November 19, 2012

The Huffington Post Addresses "Conflicts About Race Among Meditators"

Emma Varvaloucas

In a Huffington Post article published yesterday, religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem offers an insightful look into POC sitting groups in the American dharma scene. The article, "Buddhist 'People Of Color Sanghas,' Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators," examines the need for minority sanghas alongside the seemingly "un-Buddhist" intention to form exclusive communities and courses for people of color. Kaleem writes,

Here in Seattle, one of the least racially diverse cities with one of the largest Buddhist communities in the country, a controversial movement in American Buddhism is forming. A handful of exclusive 'people of color' Buddhist groups have started to meet each week, far away from the long-established—and almost entirely white—major Buddhist meditation centers that have dominated the Pacific Northwest's well-known Buddhist scenes. Many members, who have until now shied away from meditation and Buddhism, say practicing away from the white majority, among whom they say they don't feel welcome, has spiritually empowered them—and they wouldn't have it any other way.

Anytime the issue of race in American Buddhism comes up (let's face it: anytime the issue of race in general comes up), the resulting conversation is bound to ripple with tension, so we applaud Kaleen for taking on such a contentious topic while simultaneously drawing awareness to an important issue. Already, the article has garnered almost 2,000 comments, with many of the commenters taking offense at the purported "reverse racism" in the piece. A lot of attention has focused around the rules of one POC sitting group in Seattle: "Men could come, but the group happened to be women. No whites were allowed."

Tuere SalaThe need for POC sitting groups, retreats, and sanghas is often misunderstood; the response to such demand is prone to become an insistence that Buddhism goes beyond race, thus trivializing many POC's suffering and personal experience with institutionalized racism in the United States. This article is an excellent reminder that we should not be using Buddhism as an excuse to hide from the painful realities of race relations in our nation. It also, we hope, explains why minority sitting groups are necessary for many to enter the dharma. As Tuere Sala, a black Buddhist teacher, recollects in the article of her first experience at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, "We walked into this room and there were 60 white people. No black people. No people of color. I did not want to stay." And who can blame her? I've met with enough sanghas whose members were all at least a decade older than me to know that even a subtle feeling of I don't fit in here or This isn't for people like me can quickly extinguish the enthusiasm of someone who is interested in Buddhism and beginning to cautiously explore it.

We're happy to see these issues of race being discussed in mainstream media, so our hats to you, Kaleem. That being said, we were disappointed to see the writer himself fall to the temptation of stereotyping—seemingly the result of poor research. He writes midway through the piece,

There are about two million Buddhists in the U.S., and each usually falls into one of two camps. On one side are Asian-American Buddhists, who have been in the U.S. since the mid-19th century and whose numbers blossomed after 1965, when immigration quotas were lifted. One in seven Asians in the U.S. is Buddhist. Most Asian-American Buddhists practice at home, and small numbers also observe their faith at Buddhist temples, the kind known for their ornate architecture and large Buddha statues. Studies have shown that most Asian-American Buddhists don't meditate. Instead, they practice the faith by venerating ancestors, spiritually observing holidays such as Lunar New Year and practicing yoga, and they believe in nirvana and reincarnation.

The second and more dominant camp of Buddhism is made up largely of white converts, who count for more than half of U.S. Buddhists; less than one in three are Asian.

Unfortunately, the numbers here are way off, as a new Pew study has shown that Asian American Buddhists actually make up two-thirds of the overall American Buddhist population. Arunlikhati, our friend The Angry Asian Buddhist, explains over at his blog why getting these numbers right is important:

Through his interpretation of the survey data, Kaleem perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans Buddhists basically don’t meditate much and instead preoccupy themselves with ritual and superstition. A closer look at the data, however, suggests that Asian American Buddhists simply participate less in some of the key rituals and beliefs which strongly characterize non-Asian American Buddhists.

We strongly encourage you to check out both Kaleem's article and Arunlikhati's response.

UPDATE: Jaweed Kaleem has updated his story to fix the inaccuracies originally contained within it.

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Will.Rowe's picture

Some people only see race, react to their own prejudices, and seek to only be around people of their own race. Sad really. "No whites were allowed." That says it all. What Suttra teaches this?

celticpassage's picture

The Suttra of Political Correctness.
It's OK to speak against whites (and particularly white men) openly. You don't here of black people or asian people being accused of racism and yet of course they are as racist and biased as any other group.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Such a time might be when people of color become the dominant social, political and financial power of this great nation of ours. And they decide to selfishly keep it so.

celticpassage's picture

Of course they would since they are no different than anyone else.
Glad you agree.

Dominic Gomez's picture

This is why we practice Buddhism. To change such karma. Life (in America) doesn't have to be as you describe.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Emma's unfortunate wording frames Jaweed's apparently personal and highly subjective comment in a badly researched and clumsily written article. The actions of the women quoted in the article address (majority) white America's historical practice of racial and ethnic exclusion. Groups created to ostensibly learn about Buddhism were not immune to such "country club" mentality.

lbaccash's picture

As an aging white woman, I too, feel out of place in my practice center. Is this because my practice center discriminates based on gender and age? Perhaps it is a matter of my own practice? Am I really separate based on these demographics or, more likely, because of how I separate myself? Do we need to practice with a "like" group to get the benefit of the Dharma? Should we only practice with men? with women? with Asians?, with African Americans? with LGBT's? with old white women? Who separates us?

celticpassage's picture

I think that racism, bias, and predjudice really exist and it's not that you are putting yourself into one of these groups and of course at the same time you are. For example, try getting a new job in your career area at 62 and I imagine you will come solidly up against age discrimination.

What is usually interesting to me is that whenever the idea of racism comes up it is most often assumed to be a 'white' issue. However, racism, bias, and predjudice are just as much issues for blacks, asians etc. That is to say that if there are race problems in a sangha, then the minority members are just as much to blame as anyone else.

I also think that people think that if they don't like a person and that person is some minority or another that this is because they are predjudiced against that minority. It could be however, that this person is unlikeable. Just because the person may be black or whatever doesn't mean that your dislike of the person means you are predjudiced against blacks.

Of course, the blame (which is mostly pointless) and the solution doesn't lie with groups but with individuals. There are real systemic predjudices (e.g. a woman may be given a job over a better qualified man because of 'affirmative action' , but that is still a predjudice) and of course our own predjudices.

The important part is not whether we feel predjudiced against a particular group but how we behave toward individuals that we meet regardless if they are white, black, asian, old, etc.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sanghas do not exist in vacuums. They reflect the societies of their memberships. The histories of the different strains of Buddhism in America testify to that. Some Buddhisms were attractive to American intellectuals, others were the established religions of immigrants from Asian countries.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sounds like a shortage of compassion. Buddhism is humanism, and humans come in all sorts of colors, ages, genders, and life conditions.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Contributing editor Clark Strand looked into this issue in one American Buddhist group: (Tricycle Winter 2003).

idaleung1's picture

This is a wonderfully insightful article. Thank you for dusting it off.