The skin-deep divide

brownbodywhitesangha

Illustration by Loveis Wise

I read an article in Tricycle, titled ‘Brown Body, White Sangha’ by Atia Sattar, a woman of color who found it difficult to be part of an otherwise all white sangha. This was not because people were unfriendly, but because it didn’t address her deepest concerns.

She gave the example of being led through the first aspect of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness where the instruction is to look at 32 body parts and recognize that they are basically nothing special. She had no problem with that. But when it came to skin, she discovered all sorts of negative emotions arising around the color of her skin, compounded by memories of experiences with white people who reacted to her skin color in one way or another. When the teacher had the students move along to the next body part, she found herself unable to do so. Something had opened in her that needed more exploration.

Often in our inner explorations we discover things that call for a deeper look, beyond what the teacher is offering. The teacher has given a spark that can quicken into individual discoveries of great value. But sometimes in that exploration we feel the need of a community of people who have experienced what we are going through to help us. In her case, she felt quite alone among the other students for whom skin was ‘just skin’.

Or not. For me skin was never just skin because it’s an organ that for the first few decades of my life was in a state of torment. At one point, I was almost hospitalized because my skin was an open wound from head to toe. The other kids would say ‘Ew, that’s disgusting’. I never wore sandals, and wore knuckle-length sleeves and gloves whenever possible. In adulthood the skin calmed down, and through meditative practice, I found ways to befriend even the body parts that most bothered me. We all have them, and mostly we suffer alone. Even our closest friends might not be aware of the shame we feel around some body part. I remember a friend confessing the embarrassment she felt because of her sweaty palms, and how she dreaded having to shake hands with anyone. I had no idea. It expanded my compassion not just for her, but for all of us who live with such a sense of isolation in our shame.

Buddhist teachings do give us a way to come into skillful relationship with what we are feeling. Sending lovingkindness, for example, is very skillful. I remember one time I did a gratitude mandala for my feet, which I had always hated. It freed me from a great burden. The meditative practice of thanking body parts for all that they do for us is very helpful.

But feeling ashamed of a body part, and feeling isolated because of it, is not the same as feeling institutionally and socially excluded, called out or even threatened because of an aspect of our physical appearance. It’s not the same as having dreams limited by the fear-based prejudices of those who hold the keys to education, employment and housing opportunities. As a world community of human beings, we need to recognize prejudice in ourselves and our cultures, and work to assure that there is equal access regardless of pigmentation or any other factor.

Another challenge for the article’s author is that some people in the sangha welcomed her, not just as a person, but as a representative of her ‘race’. I have noticed the eagerness with which the predominantly white community of practitioners in the Western Buddhist community greets people of color. In fact, when I first started attending a regular weekly class at Spirit Rock in the early 1990’s, at one point the teacher asked to talk to me after class. My thoughts became a jumble of questions. Was there some offense I had committed for which she would scold me? Or some positive thing I had done for which she would praise me? But none of those thoughts prepared me for the actual conversation: She said she heard I was married to a black man and asked if there any way I could get him to attend class? So her interest in me wasn’t even about me at all. I was just a means to expand the ethnic makeup of her class and Spirit Rock.

More recently I have noticed that in the weekly women’s group I teach, when much younger women attend, members of the group may excitedly treat them not just as fellow humans but as representatives of their age group. This can be very off-putting and make the person feel they don’t belong there, even when they are greeted with such warmth. I have gently brought this to their attention and they recognized right away the truth of it. 

Does this ring any bells for you? Have you approached a person of a different age or ethnicity as if they were an ambassador from another world rather than as a complex person you might like to get to know just for themselves? Do you expect a person of a different gender or sexual orientation to speak for a larger group? It’s interesting to notice our assumptions, and instead of beating ourselves up, to set the intention to be more aware in the future of that pattern.

Even as the author is discomforted by being singled out for her skin color, she also complains of white people being ‘color blind’. Now that might be confusing. But the core of it is the request for all of who we are to be included and seen. Can we welcome all of a person without either denying or singling out any aspect? Can we notice our own filters and assumptions? This is an interesting area to explore.

I have on many occasions been the only Euro-American person at large African-American family gatherings. Those that know me, know my place in the family, love me as me, and have never once made reference to my pale complexion. (If they make comments about my body, it usually has to do with whether I’ve lost or gained weight! Ugh!)

At the occasional larger gathering like a funeral or a milestone birthday celebration, I have felt guests beyond the family looking askance at me, as if I am some unnatural intruder on the sanctity of their communal experience. If I had been a coworker attending an occasion as just part of the crowd, I might be ignored but not given the once-over. But because I seemed to be an intrinsic part of the family clearly made some people uncomfortable. ‘What’s that white woman doing sitting up in the front row by the casket?’

While I have certainly never been called out or threatened, I have felt at least initial discomfort. Over the years, in younger generations, the family has incorporated a few other pale spouses. I have met them but confess I haven’t gotten to know them. Time is so short at these events and I value catching up with the family members I’ve known and loved for the past fifty years, and the children who’ve grown up with me as their auntie. I feel quite blessed.

So when the author writes of white people being ‘color blind’ naturally I have to think a little deeper, because I appreciate it when my family doesn’t make a point of noticing my pale skin. But there’s more to the color-blindness she’s talking about. Perhaps the color-blindness is not trusted as true. People of color do not want to be seen as white! As if that’s a big gift of acceptance rather than an erasure of a valued ethnic heritage and inherent beauty. But none of us wants one aspect of ourselves to be the only thing people see, the thing they react to, rather than embracing the wholeness of who we are.

The author brings up how, in explorations of racism in Buddhist classes she has attended, it was taught as if all attending students were white. All the information was about developing awareness of white privilege. While this is important learning for many, it wasn’t what she needed. She needed help dealing with all the inner torment of her accumulated experiences and tangled patterns of thought and emotion. So she found a sangha where the people looked more like her, and where the teachers of color actively dealt with the kinds of challenges she was facing.

This is the kind of self-segregation that happens in the American Buddhist community because we are dealing with such deep discoveries within ourselves, and we need guidance that recognizes it.

I teach a women’s group. When I guest teach in mixed-gender groups, I am always asked by male students why I don’t accept men in the group. ‘That’s sexist’, they say. I explain that when the group started out it was open to all, but only women showed up, and the women kept asking me to make it ‘women-only’. After a few years, I finally began to see the value of taking the Buddha’s teachings and directing them to the specific challenges we as women face. I also noticed that women among men feel less free to share their deepest concerns, and at times defer to men who may dominate the group.

When I first started attending retreats, I could only bring myself to attend ones for women only. But eventually I was able to attend mixed retreats without problem, and in fact came to appreciate having males present at their deepest and most vulnerable.

Retreats designed for self-defining groups of people are a way to address the specific challenges that come with a particular identity. But I hope that all who attend and who develop a regular and ongoing practice of meditation, will eventually feel safe, heard and a part of the larger sangha of all practitioners, both on retreats and in classes. If not, I fear for all of our futures, divided and subdivided to a point of total separation — in our sanghas and in the world.

From a scientific and Buddhist perspective all these differences are minimal in the grand scheme of things. All life is an ever arising and falling away of patterns of being in a glorious array of amalgamations of wondrous nature. Can we celebrate the beauty of all life instead of entangling ourselves in the miasma of misery our fears stir up, churned by powers that want to divide and conquer? Let’s try!

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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