Monday, February 8, 2010

White South Africans Declare Buddhism is too "Intellectual" for Black People

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.


LuLu3156 said...

Your post today corresponded well with what has been on my mind the last few days (and really the last many years). I even posted today about some racial issues we face here in the city of New Orleans.

But your post topic raises an interesting question and something I believe that has come up at the New Orleans Zen Temple. The temple sangha is pretty small here and is pretty much all white males. So there no African American practitioners in a city that is majority black and there are no women either. This cycle probably perpetuates itself a bit as it may not appear to be the most welcoming place to individuals in those two groups. I heard a story once that someone asked a temple priest if or how they should diversify the sangha and he replied something to the effect of "it's not something we have to go out and do, we just have to sit and when people want this path they will come to it." The response makes sense on the one hand. Not to impose and preach to others. What is our responsibility to bring others into a community? or at least make it more welcoming to people who may not feel it is a place for them?

Bruce Behnke said...

Clasquin and Kruger are not only racist, they're inaccurate. Tzu Chi, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation, has six offices and over 3,000 local volunteers in South Africa. Although being a volunteer for Tzu Chi does not necessarily equate with being Buddhist, the volunteers have certainly embraced Buddhist values and participate vigorously; they have created service centers in more than 50 villages to provide food everyday to nearly 3,000 orphans. 2,700 Zulu children study in over 50 classrooms built by the foundation but staffed by local volunteers.

These efforts may not fit Clasquin and Kruger's "intellectual, philosophical and introspective" image of what they think being Buddhist really means, but the South African Tzu Chi members have taken a much more pragmatic and compassion definition as their working model.

Anonymous said...

"Buddhism does not fit all that naturally into the present black social or religious mentality"

Water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in lowly places that all disdain. This is why it is so near the Tao.

Nathan said...

Hi Lulu,

"What is our responsibility to bring others into a community? or at least make it more welcoming to people who may not feel it is a place for them?" My short answer is that I don't have an answer that fits all situations. I think every group has to reflect on these questions and see what comes up. My own sangha has gotten a bit more racial diverse in part because we have made an effort to deliberately acknowledge people of color who enter the door with an interest in the practice. And we have listened to concerns brought up by these same people, as we as their views on what works for them to feel a part of a community. Our sangha is still learning, but at least there is more listening and appreciation.

I think you're right that going out and preaching the dharma really isn't the answer. But I'd also say that just sitting pat, and doing nothing believing that people will be attracted isn't much of an answer either. Like I said, I don't have a clear answer, but maybe beginning with that "welcoming feel" is a good first step.

And the thing is, I think a sangha can maintain it's depth and rigorousness of practice, and still be welcoming.


Nathan said...


Thanks for bringing up Tzu Chi; another good example.


Algernon said...

On a tangent: bell hooks insists on spelling her name in lowercase, too, and I read her quoted somewhere as saying this is because the substance of her writing is more important than her. (One might ask, subsequently, why do something that calls attention to herself, but I'll leave it alone.)