Mindful or deluded?: Reflections on being a ‘racist’ anti-racist student of Buddhism who
This is the latest comic piece from my new series, Snarky Fanon. I created this the day after I returned from my first class at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA (EBMC). The class was called “Resilience and Well-Being for People of Color.” It is a three week long class. Snarky Fanon is my new satirical comic series based on my love of critical race studies, including Frantz Fanon, Sarah Ahmed, and George Yancy’s work around critical race phenomenology, the black feminisms of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Katherine McKittrick, and the field of decolonial theory.
This was my first time participating at the EBMC. If you’ve been following my blog series about my personal experiences with Buddhism in the bay area of California (in which I fuse with critical race and whiteness analysis of those experiences), then this comic will probably make sense to you. If you are unfamiliar with the series, you can start here:
EBMC is not ‘supportive’ in a superficial way (by superficial, I am referring to organizations that just have sentences written down that claim they are against all those “-isms” on some piece of paper in their policies section, but it’s not really enacted at a deep structural/institutional level). Literally, being anti all those ‘-isms’ is part of EBMC’s concept of mindfulness. Why? Because to blatantly ignore the reality of things like structural racism and white supremacy on the collective lives of non-white people that you’ll find at EBMC would be unmindful. I’d consider such unmindfulness a form of dysconscious violence/discursive violence (which I’ll talk about a little later). When I participate in a sangha (EBMC) that prefaces their classes or dharma talks with the direct acknowledgment that we in the USA live within a mainstream value system in which structural ableism, racism, sexism, CIS Gender privilege, heterosexism, and classism are the norm, then I know that that is home for me. When we are told that we are sitting in a building on land (USA) that was violently taken from indigenous people and built largely by enslaved Africans, I know “I have arrived.” What that does for me is encourage me to keep ing asking deeply Buddhadharma-engaged questions like: How have structural, institutional, and overt violences of/from the European racial colonial project (which includes not just racism and white supremacy, but heteronormativity, transphobia, and sexism) affected me 500 years later? How have I potentially perpetuated suffering by benefiting from particular forms of such structural violence? What does it look like to engage in the buddhadharma in a way that makes such violences fully present?
I’ve also been thinking a lot this past week about the obvious micro agressions from white [male] Buddhists I received after I posted my experience of healing, love, and comfort at the Buddhist retreat for women of African descent at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA on Sept 8 2012. I was basically called a “racist” because I actively chose to seek out a sangha of women of African descent who wanted to heal from the emotional and physical pains of both structural and overt forms of racism/sexism/sexual violence in the USA.
It is their opinion that I am ‘racist’. This is how they have defined “racism” and/or have not read the plethora of books written that define USA “racism” and “whiteness” in a completely different way (and I do provide those links on my blog). Or perhaps they have read this canon and have drawn the conclusion that the canon of USA critical race studies does not explain “racism” the right way.
For me, I realized that actively choosing to participate in a women of African descent Buddhist retreat for the first time in my entire life was actually choosing not to accept the violence and abuse that I had been experiencing in mostly “post-racial ‘we are all human so stop talking about race'” spaces of whiteness (including workplace, university, as well as certain sanghas or Buddhist events). When I speak of violence and abuse, I’m not talking about the conventional notions of such acts (such as going out and beating someone up on the street, or hurling racial epithets at them). I’m talking about dysconscious racism. I’m talking about discursive or rhetorical violence. I am going to point you to an excerpt from a blog that defines these concepts quite well. In it, the blogger says
I am using Foucault’s concepts of rhetorical violence, which see violence as a set of political, ideological, cultural, and discursive strategies employed by dominant powers. Rhetorical violence is the violence of “modes of domination,” which need not be employed “in a direct, personal way.” Violence in this context goes beyond committing physical violence to include also discursive and emotional violence. Anti-Black racism, which is violence against Black people, takes many forms – emotional, representational, discursive and physical – and it’s not a practice that’s exclusive to one particular race/ethnicity.(source: http://discoatemybaby.wordpress.com/category/racism/)
I’m talking about the repetitive emotional pain and damage done to tens of thousands of non-white people in the USA who are living and/or working in spaces of ‘post-racial whiteness’ and they have to personally deny their lived realities of racism and white supremacy because the USA racial status quo just doesn’t want to hear “alternative ways of knowing, feeling, being.”
To go into a space in which it is expected that everyone has a white Euro-Anglo middle/upper class ontology/epistemology in the USA, by default, creates intense amount of pain and suffering for tens of thousands of non-white people and poor whites. And I need to make it clear that I’m not saying it is wrong for people to have a white middle/upper class Euro-Anglo background, history, epistemology…however, I do become concerned when “post-racial” whites in the USA, practicing Buddhism in white dominated sanghas, ignore that their epistemologies are racialized and believe that their way of Buddhism is universal and the best way to interpret Buddhism. What is troubling is that these standpoints are not named as “subjective” and are only one of a million ways to ‘know’ the world [of Buddhism].
Is it possible that “post-racial” white practitioners of the buddhadharma in the USA believe that because they have been practicing Buddhism, they collectively feel that they are automatically ‘above race’ or ‘above’ considering the significance of racial formation and racialization on their consciousness and their interpretations of Buddhism? Most have rationalized to me that to bring in ‘race’ is to ‘pollute’ the ‘purity’ of Zen Buddhism; to taint it with ‘ego’. Hence, to be ‘post-racial’ is ‘pure’, but to think about the significance of ‘race’, ‘racial formation’, and ‘whiteness’ and its effects on a Buddhist sangha or individual practitioners of Buddhism is ‘impure’.
This is not surprising, as Joseph Cheah writes that the translation and interpretation of Buddhism for a [white] Euro-American Buddhist convert demographic took place during an era of colonialism and Orientalism in the late 19th century. This is significant because during this period, it was the ‘pure’ and ‘objective’ white male European Orientalist “experts” who took various forms of Buddhism from ‘the Orient’ and ‘sanitized’ it (through translation and interpretation of only focusing on specific ‘texts’ versus other Buddhism practices seen as ‘too esoteric’ or ‘trivial’) and made it more ‘logical’ and ‘objective’ for the Occident (the global West) (Cheah 2011). They did this through the “objective” lens of EuroAnglo centric philosophical training and ‘scientific method'(a.k.a. positivist understandings of reality through colonialist, imperialist, and white supremacist value system that denied that valid knowledge can be gained from embodied experiences of non-white, poor, and female human beings) (Cheah 2011). Even though Cheah was not looking specific at Zen Buddhism specifically, I feel strongly that his theories and analysis could help me understand more deeply, why so many “post-racial” [white] Buddhists do not wish to critically reflect on such issues or send me microagressions as their responses to my observations.
The interesting part about me being accused of practicing ‘racism’ by white , mostly male, Buddhists is that they did not even consider anything that I had to say to be valid or worth thinking about because it did not fit into their [interpretation of] Buddhism.
Having lived in a racialized nation in which their epistemologies and ontologies are primarily on center stage (but they perhaps dysconscious of such privileged and/or racialized placement) as ‘pure’ and ‘unraced’, this would perhaps make sense that my ontology and epistemology were dismissed. I started thinking about how critical whiteness scholars such as Charles Gallagher and Peggy McIntosh propose that white Americans are collectively unaware of how this center stage does not reflect the reality of those who do not exist in such white middle to upper class privileged spaces of inclusion (Gallagher 2008). Similarly, Grillo and Wildman theorize that
to people of color, who are the victims of racism/white supremacy, race is a filter through which they see the world. Whites do not look at the world through this filter of racial awareness, even though they also comprise a race. This privilege to ignore their race gives whites a societal advantage distinct from any received from the existence of discriminatory racism. [Grillo and Wildman] use the term racism/white supremacy to emphasize the link between the privilege held by whites to ignore their own race and discriminatory racism. (Grillo and Wildman 1995, 565)
However, critical race scholars, Joyce E. King, Karen Sihra, and Helen M. Anderson disagree with Gallagher, McIntosh, Grillo, and Wildman’s concept of the collectivity of USA whites being “unaware” or “unconscious” of how race and whiteness operate and benefit them. Instead, they theorize that the collectivity of white racialized people in the USA engage in “violent consciousness” that operates as something called dysconscious racism. King argues that it is “not the absence of consciousness (that is, not unconsciousness) but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race as compared to, for example, critical consciousness” (King 1991, 134). Furthermore, what is particularly interesting about King, Sihra, and Anderson’s engagement with the theory of “violent consciousness” is that they lay the groundwork for me to see how the rhetoric of Buddhism as “peaceful,” “non-violent,” and “harmlessness” operates amongst certain “post-racial white sanghas” (and individual post-racial white Buddhists) who are engaging in dysconscious racism. Buddhism is rooted in ‘anti-violence’ and ‘harmlessness.’ Of course, how one engages in a Buddhist life is subjective and up to individual interpretation–fostered by one’s racial, gender, class, national, etc., embodied experiences and investments. However, Sihra and Anderson look at the concept of ‘harmlessness’ beyond physical acts of violence and
toward an understanding of violence that also includes the harm of failing to interrogate the lenses through which we see — lenses that simultaneously make visible and obscure. This latter understanding of harm is what we refer to as violent consciousness, which we assert is a central component of the phenomena of dysconsciousness, arrogant perception, and normalization. (Sihra and Anderson 2009, 379)
I would argue that even though many “post-racial” white Buddhists (and “post-racial” white vegans I have met over the last 7 years) do not participate in the violence of overt racism, such as calling a black person the n-word or lynching them (physical act), I personally read their responses to me are acts of discursive violence and dysconscious racism. I am also wondering if it’s possible that in general, do “post-racial” sanghas of whiteness act as sites of discursive violence and dysconscious racism by the very fact that deep discourses around, and engagement with structural racism and white supremacy are just not part of their discourse of mindfulness? Is the collectivity of “post-racial” white folk who engage in dysconscious racism, an example of how the physically violent act of maintaining whiteness and racisms (i.e. lynching and segregation) from the Jim Crow era has shifted more towards the violence of discursive and covert acts/forms of normative whiteness (as well as structural racism and normative whiteness)? Is this the pivotal difference between how whiteness and racism functioned in the spaces of pre-Civil Rights era and a current Post-Civil Rights/Obama era? Maybe it is so subtle and ‘invisible’ to the “post-racial” white folk in the USA, that bringing the ‘visibility’ of race and whiteness up causes so much anger and defensiveness…. Especially in the Buddhist (and vegan) community because of the fact that so many people are practicing Buddhism and/or veganism as a way to engage in ‘harmlessness’ and become a ‘good person.’
Lastly, I think it is notable that during my entire life, I have never been accused of being a ‘racist’ when I live in, participate in, go to school at, white places/institutions. Never have I received anger from any white person when I told them that my parents consciously chose to move to an all-white town to raise my twin and I (they never said, “Hey, your parents were racist!”), went to a white college, or declared me a “racist” for doing my work in an all-white discipline. Perhaps it is not a problem if I consciously surround myself with white people (?) It also never seemed to be a problem that I participated in all-white Buddhism events many times in my 8 years of practice.
However, it became a problem or ‘unsettling’ if I ever hinted that I would want to consciously choose to attend a historically black college or even apply to African American studies programs for graduate work and look at the cultural aspects of veganism amongst women of African descent in the USA (I was seen a being ‘racist’ for doing a call for papers for the Sistah Vegan project that sought out ways to understand how race and gender affected black vegan females when I was doing my Masters work at Harvard University in a post-2000 era.
The accusing demographic were a plethora of white ‘post-racial’ vegans. Their micro-aggressions became empirical data of ‘post-racial’ whiteness that I used to write my masters thesis and earned the Dean’s Award for). Lastly, I am reminded of how most white kids freaked out at Dartmouth College, where I attended undergrad in the 1990s, when they saw “all the black kids sitting together,” but no one freaked out that all the white frat boys and white sorority girls sat together. Am I the only one who sees the contradictions in those responses?
So, back to talking about safe space. I consciously chose to participate in the Buddhist retreat for women of African descent and the EBMC because I am not able to achieve ‘wellness’ in covertly violent and abusive spaces of post-racial whiteness (and these spaces are not limited to certain Buddhist spaces. These simply are ALL ‘post-racial’ spaces of whiteness in the USA that I have lived in, went to school at, etc that I need sanctuary away from).
And as usual, I want to let people know that this is MY opinion fused with my ‘over-educated self’ and training in critical theories of race, decolonial politics, and black feminisms….and my love of the Buddhadharma’s offerings.
My words are not fact. It’s just my standpoint and how I experience the world. My mind is always changing. How I felt last week was not the same way that I felt last year and I’m sure it will be very different in one month. I am open-hearted and honest about my experiences and am being very mindful about how I convey them to the best of my ability…
P.S.I think it would be really helpful for people who aren’t familiar with EBMC to actually take time to listen to this video below that explains, essentially, what it means to CONSCIOUSLY build a sangha that is anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-ableism, and supportive of LGBTQ people.
Cheah, Joseph. Race and Religion in American Buddhism : White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gallagher, Charles A. “”The End of Racism” As the New Doxa.” In White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, edited by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 163-78. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.
Grillo, Trina, and Stephanie M Wildman. “Obscuring the Importance of Race: The Implication of Making Comparisons between Racism and Sexism (or Other -Isms).” In Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, edited by Richard Delgado. Philadelphia: Temple University 1995.
King, Joyce E. “Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers.” The Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 2 (Spring, 1991) (1991): 133-46.
Sihra, Karen, and Helen M. Anderson. “Exploring Pedagogical Possibilities for a Nonviolent Consciousness.” Philosophy of Education (2009): 379-87.