for different reasons, and maybe stepping into such a sensitive issue in such a public forum isn't your goal.

Regardless of if you are a white or a person of color blogger, it's your choice as to what to write about. But in daily life, only one side of the equation gets to choose when it comes to race. If you are white, and especially if you are white and surrounded by white people in your daily life, you never have to wade into the morass that is race in North America. The dharma brothers and sisters of color in the audience, and in our sanghas, don't get that choice.

So I choose to stand with them as best as I can, and to encourage others to find ways to stand with them as well. It doesn't have to be on a blog, but if you're not reflecting on race and society on a regular basis, you might want to ask yourself why.

Here is a list from Lori Pierce's blog post that are worth reflecting on no matter who you are. May we all have the courage to face our lives as they are, moment after moment.

Five things NOT to do when you’re a White dharma teacher and you want to give a talk on race:

1. Don’t do this on MLK day. Don’t do it in February. Don’t save it for some special occasion or when disaster has struck or when a Black guy gets elected. Doing this suggests that you, like most White people, don’t think of this as a daily reality that effects non-White people who might be listening to you or trying to figure out how the dharma can help us survive. For us, race isn’t like a holiday sentiment that rolls around once a year. We live here all the time and would appreciate the occasional acknowledgment of this struggle as an on-going part of our existence.

2. Stop globalizing. It’s a common strategy for Americans to externalize a problem by globalizing it. White Americans can relate to the oppression of the Chinese in Tibet, for example, because it is miles away and they don’t have to experience the guilt of the oppressor OR the suffering of the oppressed. As the cliché goes, think globally, act locally. When you talk about race, talk about the experiences we live with here, too.

3. Talk to everyone, even if you can’t see them. We’re here in your audience and some of us are genuinely moved and touched by your teaching. But we’re also angered and alienated when your perspective is so clearly delimited. A talk about race on MLK day that is not a serious engagement with the legacy of White privilege and how White Buddhists can become allies for POC is disappointing, to say the least.

4. Stop being abstract. I’ve heard dharma teachers speak with great passion, humor an humility about their own experiences and limitations and use their lives as a means to help us understand what it means to “go against the stream.” But this invariably breaks down when it comes to “the race talk.” Is this because they don’t have any non White friends with whom they can engage in a discussion about the daily violence of personal prejudice? Do they not know anyone who lives with the threat, the fear, the doubt that comes from living with the cultural legacy of discrimination, privilege and racism? There’s a lot to do without taking on more problems, I’m sure. But in my mind, the power of the dharma in an American contexts is that it has the potential to shed light on this most intractable of issues. If American Buddhism is going to contribute anything to the spiritual evolution of the world, I would hope it would be to engage the dharma and practice in a sustained discussion of these issues.

5. Help us. I find that when I listen to dharma talks I myself have to push the lesson to the edge. I stop the podcast or put down the book and think – how does this help me address the problem of prejudice? How can awareness help me deal with a kind of abstract anger that comes when you see the depth, breadth and scope of racialized social injustice? How can meditation help me see stereotypes? Is “right livelihood” really an appropriate teaching for people with NO livelihood How do I really live the message “don’t take it personally” when someone slams the door in my face, or almost runs me down because I’m invisible? How long do I do this before my mental health breaks down?


Kyle said...

LOL And by setting people off, I am sure you may have been thinking about me? First, let me say that I am not oppossed to the term 'white privilege', what I am oppossed to was and is the context that all white people are lazy or ignorant or racists. You can't deny some of the more extreme elements espouse this kind of notion.Ironiclly, I find that horribly racist.

I get the term, and I understand what it means and agree with its original context; and I certainly don't need some college guy in Berkely giving me a 3 part seminar on how awful a person I am for being white. I remember that person saying it was ok for people of color to be racist against white people, then said nothing when I recieved all the racist hate mail and death threats. It's not ok for anyone to be racist!

I try to leave race alone these days because last time, my one post that disagreed with that one idiot got me and my family death threats and I ended up being the punching bag on a couple of very ugly, racist web sites. Yes, even Raciolious has been known to post some rather anti-white racist things. You cannot deny there are extremists on both sides of this issue.

You know I disagree about mixing religion and politics, but we can agree to disagree. We do have to remember the vast majority of white people have never even heard the term 'white privilege', and most would probably find it offensive given how hard they struggle to survive day to day as well. We can try to explain it to them, but good luck preaching 'white privilege' to a single mother of three who barely can feed her family. It going to take time, and it has to be done in a way that isn't extreme to the other side, because you know what, people will just tune us out.

Also, I disagree with mixing politics and religion because I want every single person, regardless of any bodily characteristics to feel some interest in Buddhism, and not feel put off because their political leanings don't mesh so well with the Sangha's leaders or the community's strong left tendencies.

This doesn't mean I won't still call out people when they make a blanket statements about white people, I will and I do. I also do for dumb ass white people making blanket statements about people of color too.

Thanks Nathan.

Anonymous said...

"I choose to remain focused on issues of race and class. That's the first lesson any white, middle or upper class practitioner must learn. We get to choose; people of color and those in poverty, regardless of race, don't get to choose."


I don't really know where to begin, but there's a lot to inference from the above paragraph. I guess I'd like to know how poverty and race relate to the first lessons of practice for white people.

I would like to say that the dharma is there for anyone to pick up. I struggle to think that the only way I picked up the dharma was by becoming middle class and being white.

I'd like point to San Francisco and the Suzuki lineage. In rhythm with civil rights, there's been a very big turnover with leadership and responsibility falling into women's hands. If society is predictable, perhaps this is a good sign for the stasis of Zen in the west in regard to minorities.

However, they wanted it- the women of S.F.Z.C worked hard to make their presence known. No one else could have done it for them.

I'm just wondering what we can do "without selling water by the river." 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? Is it some white-culture initiative to be politically correct?

Ultimately, I'm wondering if a white person can lead the charge for this movement and not appear condescending.

Nathan said...


I actually felt you were one of the people willing to address these issues. I appreciated your willingness to step out and speak up. And I agree that there are extremists on both sides. The problem is that race isn't just about politics, it's personal, relational, effects every facet of life. So, somehow it needs to a topic people are willing to sit with, at least some of the time.


Kyle said...

Thanks Nathan, I hope you don't think I rant all the time, I very much appreciate your balanced views and willingness to put up with my loud mouth.

I have to agree with Flyingpig's statement "Ultimately, I'm wondering if a white person can lead the charge for this movement and not appear condescending."

During that whole fiasco, no matter what I said, there were some that told me to shut up because I didn't know what it was like to be a person of color. I agree, they were right, I don't know what it is like, I can only go on what I have experinced.

It seemed to me at the time, that whenever I disagreed with someone, I always got that line pulled out against me. This needs to be a two way conversation if it going to get into the large public conscience. I am still horrified at the far right political wing of this country blatant racism, and sometimes it does make me ashamed to be white, because I feel many times all white are lumped in together because of the actions of a few.

But that doesn't mean that their isn't a growing population of white's genuinly trying to help solve the issue of racism in America. Yes, race is very personal, and sitting with our judgements and attitudes is a very good practice to see our own biases.

I really wish there were more Buddhist blogs by people of color. I only know of a handful. Understanding of race is a two way street, and hopfully we can make this an inclusive discussion rather than an exclusive one.

Thanks again.

Firehorse said...

@Kyle, on your comment "I disagree about mixing religion and politics"

Politics involves choice and can be conveniently discussed or not according to the speaker's mood, company etc. As Nathan mentioned, race is our lived and inescapable reality...

I am sorry you have been threatened. I have been threatened, chased and beaten, my parents home was vandalized, my children have been insulted and so have many people of color - not for something we said - which again involves choice but because of the way we look...

I don't think a white person has to be in charge of a movement but everyone can contribute something of meaning and opening the door a crack through dialogue, or making the effort to make some feel welcome will make our sanghas a better place for us all not just people of color. I also think that for many of us - its just too tiring to always have to explain Race 101 - in sangha we want sanctuary not another battlefield. In many cases integrating white women meets much less resistance...

I would like to add a general comment that about 6 years ago I visited 2 Zen sangha in the Boston area which were all white. I was ignored and never went back. Whether race was a factor I don't know. What was clear was I felt not welcome and did not go back.

Nathan thank you for your thoughtful post!


Kyle said...

@Firehorse - I am too very sorry to hear about what has happened to you, I can only imagine, its not something I could never really know.

It is sad that those Sangha's you visited in Boston ignored you. I too had a similar experience last year when I was asked to leave a Thervada temple, during an open house Saturday, because they said I wasn't a 'member'..aka because I was white.

I agree, a sangha needs to be a sanctuary where people are not judged, and certainly not judged by any physical characteristics. You are correct, politics is not race, though I would say certain aspects of the discussion can sway into the political realm.

The key, I feel, is that everyone feels welcome inside the sangha, regardless of things like race, or sexuality, or political affiliations. It should always remains a sanctuary, a place where everyone feels welcome.


Kyle said...

PS Firehorse - I wasn't aware of your blog, its very cool. Hope you don't mind I added it to my blog roll.

Firehorse said...

Thanks Kyle. I appreciate your comments. I have somewhat mixed feelings about having a blog much less to have it out in public but I also think this could be a good learning experience. Its important for us all to remember that while racism does have a specific structural and historical context, as your unfortunate experience may illustrate - prejudice, closed mindedness and stereotyping is equal opportunity and knows no boundaries.