Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kumbaya you white-skinned devil!

Racism in our sanghas Part 1. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

In the past I’ve written about my experiences with a Lao temple in the Holland, Mich., area, about how subtle issues of race and white privilege played a significant role. I’ve written posts about racism that have explored a variety of issues within that larger topic. But recently I’ve wanted to dive into this very complex subject and explore its impact on our sanghas, plus investigate what the Buddha said about what is simultaneously – at least for me – a fascinating and uncomfortable topic.

But how to begin?

I’ve come to realize that this subject cannot be covered in a single post: the issue of racism and white privilege, even when limited to how it manifests in our sanghas, is far too intricate a subject to be glib about. And I have written about it in the past. What was this new interest, this new drive, to write more?

Buddhism is a lot of things, but one thing that I believe often is forgotten about the Buddha’s teachings is that they are a guide to investigation. The First Noble Truth tells us that life is unsatisfactory, that despite our wish to be happy all the time, there is suffering and unhappiness. To end this suffering, the Buddha told us that we must investigate phenomena so we can see how things really are. At the root of suffering is delusion – we lie to ourselves about how things really are.

And what my investigations are revealing to me is not only that racism is a manifestation of delusion, but that the delusion at the root of racism is our notion of race. This is a bothersome conclusion for me because I hate the Pollyanna-ish retort that all notions of race are abandoned by the enlightened mind. More on that in a moment. First, please watch the following Led Zeppelin video of a live performance of “That’s the Way” before reading further.


While in Holland, Mich., I was covering a celebration at a Lao temple. The president of the group showed me around and talked about the congregation’s plans. I had already been visiting the temple because I was teaching conversational English to the resident monk who liked me very much. But after my tour, the president left me alone. I walked around, the only white person among close to 100 Lao people who would not look at me or speak to me. I went into the community room where a ping-pong tournament was in progress. I stood in the corner and watched and felt completely invisible. I contemplated trying to strike up conversation with someone, to meet others, but instead, I gave into a feeling of frustration and discomfort and went home.

I felt isolated, alone and powerless. I was keenly aware that I was “different” from those around me and the fact that I was deliberately being ignored by everyone else there was painful. But for me to say based on this I had experienced oppression because of my race is ridiculous. For me to say I “understand” what it means being an oppressed minority based on that afternoon’s experience is childish. Because what I experienced was temporary. I was able to leave that group and return to the larger world surrounding me of white European influence, an hegemony in which I was privileged. That experience in no way was the same as feeling different, isolated and powerless every day, all the time, wherever I go.

Unfortunately, some white people think that when they experience something like this that they suddenly have earned some sort of racism awareness card. This attitude, in fact, is often viewed with disdain by people of color, as a writer from the website Resist Racism posts in an entry titled “Why I hate white ‘anti-racists’.”

“So if you want to call yourself a white anti-racist, start by giving up your privilege. Of course, this is a trick request. Because the privilege isn’t even visible to you. Yet it, and you, are sucking all the air out of the room.”

The problem with this is that it suggests that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got it wrong when he said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” The writer from Resist Racism castigates whites for sitting back and resting on their privilege, while at the same time chastises them for even thinking they could do anything to challenge racism. It’s as though he/she is singing a variation of a Lesley Gore song, “It’s my racism and I’ll be bitter if I want to.”

What is at the root of this? A tenacious and even unhealthy clinging to the notion of race and that it must be protected. But alas, I am white, so I shall always be accused of being disingenuous by asserting this notion that race is a fabrication because I am a member of the “privileged class.”

Dealing with the subtle and blatant manifestations of racism in our sanghas, let alone in society, is necessary. But at the same time, identifying this problem and working on solutions to it while acknowledging that it exists is, in fact, a hindrance to our practice. Members of an oppressed minority who cling to the notion of being a member of an oppressed minority and who develop anger and resentment over being repressed are holding sacred a delusion.

Having said that, I become the white-skinned devil because people of color can retort with the fact this is easy for me to say because I am a member of a privileged race, that I do not experience the oppression they do every day. Which is true, I am a member of the privileged race. I do not experience on a day-to-day basis the oppression people of color do. Any individual, isolated instances that I have experienced being the “different one” are transient. I do experience daily the oppression lesbigay people experience, but I don’t necessarily have to reveal that to others. And besides, because I am white, I believe that my being gay is more easily tolerated by others than if I were Asian or black or Latino.

But that doesn’t change the fact that one’s obsession with race as a political issue is a hindrance to one’s Buddhist practice. The fact that I am white doesn’t make this any more or less true than had it been said by an Asian, an African American, or a Latino/Latina. I do realize, however, that those of you who have read this blog closely may sense a contradiction. And you would be correct. As I wrote here, I admitted that I am bothered by a particular common dismissive statement. In an enlightened mind, the fabrication known as “race” is abandoned, but so are all other fabrications. And this issue exists in our sanghas and in society because of unenlightened minds. This sophomoric retort is not a solution, it is not an argument. It avoids the problem through condescension.

How, then, do we erase the racism – both subtle and blatant – that does exist in our Sanghas and within ourselves? Because make no mistake, it does exist. And for too many, its presence is so palpable that it drives them away from the Dhamma. Let’s not forget that Dhamma translates as Truth, and if our automatic notions of race are driving others away from the Dhamma, then we are driving others away from the truth.

Please take a moment to watch the following video of Neil Young performing with CSN&Y the song “Southern Man.”


And what do I mean by “automatic notions of race”?

I’m going to break this topic into multiple posts for readability’s sake and will continue with the next post.

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