“Does anyone else get annoyed when they see white folk sportin’ dreadlocks, tribal tattoos, and stretched out earlobes with plastic circles in them? What the hell is goin’ on? It irks the shit out of me. ”
I am overhearing a conversation as I wait for my order at a café in Oakland, CA. The woman next to me is black and about 55 years old, wearing dreadlocks that are about 2 feet long with a plethora of glass beads flossed through them. She is speaking to her friend, a woman probably in her 50s as well with a shaven head and wearing yoga pants and a blue tank top. She has mocha colored skin tone and seems to be of East Asian descent.
I know what this black woman is referring to: a group of three white 30-something-year-olds sitting at a table about 8 feet away from the two women. Two men and one woman. They all have punk style dread lock hairdos. They have shaven the sides of their heads and there are interesting black tattoos on their scalps. They have piercings through numerous parts of their faces: a bull ring, a nose ring, a stud through the bridge of a nose.
I wanted to say something to the two ladies, but wasn’t sure what to say. After all, it wasn’t my conversation and I guess I had no business saying something … but I wanted to say something to this black woman. I had heard the conversation plenty of times, amongst black people, how it irks the shit out of them that white people try to ‘go tribal’ by locking their hair.
“Drives me nuts too,” I hear her yoga-pant wearing friend say. “It reminds me of all the white people who jumped on the ‘I’m a Buddhist’ wagon in the Bay area, but don’t want to be all deep and reflective about their nauseating white elite privilege.”
Ouch. Did she just say that? And really loudly? Nauseating … ?
Are white people not allowed to practice yoga, Buddhism, get tribal bands, or wear locs since it’s not ‘white culture’ (and what is ‘white cultures’ anyway)? If that is the case, does that mean I’m not allowed to continue with my beginner Zen Buddhism practice? After all, I’m not of East Asian descent; I’m a Black woman. Should my friend Heather, a Chicana yogi who studied in India, stop teaching yoga at a community center in NYC since she is not from India? Or, does our non-white identity make us exempt from “appropriation?”
Shortly after leaving the café, I passed by a Black heterosexual couple on the street, holding hands. The woman was wearing a punkish Mohawk style and ear plugs through her lobes. Was she appropriating by wearing that hairdo?
I had a friend, “Nicole,” who is Filipina and African-American whose take was, “Well, I think what pisses me off about dreadlock-wearing white people is that they can wear our black hairstyles, listen to our black music, and be all hip but still they will always benefit from being white. They can just shave that shit off and that’s the end of the story. Yea, I used to wear dreadlocks, but I shaved it yet I still have to deal with the bullshit of what my brown skin means in a society obsessed with white European phenotypes.”
But, at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I could completely agree with “Nicole.”
When I first met her, she had the biggest afro I had ever seen. Two weeks later, she had it professionally locked and ended up interviewing for jobs in the finance industry and landed a phat gig at Morgan Stanley … but she also seemed to navigate through life rather well with her Dartmouth Tuck School of Business degree making six figures at some investment banking company while wearing her dreadlocks the first five years working there, and then finally cut it all off into a short afro.
… my close from “T” is a white Jewish woman who now practices Zen Buddhism for the past decade. She mentioned to me last year that she’s getting uncomfortable with a lot of what she is doing because she believes it is a form of appropriation for most of her white Buddhist fellowship to wear the robes, use the names, and do the practices of Zen Buddhism. She is deeply questioning if she is appropriating, without being mindful of what it means to be able to do something that is not associated with ‘the white race,’ but not be at a ‘disadvantage’ because of her own white racial privilege trumping the non-white roots of Zen Buddhism … but I wasn’t sure if I agreed either, as her practice of Zen Buddhism over the 5 years I have known her, have made her practice a type of mindfulness towards structural racism and systemic whiteness that may not have been possible, had she not become a Zen lay nun. She seemed to understand that mindfulness should include awareness of race and white privilege. She and I have noticed the overwhelmingly whiteness of Green Gulch Zen Center and the Berkeley Zen Center that we frequent. The other month, I began reading Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Surpremacy and Immigration Adaptation by Joseph Cheah. He quoted from bell hooks’s provocative essay Waking up to Racism, who reflects on how whiteness and racism operate even in Buddhist communities that are largely white:
Often white people share the assumption that simply following a spiritual path means that they [white Buddhists] have let go of racism: coming out of radical movements- civil rights, war resistance- in the sixties and seventies and going on to form Buddhist communities, they often see themselves as liberal and marginalized, proudly identifying with the oprreeseed. They are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism or the ways in which Buddhist communities may reflect racial hierarchies (hooks in Cheah 2011, 4)
According to hooks, many white Buddhists have failed to realize the extent to which African Americans feel marginalized and out of place within their religious communities. For some African Americans, choosing to belong to a Buddhist community “has been synonymous with choosing whiteness, with remaining silent about racism for fear of bringing in issues that are not really important” (Hooks in Cheah 5, 2011). Hooks contends that white supremacy operates as an invisible regime of normatily for white Buddhists of all political orientations. Furthermore, hooks mainstains that the ideology of white supremacy informas the individual interacations that determine the shape and direction of convert Buddhist communities (Cheah 5, 2011).
Leave it to bell to break it down like that … But still, I can’t say I totally agree. Yes, I’ve encountered plenty of annoying white Buddhists who deny that their whiteness means anything and love collecting and wearing anything that looks Zen or Buddhist … but I’ve also met a lot who, like “T,” became Buddhist to become a better human being and make sure they are not being complicit to structural racism.
What is it all about? Are us people of color collectively annoyed when we see white folk doing things that we deem “non-white” because of the reasons that Nicole and hooks mentioned? Or because of what the Asian lady at the café mentioned in terms of certain white Buddhists being clueless about white privilege?
What do you out there think? I mean, I practice so many food, herbal, healing, music, etc stuff that isn’t “black” or “African” … does that drive people who nuts if I’m using their music, foods, etc? Can I use Chinese herbalism or am I offending Chinese people? Or is it okay since my great-great grandmother is actually Chinese? Not that I’m looking for permission …
Cheah, Joseph. Race and Religion in American Buddhism : White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.