January 7, 2011

I know you are, but what am I?

The question is almost inevitable. In response to the mention of white Buddhists marginalizing Asians, someone will raise their hand and shout, “Well, don’t Asian Buddhists discriminate against white people?”

I’ve received these comments since long before this blog was launched. I typically refuse to engage this type of response, but it so consistently reoccurs that I’m writing this post to dump my thoughts on it. Here are some basic reasons why I refuse to address these remarks.

  • Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. If I’m talking about the marginalization of Asians in widely distributed English language periodicals in Buddhist America, then please show me the marginalization of white people in widely distributed English language periodicals in Buddhist America. Remember: millions of us Asian Americans speak English, even as our mother tongue—English speaking Buddhist America is our community too! Once you start talking about the exclusion of white people from Vietnamese language temple newsletters, the comparison has now shifted to apples and durians. I’d personally love to hear from all those white Vietnamese speakers who feel their voices are being grossly marginalized in the Vietnamese American Buddhist community. There’s little point in even acknowledging a comment when the comparison is so far off.
  • Show me the numbers. Once upon a time, there was a young Asian Buddhist who felt that Asian Americans were being systematically marginalized in The Big Three. But there was no proof. Thus spawned the Asian Meter, crafted through diligent enumeration, documentation and research. As a result, we have charted analyses and budding histories that demonstrate this discrimination outright. Now, you could tell me that you had a bad experience with an Asian American community, but then I all I know is that you had one bad experience with an Asian American community. No more. I don’t want to hear you ventriloquize what you heard so-and-so friend tell you. If you intend to complain to me about white folk being systematically excluded from Asian communities or publications, I honestly have little inclination to listen to unless you do your due diligence and document it. That’s exactly what I did. And don’t forget to compare your apples to apples.
  • Exclusion does not justify exclusion. I know of one local predominantly Asian temple where the congregation leader has a history of being not-so-discreetly hostile to white Buddhists. It’s definitely not cool—but his intolerance does not justify Buddhadharma refusing to consider the voices of Asian Buddhist youth simply because they are Asian. Complain about ethnic divides all you want, but the justification of one group’s exclusion based on the transgressions of the other only serves to perpetuate this division. I don’t see any logic whereby white Buddhists are compelled to marginalize their Asian brothers and sisters simply because some Asian congregation is unwelcoming.

This last point ultimately renders the first two irrelevant. I understand if you have a chip on your shoulder because of this or that experience you’ve had. If you need to vent, go ahead. But don’t expect me to buy into a contorted argument that amounts to little more than, “I know you are, but what am I?” Such comments neither educate me, nor do they weaken the basic dilemma of Western Buddhist communities and publications which ostensibly embrace equality and fairness in one hand, but engage in marginalization and exclusion with the other.

Update: Many thanks to the anonymous friend who alerted me to my misquotation of Pee-wee Herman. I’ve updated the title accordingly.


  1. I empathize with the plight of Asian Buddhists being marginalized. White Privilege is White Privilege.

    However, you guys aren't the only marginalized group. I'm poor. My salary puts me below the poverty line. As a wannabe Zen Practioner this is a BIG problem. The Chinese temple I occasionally attend doesn't ever ask for money. They have donation boxes and a yearly bazaar and that's it. You never have to pay for anything other than lunch and 4 bucks for a plate of vegetarian home-cooked food is a great bargain considering it's always more than I can eat.

    The Zen Center, on the other hand doesn't have 1,000 members who give generously. It does have 25-30 well-heeled long-term students. It's even in a neighborhood that I could never hope to live in. There is a fee for everything. Retreat I could never afford with the total cost for me and my wife topping nearly $1000. Even the classes are usually out of my "extra" money spending budget. The average class costs about $65 and I just can't justify that kind of cost.

    So in a way, I feel like the Asian community, at least here in Houston, TX is in many ways, more welcoming than the upper-crust, all-white Zen Center sangha. The other thing is at the Chinese temple the English group has people of all colors and backgrounds.

    So... Not sure what my point was, but I enjoy your blog and agree with your observations about the Big Three. The Big Three also marginalize Poor, White Buddhists. I can't afford to even read them and when I do (at a friend's or just on-line) it's obvious that the focus of the magazines is well-heeled baby boomers and former hippies with money to burn from their IRAs.

  2. You put words into my mouth.

    I never suggested that exclusion justifies exclusion.

    I am suggesting that instead of focusing strictly on one type of discrimination, which you skilfully document, you acknowledge both sides of the coin.

    BayouCityBuddhist above also notes that discrimination against poor white Buddhists is present in the magazines you cite. This is another point that should be recognized.

    Please don't misrepresent my opinion. I am opposed to all forms of racism and discrimination.

  3. Sweet cheeses! I posted my replies on another post. My thanks to you both for your comments. BayouCityBuddhist, your comments are very heartwarming, and I was so touched as to share them with friends. Jeffrey Kotyk, you could use some work on your comparisons. You are standing on arguments without legs.

  4. Just to make it clean, I’ve copied over the misplaced comments.

    @BayouCityBuddhist: Thank you for your comment. Your words are very moving and much appreciated.

    @Jeffrey Kotyk: Oh! How would I know that you intend to suggest that I don’t cover Asian Buddhists’ marginalization of white Buddhists, when I actually do? Did you think you were trying to educate me? You have come to the unfortunate point where it should be clear your intent was ambiguous. When you fail to make yourself clear, you leave the door open for others to do so for you. It truly pains me to even respond this comment of yours because by all appearances you still fail to acknowledge the inherent inanity of your comparison. (Apples to apples!) I will all too obsequiously post on systematic marginalization of white Buddhists, if you only… show me the numbers! My response here is, again, almost beside the point as you would do well to keep in mind that when white Buddhists feel mistreated by Asians, you don’t actually need me to point it out—the mob will form on its own. Barring any inane comparisons, I will be all to happy to post about it no less.

  5. You asked before, "[T]o what extent are white Chinese-speaking Buddhist voices underrepresented in Chinese-language Buddhist publications?"

    Has it ever occurred to you that Chinese speaking temples may not be so welcoming towards non-Chinese to begin with? Even if you speak Chinese, do you think Chinese temples, made up predominately of individuals born and raised in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, would welcome someone from outside that cultural sphere?

    My experience in one temple was initially not so positive. The nun was amazed that I spoke Mandarin and found it all too amusing. I even asked once if I could attend the Sunday services and one nun said, "Hrm, not really.... no... it might be problematic."

    Now, on the other hand, I was later told by a different nun that I would be more than welcome to attend.

    Basically, the numbers that you desire are not available because there are few means by which a white Buddhist, even though he or she may speak Chinese, could be really welcomed into a Chinese Buddhist community. It happens. I've seen it happen actually. However, it is by no means easy and you are probably going to encounter more resistance from people than words of welcome.

    That's an unfortunate reality I'm afraid. It does however explain why the numbers you request are non-existent. White Buddhists are largely unrepresented in Chinese Buddhist publications because they are not even really welcome to join up to begin with.

  6. @Jeffrey Kotyk: Pobrecito, your logic is still inane. It’s all to easy to shrug off the numbers as “non-existent” when numeracy is not your forté. So let me give you some help. If there are 200 million Chinese speaking Buddhists in the world, of whom just 100,000 are white, then we could say that a good one-twentieth of a percent of Chinese speaking Buddhists are white. In order to run an apples-to-apples comparison with my numbers, all you have to do is flip through a bunch of major Chinese language Buddhist magazines, tally up the authors and count how many are white. If there are fewer than one white author for every 2,000 non-white authors, then the white authors are underrepresented. The numbers exist, you just have to count them yourself. There exist estimates about how many Chinese practice Buddhism, estimates for how many “Westerners” speak Chinese, and so forth. Go do the math! But it seems that all you’re interested in is validating your bitter little personal vignette—to which I can only say: I recognize and accept that you feel snubbed by a Chinese Buddhist community that failed to accept you in the way you wish they did. But that in no way obliges me to buy into your spurious arguments, inane comparisons and circumstantial indictments.