Thursday, March 25, 2010

Storytelling and Silences

Last year, a visiting teacher was leading a workshop at our zen center. The teacher was a white woman, and the participants were almost all white, middle class folks. During a break towards the end of the second day of the workshop, several of us sat around a table, drinking tea and listening to the visiting teacher tell stories. She dominated over most everything that weekend, very set about how things should go, in what steps, and in almost exactly what way. I was impressed with how prepared she was in leading the studies we were doing, but also surprised at how rigid and almost flat emotionally she sometimes came off during the workshop.

Like the rest of the weekend, she was clearly at the center of the break period, telling long-winded stories about travels, and cultural events, and lord knows what else. I faded in and out during the entire break, exhausted from the previous session's material and exercises, which had brought up some "shit" for me, for lack of more precise term. At some point, the visiting teacher started in about something about "poor black kids" in Oakland, and how there were so many screwing their lives up in gangs, drugs, and whatnot. I was sort of half listening, kind of irritated by this time by what I perceived to be an unconscious elitism running throughout her weekend narratives. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, other than a few too many references to classical music, opera, "educated people," and travel exploits tossed about way casually.

Drifting back out, I suddenly was jolted by a loud sound of frustration, followed by the words: "We have many good stories too! Why do I always have to listen to this shit from white people!" This from a normally very kind and generous-spirited African-American member of our sangha, who sat across from me, now visibly upset. Stunned, confused and drowsy, I quickly noticed the silence. A few jaws dropped open. A head or two turned away. This went on for several seconds, before the visiting teacher tried to steer the conversation to African-American musicians, a terribly embarrassing attempt to appear conscious about race. For a few minutes, she went on about Ray Charles and perhaps John Coltrane (I can't recall), and then turned to our sangha member and said, "Is that good?"

I felt my stomach turn, and wanted out, instantly out of there. I also wanted to say something, anything to support our sangha member, who was clearly experiencing yet another place where she had to deal with unconsciousness about racial narratives. However, I just sat there. As did everyone else, while her and the visiting teacher volleyed back and forth for a minute or so. By this time, the visiting teacher was visibly embarrassed, but also able to quickly return to her role of conversation domination.

I got up and walked over to get some tea, and some air - thoroughly convinced that if someone like me, who had spent over a decade studying race and racism, supporting POC groups, fighting bad legislation, speaking out in workplaces as well as in groups of friends and family - if someone like me couldn't find a way to comment about what had just happened in my dharma center, then we were in trouble, grave trouble as a spiritual community. Even though I had been reading about racial dynamics in American Buddhist centers for several years, and said a few things about race, racism, and social justice in dharma classes and after talks, this incident made it profoundly clear that being serious about Buddhism in 21st century America has to go hand in hand with a deep, broad, and continuous examination of race and racism.


  1. How upsetting and how commonplace all at the same time. I still have a few questions about your story. Did you, personally, ever find a way to process this incident? Did it ever come up again in your sangha? Did anyone say or do anything to demonstrate solidarity with your African American member? Is he/she still a part of your sangha? Did anyone discuss this incident with the upset sangha member later? And, if so, what was the tone? Was it constructive, or just more noise? What is your sangha's relationship with the visiting teacher, today? Has she ever been back? Did anyone provide her with constructive feedback about her investment in markers of race and class privilege?

    I don't really expect answers to all of those questions. I'm really just curious about whether your sangha was able to take this uncomfortable situation and grow from it, or whether it's remained unexamined. I'm wondering whether your African American member continues to feel discounted or segregated from your practice community. Obviously you can't really answer that for this person, but perhaps you have some idea ...

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  3. Thanks. I think none of these issues are ever really resolved for good, and I'm glad to hear your sangha is at least engaged in working with diversity issues, to some degree. The fact that people of color are willing to step, perhaps, outside of their comfort zones to be a part of your practice community, and that they stay around, speaks volumes, I think.

  4. Wow, I could feel my whole body tensing up as I read this. What a thorny, difficult situation.

    I'm thinking of times when I've also been disturbed by the privileged perspective dominating a teaching space, and for me I think that the element of pace plays an interesting role. When someone, or a few people, keep the attention focused on themselves, I find it's hard to even get a word in edgewise, and so my disagreement builds to frustration, and then maybe to an outburst like the one at this workshop. Conversely, then, the act of slowing down conversation (even the pedagogical kind) and listening, allowing space for other people's input, seems like an important mechanism for keeping speech healthy and well-ventilated. Certainly not sufficient in and of itself, but vital nonetheless.

    Thank you for sharing your story -- it really resonates with an experience I had just this week, though not in a sangha context. Helps put words to the knowledge.