On Buddhist Sanghas, Divesting in Post-racial Whiteness, and Nina Simone

This blog is a continuation of my initial observations about normative whiteness at the San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th Anniversary celebration as well as my second posting about those observations/feelings.

A. Breeze Harper

This past weekend I attended the Spirit Rock retreat, “A Day of Healing for Women of African Descent”. It’s a Buddhist meditation center out in Woodacre, California. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Konda Mason led the retreat. It was 8 hours long. I have never participated in anything like this before. I felt completely at home. And the funny thing is that about 7 or 8 people commented on my earrings and knew who it was (LOL). I was wearing Angela Davis… but I also wanted to share with you that Nina Simone was played on the sound system in the space we were together in. Amazing feeling that we collectively knew who Nina Simone was, the depth of her words, what she represented etc. “We are listening to Nina Simone… Angela Davis is on Breeze’s earrings.”  The song Four Women, by Nina Simone, echoed through the air:

My skin is black, my arms are long
My hair is woolly, my back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again
What do they call me? My name is aunt Sarah
My name is aunt Sarah, aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow, my hair is long
Between two worlds I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia, my name is Saffronia

My skin is tan, my hair fine
My hips invite you, my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me? My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown, my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see, my life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days, because my parents were slaves
What do they call me? My name is Peaches

And in that space, with these women who were in attendance (and that includes the ones who not only registered , but those in the room in spirit such as Nina Simone and India.Arie) I could be myself. With these women, there seemed to already be an understanding of how racism, colorism, class struggle, sexism/sexual violence, whiteness are unfortunate realities in our collective lives; that we need to heal from it. For me, there was no frustration of trying to ‘prove’ that it is real. For me, there was no high blood pressure being raised to provide a list of ‘published materials’ to educate anyone about the realities of racialized-sexualized violence. And I loved the love and openness gifted to all women of African descent there. We were all of different hues, ages, sexual orientations, able-bodied status, age, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. I know that in many cases, just because it’s a ‘black’ space doesn’t mean that all women of African descent will feel at home. I acknowledge the severe issues of colorism, transphobia, homophobia, and ‘you must only be in romantic relationship with a black person’, that exists in the collective USA community of African descent. This space was truly one of healing, because I didn’t hear any of that nonsense being perpetuated. It was great that I didn’t have to ‘defend’ why my husband is a white man (you wouldn’t believe how many times I have been questioned about how my soul-mate is not a man of African descent by black people!)

This past weekend was such a different space to be in, in comparison to my experience with San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Center at Green Gulch. And I have to admit that the Dharma teachings really “click” with me when it came from the teachings through Zenju and Konda. With their personal experiences with the traumas and anger of racism, sexual violence, the desire to want to be an activist and change it, etc, the buddhadharma truly resonates with me. I believe that their method of teaching the buddhadharma is significantly shaped by the lived experience of being racialized and sexualized as “black” and “female” in the USA. It’s called what Katherine McKittrick refers to as a black female socio-spatial epistemology. See her book Demonic Grounds and she will break down how we develop our knowledge-base (epistemology) through our embodied experiences in racialized-sexualized spaces in the USA. What does the collective knowledge system of women of African descent look like, particularly since it has been produced through geographies of violence (lynching, rape, Jim Crow, racial neobliberalism, racialized uneven development)…and geographies of resistance (the space that Nina Simone’s words creates for women of African descent; the space we were participating in at Spirit Rock that helped us ‘defy’ the ridiculous notion that America is ‘post-racial’ and that having such a ‘racially exclusive’ event ‘keeps racism alive’)?

Yes, there are a lot of challenges that non-white racialized people face, even in spaces of Buddhism, when we want to have such events, or write solely about the fusion of being a practitioner of Buddhism and being a non-white racialized subject.  I remember Angel Kyodo Williams had difficulty finding largely white Buddhist bookstores who would sell her book (which is about being black and practicing Zen). They saw that as a way of ‘creating divisions amongst human beings.’ In my opinion, her book is a literary space of resistance against the devastating consequences of perpetuating the myth that the only real Buddhism is one entrenched in ‘post-raciality’ : Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (Compass)

And I don’t mean to knock the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness that I have really only experienced Buddhism in. I do appreciate what I have received from them and the relationships that I have developed… but I simply don’t get the same “Click! I get it!”, that I did at the retreat. I think with the exception of a few times I have spent talking to Abbott Sojun Mel Weistman in which I “get it”, no one else in the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness has really made the Buddhadharma click with me the way Zenju Earthlyn has. As a matter of fact, it was Zenju Earthlyn’s book Seeking Enchantment that really helped me “see” what the “purpose” could be in bringing the dharma into my rage and anger from racial trauma and normative whiteness. The other people I give due credit to are Thich Nhat Hanh and Jan Willis..

A lot of women were in attendance at the retreat, which tells me that this was REALLY needed, and that women of African descent are interested in what the Buddhadarma offers (and I say this in response to a plethora of Buddhist practitioners- usually white- who make the claim that black people have no interest in what the Buddhadharma offers.) Us women of African descent craved this fellowship and healing space. I am so grateful for Zenju and Konda for bringing the Buddhadharma to us and truly understanding where so many of us were coming from (in terms of needing to heal from the anger and trauma of racial and sexual violence). And what was even more beautiful was that the event was “accessible”. They had a sliding door registration fee of $25-$55, but also, they said that no one would be turned away due to lack of funds. And if you didn’t have a car to get out there, then there were car pools. Accessibility is key, and I think about the various times I have wanted to do certain retreats and go to certain Buddhist retreats, or just stay there for a few days but it was clearly only available to wealthier people.

I know there are many “forms” to engage in Buddhism. It would seem that the forms/styles that Zenju and Konda offered seemed to “click” with many of us there, who couldn’t quite “get” how we were perpetuating the cycles of our own suffering. After spending the whole day there, I realized how ridiculous it is that I have spent so much time in largely ‘post-racial’ white dominated spaces in which I physically and emotionally exhaust myself trying to explain what “racism is”, how “whiteness operates”, and that, “No, I’m not making this sh*t up in the head.” I have been depriving myself from these types of healing space my nearly entire life. At the end of the day of that retreat, I really asked myself, “What would happen if I stopped participating in certain spaces in which I can never just be ‘me’? What would happened if I shifted and just focused on spaces like the ones today?” Maybe I should not stop participating all together, but rather really limit my time in spaces in which ‘post-racial’ whiteness is not really acknowledged as ‘problematic’ (and by this, I don’t mean all white spaces or white bodied spaces. I am speaking specifically of spaces of whiteness in which the subjects of structural racism and implications of whiteness are ignored as significant problems). Maybe I should consider stoping my engagement with all the same questions, ‘Well, I don’t understand white privilege or my whiteness. Can you please tell me? Can you please educate me?’ Because it’s obviously really just strained me; and coupled with the facts that I NEVER get paid to spend HOURS of my life each month, educating people for ‘free’, yet I’m unable to pay for my tuition to finish my doctoral program, adds more to such stress.

I invest my time into critical whiteness/race awareness education for the racial status quo, but I’m not being ‘invested in’ in terms of getting help or assistance for me to finish the very education that makes it possible for me to teach the collectivity of white folk who ask me to teach them for free. I know I should not be expecting to get rich off of what I do, but it would be nice to be able to pay basic bills, complete my education, etc. I was reminded of the concept of Dāna, yesterday, as a form of appreciation and investing into a belief system of harmlessness and the people who uphold it that I truly believe in. I believe in Zenju and Konda. And I also believe deeply that though they taught us with love and open hearts, they should not be doing this for ‘free.’ We live in an economy in which cash-money is a very necessary energy for survival.  The women accepted any Dāna we could offer. This made me think about how so many of us black females are simply not ‘invested’ in, in the USA. We are usually ‘divested in’; this is how I understand how structural and institutional racisms, as well as the machinery of whiteness, operate. Too often, black women are simply expected to be [white] society’s emotional and physical mammies. Too often we give A LOT of our selves but when it is time for us to be invested in, it is usually not reciprocated in terms of monetary investment.

Zenju and Konda should not have to bare the burden of such expectations and I was glad that the women at the retreat contributed Dāna to these two wonderful spirits. Investing in them, their work, is investing in women of African descent who are committed to resisting the violence of what Roland Barthes calls post-empire whiteness (see the chapter  Theorizing White Consciousness in a Post-Empire World: Barthes, Fanon, and the Rhetoric of Love)  and I call neoliberal whiteness (another way to refer to this is post-colonial whiteness); it is a divestment in structural racism, a divestment in spaces of post-racial normative whiteness, and a divestment in other legacies of racialized colonialism. I invested in Zenju’s newest book, Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner

. And as I think about these concepts of investment vs. divestment, I have started thinking about if my participation in sanghas of ‘post-racial whiteness ‘(well, more like ‘post-racial’ middle to upper class whiteness), whether my dana over the past 5 years to these spaces, has been a ‘divestment’ or an ‘investment’ for myself (as well as women of African descent that I rarely, if ever, find in these spiritual spaces.) Tough questions I am still trying to grapple with….

I also realized that I don’t think I responded to the San Francisco Zen Center the way I deeply and truly wanted to. I have to think about this and figure out how to articulate what I mean in the near future, but I realized that when I met with Abbott Stucky to discuss the ‘meaning’ of my blog post about the whiteness of the 50th year SFZC celebration, I didn’t really fully engage in the way I wanted to because I think to some extent, I continue to be incredibly overwhelmed and exhausted from explaining “whiteness” to white institutions (despite me ‘thinking’ it is my calling to do so… and that’s another story for another time I guess). And not only am I exhausted, but I still wrestle deeply with the fears and the repercussions of being “honest” to white organizations or institutions about “whiteness” (even if they ask me to be ‘honest’). I will have to sit on this a little more, but I do struggle through my fears, trying to be more transparent and honest. I think that such fears are something that is hard to explain to the collectivity of white males that I have interacted with throughout my life (I say ‘collectivity’ to indicate that it’s a theme I see from the majority, but it’s not necessarily all). I don’t hear the same fears from them of being punished or reprimanded for speaking the ‘truth’ about the realities of sexual and/or racial violence and injustice that is produced by the machinery of whiteness; their conscious or unconscious possessive investment in whiteness (see George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness) simply protects them from it or/and makes them oblivious to it. And it makes sense, because they collectively aren’t usually ‘victims’ of racialized-sexualized violence within the machinery whiteness (check out Steve Martinot’s book Machinery of Whiteness), so why WOULD they have such fears? My apologies if this is not coming across as articulately as I’d like it to. I ‘fail’ so often at trying to be “me”, which means being fully honest and transparent in talking to “white” collectivity (even in ‘mindful’ compassionate oriented Buddhist Sanghas) about whiteness.

Yes, let’s talk about ‘fear.’ I do have fear. I’m not going to lie. I have tremendous fear. Fear holds so many of us back, regardless of our racial or ethnic experience.

I have collective cultural memories/images of “punishment” of black racialized people being retaliated against for trying to be transparent, honest, or changing the way things are. I have images of lynching. I have images of police brutality. I have images of chain gang workers. I have the memories of friends and family telling me how they have been retaliated against for trying to reveal, expose, talk about and teach about whiteness and racism. I have images of so much… more than images… it’s deeper than that. It is somatic. I can tell myself intellectually that I should not focus on that past or on that collective history of racialized violence that occurred to ‘us’ to make sure the status quo’s possessive investment in whiteness is not ‘taken down’… but the somatic takes over and I am shut down at being FULLY ME because I feel like I need to survive….

I remember a type of fear the impeded my response at Green Gulch 3-4 years ago, after the Sunday public lecture. It was during lunch, outside. A white woman told me and a Chinese woman that she didn’t understand labels like “African American” or “Black American.” The conversation was a long time ago, but I remember I was briefly explaining that I was a new graduate student interested in African American females and vegan food studies. The white woman said with confidence, “What’s the point of referring to people that way? I mean, racism would just disappear if we’d stop referring to each other like that.” I remember I  and a Chinese woman were sitting at that table and being blown away by such ignorance of how racism and whiteness operate; how it could simply be ‘erased’ if you (and by ‘you’, the white woman meant us non-white people) didn’t engage in identity politics. And this white woman wasn’t trying to be mean, she was ‘sincere’ with her ‘understanding’ of how to eradicate racism. I remember being too scared to reply to this white woman with complete honesty. The Chinese woman simply shook her head at the white woman and said, “You don’t understand.” It was all she could really say. I could feel the frustration in her response as she was shaking her head. I could feel how she wanted to say more, but simply couldn’t. I know we both wanted to, but I felt emotionally paralyzed…But now I realized what I could have said to this white woman: “My friend, there are two things you should know: ‘Forget that I am Black….and never forget that I am Black.'” That would have been a perfect answer for that situation.

Because that it much of what I learned during the retreat. Yes, I am a woman of African Descent; a black female racialized-sexualized subject…. But, how can we be mindful of what that means? How do we understand its impact on our lives but at the same time, not let it be the defining factor of our life?  How do we forget that we are Black and never forget that we are Black and how do zazen and the precepts allow us to find liberation?

On SF Zen Center, Addressing Whiteness in Buddhism, and Moving Forward

 

This is the second part of the ongoing dialogue started from my August 2012 blogged observations. This blog was about my participation in San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. Below is a video of me sharing information about a book (see picture below) to help interested parties move forward in engaging with the implications of normative whiteness within predominantly white Buddhist sanghas. I recommended this book to Abbott Stucky of the San Francisco Zen Center at the end of August 2012 and they have ordered it for the sangha. Thanks SF Zen Center for meeting with me and hearing my take on mindful engagement about the implications of whiteness in predominantly white communities/institutions.


Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Aar Academy Ser)
by Joseph Cheah

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

20120812-102654.jpg

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….