The White Guys Were Intolerable
Reflections on “What’s Up with Engaged Buddhism? Who gets to speak?” – a Buddhist Peace Fellowship evening at the Oakland Peace Center with panelists Alka Arora, Katie Loncke, Donald Rothberg, and David Loy, moderated by Jen-Mei Wu and featuring visual artist Kenji Liu, May 20, 2012
[Photo removed by request.]
Right at the get-go, the Baby Boomer generation socially engaged Buddhist expert white guys on the panel were intolerable. All four Buddhist Peace Fellowship event panelists, the two men plus two younger women of color, were seated on chairs on a stage, along with the facilitator, who was a person of color. There were maybe 35 – 40 people in the audience, looking up at the panelists, who had just been given the first question by the facilitator. The white men spoke assertively and with authority, cutting off the women and even interrupting one another. One even noted smugly, when another panelist tried to speak up, that he had the microphone. Since the people on the stage were lined up like ducks in a row, they couldn’t make eye contact with one another. The facilitator was oddly passive and did nothing to intervene.
The title of the event was “Who speaks?” and an acute, prickly discomfort immediately filled the room of the Oakland Peace Center. People shifted uneasily in their chairs, and one person muttered that they couldn’t take it and left. I had completely forgotten that “a secret mission” had been promised in the publicity for this intriguingly titled event, but I didn’t get angry, although I did feel surprised. I’m a Baby Boomer too, and when I was a kid in Ohio a popular TV show was called “Candid Camera,” in which a hidden camera recorded reactions from innocent passersby to people doing bizarre things but pretending they were normal. I knew all of the people on the stage and, unless they had been replaced by lookalike pods from outer space, this was obviously a setup. The tension in the room, nevertheless, escalated rapidly to an unbearable level.
As voices of irritated protest were heard, someone shouted, “Mic check!” and a person in the back of the audience began reciting a speech pointing to the common dynamic in which voices of cisgender, white, heterosexual, owning class, educated men were allowed to silence and dominate the voices of others. The audience, including the panelists, repeated the phrases in call-and-response, in the pattern popularized here by the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland movements. The panelists and facilitators descended from their elevated positions, joined the “audience,” and we broke into small groups to discuss our experience of what had just happened. After this, we arranged all of the chairs in a big circle and the facilitator and panelists started a general discussion of the topic at hand, with everyone else invited to join in.
I appreciated the thoughtfulness that had obviously gone into planning this event. Several of the chairs had statues set on them to represent people who could not be present. A portable air filter was plugged in and turned on for people with asthma and multiple chemical sensitivities, and, at my request, after the first email announcement had gone out without any mention of disability accommodations, a second email announcement had been put out with a request that people not wear scented products to this event, along with a carefully worded paragraph about wheelchair accessibility, since the meeting room in the old church was wheelchair accessible but the bathrooms were located at the top of some stairs. A handheld microphone was passed around during the discussion so that people with hearing issues (and everyone) could better hear everything that was said. And, throughout the evening, people could view and purchase revolutionary spiritual artwork offered by another longtime Buddhist Peace Fellowship activist, Kenji Liu. “Who Speaks for Engaged Buddhism?” was obviously intended to be a breakthrough model for a new, more egalitarian, empowering, and nourishing way of inspiring Dharma for social change, going beyond the “talking heads sitting on a stage” type event.
In the general discussion that followed the small group discussion of the opening experiential skit, I personally thought that two of the most interesting points were made by panelist Alka Arora, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and a first generation Indian-American with spiritual roots in the Yogic philosophy of Hinduism. If I heard her correctly, these were:
- Given that most of us probably agree that we want everyone to feel valued, heard, and seen in the Dhammic society we are trying to create, there still needs to be a place for so-called experts, or people in leadership positions who have demonstrated experience, skills, and commitment in certain areas. “If I’m in a medical crisis, I want a doctor who can save my life,” Alka said (I am paraphrasing). “I don’t want a medical team that is trying to reach consensus on how to treat me.” My takeaway from this is that we do need experts, teachers, mentors, and leaders in any area and in any social change movement. And we do need systems that ensure that the expertise of experts and the strength of leaders doesn’t result in their being accorded a “higher” status, disconnection from those whom they serve, and abuse of their power.
- Alka also said that when we ask ourselves, “Who speaks for engaged Buddhism?” we might look within. For any given speaker, is that person practicing mindfulness, and are they in touch with the part of themselves that is speaking at that moment? How much of what they are saying comes from self-aggrandizing ego, and how much comes from multiculturally sensitive bodhicitta (the selfless motivation of a bodhisattva to liberate all beings, using skillful means)? Is the person speaking aware of power and privilege dynamics in the room, and what is their relationship to how they use their power and privilege – as power over others, or to be an ally to people in groups targeted for oppression?
Traditional Buddhist monastic practices emphasize restraint of the senses and what Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, arguably the originator of socially engaged Buddhism, has called “mindful manners,” or codes of behavioral conduct which establish a respectful, peaceful community environment in which social harmony and spiritual awakening have a greater chance to flourish. Hierarchy has its benefits, as those of us who have attempted to write by committee or choose artwork by committee can probably attest.
And every human gathering has its own logic and intention. I am a mother of a young adult, and I have worked a lot with children and youth, so I know how much social conditioning is required to produce a socialized human being. It’s normal behavior for preschoolers in the U.S. to have occasional meltdowns in which they kick, bite, and try to strangle and spit on each other. By the time we get to kindergarten, we’re expected to be able (sometimes with great effort) to sit in a circle, follow directions from the teacher, not interrupt one another, not exhibit certain body behaviors, not steal things from one another, and not use socially prohibited words. That’s a lot of conditioning and reinforcement on the part of the adults doing the training, and a lot of impulse control on the part of the child. We all need to go through this lifelong training in discipline and discernment and, in some cases, such as training in self-defense, to decondition our politeness.
Thus, as socially engaged Dharma practitioners, how and when is it necessary to stop following directions and stop acting politely if by so doing we’re reinforcing a dominant structure that is stifling, disempowering, and monocultural? And, if we speak up, if we object, are we in touch with how our own anger and aggression may be manifesting in how we speak, and do we have an appropriate alternative to suggest? When is the Zen Buddhist master slapping the student upside the head an act of nondualistic wisdom and compassion which precipitates the student’s insight and gratitude, and when is it best responded to by the student leaving the room, pulling out a cell phone, and calling an attorney, or posting a scathing rating of the teacher on Yelp? As Buddhists observing the First Precept to do no harm, are we automatically committed to embrace a stance of nonviolence in social change, and if so, how do we define nonviolence?
“Who speaks?” is part of an ongoing series the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is promising to deliver, to find out “What’s up with engaged Buddhism?” Their approach is innovative, fresh, radical, and empowering and, in my opinion, it deserves to be supported and grown. So if this report inspires you to pull out your checkbook or open your piggybank, don’t be shy. Call BPF staffpersons Dawn and Katie and offer your help. Show up for BPF events, be present, build the liberation movement. As starship Capt. Jean-Luc Picard says in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation,