Diverse views on “white privilege”

July 29th, 2009

The Buddhist blogosphere (the blogosangha?) has recently seen a spate of posts about ethnic diversity and “white privilege.”  (Seemingly starting with this one, and smartly discussed in this one, and catalogued here) It’s an issue that’s certainly worth exploring–and one that I intend to return to many times in future writings, because I am probably the whitest Buddhist you know.

Sometimes people on all sides and of all backgrounds talk about diversity in terms of problems and solutions, with the idea that we should be approaching a solution to the diversity dispute, sometimes even saying that it’s sad we haven’t settled it now, in 2009.  But I think that goes against the point of “diversity.”  If diversity includes not just a spectrum of skin colors and body shapes but also a spectrum of ideas, values, beliefs and approaches–which it certainly should–then the issue will never be settled.  We’ll always be reconciling diverse perspectives, and dealing with the affirmation of incompatible truths.  That’s what diversity is.

The recent incident involving Henry Louis Gates comes to mind.  If we approach one account of the arrest or another as Truth-with-a-capital-T, then one claim is correct and one claim is mistaken.  But on some level, to realize the predicament we’re in as a diverse world, we come to the incompatible truths: that Gates believed in good faith and reasonably that his view of the situation was correct, and that Officer Crowley also believed in good faith and reasonably that his view was correct.  Neither was acting stupidly, neither believed he was acting without justification, and neither should be considered insane.  The dispute over it is a symptom of something actually very healthy: in 2009 in America, we are free to express views, and we have diverse views, and a situation that another time in history might have ended in a feud or a mob ended with no bloodshed.  It’s the kind of dispute we need to get used to, because it’s going to keep going.

So looking at the account of the multicultural retreat, we see a similar dispute, and there are similar approaches to it.  The Vietnamese family were acting rationally and appropriately to their own understanding.  The white retreaters also believed they were acting rationally and appropriately.

Of course, sometimes we as a society need to set some ground rules for appropriateness.  People in some countries believe it’s correct to drive on the left side of the road, but I don’t endorse their freedom to do that in a country where the standard interpretation is “right side.”  To some extent, we need to agree, or at least settle on a common practice.

The resistance, then, to the idea of “white privilege” comes from a number of sources in white culture.  It sounds like an accusation of racism, and perhaps then we should be clear that being privileged is not the same as hatred or contempt for the unprivileged.  White people’s privileges tend to follow the Categorical Imperative; we take these privileges because we believe the world would be better if everyone had and used these privileges.  That’s not the same thing as prejudice.

Dialogue about white privilege, I feel, takes a difficult turn when people put words into others’ mouths.  The boldfaced statement in Le’s essay is a little harsh: “Service work should be left to people of color.”  I don’t think this is necessarily what the white guests were thinking; I’d speculate that they were thinking, “Someone else will do it.”

But that thought might be even more damning than Le’s statement.  I’m reminded of the line from “Private Dancer”: “You don’t think of them as human.  You don’t think of them at all.”  When you buy a low-priced t-shirt, you probably don’t think about the factory workers who made it.  It’s not that you think factory work should be done by a particular race, just that you like buying it.  If you do think about the ethnicity of the workers, it’s probably not out of malice.  You don’t say, “I want to buy shirts that are made in Nicaragua, because I hate Nicaraguans.”  If you’re acting with this privilege, you probably just trust that someone out there will do it; you don’t think of the humans doing it.  Another song lyric speaks to this, by Joni Mitchell: “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all your slaves are free?”

In white culture, when you go to a party, you might make a token attempt to help clean up, but the host is responsible for arranging the “dirty work.”  Some blog posts about Le’s story supposed that the white couple didn’t help because they felt like guests, which would be consistent with the “script” that white people are used to.  This might also explain why it’s perceived that white members of Buddhist temples are not welcoming; they might feel like guests, visitors to an Asian tradition, and therefore not entitled to make official welcomes.  And that’s the Categorical Imperative at work: if everyone just made themselves at home, no one would need to be made to feel welcome.  You couldn’t force everyone to volunteer, so it’s okay if one person doesn’t.

At heart, a lot of white privilege could be seen as the right to MYOB.  White people didn’t address the noisy Vietnamese family, because of MYOB.  White people made a token attempt to help, but when they weren’t immediately drafted and directed how to help, they decided to MYOB.  (Or MTOB.)

While I recognize that this seems reasonable and polite… I also know that a lot of my Buddhist training taught me the value of actively resisting MYOB.  My second year in seminary, my teacher P’arang saw some of my actions and gave me a new assignment: every day in my diary, I had to note one time that day I said, “How can I help?”  Before then, I’d usually follow the MYOB rule.  I’d be happy to help if someone asked me to, but otherwise, I’d just leave them alone.  Live and let live.  As I made an effort to offer my assistance more often, I found myself opening up to people more.  It was a beautiful spiritual practice.

Perhaps to make the Dharma more accessible to American minority populations other than Asian, white Buddhists can and should take a little more ownership.  There might be resistance to this, but we can’t be permanent guests in this religion.  When I say that this is my home, then I get better at saying “Welcome to my home.”  And I think it actually might make us a little less imperialist–rather than thinking, “I go to a temple of an exotic foreign religion,” we think, “Here’s my temple.”

We’re all living out our scripts, and the differences in those scripts are the reason for our predicament. So here are the contradictory thoughts we can embrace: an ideal of diversity means respecting each person’s script as valid.  The teachings of Dharma tell us that each person’s script is the cause of their suffering, and that we end suffering by releasing ourselves from these scripts.

And that, in the end, is my thought on the Gates case.  Both had a right to follow their own scripts, yet either one could have lessened the stress by relaxing their script a little bit.

2 Responses to “Diverse views on “white privilege””

  1. Jack Daw says:

    Nice post. This has been going around for a while and probably won’t end in the buddhablogosphere anytime soon. But it does seem that the concepts and definitions of white privilege are being understood in a larger context now.

    I had some, largely unflattering, osts about Le’s comment but in retrospect it seems that the concept is valid just maybe its presentation led to some hasty decisions.


  2. abby jean says:

    i really enjoyed the story about the “how can i help” assignment. it seems so unnecessary when we (or at least i) feel like i’d clearly be willing to help if asked, but that extra step can do a lot to open yourself up, as you said. i’m going to try to be more mindful of this.

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