top of page

Nina Simone, SF Zen Center, and how all black people still look alike


Yesterday was a big day for the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), in San Francisco California. It was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the center. To celebrate, SFZC invited co-founder Richard Baker to give the morning talk. Later that evening, Greens restaurant hosted the party and food event. It was completely sold out. I’d say about 150-200 people were there. 3 black people were there, including myself. It was overall white bodied event. No surprise there, I’m used to it.

But I did think the most awkward/funniest things that happened yesterday afternoon and last night were the plethora of questions and comments I got about my earrings. If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that these are the earrings that I was wearing last night. I wear them all the time. And there is an interesting narrative that goes along with these earrings.

Since purchasing these a year or so ago, I have gotten about 50 people asking me, “Hey, is that Angela Davis?” or “Cool, Angela Davis earrings!”  I am not exaggerating that EVERY single person who has said one of these two lines to me is white. Last night, 8 different white people at the party celebration added to the same narrative by asking the very same question.

Okay, I’m not angry, not surprised, but a little disappointed that one cannot tell the difference between Angela Davis and Nina Simone. These women do not look a like AT ALL. And never have I had any brown or black person mistaken Nina Simon for Angela Davis.

And by the way, I also own a pair of Pam Grier earrings. When I wear those, she is also mistaken for Angela Davis.

Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does  racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

In addition to the Davis/Simone mix-up, there seemed to be a fixation on my hair. I struggled to accept the 11 observations I received from the people participating in the celebration of the event. Earlier that morning, when I had attended the Richard Baker talk at the SFZC. I had entered a packed room, searching for my friend who had reserved a zafu seat for me. I was wearing my black pants and coral colored shirt. I had my hair in the usual natural afro style (but wearing white earrings, not Simone). I found my way into the room as the event was being videoed and live-streamed into the cafeteria next door and worldwide.

After the talk, I was approach by 5 different people telling me I really ‘stood’ out when I entered the room and that my hair was really ‘cool’ (Got 6 more of these comments later that night). Okay, don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love my huge afro and enjoy wearing it with pride. But I started feeling uncomfortable about it and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was I being paranoid or was there something truly deeply wrong with the constant ‘comments’ directed towards my obvious ‘blackness’? Perhaps it was their way to make me feel comfortable as a ‘black’ person there, so they automatically pointed out the one thing that really makes me stand out as ‘black’ (my afro) to let me know that it’s in fact ‘cool’ and ‘okay’ that I and my ‘big’ afro hair are there (?) Okay, I get the effort to be hospitable, and perhaps many of these folk are aware of the ‘lack of diversity’ issue at SFZC, so that is why they have gone out of their way to let me know that my ‘blackness’ is welcomed(?)  I’m not dismissing them or angry about it, but I am admitting that it did make me feel quite uncomfortable…and the observations about my hair continued, 5 hours later, at the party celebration at Greens restaurant that evening.

And though I won’t mention his name, a prominent Zen Buddhist figure in the community was talking to my male friend briefly, telling him several times, “Wow, did you see that attractive black woman? Who is she?” and mentioning my cool afro.( And this prominent figure is married, mind you). Once my friend told me about the conversation, and coupled with the other comments about my hair that day and evening… I felt “exotified.”   Maybe it would have been a different feeling if it weren’t such a white event, but I felt incredibly uncomfortable and throughout the entire evening, kept on thinking, “If mindfulness is a tenet of our Buddhist practice, why isn’t their a more collective mindfulness around the issues of how whiteness affect even Zen Buddhist fellowship?”

And lastly, to end the night, two women performed an “Asian” dance. They were dressed in all white: stellito shoes, leggings, corset, white wigs, and their eyes were done-up in make-up to ‘mimic ‘Japanese eyes’ (or perhaped more ‘Asianized eyes’ in the way that they may have thought that Japanese eyes are ‘supposed’ to look (?) ). They were twirling around parisols with Japanese art on them for a good 25 minutes while the rest of the crowd danced in fromt of them, clapping  away enthusiastically. …Um, another uncomfortable moment for me, at least, because these women were white and I didn’t understand what or how this had anything to do with the tradition of Zen Buddhism and the celebration of SFZC. They were dancing to 90s music in a stereotypical ‘Asian submissive sensuous’ style. I was wondering how this was ‘okay’, and if I was the only one thinking that this was a form of Japanse minstrelsy. I guess you had to be there to know what I was talking about, but it just didn’t feel ‘right’. We’re in San Francisco, so was it not possible to instead ask Japanese Zen Buddhist people who also dance traditional styles, to do a performance instead of using make-up on white women to make their eyes look ‘Asian’, and then have them dress up in that manner?  Maybe there should be more awareness around issues of Orientalism that Edward Said brilliantly wrote about?

I am not dismissing or knocking the dancing talent of these two women, but rather focusing on the context of the situation in which they are dancing in/for.

I don’t expect you  readers to agree with all that I say, but these are my observations and what I personally felt. It doesn’t make it fact, but I always feel like I need to be honest and direct about how I am feeling.  I am hoping that I can approach the SFZC rather soon about my observations and hope that they consider what my feelings may mean. I just have to figure out how to present it in the whole ‘”I’m not an angry overly sensitive black woman trying to guilt white people” way.

Though I did feel uncomfortable at times, I did enjoy the overall day and evening, the food, connecting with people, and dancing. I appreciated the time and effort that it took to put the event together, and was excited to come and see Richard Baker talk (especially since he apparently left the center on ‘bad terms’, a long time ago) to see if he could reflect on the ‘drama’ that happened so long ago. Dinner was awesome, and even though there were no vegan desserts available at this vegetarian restaurant, one of the waiters said she was vegan. She understood my sadness about not being able to eat dessert, went back into the kitchen and then came back with blackberry sorbet and vegan shortbread cookies for me. Yum!

Oh well, off to other things….

Share this:


Recent Blog Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic
bottom of page