January 22, 2010

Opportunities, Incentives and Privilege

On the last Asian Meter update, Adam asked about the dynamics that underlie the small number of bylines that The Big Three set aside to Asian writers.
So, why do you think that is? Is it just blatant racism, or are there other factors? How many Asian writers have submitted material/applied for positions at The Big Three? How do they source their writers and material?
I responded separately that I believe this pattern to be a case of institutional racism, rather than “blatant” racism (such as an informal policy or a consciously implemented prejudice). This question is explored in more detail on an old post at Dharma Folk.

The second part of the question speaks to the submission process—we know the output, but what about the input? This question has been asked several times before and is worth revisiting. Below I’ve provided a similar comment that Ashin Sopaka left a long while ago.

While I do not in any way invalidate your experience of racism in Buddhism (I myself have seen negative comments like “ethnic Buddhists”), I can’t help but wonder how many Asian American (AA) Buddhists are stepping up to the plate, applying for jobs or submitting articles to the referenced publications, asking to be involved in panel discussions, etc. If this is happening and AAs are being actively excluded, then indeed, this is racism at its ugliest. Or, are AAs sitting back and waiting to be invited/involved? Or are AAs refusing the invitations due to language barriers, or whatever other reasons?
The logic here is straightforward. Perhaps this inequality is of the marginalized groups’ own making—there are fewer Asian writers because fewer Asians submit articles. This point was addressed directly by another blogger.
Ashin[hpoya], I can answer that one for you. These publications don’t think to ask Asian-Americans, so Asian-Americans are rarely if ever extended an offer to refuse in the first place. It’s not that Asian-Americans aren’t stepping up, it’s that there is a network of white convert Buddhists entrenched in the publishing field and they reach out to print articles by and about other people like themselves, without stepping out of their bubbles or making serious attempts to include other voices.

Some of this has to do with race issues in publishing. The staff at these magazines is virtually all white and always has been. That is not unusual in the publishing world, but it is regrettable at publications that seek to represent a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white (and even English-speaking Buddhists are less than 50% white). It isn’t racism in terms of actively disparaging non-whites. It is white privilege, the privilege to be focused only on one’s own community, to believe one’s own community is representative of the whole, and to not ever have to think about how one’s whiteness allows smooth entrance into the world of publishing and speaking for Buddhism in a way that people with far more history with Buddhism (but far more melanin as well) are as a group unable to access (the occasional individual exception doesn’t invalidate the general rule here).

Mr. Boyce’s article and his shock at how it was received are typical of this pattern. A person of presumably no malicious intent, he was simply blind to how his decisions wound others–blind because his skin color and social privilege allow him to not have to think about such issues until someone blows up at him after the fact. This is not racism as outright hatred, but institutionalized racism that affects the whole society and is especially entrenched in the media (i.e. the industry of representation and normative information control), Buddhist magazines included.

This response cuts right into the interwoven threads of opportunity, incentives and that pernicious elephant on the dining room table: white privilege. While hinging on white privilege, what’s key is how this privilege increases both opportunities and incentives for white writers at the expense of People of Color.

The Asian Meter merely puts some casual observations to the test with systematic inquiry. How many Asians actually write for The Big Three? Adam’s question goes further and points in the direction of what’s going on behind the scenes here. What are all the players doing? The answer to his question is more complex, and it’s exactly the sort of question we need to be asking in order to effectively address racial imbalances in our publications.

For example, in creating the Asian Meter database, one of the key factors I noticed has to do with the composition of a magazine’s regular contributors. If you are a white writer, you’re more likely to be tapped to write again in Tricycle than if you happen to be Asian. (I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but I’ll happily dig up the numbers for another post.) One solution might be for Tricycle to do more outreach both to recruit new Asian writers and also to retain old ones. But I’m getting ahead of myself here—it’s only by looking deep into the issue that we have the empirical basis to act on such a suggestion.

I haven’t provided a very thorough response, but Adam’s question has no simple answer. Just think of when we ask the same type of question in other fields. Why do so few women become surgeons? Why do so few African American students sign up for business plan competitions? It is no less controversial to ask why so few Asians write in the major American Buddhist publications. But it’s my belief that questions like Adam’s are among the few ways we can make any progress towards a truer diversity.


  1. I can supply a further data point. From summer 1998 to late fall 1999 I worked as Tricycle's editorial assistant. This means that I opened all the editorial mail and sorted through the unsolicited submissions, giving them their initial ranking. During that time period, Tricycle received no unsolicited submissions from persons with identifiably Asian names (it is possible that "Joe Smith" or "Sue Johnson" is Asian-American, of course). And for the six months prior to that period, I served as Tricycle's administrative assistant, which means I picked up all the mail for the office from the mail carrier and sorted it into editorial, publishing, accounts receivable, etc. I do not believe that editorial received any unsolicited submissions from Asian-Americans during that period either.

    In my fieldwork at many, many temples in North America and Hawaii (the majority of them Asian-American), I have found that it is quite infrequent for Asian-American temple-going Buddhists to have heard of Tricycle. I can't say about Buddhadharma or Shambhala Sun because I haven't worked for them and therefore they rarely come up in conversation. The only exception to this trend tends to be in Jodo Shinshu temples, where it seems like a larger percentage (still a minority, I think, but these are only gut impressions I'm going on here) have heard of the magazine, few read it with any regularity.

    On the other hand, the clear majority of white temple/meditation center-going Buddhists/Buddhist sympathizers have heard of Tricycle, and many read it regularly or semi-regularly. Often, these temples and meditation centers have subscriptions or their leader has a subscription that he/she leaves at the temple. I cannot recall ever seeing a copy of Tricycle in an Asian-American-dominated temple outside the BCA. But it is possible I have forgotten one.

    All of this strongly suggests to me that Tricycle (and likely Buddhadharma and Shambhala Sun) are more or less not on the radar of the average Asian-American Buddhist, which reduces the likelihood that they will receive submissions. Meanwhile, the Big Three do seem to be on the radar of white Buddhists, increasing their likelihood to submit. I think therefore that the whiteness of these magazines results from a complex of ineracting forces, including institutional racism, neglect of the forms of Dharma most practiced bt Asian-Americans, unawareness of Asian-American Buddhist issues and interests, a perception that Asian-Americans are uninterested in the magazines, lack of interest among Asian-Americans, absence of the magazines from Asian-American networks, few Asian-American submissions, lack of Asian-American bylines, poor outreach to Asian-American communities and writers, white-dominated staffs, the relative paucity of qualified and interested Asian-American/Canadian Buddhists in the publishing worlds of New York and Halifax, and lack of perception that any of this is a problem.

  2. @Transient and Permanent: I deeply appreciate your inside scoop—thank you for sharing! Even though Tricycle is poorly known within Asian American Buddhist communities, during the very time you worked there they explicitly stated on their ad card that their target readership included the “five million” Asian American Buddhists. I’d like to believe that following that proposition into action would have been beneficial both for Tricycle and the greater Buddhist community in North America. Sadly, they’ve since omitted that line from their ad card. I completely agree with your assessment of this multitude of factors discourage Asian American writers from submitting to major American Buddhist publications—very similar issues apply to, say, women physicians in surgical specialties and African American entrepreneurs in business plan competitions—and accordingly I’m interested in relying on similar models to change this dynamic at the root. Thank you again for your very thorough comment!

  3. I sent the link to this post to the editor of Tricycle. The more of us that talk about this kind of research and experience, the better. And sharing it with the people who run the magazines seems like a perfect place to continue the conversation in my opinion.

  4. "The mission of The Tricycle Foundation is to create forums for exploring contemporary and historic Buddhist activity, examine the impact of its new context in the democratic traditions of the West, and introduce fresh views and attainable methods for enlightened living to the culture at large. At the core of the Foundation’s mission is the alleviation of suffering that Buddhist teachings are meant bring about."

    This is Tricycle's mission statement, and I believe it is why it consistently fails. One of the prevailing comments from bloggers that weren't too upset about the Tricycle/blogosphere fiasco was that they didn't care about Tricycle too much, because it was the same old stale articles recycled issue after issue, especially on their blog.

    I think a change in their mission statement would alleviate both their and your problem. If Tricycle instead went out of their way to select writers from a diverse background, their magazine would be fresh and relevant to a wide audience. As it stands now, it is a mostly Tibetan/Zen focused mag, with occasional spatterings of other schools in there. What they should do is go out of their way to find authors that identify with more varied schools (Pure Land, Nicherin, etc.....), have a more diverse background (3rd gen Buddhist, immigrant Buddhists, etc....) and so on. One of the great things I like about Newsweek is that in any one issue, you can see George Will and Fareed Zakaria contributing to the same magazine.

    In reaching out for a crowd that is diverse in ideas, you will almost certainly end up with a crowd that is also rich in culture, color, national origin, sex. I feel like this is the best approach, and sure as hell beats hiring token minorities to fill your diversity quota.


  5. @Adam: I focus on Tricycle for two reasons. First, they elsewhere state that they are “the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist perspectives.” Inclusive! I didn’t believe it—and the Asian Meter has allowed me to test that solution with respect to Asian authors. Secondly, Tricycle is the worst offender in a largely white American Buddhist publishing cohort. They are the outlier that most glaringly exemplifies a larger problem. Even if they suddenly included fifteen Asian authors in their next issue (which would be awesome), this “problem” wouldn’t be alleviated in any way. I don’t really care why the other bloggers gripe about Tricycle.

    As one last point, I must make clear that I have never asserted hiring token minorities to fill a diversity quota. In the past I’ve even argued against the sort of affirmative action you mention. Programs and policies that promote consideration of a more diverse crowd, similar to the Rooney Rule, are the only solutions I’ve ever proposed.

  6. More amendments! They aren’t really an outlier. Just an extreme.

  7. Sure. I was just suggesting that Tricycle do something about the diversity in print. Maybe then more than just rich white people would want to read it (and then it would be marketed to a more diverse crowd)