Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Zen Center Racism: For My Mother

Tova Green gave a Dharma talk on Sunday that addressed the issues that Sistah Vegan brought up in her blog:

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.”

I sat there in the midst of the usual crowd; predominately white women of middle to upper crust. Tova encouraged us to acknowledge our white privilege and I almost threw up in my mouth. My mother is not white and doesn't identify as white, and when they start making movies about Sicilian people that don't reduce us to My Cousin Vinny or prison gaurds (City Island) or mobsters, maybe we will feel white, not that'd we want to, as we like our sopressato and pickled fish. 

Maybe I'd feel more white if I'd been encouraged to go to college, instead of join the military or learn a trade. Maybe I'd feel more white if people would stop correcting my English, mostly honed in North Eastern Pennsylvania, outside of Scranton, a city of industrial decline. 

And this is why we don't want to look at our white spaces: because our cultural identities are complex, but here are some truths: 

I don't get pulled over no reason, but one of my friends often did. He walked to avoid this, where I didn't have to think twice. 

I could rent an apartment anywhere in New Orleans. 

I didn't grow up in a project (though WIC filled our bottles with formula and cupboard with peanut butter).

So this post is for my mother, who's never gone to college, and has worked hard as a nurse's assistant for 11 dollars an hour, until she was injured on the job, who's been called racial slurs in the same high school I went to, the same place where my sister was called a "Pie Face."  This is for my Great Uncle Tony Provinzano, last man seen with Jimmy Hoffa, who died in prison serving a life sentence. Why did he do it? For greed, sure, but also so some Sicilians could get a job. 

This doesn't make me a person of color, but it might make me a good ally. I recognize that there are Sicilian parts in movies that we pass for dark and mysterious, with no mention of our ethnicity, where that's not as possible for a black or Asian person. 

However, my mother would be more comfortable sitting on our porch back at Mid City Zen in New Orleans, smoking cigarettes and talking with our black neighbors than she would amongst the crowd we draw here at Green Gulch. Why? Because something about Zen Center is gratifying the upper middle white class. 

Speculations are dangerous, I think, as many students who have been discussing the talk are finding. What are the identifiable signs white-ness here at Green Gulch? For one, our leaderships is entirely white. For two, we are not donation based when it comes to many programs and we like expensive to-dos, like the Field to Farm dinner that's selling plates for 150 dollars each. This also makes me want to throw up in my mouth; Neither my mother or father could afford this dinner. This is why John Jevons accuses us of growing Yuppie Chow.

But in the last 7 months residence here, I've seen at least two people of color drop out early from our guest student stay; one was an Army veteran and another a young man. And the guest student stay is affordable, only 20 dollars a night. What I suspect is there is an underlying inherent racism that comes through in a politically correct, but subtly  toxic way on the part of our residents who don't mean  to mis-recognize Nina Simone. 

My wife was on board with this motion to address our institutional racism right away, and I'm still struggling to show up for it. I didn't come here to change things, I love this place, and I'd be very happy to ignore the spinning world in exchange for tea ceremony, dharma study, calligraphy, and organic farming. But, it's from this love that I wish other could experience it freely, and right now, they can't.
I think this inherent racism needs to be addressed culture wide at Zen Center if we hope offer a legitimate path to liberation, for ourselves, as much as others, because this snare is of the greed, hate, and delusion variety. 

* Thanks to Nathan at Dangerous Harvests- I stole your links!


  1. Yuppie chow - yikes! Classism and racism are often intertwined. I resonate with a fair amount of your post, having had "money struggles" most of my life. Having watched my mother work her tail off, while on food stamps because she still couldn't make ends meet. Having lived at the edge of the poverty line, or below it for almost my entire adult life, even with multiple college degrees. Etc.

    Sanghas are like anything else - they change. Sometimes that change is made deliberately and intelligently, and sometimes it's just a reaction to changing conditions. I'm trying to promote the former with our sangha's deliberations on moving, given that reactionary decisions almost always benefit the privileged in the short term, and no one in the long term.

    I didn't come to my Zen center looking to change it either. I was a member a good five years before I joined the board, but once that happened, my entire outlook changed. Because my commitment to the well being of the community became stronger, and I couldn't really turn away, anymore, from the issues needing to be addressed.

    I have witnessed people of color come and go over the years. A few speaking up clearly about some of the same kind of stuff Sistah Vegan wrote about. And there are a handful of other folks of color in our sangha that seem to keep a bit of distance, attending some talks or events, but not really actively engaging regularly. And the teaching staff, as well as the group of students (which I am a part of) considered to be "senior level" are all white, which I know impacts who comes and who sticks around.

    But you know, there are plenty of days when I just want to sit on the cushion and not think about any of this. Just show up and study and practice and forget all the rest.

    But I feel that that's just a laziness calling. And also a belief that "I" can't "handle" it all. And yet, zazen has room for all of it. Studying Buddha's teachings has room for all of it. Chanting has room for all of it. Bowing. You get the idea.

  2. Just wanted to add with to that last paragraph. Our involvement in the sangha changes as well. The call to step forward and speak up sometimes happens. And maybe being an active leader occurs for awhile - years sometimes. But this, ebbs and flows. Our head teacher has been moving more in the background over the past several months, after several years being the main face of the community. Focusing more on deepening her zazen and Zen study. I know a shift will come for me at some point too. So, when I say "laziness" above, it's not about always being active, vocal, and the rest, but responding appropriately to the conditions and calling.

  3. Dear Nathan,

    Sorry it has taken so long- just at a loss for words about this. I'm in pay attention mode. I'm in a growing awareness of my own delusion about whiteness I don't even notice. As you know, that kind of awareness is painful, like removing cataracts with sandpaper.

    Bowing deeply,