Stereotypology of Asian American Buddhists

Buddhist Asian Americans are often surprised to encounter so many stereotypes about us. For all the claims we mostly keep to ourselves in “ethnic enclaves,” there seems to be a rather thorough set of stereotypes about people whom most white Buddhists claim to barely know. Worse yet is that these stereotypes are routinely cited as solid facts.

The stereotypes are generally about how different we are from “American Buddhists.” These might sound familiar: We Buddhist Asian Americans are basically immigrantsWe cannot speak English and carry a more supernatural bent. We focus our energies into holidays and spiritual beliefsinstead of meditative practices. We really “place little emphasis on meditation.” Some of us are Oriental monks who bring our exotic teachings to the West. The temples we attend aren’t about spreading the Dharma—they’re just ethnic social clubs. I could go on.

These stereotypes fall into two or three categories. You are probably most familiar with the Oriental Monk and the Superstitious Immigrant, but there’s another emerging icon that I’ve seen with increasing frequency: the Banana Buddhist. Call it a typology of Asian American Buddhist stereotypes—or a stereotypology, if you will.

Oriental Monk

He came from Asia, where he became an authority in authentic Buddhism sometime in the distant past. He has no family to hold him down, so he’s come here to be your guru. He’ll sit in the zendo, cross-legged in his Oriental robes, and teach you in his accented English that “authenticity” resides in your heart, not in what you say or do. Sure, there’s a lot about the modern world he isn’t familiar with, but that’s fine because his sole purpose is to pass along the authority and authenticity of his teachings so that you can make Buddhism better, more modern and more relevant in a way that he frankly never could.

Superstitious Immigrant

She came here from some war-torn Asian country and settled down in a nice little ethnic enclave with other people like her. Not only does she believe in gods and spirits, she prays to them daily to ensure that her kids get top-notch test scores. Oh, sure she may “speak” English, but only just barely. You pretty much already know what she thinks and believes about Buddhism—what you don’t know of what she thinks you can look up online or isn’t going to be real Buddhism anyway—so why bother to even ask? Just take some photos of her around the temple with your DSLR. You can sell those photos to Tricycle.

Banana Buddhist

She’s basically a white person who happens to be Asian. She speaks English surprisingly well and barely a word of whatever Asian dialect her parents spoke. She cooks non-ethnic food, uses the dishwasher and crosses her chopsticks. She may have been raised by Superstitious Immigrant, but she’s renounced that backwards and foreign worldview. She probably doesn’t even identify as Asian. You can find her at yoga Thursdays and your zendo’s weekend sits, where she’ll sit quietly in the back and not make much of a fuss. It really doesn’t matter if she doesn’t speak up because whatever she says isn’t going to be any different from what the white Buddhists are saying.

Remember, I’m listing stereotypes, not describing Buddhist Asian Americans. These stereotypes’ salient characteristics are rooted in what has been said and written about us and are often taken as fact by those with limited exposure to the real diversity of Buddhist Asian Americans. After all, most of us are neither Oriental Monk, Superstitious Immigrant or Banana Buddhist—although some of the characteristics may pick at our insecurities. (I use the dishwasher.)

It’s important to be mindful of these stereotypes and how they shape our own perceptions. If you choose to think of us as Superstitious Immigrants, you will never accept us as real Americans. If you choose to think of us as Banana Buddhists, you then trivialize the value of our heritage. The best way to uproot these stereotypes is first to stop perpetuating them, to encourage others to stop perpetuating them, and then to actually start spending some more time getting to know Buddhist Asian Americans for who we really are.

The Economist Staff

The Asian Meter is one of the tools I use to demonstrate the marginalization of Asian Americans in Buddhist publications. You can find similar approaches at the Op Ed Project and now at I just found out about the latter site today—they even have a word cloud!

The site sprang up in response to issues over a particular article on Korean women golfers. I don’t have much to say on that topic, but I certainly can commiserate on the topic of editorial diversity. As I mentioned over two years ago, if you take a look at the staff of the most widely distributed Western Buddhist magazines (Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma), it’s not hard to see the irony that an Asian American’s more likely to show up on the White House Cabinet.

Race and Religion in American Buddhism

For those of you who feel I should write a book, let me say that the job has already been done. Just arrived in the mail is Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Fr. Joseph Cheah. Below is the opening paragraph.

When the first wave of Burmese immigrant Buddhists set foot on American soil in the late 1960s, they came into contact with a variety of forms of Buddhism not found in their native Burma. One of these forms was a white or convert Buddhism, whose legacy includes the specter of an Orientalist and racist past, often hardly acknowledged, yet rarely if ever entirely absent from the discourse within Euro-American Buddhism. The legacy of Orientalism in convert Buddhism can be traced to the works of Western Orientalists in the middle and late Victorian era. Stemming in part from Orientalist racial projects, vestiges of white supremacy ideology can still be detected today in the controversy surrounding who represents “American Buddhism” and the smorgasbord of approaches in Buddhist practices that have been taken for granted in many meditation centers, hospitals, and other institutions. The prevailing ideology of white supremacy operative in these and other contexts influences the ways in which Buddhist practices have been adapted by both convert and ethnic Buddhist communities. Within the scope of Buddhism as both a religion and a practice, focusing primarily on the Theravada tradition, this book examines rearticulations of Asian Buddhist practices through the lens of race and racialization.

I can’t wait to read the whole book!

The White Face of Buddhism Now at Patheos

Danny Fisher just announced that he’ll be maintaining a new Patheos blog, which was mention enough to spark my smoldering curiosity and get me to check out the Patheos Buddhism Portal. So I visited and saw a landing page covered with the work of White people.

I really worked hard to find the Buddhist Asian folk, but Patheos seems to have created an almost perfect showcase for the stereotype online Buddhist: the White Buddhist American man.

Well okay, I managed to sniff out some diversity in that collection of essayson the “Future of Buddhism” in the United States. Among those 22 essays, you can find four written by Asian authors—namely Mushim Ikeda-NashVenerable Sheng YenChade-Meng Tan and George Tanabe. With about 18% of those essays by Asians, this Patheos collection ranks at about the same level of Asianness as the general Western Buddhist publication—perhaps a noteworthy trend?

Yes I know that Justin Whitaker has publicly vowed to make the effort to try to be “more representative of American/Western Buddhism.” He even followed through by posting about an African American Buddhist! I can’t wait till he writes about another Person of Color!

So at least you know that the Patheos Buddhism Portal isn’t the exclusive preserve of White Buddhists. The Portal is not all White—it’s just overwhelmingly dominated by White American Buddhists. And that’s a problem.

Alan Senauke: On Race & Buddhism

This piece, “On Race and Buddhism,” first came to my attention while browsing the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website, but was later taken down when the site underwent a major redesign. In response to an appeal I broadcast, Ven. Kobutsu Malone was generous enough to contact the author, Hozan Alan Senauke, and forward me a copy of this essay. That was about two years ago.

It took me until this year to finally set aside the time to email Alan Senauke and receive his permission to post his essay on this blog. The author should be familiar to anyone long involved in the engaged Buddhist or Western Zen landscape; Senauke is a Zen priest ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, has served as executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and also is the founder of the Clear View Project (which has its own blog).

This essay is also available in his recently published book The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines, which brings a Buddhist perspective to issues as wide ranging as globalization, poverty, militarism, race and privilege. (Full disclosure: I am borrowing heavily from Maia Duerr’s Amazon review here.)

I am delighted to share this essay below.

* * *

Zen Master Dogen wrote “Gourd with its tendrils is entwined with gourd.” This means we are all intimately bound up, wound up with each other. Truly inseparable. At Buddhist Peace Fellowship, San Francisco Zen Center, and at Berkeley Zen Center, we have been talking about the complexities of diversity, race, zen practice, and our communities in the United States. This is not just about “political correctness;” it is about practice and awareness. My own thoughts are not entirely clear. If I sound critical, it includes self-criticism. My own efforts have fallen short and I think we need to work on this together.

After six years of practice, homeless among householders, wayseekers, and mendicant teachers, the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree with the firm intention of awakening. After seven days he perceived the true nature of birth and death, the chain of causation, and awakened to realization with the morning star. At that moment he spoke these words: “Wondrous! I now see that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it.”

Allowing his understanding to ripen, allowing Bodhicitta, the mind of compassion to ripen, he took up the responsibilities of teaching, sharing his experience in a way that unlocked the mystery of our own experience. As the Buddha came to express it, “I simply teach about the nature of suffering and the end of suffering.” This is a radical teaching. It goes to the root. His understanding that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones leaves us today with a great responsibility. As the wheel of Mahayana Dharma turned, our own Zen vehicle, that responsibility was further clarified by the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings.

And yet this vow was there from the beginning. Why else did the Buddha rise from the comfort and joy of enlightenment and freedom to teach? Why else did he offer teachings like the “Metta Sutta,” where he says:

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong, 
in high or middle or low realms of existence, 
small or great, visible or invisible, 
near or far, born or to be born,
let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; 
let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over 
and protects her only child, 
so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, 
suffusing love over the entire world, above, below, 
and all around, without limit; 
so let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

True to that teaching, he offered refuge to everyone he met on the path. Kings and paupers, ascetics and householders, people of all castes, brahmins , outcasts, and criminals. After some strenuous convincing, he even offered refuge to women. That’s a long story in itself, not unrelated to the issue at hand today. The Buddha’s reluctance reminds us that patriarchy has deep roots running through most cultures.

Taking refuge means committing your life to waking up, to taking on the problem of suffering and the ending suffering for all beings and ourselves. This is what zazen is about. Sitting upright in stillness means to see oneself in complete interdependence with all beings, with the rocks and trees and ocean and sky. The emptiness we so often talk about is not some kind of negative space. It is total interdependence. “Gourd with its tendrils entwined with gourd.” True reality is empty of any one thing, empty of self, because all things, all people co-create each other.

Seeing through and beyond dualistic thinking is the direct experience of zazen. I underscore the word ‘experience,’ because, if we are caught by our ideas or an idle wish, we slip back into the tide of duality. All of us have such experiences from moment to moment, time to time. A moment of merging with someone or something we love, a moment of doing something completely, a moment of losing oneself in meditation. At times in zazen we settle fully into the realm of nonduality and recognize that this is our true mind, our true state of being. All the great spiritual traditions express an understanding of this natural way of life.

By habit we see the world dualistically. Driven by doubt and fear, by a lack of trust in our true Mind, we see things as self and objects, as us and them, as other. It seems so hard to recognize the truth that Tibetan Buddhists teach: that every being was at one time my own mother. The root of racism is denial of this truth. It is about seeing people as other in a systemic way. It is such an entrenched habit we are not usually aware of. I would emphasize the word “systemic,” because ideas are like a virus in society. They have a power that goes beyond our individual like and dislike. Racism is a system of domination that is economic and political as well as personal. It runs deep in the oppressor and the oppressed alike, but the damage caused is different.

Even though I have the privilege of a good education, middle class male upbringing, white skin, I find in myself deeply ingrained survival responses as someone born a Jew. Several years ago at a meeting of international Buddhist activists in Thailand I realized that by evening of the first day I had figured out who among the westerners was Jewish. And I realized that all the Jews were doing the same thing and had “signified” to each other. We knew who each other was, and we were more comfortable for it. This, I am sure, is a pattern that goes back through centuries of ghetto life, of being seen as the other by a dominant culture. It’s not a genetic thing. I can still remember sitting in the den at home, my mother telling me how to watch out for myself at school. She explained that some people would exclude and threaten me just for being Jewish. It’s so deep that sometimes I often find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Some of you may find yourself making a similar census. I know that people of color do this.

But let’s remember where our Buddhism came from. Our ancestors come from India, China, and Japan. When I visit Suzuki Roshi’s temple in Japan, Rinso-in, I always walk in the graveyard where the old priests of the temple were buried. How amazing it is for Zen to leap oceans and cultures and be so generously offered to us. We should accept it humbly, recognizing the price of suffering paid to plant the Dharma seed here. We owe it to our teachers and ourselves to share this practice with the same generosity and openmindedness. Keep in mind that most Buddhists even in America don’t look like me. They are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and so on. I come to Buddhism out of suffering. They come to Buddhism by birth.

How does it feel to come to Zen practice as a person of color? And such people will come; they do come. My friend Sala Steinbach, an African-American practitioner at San Francisco Zen Center, says, “If it is about liberation, people of color will be interested.” They are. The Dalai Lama draws stadiums full of people in Mexico. In South America there are Zen and Tibetan teachers with very strong lay sanghas. I ask my Asian, and Latino, and African-American friends about how it feels to come here, to San Francisco Zen Center or Spirit Rock. And I ask myself what feelings come up to see these friends to walk through the doors . Dogen suggests that one take a step back to turn one’s light inward and illuminate oneself. What I see in myself is then reflected back into the world.

The answer to how it feels to anyone largely depends on two further inter-related questions. First, does one feel safe and seen in the community? Are the conditions of one’s life acknowledged, welcomed, explored in the sangha? I suspect the answer is sometimes yes, and too often no. Thoughtless words can turn people from the temple and from the practice. I have seen this happen. An offhand comment is made about how we are all white an middle class here, with people of color and working class friends sitting right there. When we unknowingly see through a lens of class and white supremacy, people are made to feel invisible and uncounted. 

White supremacy is the cornerstone of racism, created out of blindness to one’s (my) own privilege as a white man. It is at once personal and systemic. If one wants to see white supremacy, the practice of turning our light inward needs to be blended with dialogue with friends and sangha members who don’t carry this very particular privilege.

The same kinds of painful things happen if you are homosexual, or if by reason of injury or fact of birth you can’t get up the steps of the temple. These blindnesses hurt and turn people away. That’s what it might feel like from one side. 

On the other side, the Buddha’s understanding is “all beings have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it.” This understanding is so precious that we are obligated to share it. I don’t mean crude proselytizing, but the Buddha himself never stopped preaching Dharma. Now we have centers and institutions for Dharma. To make zazen and Dharma available, we need to tell people they are welcome and invite them to practice with us. We must find ways to open our doors to those who can come to us. Some San Francisco churches have created a kind of covenant of “open congregation.” This means that in their literature and at their services, classes, and events they make it known that they welcome people of color, gays and lesbians, and so on. This is being pro-active rather than passive on questions of diversity and inclusion. 

Already we are taking practice to jails and hospitals, to people who might not be able to come to the meditation hall. We can also take ourselves to mosques, churches, and synagogues, where we can meet with minsters and parishioners. If we make ourselves known there, we will be welcome, and people will appreciate that we have reached across various lines to witness their own practice. 

This is necessary, because in America passivity means white supremacy. It is subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my own mind as a person with so-called privileges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Recently I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. I hope I did a good job talking to them, but it was curious to me that I was the organizers first choice for a Buddhist speaker. The irony is that Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people who look like me, not by the far more numerous Asian and Asian-American practitioners. 

But the wonderful thing about what the Buddha taught, what we can experience in zazen, is that each of us can go beyond duality. It can’t be done just by reason and talk. We have to uncover the reality of the world, which lives deep in our bones and then bring it back out into the world. We must be willing to make a lot of mistakes. Make our mistakes, learn the lessons and go back at it. The African American scholar/practitioner bell hooks writes about this in “Buddhist Women on the Edge”:

“In a culture of domination, preoccupation with victimhood and identity is inevitable. I once believed that progressive people could analyze the dualities and dissolve them through a process of dialectical critical exchange. Yet globally the resurgence of notions of ethnic purity, white supremacy, have led marginalized groups to cling to dualisms as a means of resistance….The willingness to surrender to attachment to duality is present in such thinking. It merely inverts the dualistic thinking that supports and maintains domination. 

“Dualities serve their own interests. What’s alarming to me is to see so many Americans returning to those simplistic choices. People of all persuasions are feeling that if they don’t have dualism, they don’t have anything to hold on to. 

If we are concerned with dissolving these apparent dualities we have to identify anchors to hold on to in the midst of fragmentation, in the midst of a loss of grounding. My anchor is love….”

I like to think that love and compassion are anchors of my practice. But they depend on mindfulness too. Zazen is rooted in mindfulness, breath after breath, thought after thought. This kind of training carries over into life outside the zendo. I try to uncover my own thought patterns. This is sometimes painful and embarrassing, but it is the essence of saving myself and all sentient beings. It is amazing to see the stories one can make up about other people, and how these stories are conditioned by race, or class, or privilege. Check it out for yourself. When you meet someone you consider different from yourself, do you think you know something about them? Do you think you might know the same kinds of things about another white person or someone more like you? This is a mindfulness practice, watching one’s thoughts about race, or any kind of difference. It is for our own sake, and not for the sake of political correctness. This is a very personal practice. 

Then we can go further into our extended communities. Ask your friends of color how they experience the practice and the community. This is entering the realm of not knowing, risky, but completely necessary. In the wider Buddhist community, it might mean making excursions and visits to Asian Buddhist temples. They are friendly places. The same Dharma resides there, though it may take some different forms. We think nothing of going to restaurants featuring Asian cuisine. 

When we have closely examined ourselves, and begun to look around and share our thoughts with others, then we have started to create the conditions for change. If our whole society could take such steps, it would be the start of a wonderful, hopeful era. Could there be racial peace for the first time in history? This is no pipe dream. It is the Bodhisattva Vow, the working of our Way Seeking Mind. 

If each of us and the sanghas we cherish could nurture this process of mindfulness, the change could come much quicker. Compassion and peace could blossom in very surprising ways. And our life of zazen would be a golden wind blowing across a meadow of wildflowers. 

* * *

Again, I am deeply grateful to Alan Senauke and Kobutsu Malone both for their correspondence over the years and for their contributions to ensure that this essay be shared. You can purchase a copy of Alan Senauke’s book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace, which contains this essay, either here or here.

It’s Not About Richard Gere

A recent post by Tassja at Womanist Musings stirred up some controversy in the Buddhist blogosphere around the themes of culture, race, privilege, and appropriation. More importantly, this maelstrom pulled in the voice of a frequent commenter with whom I coauthored a letter to Buddhadharma, inspiring her to write in solidarity with Tassja. She frequently comments as Liriel.

My name is Wisdom. Specifically, Prajña. As in Prajñaparamita. My legal name. I never changed it. It is the name my parents gave me at birth, encompassing all their hopes for how I would deal with the myriad array of choices in my future.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is written on our bodies.

Chinese school at the Chan temple is where I learned to dance from the first Chinese Disneyland music box ballerina, fold origami cranes—the last one I folded is now part of an art installation for the victims of the Japan quake—and chant sutras before lunchtime. I still never waste a single grain of rice. The temple library is where my mother would go to borrow cartoons starring the 15th century Zen monk Ikkyu for me to watch. We have a youth orchestra and our own version of the boy scouts that marches under the Buddhist flag. Fifteen years after I was a student there, I attended the funeral of my favorite teacher.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is moulded on our skin.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’BrienKyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

Or perhaps what I say will not matter in the least. You could disregard everything I say in favor of ad feminam attacks about my being an angry person of color with a chipped shoulder. Or about my being young, in my early twenties, and thus uninformed. Or about my being an illogical woman, a “silly cow.”

All these barbs will likely be pointed at me as they are being used against Tassja, and I am afraid. But I am still here, still non-white, still young, still female, still Buddhist, still speaking out in order to tell you that this fear you strike in my heart that makes my fingers numb as I type is the issue. Not Richard Gere. Every time I want to express my differing perspective, I’m silenced by the shitstorm I know is waiting to demean my person and mock my loved ones, rather than engage with the logic of my thesis.

And so I take refuge in the non-white, non-English-speaking, immigrant sanghas I was raised in. And thus our bodies and our voices are absent from your conferences and self-congratulatory blogs. And consequently there are few to challenge your cocksure assertions of your own diversity and inclusiveness even as I stand here feeling alienated.

I retire to await your abuse with one last thought, the one that constantly plagues my mind as I read your vitriolic reactions to Tassja and Arun: there is always so much talk of detachment and transience and samsara in your cavalier dismissal of these writers, but where is your consideration for the other great pillar of Buddhism? Compassion. Where is your loving-kindness and empathy for your fellow sentient beings who suffer? Beings whose suffering is as real as yours? Beings whose suffering you should feel as you own rather than mocking as ridiculous or dismissing as inconsequential?

Na Mo Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa.

Urban Refuge

I’ve blogged about Urban Refuge before, but it’s definitely worth a repost a year later. Here’s Urban Refuge’s self-description:

A virtual sangha for Buddhist practitioners of color, allies and all others interested in promoting racial and cultural diversity in Western Buddhism.

On this site, you can find a community blog page, upcoming events, a listing of People of Color meditation groups and more. This site’s strength, however, is only as strong as the community that supports it. If you believe in diversity and racial equality in Western Buddhism, I encourage you to show your support by joining this site and contributing.

You might be asking yourself now, “What could I possibly contribute?” Well, here are three ways you could:

  • Do you know of diversity programs that your community offers that don’t appear on the site? If you do, you have something to give that isn’t already there!
  • Do you know of books, articles or other resources of benefit to the community? These are resources that you can share!
  • Do you know of great teachers, leaders or artists of color in the Buddhist community, who aren’t well known? Here’s a great opportunity to join and get the word out to the greater Buddhist community about these individuals!

These are just three examples. Even if you don’t have ideas off the top of your head, you could easily snoop around on Google and fill in the gaps that we’ve certainly overlooked. In fact, that’s exactly how many of us got in touch with other Buddhists of Color to begin with. I imagine there must be more People of Color meditation groups than are currently posted on the site!

(Hey, non-Americans, your communities are totally underrepresented here—I’m sure you all have much to share!)

Or then there’s the other question, “Does this site really make a difference?” Well, I can’t say for sure—I just know how it’s impacted me. In my case, Urban Refuge is the site that ultimately brought me to a People of Color group—a place where one fellow practitioner simply reached out to me and showed me to a group that has deepened my connection to my local Buddhist community. I imagine that there are other Buddhists of color out there, who—as I was—are within arm’s reach of a more supportive community, but don’t even know it.

So why not check out Urban Refuge and lend a hand to furthering racial and cultural diversity in our community?

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.

Stereotypically Wrong

OkTrends, the blog and data crunching arm of the dating site OkCupid, came out with a hot post on race and stereotypes. Working with the self-defined race and profiles of 526,000 users, the analyst(s) parsed text, crunched the numbers and identified the most distinguishing features of each racial group. 

Using this kind of analysis, we were able find the interests, hobbies, tastes, and self-descriptions that are specially important to each racial group, as determined by the words of the group itself. The information in this article is not our opinion. It’s data, aggregated from the essays of half a million real people.

OkTrends’ yardstick of “statistical distinction” is relative frequency—how much more a term or phrase is used by one group over others.* As they explain, “[f]or example, it turns out that all kinds of people list sushi as one of their favorite foods. But Asians are the only group who also list sashimi; it’s a racial outlier.” OkTrends then goes on to make a number of Racial Stereotypes, such as the following:

White women show off their eyes (mascara is #5 on their list).
Black women show off their lips (lip gloss, #7).
Latinas show off both (mascara, #18 / lip gloss, #22).
Asian women, however, show off their practicality (lip balm, #48).

And thus we could also conclude that Asians like sashimi, right?


Although the numbers are in their own way intriguing, the final writeup suffers from the unfortunate analytical scourge that the economist Bill Easterly refers to as Reversing Conditional Probability (see here and heretoo). That is, the writers took one conditional probability—“If [your profile says] you like sashimi, then you are Asian”—and flipped it around—“if you are Asian, then you like sashimi.”

This logical fallacy is worth explaining with an extended analogy in another domain. Consider the following relative frequency:

Vietnamese are two to three times more likely than white Americans to be of the type B blood group.**

In other words, if you collected blood samples from equal numbers of Vietnamese and white Americans, then you’d end up with two to three times as many samples of type B blood from Vietnamese as from the white folk. Assuming a 3:1 ratio, that probability looks like this:

We can take this example one step further. Suppose you pick up a random type B sample. Given what we know about the equal sample populations in our hypothetical example and the proportion of type B blood in Vietnamese versus white Americans, we can then make a reasonable guess that this anonymous type B blood sample most likely came from a Vietnamese donor.

So if someone is Vietnamese, then they likely have type B blood, right?


This question makes the mistake of reversing the conditional probability. I took a simple relative frequency—the type B rate for Vietnamese is much higher than for white Americans—and inferred another probability—a random type B sample is likely from a Vietnamese donor—which itself depends on certain conditions, namely that the sample populations are equal. But this conditional probability can’t be logically reversed. The percentage of Vietnamese with type B blood could be anything from 90% to 3% of the whole Vietnamese population—all we know is that they’re more likely to be so than white Americans.

When we look at the overall blood group percentages by ethnic group, it turns out that for both Vietnamese and white American populations, any given individual is most likely to have type O blood. Only about 20%–30% of Vietnamese are of type B. If you happen to meet a Vietnamese person, they probably have type O blood, even while they are up to three times more likely than white Americans to have type B blood.


Reversing conditional probabilities is the nuts-and-bolts of “data-driven” stereotyping. It’s where we jump from “Vietnamese are more likely than white Americans to have type B blood” (fact) to “Vietnamese have type B blood” (fiction). Or from “terrorists in the news are more likely to be Muslim” to “Muslims are terrorists.”

What makes OkTrends’ post so potentially damaging is that they hold up their findings as empirically based reflections of the world as it is. Yes, their findings are both data-driven and not entirely useless, but their faulty conclusions-rolled-up-as-stereotypes have no logical basis. Their data simply don’t allow a logical progression from “the term lip balm occurs most frequently on profiles of Asian women” to “Asian women show off their practicality.”

Where this issue applies to this blog in particular, and to the Western Buddhist community more generally, is when we run across stereotypes rooted in the very same mistake of reversing conditional probabilities. Elsewhere in this blog and on Dharma Folk, one commenter happened to make this kind of claim. Not only did his comment imply that certain individual Vietnamese practice a superstitious Buddhism (stereotype), he also attempted to justify his statement with relative frequencies based on anecdotal observations accumulated through the substantial period of his life spent in Asia (reversing conditional probabilities). This stereotype further becomes racist when one’s supporting evidence/anecdata has no relation to Vietnamese Buddhists other than the tacit assumption that they must be like all the other Asians one has met. You just don’t know enough to assume that any given Asian Buddhist practices superstitious Buddhism.

That’s not to say that this particular commenter is either racist or irrational. Very smart people can make logical mistakes, and well-meaning individuals often say things that come out completely wrong. I get the sense that we base our understanding of the world on relative frequencies, and often operate with the mistaken base assumption that our experiences are reflective of the wider world. We all have at one time or another probably fallen prey to the seemingly innocent mistake of reversing conditional probabilities. But it’s still wrong.

And I will be all too happy to call it out when I see it.

* I’m actually not sure if OkTrends’ stats measure relative to the overall average frequency or to the frequency of all other groups.

** Blood types for white Americans can be viewed via the American Red Cross. Blood types for Vietnamese are estimated from an old Japanese study and