Having an interest in Buddhisms cropping up in sometimes surprising places, I was interested to see what John had to say over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt about Buddhism in Africa. The first half of the post considers the challenges of setting up sanghas in South Africa. Interesting stuff which might sound familiar to many of you. The second half of the post, however, brings up the presumed racial composition of Buddhism in South African sanghas, using some really unfortunate stereotypes. John is not the author of these comments; he's just reporting them because he found them compelling, and probably provocative, which they certainly are.
On a different note, Buddhism and Africa by Michel Clasquin and Kobus Kruger has mentioned that majority of Buddhist practitioners in South Africa are largely middle-class and white with one commentor in the book stating that
Buddhism does not fit all that naturally into the present black social or religious mentality
As well as it being…
too foreign to their accustomed ways of thinking: too intellectual, philosophical and introspective.
This is classic coded racism in action if you ask me. Instead of saying black South Africans are intellectually inferior, the author of these comments framed the argument using what appears to be neutral languaging, but actually accomplishes the same thing.
Clearly, sanghas like the Nichiren one pictured above were never considered, or maybe simply didn't exist at the time these comments were made. However, I cannot help but think of a talk given at our zen center a few years ago by Professor john a. powell (he uses lower case letters for his name; i'm not sure why). Professor powell spoke a lot about "white space," and how many convert sanghas in the U.S., were developed primarily by middle class whites in a way that catered to their assumptions about what constitutes Buddhist practice. Now, clearly the same might be said of black dominant U.S. Christian churches, but the difference is that there is often little awareness within white convert Buddhist communities about how race impacts the make up of their communities. Specifically, there's often no correlation made between the racial composition of the leadership of these groups, and the composition of the community as a whole. Lots of hand wringing might occur about the "lack of diversity," but because white Americans struggle as a whole to first see themselves as a racial group, and then second see the ways in which power and race are intertwined, the steps necessary to create a truly racially diverse community rarely, if ever, occur.
South Africa has a markedly different history from the U.S. in terms of race, but there are some parallels, especially when it comes to whites in both groups using their own characteristics as defaults. The author of the comments reported by John made assumptions about both whites and blacks in South Africa as a whole that probably don't hold up very well. What does is mean to be "introspective" for example? Does it always look the same, or is the author missing the diversity of forms introspection can take? The same questions might be asked of the term "intellectual," although I would also add that the associations I have with the word - college educated, for example - suggest that privilege (racial and class) is often tied to this term in unexamined ways.
Using the racial composition of certain Buddhist communities as a template for speaking about Buddhism's appeal, or lack of appeal, to anyone else is totally problematic. If the above fails to show that, I don't know what will.