Sanctuary

A meander.

Lately I’ve been reflecting again on the sanctuary of some spaces.  Sanctuary is, or should be, a place of refuge.  However, sometimes it’s not.

I always feel conflicted about “others” (and by this I generally mean white people) in spaces that were historically sanctuary.  On one hand, I do often feel that I should be welcoming to newcomers.  I know very well what it is like to be in a space where everybody is not like me.  Welcome to a large part of my life.  On the other hand, sometimes people just make it so darn hard.

It’s especially difficult if you belong to a religious community that others have exoticized.  There’s a certain amount of feeling like you’re in a fishbowl when all you want to be doing is living your life.  I remember what it was like to be taken to a Catholic church as a young scout.  Everything seemed so foreign and peculiar to me.  The holy water.  The kneeling and the crossing.  The latin.

But I see my eight-year-old gaping self in the faces of grown adults.  Worse yet, they want to take pictures.  Here are some natives in their ritual ceremonies!

The majority of visitors we receive are either black or white.  My experience has been that African Americans are typically respectful.  They often sit quietly in the back (which causes me some feeling of unease).  And quite often they are much more nicely dressed than our casual, although somewhat conservative, congregation.  Women often wear skirts.  Children are dressed neatly.  Men wear collared shirts and sometimes ties.

By contrast, we get a lot of white visitors who look like religion tourists.  Men and women dressed sloppily or overly casually.  Women wearing tops that barely cover their nipples.  Short shorts.  Kids wearing dirty playclothes.

They don’t sit quietly in the back.  They don’t shush their children.

I believe that a huge part of privilege is always assuming that you are welcome everywhere.

I believe that the behavior of most African American visitors reflects the fact that they do not automatically assume they are welcome.

I know that every organization develops its own culture, so it is very easy to make missteps when you are in an environment not familiar to you.  But here is where privilege comes into play. It is the assumption that the way you do something is just fine and dandy.  In fact, that’s how everybody ought to do it.

So within my conservative culture, when I see you wearing short-shorts and dirty tank tops, I tend to think of you as disrespectful.  You may just have not thought about anything at all.  You may see your children talking throughout as your encouragement for them to express themselves.  I may see it as disruptive.

And I may see the way that you choose to participate to be unthinking as well.

We often have celebratory lunches or snacks after meetings.  And this is where I often see the displays of privilege.  I have greeted black visitors and asked them to stay.  They often demur politely.  On the other hand, white visitors rarely need to be asked.

I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that I notice it is typically white people who fail to clean up after themselves.  It is typically white people who load up their plates with food without regard to the other people.  It is typically white people who leave large portions of food uneaten.  It is typically the brown people who are cleaning, mopping, picking up dirty dishes and doing the kitchen detail.

On one particularly annoying day, a white woman asked me to get her a beverage.  A white man with a piled-high plate dropped a large glob of food on the floor and simply stepped over it and kept going to his seat.  I’ll note that there was no way the guy who dropped the food could have not noticed, especially since I looked at it, looked at him and said something.

I picked up cups and discarded plates and things off the floor.  And I thought about privilege.

It’s difficult to talk about race and racism and privilege, especially in religious communities.  Because often you’re accused of causing a rift.  You’re not showing enough compassion.  You’re the one who is causing the problem.

I’ve heard this time and time again from people of color in mixed race religious groups.  Doesn’t matter if they’re Catholics or Jewish or Buddhist.  There is additionally the assertion that as good [religious group inserted here] people, we can’t be racist.

But historical legacies cannot be ignored.  And present-day institutionalized and internalized racism cannot be ignored.  And the exotification factor of the white majority with regard to Asian communities cannot be ignored.

I think about compassion sometimes from my own perspective.

Because of circumstance, I have been thrust into communities to which I have no birthright or real claim.  For the most part, I would say that I have been welcomed.  Although I did not expect to be.  And as I interact within these communities, I realize that my role can only be one of service.

It is possible I may never be completely “accepted.”  It took me a while to come to terms with this.  Part of the difficulty is in expecting other people of color to see me as one of them.  Part of the difficulty is seeing myself as an “enlightened” person who doesn’t need to do any more “enlightening.”  Part of it is recognizing that I don’t know the culture and I don’t know the usual way of doing things.

Awareness of privilege is stepping back and taking a look first.

My advantage is that I know that I don’t know.

During the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, I was really struck by the line of questioning.  It centered around that whole “wise Latina” comment.  What was really clear to me was that the white men questioning Sotomayor really had no conception of their whiteness.  Whereas Sotomayor clearly knew that they did not see her position.  They had not previously even considered that it might exist.

If we are going to address privilege in our communities, it will need willingness on the part of the privileged parties.

When I talk to other people within the community, I tend to find that racism and privilege is a huge problem.  Recently I read Dr. C.N. Le’s account of his experience at a retreat. Dr. Le wrote “Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat” about the ways white privilege seemed to be  enacted in the Buddhist community. His experience mirrored what I have experienced on a regular basis.

And then a few other blogs, including one called “Progressive Buddhism,” responded.

I knew the PB response wasn’t going to be good when the first image I saw was of a Klan cross-burning.  When “progressive” white people invoke the KKK, they typically do so in one of two ways.  Either the KKK symbolizes the only type of hate that still exists (as racism is conceived of as “mean actions and bad thoughts,” extremist groups or individual actions) or people of color are accused of being a Klan of their own.  Because we all hate whitey, yanno.

The blogger starts out all Serious ‘Anti-Racist’:

I know this is a very unpopular topic, one that a lot of people wish not to confront, but nonetheless, one that I think it is worthy of serious discussion, concerning race and racism particularly in the Buddhist communities here in the West.

This was an immediate red flag for me. Because often when white people want to have “serious discussion” about racism, they want to have it on their terms. They want to define it, they want to deny it, and they want to throw off their own racism by blaming others. We’ve heard it before, but I’m sure we’re going to hear it again.

What Dr. Le noticed was something I’ve noticed time and time again:

I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.

The blogger also invokes the ad hominem:

Seeing how you claim to have a PhD in Sociology, I think you should know better.

Not even “Seeing as how you have a PhD in sociology,” but rather “seeing how you claim to have a PhD in sociology.” And don’t even get me started on the “I think you should know better.”

Clearly, he doesn’t understand the concept of white privilege. The Angry Asian Buddhist tried to explain:

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.

But the white blogger makes the hyperlink for the Angry Asian Buddhist to be stophate.org. Ha ha ha! A laugh riot! Now you know for sure where the KKK reference is going!

I have seen this phrase a lot, “privileged white people”, and I can tell you it is no less offensive than the words “privileged Asian people” when describing an entire race of people. I know my life is not the ‘privileged rich white liberal intellectual’ that I have seen so many people peg white Buddhists as being; my life is far from fucking privileged. I’d bet dollars to donuts a good majority of the white people that read this and many other blogs have struggled, had very difficult hardships and suffer just as much as many Asians or blacks or Hispanics that live in the West, or around the world today. Does that mean that there aren’t white racist Buddhists? Of course not, there are. Does this mean we should brand an entire race of people, based solely on the color of there skin into a narrow minded generalization? Hell no. If I was half white and half Asian, does that mean I am only half privileged and half lazy?

This is all sad, very very sad. Perhaps one day, just maybe, we will all mate enough with each other, until we can all look the same color. Then perhaps, to quote the great Martin Luther King, people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I would like to hear everyone’s opinion on this.

Okay, we’ve got the fallacious flip. Check! We’ve got the ‘I’m not privileged!’ Check! We’ve got the ‘Everybody has struggled!’ Check! We’ve got the faulty belief that fucking until we’re all a uniform shade of brown will make racism go away. Check! We’ve got the gratuitous, misinterpreted MLK quote. Check!

And down there in the comments we’ve got more. We’ve got the ‘we’re all just one race, the human race!’ Check! We’ve got the ‘some of my best friends are Asian!’ Check!

And finally, at the end:

I really do hope you find some peace soon.

Because you’re so angry, yanno.  Check!

I don’t know what this all means.  But I do know that when white people dominate and control the discussions of race, racism and privilege, we aren’t going to get very far.  I don’t know what this means for my own compassion, either.  I remember how difficult some situations were for me.  But I think I was hugely advantaged by being used to being in situations where I was made uncomfortable.  I am less likely to tolerate white people’s inability to feel discomfort when they are the cause.

Update: The post apparently has been yanked.


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12 thoughts on “Sanctuary

  1. I believe that a huge part of privilege is always assuming that you are welcome everywhere.

    So, so true. Thank you for encapsulating that so well. I used to “travel” to other countries, but I stopped when I realized I need better reasons for doing so. I thought I was a traveler instead of a “tourist,” and I suppose my dollars helped some people. But now I think that my off-the-beaten-path journeys, for which I patted myself on the back, were mostly just intrusive and self-serving.

    I think the philosopher Shannon Sullivan calls this common white presumption (or “habit”) “ontological expansiveness.” The world is our oyster, we seem to think, and who would ever be less than entirely welcoming to our friendly, smiling selves?

    Your post reminds me of other common white ways embedded within myself that I want to be more alert to, so thank you for those also.

  2. I believe that a huge part of privilege is always assuming that you are welcome everywhere.

    I believe that the behavior of most African American visitors reflects the fact that they do not automatically assume they are welcome.

    Awareness of privilege is stepping back and taking a look first.

    My advantage is that I know that I don’t know.

    You’re so right … it’s that whole not knowing what you don’t know that trips most of us up. As you said, it was so evident with the Sotomayor mess. White = neutral/norm, everything else is “a perspective”.

  3. This is a phenomenal post. I looked under your Racism 101 post and I was hoping you could clarify something.

    “The anti-racist focus should be on effect rather than intention.” – This question may come off as insinceret, but I’m honestly curious. Do you believe that ideological analyses of power in relation to race are unhelpful or are you suggesting that the effect of racism should always be made explicit in such cases?

    Also, would you be able to make a bibliography for recommended reading sometime? I ask because I’m starting doctoral work in a religious field, but would like to get some solid theoretical foundations for exploring race-related issues. At the moment, I feel like I’m relying on folk and pop philosophy, which can only be so effective.

    Thanks for regularly posting in such a great blog.

  4. Extremely thought provoking.

    Why are white people so resistant to the concept of privilege? I mean, isn’t white privilege OBVIOUS? How can you deny it?

    The behavior mentioned by the folks at your fellowship time was disgusting, embarrassing, and makes me hate being white.

  5. I work at being an ally. (I’m a straight white male).

    I’ve had more than a few friends (of color, women, or in some way not fitting the heteronormative stereotype) tell me that they don’t want to speak up or speak out, usually followed by the sentence “I just want to live my life.”

    I’ve also noticed – and had this confirmed by others – that I get listened to more by folks in power when talking about racism, sexism, or heterosexism than a representative from those groups.

    So in situations where someone is being marginalized (even though I’m saying the same thing), or where they do not want to speak out, how can I best be an ally without dominating the situation? Any ideas?

  6. Steven, one book that I found helpful (intended for pastors and church laity, though the message was essentially a secular one) was “The Wolf Shall Dwell With the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community” by Eric H. F. Law. A few techniques for leadership situations seem to be particularly useful in it.

  7. gee i never heard of reverse privilege, lol.

    i really don’t know why white people can’t accept privilege or feel that they must refute evidence in every conversation, or how when discussing privilege automatically go on the defensive and bring up racism. that distinction in the article was excellent. and yes, i agree, white people demand to have discussions on their terms, where everything is pleasing and delightful, no self-examination.

    thanks for this.

  8. Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful reflection. As someone who has, regrettably, engaged the “progressive” buddhist elsewhere on the Interwebs, I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in my assessment of him and that his post has been yanked.

  9. @ Chris – LOL. “What a great post. I’m going to ask you to do my homework for me, now – please create me a bibliography!”

    Dear lord.

  10. Yeah… that did make me sound really lazy; which could be read really unflatteringly against the post’s main point.

    I was mostly just wondering if there were any major works that would be worth the time of someone in a completely different field of study.

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