July 17, 2009

Annoying Asians and white privilege

Barbara’s Buddhism blog pointed me to an Asian Nation blog post by C. N. Le on a retreat at Deer Park Monastery, incorporating disruptive Asian foreigners, ambivalent Asian Americans and privileged white Buddhists who didn’t want to take out the trash.

As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup … In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.

But that quote’s just the part on white privilege. It’s worth reading the whole piece and Barbara O’Brien’s post too.

21 comments:

  1. I replied on the blog and why I didn't like Le's post at all. He complaints about white priveleage and yet discriminates against fellow Asians like a white person. He makes unfair assumptions about Western Buddhists in general. I actually felt embarrased when reading that post.

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  2. So...to sum up the post: All whites believe that persons of color should be indentured servants b/c the white people at the retreat didn't help clean up?

    Le isn't a sociologist - he's an idiot.

    I spend part of the summer on science retreats (I call it field work) and we see the same thing. Some people are lazy and some aren't: Some stay to help clean up and some don't. I never assumed a sociological or racial statement or generalization from it.

    Also some stay up real late and make alot of noise drinking instead of working on their field notes but they were never once vietnamese.

    Le logic = fail.

    Good day,

    www.zendirtzendust.blogspot.com (don't hate me cuz I plug)

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  3. I agree completely Jack. Unfortunately, race has become an issue in Buddhism, and so have generalizations and stereotypes.

    Racism has no place in Buddhism...shit it has no place in this world.

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  4. @Tivome: I don’t see how Le discriminates against fellow Asians like a white person. For example, he was not saying that Vietnamese were loud because they were Vietnamese, as he wrote “for whatever reason, this group of Vietnamese families did not understand these guidelines or chose to ignore them.” Just the same, I might say that you, an Asian American, for whatever reason, did not understand Le’s point or chose to ignore it. It’s not because you’re Asian.

    @Jack Daw: Le’s article neither asserted nor entailed the universally quantified statement that you attributed to him. When there is racial inequity — as when, say, white people opt out of and renege on cleaning duties en masse, or when minorities fail to pass a fire department test en masse — it should be an issue of concern. I believe Republicans found outrage and attacked Judge Sotomayor over Ricci v. DeStefano because they principally disagreed with this notion. I might guess where your sympathies lie.

    @Kyle: Note that up until your comment, in this entire post and the entire post on Le’s blog, the word racism was not used. The issue of white privilege is more delicate than, say, the overt racism people who assert they’re racially superior. If white Buddhists don’t accept that their cultural hegemony has been purchased at the cost of historical and ongoing marginalization of minorities, then this ignorance will continue to feed a systemic racial inequity that exists within the Buddhist community itself—even as participants in the system may affirm egalitarian principles on an individual level. Do you honestly think that if we stop talking about race issues in the Buddhist community, then everything will be fine and dandy? Heavens.

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  5. Do you really think sweeping generalizations about an entire race of people isn't racism?? What is someone said those lazy privileged Asians, come on, I know you are smarter than this. It's not about talking about race, its about placing an entire race of people into one category, "privileged white Buddhists." Why not just some Buddhists? Why "white" Buddhists? It may not be burning crosses in the front yard, but these days, racial profiling is so much more subtle.

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  6. Arun,

    Feel free to quess about my affinities. They are neither here nor there. But I do think that Le is making sweeping generalizations in the post. I think looking at a loud group of Asians or some lazy white folk shouldn't be reason to term all Asians as loud or all whites as privilaged and lazy.

    Which is what Le did.

    "When there is racial inequity — as when, say, white people opt out of and renege on cleaning duties en masse, or when minorities fail to pass a fire department test en masse — it should be an issue of concern"

    En Masse, eh...ok. That sort of inferred the white folks getting together and saying something like "Hey lets get out of here and let the non-whites do the clean up"...I somehow doubt that. Although a white (or asain) couple promising to clean up and then leaving to make whoopie is a likely reason (although not as conspiring)

    The Fire Department thing....yes, that is called institutional racism. It happens and it is bad and it has nothing to do with what Le described.

    My own personal experience with different cultures in similar situations is that some people(not races) are privileged and lazy or loud and obnoxious.

    I'm sorry that the white folk didn't live up to Le expectations...or maybe they did.

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  7. First, I think we may be confusing racism and white privilege, two separate but related issues, and Le's post is specifically about the latter. One can enjoy the benefits of white privilege without being a racist, for example, or harboring any specific prejudices or even be consciously aware that s/he is getting such privilege. That's the nature of the beast, so to speak, and is only related to racism so far as the reason we have white privilege is because we live in a racialized society.

    Secondly, and this may be only slightly off-topic, there are some -- many? -- social theorist who argue that this whole "reverse racism" thing that (usually) white folks get freaked out about is off base. The argument goes that there's a fairly wide gap between "prejudice" or personal bias and racism and that the reason why racism works is because of systems of social power. To the extent that white folks have historically had all the power, their racism is real racism because it disenfranchises people of color. People of color, in this line of reasoning, may be individual, personal racists, but to the extent that they have no power, their personal bias has no means of political or social expression and is, therefore, harmless.

    You can agree or disagree with these lines of thinking or argumentation, but the folks who come up with this stuff are fairly big, heavy hitters -- not just talking heads and blowhards from cable news. It takes a bit of reading to catch up, and it's pretty clear to me -- based on their use of language -- that these are the issues that are behind Le's post, and (I'm guessing but could be wrong) are behind much of what Arun writes about. A failure to understand the subtle distinctions folks make about these terms and then just fall back into the defensive posture of "this writer is a reverse racist who isn't using their head and is a big fat jerk" seems to me lazy at best. It takes courage to write this kind of stuff and open oneself up to criticism. The least we can do, in turn, is ask question first, condemn second.

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  8. I agree with djbuddha's comments, especially concerning the whole defensive issue when it comes to whites and talk of racism and privilege.

    As a white male, I'm fully aware that my race and gender give me advantages that others are not given. This doesn't at all diminish the fact that that I suffer plenty, am pretty poor financially, and often don't "feel" privileged. I really think it's questionable for us to assume that we have erased the many, many institutional privileges AND thought patterns associated with those privileges, less than 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. I'm willing to continue to examine things, go through the messy discussions, and work towards a more just society for all - period.

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  9. Scott - First of all Reverse racism is dumb, it doesn't exist. There is only racism, period, end of story. Either you harbor preconceived notions about an entire group of people based solely on the color of there skin or you don't. Racism is racism, period.

    Secondly, "fairly big heavy hitters." I don't care if it was the Dalai Lama himself that said white folks are lazy and privileged, I call his remarks offensive too. It just goes to show you the amount of letters behind someones name is only as good as the person they are attached too.

    Lastly, racist bias are harmless if they are not from white people? Really Scott? Come on, you too are smarter than this. This isn't about being defensive or 'white guilt', I'd say the same thing if people were talking about black people or Asian people in the same manner. IT'S ABOUT MAKING GENERAL ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT AN ENTIRE RACE OF PEOPLE, God dammit.

    It seems to me that this anti-Western Buddhist thing, isn't about practice, but has always been about race in many respects. I know a lot of Buddhists who won't speak up about this, but any kind of sweeping generalizations need to called out. End of story.

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  10. Kyle,

    My off-hand comment about "heavy hitters" was meant to describe people who spend all of their time researching, studying, and teaching about issues of social justice, sociology, anthropology, race, and class. Frankly, if someone is a specialist in their field, I do give their words more weight because they are a specialist. For example, my brother is a specialist in his field -- computer programing -- so when he gives me advice about how to fix some script, I listen.

    Anti-intellectual bias is a big problem in this country.

    That doesn't mean that I think you should listen to someone uncritically and accept everything they say as golden. But, in my opinion, when someone who's had more training, more education, and spent more time working in some field than I have says something -- even something I disagree with or rubs me the wrong way -- I feel that I owe it to that person to give them the benefit of the doubt and out of respect ask questions. Questions like, "Hey, I use the word 'racism' in this way. Clearly you're talking about something else. Care to explain?"

    Because the reverse is what's happening here. The original author was writing about white privilege and rather than asking what he meant by that, you assumed he was talking about racism. Maybe he is. I don't know. But it is more conducive to dialogue to ask questions first.

    So, in my opinion, racism is not racism, period. Racism is a term that has nuance and different meanings in different contexts.

    As to this "anti-Western Buddhist thing," I don't think you've got the idea here. I've been fairly clear in my blog -- and I think Arun has, too -- that we're not "against Western Buddhists." We're against Buddhism being homogenized and thus silencing Asian voices. Those are two very different things.

    And, frankly, you're right. It isn't about practice. It is about race. So what? Are you implying that just because we're all Buddhists that we shouldn't talk about things that aren't specifically Buddhist? Because that, my friend, is the very definition of silencing voices. That's what I'm concerned about. Some folks have serious (and in my opinion) legitimate concerns about the direction of their Buddhist communities, about loosing Buddhism. Sometimes their concerns have specifically to do with inter-racial relations. If we come along and say, "Hey, we're all Buddhists! Can't we just all get along?" Then what we're saying is, "Your concerns aren't worth talking about. Get over it." And I find that conversational strategy distasteful to say the least.

    If someone's screaming screaming screaming about some perceived injustice or offense -- even if on the face of it I don't understand what the big deal is -- out of compassion and respect for that other person, I feel morally obliged to stop and say, "Hey. Why are you suffering?" Because people don't suffer for no reason. People don't cry out in pain just for the hell of it. They do it for a reason and uncovering the roots of suffering is, in my view, the raison d'être of practice.

    What could be more Buddhist than that?

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  11. Thank you for your candor Scott. You know I think this type of discussion is healthy, even if we don't agree. Perhaps you don't like my overtones of friendship and open dialogue, but unlike some, I'm willing to listen and discuss.

    Degree's don't mean a damn thing without objective study and a scientific approach, and clearly Mr.Le is biased against white people as an entire race to begin with. And I'm not saying that Mr.Le was insinuating white people are racists,(I don't know his motives)I was saying Mr.Le's comment in itself was of a very racist nature. He was implying a general blanket statement about an entire race of people, completely based on color. How is that so hard to understand?

    Also, I'd like to know how "Western Buddhists" are silencing the traditional Buddhist Communities? Are they stopping people from practicing their traditional form of Buddhism? Are they harassing them or intimidating them? Please, enlighten me. I'd like to know how white people are infiltrating these Buddhist communities and subverting them.

    And BTW, I have never said that your concerns aren't worth discussing, and I never will. I respect you all as Buddhists and as human beings.

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  12. Kyle,

    You and I clearly have a difference of opinion on the value of graduate degrees and the standard by which to judge whether one means a damn thing, to borrow a phrase. According to his website, I see C.N. Le has a degree in sociology from a well-known, accredited institution. Which is good enough for me, but not, clearly, for you. Or, am I right is assuming that since Dr. Le "is biased against white people as an entire race" that his degree is invalid?

    Oh wait. You don't know if Dr. Le is biased against all white people. Neither do I. What I do know is that he wrote that "many Whites" at this particular retreat seem to represent a "microcosm of the White-priviledged notion" that service work is work for people of color. If you read what he wrote closely, you'll notice that no where in this post did he write that ALL "white people are racists." Do you see the difference? In Dr. Le's assessment, he is merely making an observation about one event and attempting to explain that event through the prism of a well-research phenomenon called "white privilege." What white privilege is and how it is operative in this country is a topic far too complex than we really have space for here. But here's what I know: "white privilege" is NOT the same thing as "all whites are racists."

    This is my general concern with the level of discourse on this issue. You're free to disagree with Dr. Le's position. But, please, at least try and understand what his position is before denouncing it.

    As to how "western Buddhists" silence Asian Buddhists, there's a bit of it right here in this conversation. Specifically, I never said that '"Western Buddhists" are silencing the traditional Buddhist Communities.' What I did say was that I'm concerned about the homogenization of Buddhist communities, and silencing of Asian voices. Note my language here. I'm not creating a false dichotomy between "Western" and "traditional" Buddhists because that implies that Westerners are white folks and traditional Buddhists are Asian folks. But that's not true, is it? The problem isn't between "East" and "West." The problem is that we assume that Asian American Buddhists are not part of that umbrella term of "Western Buddhists." And the fact of the matter is, like or not, many Asian American Buddhists feel that those who "speak" for American Buddhism (primarily through the mainstream press and publishing industry) are primarily white people and that they aren't being heard. They're upset about that, and whether we agree or disagree with that assessment, it behooves us as compassionate-minded Buddhists to hear them out.

    That's one way that some folks feel silenced. Here's another: I've been (and read accounts of) non-Asian people of color who attended predominately white Buddhist groups and when they wanted to discuss issues of racism or class difference or what have you, they were told that discussions of racism aren't appropriate within the sangha, that "race isn't real" and that we're all Buddhists. But I challenge you to go out into the world and find at least one person of color in this country who doesn't experience this "non-reality" of race every single day. Because they do, Buddhist or not. So, that's how some people of color have felt silenced. And it's a problem.

    Not that I'm not enjoying this tête-à-tête, but it seems to me that we're monopolizing the conversation here, and I always a feel a bit weird doing that on someone else's blog. So, forgive me for being so wordy, Arun. Say the word and I'll drop it!

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  13. @Kyle & djbuddha: Please feel free to continue duking it out! I’m happily watching from the sidelines as I craft a meeting agenda and fill out this NPV. At some point we’ll find out which assumptions are mutual and which ones aren’t, and hopefully we’ll all be the better for it. (@djbuddha: How were you finally able to post here?)

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  14. "(@djbuddha: How were you finally able to post here?)"
    Brut force.

    Actually, I think blogger finally realized that I do indeed have a Gmail account even though my blog isn't hosted through blogger. Internet gnomes, to be sure. They're at it again!

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  15. No, I'm done duking it out here. Scott makes no attempt to see the harm in Dr.Le's comments and actually supports his views. But, hey feel free to comment on my post to show everyone how you really feel about 'many white people'.

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  16. Kyle, that's unfortunate. And, if you mean commenting on this issue on some other blog, frankly, I've found this conversation elsewhere to be rather hostile. So I think I stick around here, thanks.

    As to how I 'really feel about "many white people"', that's easy. I love most of them. My personal feelings about white people have nothing whatsoever to do with white privilege. That's the distinction I've been trying to get you to understand, but I guess you're not going to.

    C'est la vie! (Oh, damn, that's three French phrases in one thread. Let's me amend that to shikatagania!)

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  17. @Kyle and djbuddha: You guys are fun! Holy crap you both write way too much...I too am crafting some agendas and other boring tasks and this is making it much more interesting.

    BTW - Not to brag but I hold two advanced degrees and they both don't mean shit if you can't back them up with some brains (which I still don't know if I do). Frankly, most PhD's that I know just jumped through all the hoops provided and then bitched about it the entire time.

    Off topic but had to jump in somewhere...

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  18. LOL I think I am about as hostile as you are going to get. I think we will just have to agree to disagree for now. But don't worry, there will be plenty more I will write or say in the future for you guys are get mad at me for. :-D

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  19. @Arun: I did get his point - his point was that he didn't know why they ignore the rules and was being loud and offensive. He then chose to complaint about them publically in a well-known blog. That's exactly what a white person ignorant of Asian cultures would do, and we have seen examples in numerous blog posts written by ignorant or biased white people. Le sounds just like one of those white bloggers. If you can't see that, then I guess you and him are both more "Westernized" than I thought.

    I don't have a problem with white person saying it, btw. They're not supposed to know about how Asians behave in Asia. Le, by his disinquished academic achievements and background, SHOULD. This is obviously a cultural misunderstanding - but Le chose to bitch about it in English as if they did it on purpose - and the family he complaints about have no chance of reading it or defend themselves.

    What he wrote really didn't sound like something a Buddhist would write - it lacks empathy, understanding, and compassion. I am writing this because I have a higher standard for him, being a rare Asian-American scholar and a Buddhist at the same time. I am, however, dissapointed. His post is actually causing MORE rifts between the Asian and Western Buddhists than the offensive Vietnamese native he complaints about, but both you and him fail to see this. There are great examples of white priveledge within Buddhist Sanghas which should be made aware by the non-whites, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE. He pursued his agenda with a bad example and now may have ruined the opportunity for real dialog. I am deeply saddened because of this.

    Perhaps I am much more traditional than all you Westernized Asian American Buddhists. I think I'll just be an Asian Buddhist with a Asian American past.

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  20. I'd have to agree that Le's post is sloppy. And I do think the example of the white couple that didn't end up helping wasn't a very informative one as well. The more I think about it, the more I'm unclear about his intentions with the post.

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  21. @Tivome: You clearly didn’t get his point. If you revisit Le’s blog post, you’ll see the explanation of his point in his most recent comment at the end. If you happen to be the one who asked him to clarify his point, then you must already be aware.

    I disagree with your contention that his post causes more rifts in the Buddhist community. Those rifts already exist, and Le’s article helped expose them. Repeatedly over the past thirty years, non-white American Buddhists have pointed out racial inequity, there has always been a furor, and then things go back to the way they were before, the tensions still simmering below the surface. I’d like to think this in itself is a form of dialogue, exposing assumptions and entitlements, where people are forced to confront racial issues that they’d rather avoid—after this week, Kyle and Jack Daw will never think of the words white privilege in the same way again. We don’t solve the problem by ignoring the elephant.

    Lastly, I must thank you for your character attacks where you label Le and myself as “Westernized” and put our adherence to traditional Buddhism in question. You fail, I must note, to identify what it means to be traditional, or Westernized, or Asian, or even if the latter two notions are in fact mutually exclusive. Keep in mind that, by your very own criteria, your writing is just un-Buddhist as Le’s is. Your words hold no empathy or understanding. Your regrettable lack of compassion is evidenced even by the words you use to disparage our claims as authentically Asian and traditional Buddhists.

    Your words perfectly exemplify the fact that we Asian American Buddhists don’t necessarily agree, that we will use labels to pigeonhole and devalue others, that we write hypocritically and vindictively. I’m usually reluctant to point that out, but you did it for me. Thank you.

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