Sunday, July 26, 2009

White privilege and homophobia

There’s a very fascinating discussion going on at Angry Asian Buddhist and Dharma Folk regarding the notion of “white privilege” within the Buddhist community. It’s fascinating because there have apparently been some white readers of this discussion who have reacted with hostility to the idea that they may harbor a bias against Asian culture and Asian Americans in general. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have observed a similar reaction within the Buddhist community, based on cultural and ethnic differences, with reaction to homosexuality and a temple’s gay members.

I urge you to follow the link at Angry Asian Buddhist to take the Asian Implicit Association Test, because it is instructive on a number of levels. However, I am somewhat dubious about this test because I am unclear on how it was developed, or how it purports to measure what it intends to measure (many years ago I studied psychological testing at university, and I am aware that the bias of the individual constructing a test can also influence how the test operates). Still, take the test, as its results may surprise you.

And at Dharma Folk, I suggest you begin with this post, as it will also provide information on other sources of information on this discussion of “white privilege.” It is a phenomenon I have observed and experienced at a Thai temple operated by a white abbot in central Michigan (I live in Chicago now).

This temple has a large white membership, although it remains a minority to the Thai majority. And a recurring complaint among the Thai members was that the white members seldom helped out with the day-to-day functions at the temple. While I was attending this temple, only the Thai members took turns preparing and bringing the monk’s their daily meals. I would have assisted in this, except that I lived 50 miles away and had a day job. But there were plenty of white members that lived within close proximity to the temple.

I found ways to help by showing up on weekends to assist building a new meditation hall (during which I observed very few Thai members helping out), and re-building a porch on the monk’s residence that had collapsed (again, none of the Thai members helped with this). During festivals when the Thai women were busy setting up food tables and cooking their delicious dishes to sell to raise money for the temple, only a few of the white members persisted in finding ways to help, such as moving tables, carrying supplies out of the monk’s residence to the pole barn, collecting trash. And even fewer stuck around at the end of the festivities to help clean up.

Interestingly, I have experienced and observed the reverse situation when it came to the congregation’s attitude toward homosexuality and its acceptance of those members who were perceived to be gay – again the difference following ethnic lines. White members of the congregation were more willing to accept the idea that the Third Precept did not proscribe homosexual activity, while the Thai members – particularly the older, married members – had a very hard time accepting this. And I have found this attitude among most all the various East Asian ethnicities: I have known both Chinese and Thai men who lived dual lives; one discreetly within the gay community, and the other in the more traditional Asian family system. Some of these men expressed no concern that they would eventually marry a woman, because it was expected of them. And they also expressed no qualms that they would never come out to their families.

The fear of a hostile reaction by their parents was that great. One told me that he would never tell his parents that he was gay because he had seen how they reacted to news that a cousin of his was gay. Ironically, his parents knew gay men and associated with them on a very limited basis. The point being subtly made was, “I can be friendly to a gay man as long as it’s not my son.”

That’s not to say that white American parents have not had their own share of struggles in dealing with revelations that one or more of their children are gay. But it has been my experience that the issue is handled differently within Asian families and Asian society. And that struggle continues as well in the Buddhist community. Does that reveal a potential of my own bias against Asian American families and culture? Perhaps. If so, that would be a very difficult mental knot for me to explain, given that in dating men, I have a decided preference for East Asian men.


  1. You bring up really good issues here, and I hope you continue writing about them! It’s important to keep in mind that many of the taboos/sensitivities surrounding homosexuality in Asian cultures are more prominent among first and second generation Asian Americans, and less so among the third and fourth (and fifth …) generation. I realize, however, that this perspective doesn’t make those temple congregants any more accepting of you. Sometimes parallel communities within the same temple can provide a sort of cultural sanctuary. This is what I am part of in one temple, where younger Asian Americans (20/30sthgs) have their own group separate from the adults, in English, focussed on meditation and discussing topics that directly engage us. (We plan to publicize to non-Asian Americans next month. We believe in diversity!)

  2. Thank you Arun for you kind words! And you're right about the generational differences. Most of the closeted Asian men I know are either ex-pats or first generation children of Asian immigrant parents.