Wednesday, August 5, 2009

White privilege and isolation Part 1

The recent discussion on many Buddhist-related blogs regarding race in general and the notion of white privilege in particular had me thinking again, this time about my experiences with a Lao temple near Holland, Mich.

I was lucky to find the sangha near Lansing, Mich., when I first learned of Buddhism. The abbot was Caucasian, had been born and raised in the same Michigan town that I was born and raised in; he might have even attended the same high school at the same time as some of my siblings. But despite the abbot being Caucasian, the dhammasala was steeped in Thai culture, as the abbot had studied and was ordained in Thailand.

When I moved to the other side of the state, I maintained ties with the monastery near Lansing, but was able to attend only major ceremonies once or twice a year. There were some ad hoc groups in the Holland area, but the monasteries in the region were sustained by the Cambodian and Lao communities there. A Cambodian temple was just a block from my apartment. I observed as an outsider for a while, soon concluding there weren’t any other white members. Why did this make a difference?

I was a reporter and editor for the local paper at the time, and we were working on a series of articles on how religion influenced the area, the predominant hegemonies being that of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. I lobbied for the assignment of writing about the Asian communities that had immigrated to the area in the 1980s from Southeast Asia; the article would feature their Buddhist practices, which had garnered some recent attention.

In particular, a Lao temple was having some communication problems with the local township board and zoning ordinance over construction of a new community hall. I visited the monastery and offered my assistance to help improve communications between the temple and the township. The monk, a very young man who spoke little English, was very interested in getting help, as he was frustrated with how things were going. However, one of the senior lay members called me later and politely, but very firmly, declined to take me up on my offer: they would manage on their own. In fairness, they did, eventually working more effectively with the township and successfully completing their new community building. Also in fairness, behind the scenes, I contacted a township official and did a bit of “explaining” to that official how the Asian Buddhist community functioned, offering some advice as to why communications were difficult at times.

Anyway, the monk kept me on, so to speak. He wanted to learn to improve his English and he suggested I could teach him. I agreed to; I hadn’t been connected with a temple for a couple years and saw this as an opportunity to become involved again. The monk also seemed pleased with my knowledge of Dhamma. I explained that I was by no means an expert, but I had hosted some informal Dhamma classes in the town where I had previously lived, using the Study Guides at as my lesson plan. That was excellent, he said. He explained to me that the older members of the temple spoke little English and knew less Dhamma; all they were interested in were the ceremonies, the blessings, the rites and rituals. The younger generation, however, spoke English well, but also knew no Dhamma, and cared nothing for rites and rituals. Maybe I could teach Dhamma to the temple’s youth? It would be good, said the monk. They have so many problems and this would help them, he said.

I admit it was tempting, but I was also very wary. I told him I would think about it; besides, there was this matter of me being gay. It might cause problems. He seemed amused by this information and assured me it would not be a problem. I shook my head; I wasn’t going to proclaim it to everyone, but I wasn’t going to keep it a secret either. In the meantime, I would continue to visit him and help him with his English. I also agreed to teach him how to drive; the remote area he lived in kept him very isolated. He wanted to attend night school to obtain a GED. He thought this very important. And he couldn’t rely on the temple members, because they couldn’t always get out to the house to bring him his midday meal. They have to work, he said. “We are not a rich people.”

Thus began a very interesting spring. Part 2 will be coming soon.


  1. "Also in fairness, behind the scenes, I contacted a township official and did a bit of “explaining” to that official how the Asian Buddhist community functioned, offering some advice as to why communications were difficult at times."

    As an ESL teacher, I'm often asked by others, usually curious white people, about the cultures of my students. They want to know what people are like, and how they may be similar or different to them. I really think this is a tricky place fraught with opportunities to step over into acting like an authority on something I'm just not.

    Sure, I may have more knowledge and awareness about, for example, the Karen people, than your average white guy. But it's easy to essentialize people, create a type when speaking like this - "Oh, they are such friendly people, so generous and kind." Or "Oh, they are very strict and religious and conservative as a group." And the reality is any group is made up of diverse individuals who's actions and lives can't easily be summed up by such statements.

    This isn't to say there aren't cultural and spiritual traits that have influence over most if not all in a given group. But I think it's important sometimes to stick local - to speak of the people you know and be specific about that - i.e. "This particular Asian Buddhist community works like this with communication." Obviously, the situation you were in is over, and I know none of the specifics of that conversation, but it struck me that the way you put it - "how the Asian Buddhist community functions" - is an easy way for that official to assume that all Asian Buddhist communities function in the same way as that one did. Which I'm guessing isn't true.

  2. Your comment is well taken, I understand what you are saying. I will provide a bit more detail about this in the second part of this installment. And thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!