Is it possible to unravel racism in mostly white US Buddhist centers?
My friend and teacher Mushim Ikeda spoke this week at San Francisco Zen Center on “Daylighting the Hidden Streams: Why Our Stories Matter” (audio here). She discussed how sharing our stories – especially stories that highlight difference – can bring to light the hidden streams of our true nature.
Mushim’s talk had been planned far in advance, but it was particularly timely this week as the SFZC community was sitting with this article by Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan.
In the article, Breeze describes her experience as a Black woman at the mostly-white 50th anniversary celebration of SFZC over the weekend. As Breeze says, “these are my observations and what I personally felt. It doesn’t make it fact.” I appreciate Breeze sharing her story, even as she worries about coming across as the “angry overly sensitive black woman trying to guilt white people.” As Mushim described so eloquently in her talk, it’s through sharing our stories that we connect with each other, learn how differently we experience the world, and find a deeper well of compassion for each other.
Even as Breeze speaks from her own personal experience, she also draws from her theoretical training as a scholar of race and racism, using concrete examples to illustrate larger patterns. While her overall experience was good, she points to some forms of subtle racism that can happen when there is not a critical mass of people of color in a space:
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?
Breeze wisely suggests that bringing mindfulness to whiteness is a key part of dismantling racism in our sanghas:
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.”
I’m particularly interested in these questions, as much of my work prior to joining the staff of BPF has involved identifying and dismantling forms of racism and other isms in mostly-white nonprofit organizations. I know that San Francisco Zen Center has worked hard to make their sangha welcoming to people who represent a broad range of diversity. There are many queers, people of color, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, and women who over the years have found SFZC to be an extraordinarily nourishing and supportive spiritual home. Other mostly-white Buddhist centers, like Spirit Rock Meditation Center, have also struggled with challenging questions of how to heal racism in our sanghas.
I know it can feel particularly painful when people feel like their organization is committed to engaging in diversity work, and yet they still face accusations of racism or injustice. I’ve had that happen directly, and it’s hard not to take it personally.
In my observations of many nonprofit organizations, when an organization takes on diversity work, they should expect more critique rather than less. As more people of color feel safe enough to show up in a space, they will notice and point out the subtle ways racism is hidden and embedded in a mostly white organization. As a white person, it can be easy to respond defensively, listing all the diversity work that’s been done.
How do we move past defensiveness? When someone accuses me or my organization of injustice, my first tool is, “Remember that we are on the same team.” The person pointing out racism is not my enemy. Even when they are so mad they are telling me I am the enemy, I know that ultimately I am not the enemy. In her talk, Mushim quoted the folks who teach Kingian Nonviolence here in the Bay Area who say that, “No person is our enemy. Injustice is our enemy.”
Sometimes folks are so angry, they might turn us into the enemy. Sometimes we may want them to have shared their critique with us in a different, more kind way. However, as Mushim explained in her description of “cultural humility” – we have to allow people to tell their stories in their own words, their own language, their own formats.
What happens when we choose gratitude instead of defensiveness? When I say thank you to a critique, I almost always find myself in connection with the person rather than conflict. “Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for shining the light on this so we can know where more work is needed. Without your highly trained racism sensors and generous feedback, it was going to take us a long time to see this manifestation of subtle racism. Thank you for pointing it out to us.”
Since we live and work in a world that perpetuates white supremacy, racism will happen in our organizations — especially if we are white-led and white-majority. Mostly-white groups can hire every diversity trainer, have 14 committees working on privilege and oppression, hire more people of color staff. Still racism will happen. As we unravel racism and more people of color enter traditionally white sanghas, we begin to notice subtle and subtler forms of racism and white privilege. It can start to feel like the whole sangha might unravel if we continue down this path.
But this is why I have hope that mostly-white US Buddhist organizations can engage deeply in unraveling racism. Is this not the same work of practicing with egolessness, of letting what we cling to unravel? I think of my Zen friends in particular as skilled at this practice of dropping the ego. May the 50 years of strong community practice at SFZC allow folks to bring their most gracious and open selves to this work of unraveling racism.
We’ve been contemplating an upcoming issue of Turning Wheel Media on “Decolonizing Our Sanghas.” What would you hope to see discussed? Who would you love to see write a brilliant article or post an insightful video?