Nina Simone, SF Zen Center, and how all black people still look alike


Yesterday was a big day for the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), in San Francisco California. It was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the center. To celebrate, SFZC invited co-founder Richard Baker to give the morning talk. Later that evening, Greens restaurant hosted the party and food event. It was completely sold out. I’d say about 150-200 people were there. 3 black people were there, including myself. It was overall white bodied event. No surprise there, I’m used to it.

But I did think the most awkward/funniest things that happened yesterday afternoon and last night were the plethora of questions and comments I got about my earrings. If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that these are the earrings that I was wearing last night. I wear them all the time. And there is an interesting narrative that goes along with these earrings.

Since purchasing these a year or so ago, I have gotten about 50 people asking me, “Hey, is that Angela Davis?” or “Cool, Angela Davis earrings!”  I am not exaggerating that EVERY single person who has said one of these two lines to me is white. Last night, 8 different white people at the party celebration added to the same narrative by asking the very same question.

Okay, I’m not angry, not surprised, but a little disappointed that one cannot tell the difference between Angela Davis and Nina Simone. These women do not look a like AT ALL. And never have I had any brown or black person mistaken Nina Simon for Angela Davis.

And by the way, I also own a pair of Pam Grier earrings. When I wear those, she is also mistaken for Angela Davis.

Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does  racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

In addition to the Davis/Simone mix-up, there seemed to be a fixation on my hair. I struggled to accept the 11 observations I received from the people participating in the celebration of the event. Earlier that morning, when I had attended the Richard Baker talk at the SFZC. I had entered a packed room, searching for my friend who had reserved a zafu seat for me. I was wearing my black pants and coral colored shirt. I had my hair in the usual natural afro style (but wearing white earrings, not Simone). I found my way into the room as the event was being videoed and live-streamed into the cafeteria next door and worldwide.

After the talk, I was approach by 5 different people telling me I really ‘stood’ out when I entered the room and that my hair was really ‘cool’ (Got 6 more of these comments later that night). Okay, don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love my huge afro and enjoy wearing it with pride. But I started feeling uncomfortable about it and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was I being paranoid or was there something truly deeply wrong with the constant ‘comments’ directed towards my obvious ‘blackness’? Perhaps it was their way to make me feel comfortable as a ‘black’ person there, so they automatically pointed out the one thing that really makes me stand out as ‘black’ (my afro) to let me know that it’s in fact ‘cool’ and ‘okay’ that I and my ‘big’ afro hair are there (?) Okay, I get the effort to be hospitable, and perhaps many of these folk are aware of the ‘lack of diversity’ issue at SFZC, so that is why they have gone out of their way to let me know that my ‘blackness’ is welcomed(?)  I’m not dismissing them or angry about it, but I am admitting that it did make me feel quite uncomfortable…and the observations about my hair continued, 5 hours later, at the party celebration at Greens restaurant that evening.

And though I won’t mention his name, a prominent Zen Buddhist figure in the community was talking to my male friend briefly, telling him several times, “Wow, did you see that attractive black woman? Who is she?” and mentioning my cool afro.( And this prominent figure is married, mind you). Once my friend told me about the conversation, and coupled with the other comments about my hair that day and evening… I felt “exotified.”   Maybe it would have been a different feeling if it weren’t such a white event, but I felt incredibly uncomfortable and throughout the entire evening, kept on thinking, “If mindfulness is a tenet of our Buddhist practice, why isn’t their a more collective mindfulness around the issues of how whiteness affect even Zen Buddhist fellowship?”

And lastly, to end the night, two women performed an “Asian” dance. They were dressed in all white: stellito shoes, leggings, corset, white wigs, and their eyes were done-up in make-up to ‘mimic ‘Japanese eyes’ (or perhaped more ‘Asianized eyes’ in the way that they may have thought that Japanese eyes are ‘supposed’ to look (?) ). They were twirling around parisols with Japanese art on them for a good 25 minutes while the rest of the crowd danced in fromt of them, clapping  away enthusiastically. …Um, another uncomfortable moment for me, at least, because these women were white and I didn’t understand what or how this had anything to do with the tradition of Zen Buddhism and the celebration of SFZC. They were dancing to 90s music in a stereotypical ‘Asian submissive sensuous’ style. I was wondering how this was ‘okay’, and if I was the only one thinking that this was a form of Japanse minstrelsy. I guess you had to be there to know what I was talking about, but it just didn’t feel ‘right’. We’re in San Francisco, so was it not possible to instead ask Japanese Zen Buddhist people who also dance traditional styles, to do a performance instead of using make-up on white women to make their eyes look ‘Asian’, and then have them dress up in that manner?  Maybe there should be more awareness around issues of Orientalism that Edward Said brilliantly wrote about?

I am not dismissing or knocking the dancing talent of these two women, but rather focusing on the context of the situation in which they are dancing in/for.

I don’t expect you  readers to agree with all that I say, but these are my observations and what I personally felt. It doesn’t make it fact, but I always feel like I need to be honest and direct about how I am feeling.  I am hoping that I can approach the SFZC rather soon about my observations and hope that they consider what my feelings may mean. I just have to figure out how to present it in the whole ‘”I’m not an angry overly sensitive black woman trying to guilt white people” way.

Though I did feel uncomfortable at times, I did enjoy the overall day and evening, the food, connecting with people, and dancing. I appreciated the time and effort that it took to put the event together, and was excited to come and see Richard Baker talk (especially since he apparently left the center on ‘bad terms’, a long time ago) to see if he could reflect on the ‘drama’ that happened so long ago. Dinner was awesome, and even though there were no vegan desserts available at this vegetarian restaurant, one of the waiters said she was vegan. She understood my sadness about not being able to eat dessert, went back into the kitchen and then came back with blackberry sorbet and vegan shortbread cookies for me. Yum!

Oh well, off to other things….

73 thoughts on “Nina Simone, SF Zen Center, and how all black people still look alike

  1. It’s a bit sad that they didn’t recognize the differences between Angela and Nina. Sadly, It’s not surprising. When I was in high school, my teachers would get me mixed up with another black girl that was a few grades older than me. We looked nothing alike. She was very tall and I was 5’3″ at the time. She had very short hair (pixie hair cut ) and I had shoulder length hair. She was thin and lean and I was “chunky” back in those days, etc. Till this day I have no clue why they think we looked the same. Then again we were the ony two black girls in school, but you would think that they would know who is who.

    1. How petty and judgemental, you all seem more semetic than black. Whining about the perception of others or lack thereof. Dragging the Zen Center into your worthless blog shows your total lack of understanding of what your venue really is.

      I bet most of you cant tell the difference between Stephen, Damien, Ziggy and Bob

      1. welcome to “post-racial” america, friends…you didn’t really think this conversation could escape the notice of the racists haters, did you? i am telling you, NOTHING is more important to most white americans than thinking of themselves as good people and therefore of anyone who questions that goodness as lesser human beings (if they even grant you human status at all)

  2. I get the whole issue about white people thinking that all black people look the same. I really do.

    That said, I teach and it takes me a couple of times to match and get the names straight (and be careful not to confuse the names out loud) when it happens that I have a series of white female students or white male students; it’s happened also with Latino students as well.

    I know what it is to be “exotified” by white people but I am also “read” in all kinds of equally arrogant presumptive ways by “people of color.” I am read as”Latino” by latinos, sometimes mixed/black by african americans, “bralizan” (ie. latin-black) by others. I’m none of the above and it’s amazing when I hear both white and people of color blast the actual ethnicity I belong to–but they don’t know I am a part of until I say so. “Oh, but you’re different….” Yeah, I’ll bet that’s it.

    I also feel like you knew what kind of ambiance you were stepping into and am wondering why you are so suprised to have white folks exotify you if you wear a big afro and big earrings (which to white folks, esp. an older generation, it means “political, Angela Davis.”). The writing was on the wall.

    Yet, I also don’t think the average person “knows” what Angela Davis and Nina Simone look like. Period. What happened, I think , is that in the absence of that information, yes, again, white folks read “black afro” on a vintage print earring as “Angela Davis.” I don’t think it’s a case of ‘not telling black people apart.”

    1. GD,

      Yea, I guess it is true that not everyone knows what Angela Davis looks like, and I guess I assume that the people who saw my earrings have seen pictures of her….so I guesa they are associating the ‘big’ afro with something they heard about Angela Davis?

      I actually didn’t expect so many comments because I wear my natural and earrings like this nearly every day of my life. In addition, I have never had anyone say anything like this to me when I regularly attended my Berkeley Zen Center fellowship (which is about 95% white). I think I shouldn’t have to wear my hair in a more ‘subdued’ way if I want to avoid these ‘comments’, but that is just me. I know I am probably seen as ‘oversensitive’ about everything, but to give you context, it’s just really really really emotionally exhausting to have to deal with these things all the time, throughout my life, since I can remember. At the same time, I don’t want to limit myself from going to certain places and participating, even if it may mean that I’m the only black person there. I guess I am simply trying to balance everything.
      Thanks for reading and responding 🙂

      1. Hey Breeze,

        Thanks for responding. OF COURSE I did not imply that you should accomodate your hair to please white people. Good lord, I’m sorry if you thought that was what I meant. What I did mean is that, unfortunately, in this white aesthetic dominated setting, I assume I will get certain looks and comments and I simply decide if I have the patience to deal with them or not. Which is, of course, the whole point of your entry in the sense that it is a white aesthetic world that an Other has to accommodate to or deal with the consequences. I was simply struck by your level of surprise at the comments you got as in “really, were you expecting otherwise? Afro and big earrings=white people comments”

        Anyhow, I guess it says a lot about how different the Berkeley crowd is from that of SF.

        I did find the dancer bit profoundly troubling . That was very loaded. It does sound like a bad mix of “blackface” and female sexual “orientalism”.Don’t want to go into too much details here, but I come from a dance-heavy cultural background and I DON’T like dancing in front of white people in particular, but I also will extend that statement to include people in this country of all backgrounds. It’s denigrating, I’m being judged in all forms (oh, big brown woman w/the moves-hmmm…I know I’m getting the “oh, neat, the exotic native” and “she must be lose and “sexually exuberant” thoughts and assumptions-I’ve received such comments in attenuated, but clear, ways.

        As for how to bring this stuff up w/the center…well, maybe have one or two more sensitive “higher ups” take a look at your blog and your writing. An entry point if you will.

      1. AMEN! it’s not like we white people have had a dearth of educational opportunities about race, so expecting or even desiring that education from whatever (few?) people of color we allow into our lives only shows a lazy self-indulgence that need not be responded to.

  3. Most images on clothing tend to be of an iconic nature.

    Nina Simone and Angela Davis look nothing alike. I would guess it’s the afro that puts it over the top for many people. Nina Simone wore her hair as shown on your earrings, but also in MANY other ways as well. I just don’t think the first thing that most people picture in their minds when thinking of Nina Simone is her with an afro. Angela Davis, however, wore her hair in just such a manner as on your earrings so much, it really has become iconic. I can’t actually picture her in any other way…even today when her hair isn’t picked out as full as it always seemed to be in the past, it’s still pretty full.

    I think if you look at it like that, then take into account the lack of detail the Black & White hand drawn-type image your ear rings sport, then I can easily see why people make a snap judgement toward Davis. Not that she actually looks like Davis.

    Oh, and all black people don’t look alike.

    Now the white “Asian” dancers….not too sure what to make of that.

    1. Zack,

      I know not all black people look a like 😉 but was just referring to the stereotype that a lot of white folk think we all look a like 🙂 It reminded me of how my professor at Dartmouth kept on thinking I was Kimberly (the other black girl out of an all white class), despite me having an afro, being a good 8 inches taller than Kimberly, and Kimberly having long braid extensions and darker complexion and much thinner than me.

      And I have to admit that (and you can tell from all my posts focused on critical race analysis) that these ‘small’ events are triggering for many other things. I start thinking about what it could/does mean when white folk may think that all black people look a like… and then, many times, a black man is ‘mistaken’ for some ‘other’ black person who has committed a crime and is shot… not ‘paranoid’ to have this mindset, as I have to constantly worry about 1 of the most important men in my life and what it means that he could be ‘mistaken’ as a ‘criminal’ and then shot to death while walking around in his home of Philly. I’m talking about my twin brother. So, when these things happen, it’s not like I’m just focused on a ‘single’ event, but rather the implications of it all and how it’s connected to larger patterns that I see, but continue to be unrecognized or ‘silenced’ by the mainstream media.

      Thanks for reading though. I appreciate it as always and always feel like my friends NEED to know what goes on in my mind. I try to be transparent about how racial formation, racialization, racism, whiteness have affected me and my family.

  4. FWIW anecdotally (rather than a counter-example to your experience) – I am white and happen to own a Nina Simone t-shirt. Because her music. The image on the t-shirt is stylized, in that someone took a photograph and altered it to look more like poster art. But in my mind, there’s no confusing her. She’s enough of a cultural icon, even cross-generationally, to be recognized. When I’ve been out in public, so far, only two groupings of people have felt compelled to strike up a conversation based on the shirt: younger white men (20s-30s) who all accurately recognize her and older black women (40s-50s) who remark on liking the shirt but don’t recognize her. I’ve resisted interpreting this, because I don’t feel it a statistically significant sample to read into. Mostly it falls into a bucket in the back of my head of “stray observations that nothing will ever come of.”

  5. Dear Breeze,

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve read of how it was for you on Saturday at
    SFZC and then later at the SFZC event at Greens. Painful as it is to read, I’m guessing that it’s much more painful to be treated in the ways you describe. I fully embrace your question, ““If mindfulness is a tenet of our Buddhist practice, why isn’t there a more collective mindfulness around the issues of how whiteness affect even Zen Buddhist fellowship?”

    Firstly, I wish to express that it’s very regretful and I am disturbed that you had those experiences at SFZC. As a woman who identifies as white, who practices as best I can “mindful whiteness,” I appreciate your opening up a conversation about the complex intertwining territory of oppression, unexamined white privilege and unconscious racism.

    I join with your and SFZC’s community intention to practice bringing consciousness to what is unconscious. As difficult as I find these complex conversations, I prefer to have them rather than acting as if what you wrote about didn’t and doesn’t actually happen at SFZC as well as beyond SFZC’s gates.
    As I wrote earlier, I am disturbed about the experience you had at SFZC and I’m glad to be disturbed. What your experience uncovers, is in my opinion, what we need to work with in SFZC’s community.

    I’ll just lay some of my thoughts out there as you have:
    In regards to Angela Davis and Nina Simone: I can only imagine how difficult it is to realize, probably again and again, how uneducated many white people are about people who have held and still hold important roles in American life, and all over the globe, who are not white. And I also am wondering if you are commenting on the subtleties of conditioned habit patterns, formations, that arise oftentimes out of unexamined perceptions. In my own experience I can see that these patterns can glob together so quickly that the ability to differentiate doesn’t allow for specificity to be seen; a shortcut occurs, i.e. everything that has wheels is a car. From my POV, zazen, meditation, offers us a way to observe how this happens. With concentrated interest and sincere effort to recognize globbing as it’s happening, we can become more awake and aware. I have an idea that with the continuing help and support of SFZC’s leadership “white mindfulness” can help us untangle our shortcuts. Is this part of what you’re pointing to?

    I hope to understand what you mean about this: Comments on the natural hair of an African American woman when made by an African American male who says how cool your Afro is, may have the impact of bringing pleasure when perceived as a compliment. When the same comment is made by a non-African American male, the impact of the comment may bring hurt at being perceived as attractive because the non-African American male sees the natural hair of an African American woman as exotic. When white people are practicing “mindful whiteness” this could become more readily apparent. I too get caught in the conditioning of whiteness and I’m doing my best to untangle this.

    As a SFZC practitioner, I’m very grateful for the candor and authenticity expressed in your writing of what happened at these SFZC events. And I appreciate the loving kindness in your expression.

    You wrote:
    “I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

    I feel encouraged that SFZC’s Abbots and administrative staff are speaking to each other about some of the same concerns you express. I hold an opinion (and there are many who hold this opinion at SFZC) that everyone would benefit from continuing on the path of moving towards unraveling our conditioning on issues of diversity, race, and oppression as essential to the practice of Zen. How else can we all heal the suffering that arises from the illusion of separation?

    I feel encouraged that you wrote of your experience- didn’t just let what happened simmer inside, sometimes the sky appears to open with a flash of lightening at just the right time – what appeared to be hidden is exposed for us all to see.

    With much gratitude, Lee Lipp

    1. Dear Lee,

      Thank you for reading this with such mindfulness and compassion. About the hair reference, yes, that is what I am talking about exactly. I do not spend much time at SFZC. Maybe I have gone there 4 times since moving to the Bay area in 2007. Berkeley Zen Center is where I go, and perhaps Green Gulch 10 times a year. I was thinking of donating the book Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigration Adaptation by Dr. Joseph Cheah, who did his grad work in the Bay area. I thought this book could be useful because it really explains how white racial formation, the Western history of Orientalism/Exotification of Buddhism, and systemic white supremacy DO significantly affect contemporary practices of Buddhism, by ‘white Western collective’ in the USA.


  6. Is it okay if I share this with someone I know at the Berkeley Zen Center? Your post really resonated with me.

  7. Funny – I happened to be wandering through Fort Mason on the evening of the celebration at Greens and took a few moments to stop by and watch the SFZC folk stroll in. I noticed the general whiteness, but besides that, all the people looked the same. There was a stylistic/aesthetic uniformity that was striking.

  8. On a side note, a receive a lot of personal emails, comments, etc., about why the hell do I stay in this : that is, staying in the practice of teaching about how whiteness operates to white folk. I have been told that it would seem that it’s just a constant never-ending process of being frustrated and emotionally depressed by dealing with what seems to never be changing ‘for the better’, no matter how many anti-racist books, scholars, activists, etc., show evidence that these issues of invisible whiteness (and of course it’s invisible to white collectivity, not everyone else) are REAL and have deeply negative dysconscious and somatic effects on the white collectivity of people in the USA. Well, to answer that ….

    I know I’m not ‘perfect’ at it and will never be, and sometimes I do get ‘sick’ from it, but…

    I feel that me personally dealing with the suffering, ignorance, and dysconscious racism that neoliberal whiteness produces is my Zen practice. Not sure if that makes sense, but not becoming too ‘angry’, too ‘reactive’ and learning to ‘let go’… but open to transformation, compassionate understanding, and interconnectedness to it all (teaching white racial subjects about this stuff) IS my Zen practice.

    1. As someone who can be reactive to neoliberal whiteness due to the pain that it triggers and who grapples with this reactivity and its role/impact in my life, body, and on the impact of racial justice work, I appreciate you sharing about your Zen practice as it relates to neoliberal whiteness. As I grapple with these issues, reading your comment above, resonated with me and expanded the permission I allow myself to explore other possibilities in how I can respond to neoliberal whiteness. This is a big topic and I don’t want to derail the conversation, but just wanted to share my appreciation and gratitude.

    1. Am wondering if you have the experience of white folk making that mistake too, or if it’s just all diverse types of people.

      and to bug me last night, my Pam Grier earrings were on the bed and my husband (who read this blog already) asking, “Is that Angela Davis. Come on, they look exactly alike! “

  9. After the talk, I was approach by 5 different people telling me I really ‘stood’ out when I entered the room and that my hair was really ‘cool’ (Got 6 more of these comments later that night). Okay, don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love my huge afro and enjoy wearing it with pride. But I started feeling uncomfortable about it and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was I being paranoid or was there something truly deeply wrong with the constant ‘comments’ directed towards my obvious ‘blackness’? Perhaps it was their way to make me feel comfortable as a ‘black’ person there, so they automatically pointed out the one thing that really makes me stand out as ‘black’ <—–Yeah, the same thing happens to me with my locs. They ask me if it's hard to do. They ask me if it's hard (if it feels hard). They ask if they can touch it. They ask how I take it out. They tell me it looks very "difficult". Then they tell me it's cool and they wish they could do their hair like mine.

    1. I think an appropriate and critical thinking comment to make when I get similar “I wish I had hair like that” would be, “Well, you do know that would probably mean you’d lose your possessive investment in whiteness because brown and black skin tone would come with that ‘cool hair’ you want…. and then you’d be subjected to black racialization process in a country (USA) that has determined that the collectivity of black and brown folk in the USA are inferior.”

      Hey, I’m just saying. Not trying to be ‘mean’…. 🙂

      1. Wow, are you not keeping the racism alive? It seems like you were “offended” by other people, who were probably just trying to make conversation with someone that caught their eye. Is that so wrong? No one else is in control of how you react to someone or something. Who cares if they can’t tell the difference between two people, what’s it really matter? Does it really effect your life? If you just compartmentalize everyone and stick black people in their black box, white people in their white box and asian people in their asian box.. is that not just keeping the racism alive? It seems to me that a lot of black people get offended very easily and are sometimes even more racist than anyone else. At the end of the day, you’re not “black”, you’re a spiritual being who has lived many lives as many different “races”. It just doesn’t matter. If you love yourself then what’s it matter what other people say to you. And it’s not like they said anything really bad to begin with. Making assumptions about what people really mean when they say something to you is a good way to completely miss the boat.

      2. Had to reply to this.

        As a white dude, I was shocked when I read a few well-written pieces on the effort black women put in making their hair “more white”, as in straight. That a large part of this is due to social pressure and employability, just appalled me. I have long hair and I know that had counted against me in some job interviews, but to imagine it was tied to my very biology is something else. The next day I looked around the office and most (probably 90%) of the black women had straight hair – and I work in a large office building with a lot of people. Around town the figure is not much different.

        That said, if I say “I wish I had hair like that” (I haven’t, because it sounds stupid) I mean “it looks good” as well as “thank you for not bowing down to social pressure; keep doing what you’re doing!”

        While I agree with your critical thinking comment, I don’t think it is a good comeback for what might just be a sincere compliment. You might say it might show a bit of your own racialization process – an aspect of all of us that we need to be self-aware. On the other hand, the people who I know that would deserve such a comment wouldn’t get it.

  10. I think you make a strategic mistake when you say you need to frame your reflections to the Zen Center in a way that does not sound like you are an angry Black person guilt-tripping whites. The guilt white liberals feel–or, more accurately, refuse to feel and live in denial about–has NOTHING to do with what Black people say or do, or how you say or do it. Pandering to the delicate sensibilities of white liberals only reinforces the notion that their tender feelings are more important than oppression or justice.

    1. Dear Susan,

      I hear what you are saying, but I have been dealing with the consequences of being straight forward much of my life when it comes to talking to systemic whiteness with the collectivity of white racialized subjects in the USA. Just look at hamikellster’s response to me above. I bring these topics up and immediately, I am “keeping racism alive”.

      So, yea, I know I’m not ‘supposed’ to pander to the emotional needs of post-racial whites, but I also realize that being honest and straight forwards has not always worked; I have literally been punished for it much throughout my life (mostly in terms of grades by teachers K-12 ). So, I’m dealing with the confusion of how I am ‘supposed’ to be honest (as a practitioner of Zen Buddhism) but also compassionate, but at the same time, not risk my own emotional health because particular post-racial defensive whites expect me to become an emotional martyr.

      I thought that perhaps nearly finishing a doctoral program and getting my PhD (crossing my finger to file and graduate this fall) in critical studies of race and whiteness (focusing on food and identity ) would make it easier, but it has not. Despite the hundreds of articles and books I have read that comprise the canon of critical race and whiteness and black feminis studies; despite the topics I have raised in this article being supported through qualitative and quantitative research about how race and whiteness operate as ‘systems’ , institutions and structures, I am reduced to “an oversensitive black person” and then the focus is shifted BACK to how I am supposedly attacking ‘individual white people’.

      (Head spinning in confusion)

      1. Breeze, thank you so much for your reply. Part of white privilege is the ability to forget how downright dangerous speaking the truth plainly can be and often is for Black people in the USA. There are consequences I can afford to be unaware of, and I am sorry you needed to point that out to me. As a white person who has been struggling in the field of racial justice for more than 40 years (which I say not so you will think I am cool, but so you will know I speak from experience), I can assure you that there is nothing the majority of white people in the USA will not do to protect their self-image. So, while it is up to you to decide what works best for your purposes, I just didn’t want to imagine you heading for further heartache by thinking you could find the magic words that would enable the folks at the Zen Center to HEAR you. They will pretend it is information they lack and education they need, just as they have been doing for decades, when the reality is nothing is broken for them, so they have no need to fix anything.

  11. I heard about this post on Wednesday – the same day I was heading to SFZC for my first time to hear Mushim Ikeda talk about the power of storytelling as a way to bridge the differences between how we experience the world.

    I think a lot about how mostly white organizations respond (sometimes horrifically, sometimes okay) when examples of racism are pointed out. As Susan Starr says in the comment above, there are no magic words that can cut through defensiveness! It’s really up to the people in the organization to find a way to hear your thoughts with openness and generosity. I posted some of my initial reflections on your post, Mushim’s talk, and my own experiences over at Turning Wheel:

    I’m still reflecting on your proposal of “mindfulness whiteness” sesshins. I ask myself: What might this look like for us white folks to practice with each other? Can we make up some koan-like questions that help us reflect on whiteness? Do we come out of silence and engage in more reading and discussion about the historical formation of whiteness and the institutionalized privileges that are afforded white folks? Do we tell each other our stories about how white racial formation contributes to our sense of isolation, a scarcity mindset, and our ways of dividing the world into “us vs. them”? What else could/should be included?

  12. I wanted to leave another comment for you, but don’t really know where to put it. I hope it’s not inappropriate to discuss it here.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on the “mainstream” white westernized, upper/middle class, able-bodied feminist movement? I have my problems with some of the agendas they have and the lack of acknowledgement given toward non white women, disabled, and non western women. It would be nice to read a blog post from you about this topic, if you don’t mind, of course?

    1. Sarah, feminism is such a broad topic, but I can answer you quickly that I don’t find the mainstream help for my own personal work or embodied experience. So, for years I have been engaging in black feminisms, decolonial feminisms, and ecofeminisms.

      Maybe in the near future I can blog more about it.

  13. I can’t really add anything substantial to the conversation. But I can understand how weird it is when inappropriate albeit probably well-meant comments are made (with the exception of the creepy, married Zen fella…that was just rude) concerning race. There is a level of discomfort that arises and many people handle it different. I tend to simple err on the side of caution and say nothing.

    Either way, the idea of whiteness mindfulness would be an interesting one. Although I doubt many centers would go with it. When you get past the gloss of many zen centers you will notice that they tend to filter out much of the diversity while maintaining a certain status quo concerning the normalcy of whiteness (individuals with disabilities, mental illness, people in recovery, people of color, etc.).

    I thought a decent step is to reading “Making the Invisible Visible—Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities” and actively discuss the recommendations made to actually increase inclusiveness.,_3_ed.pdf

    Onward to institutionalized racism. I have been privy to some organizations that tend to parade their diversity around. They make a point of saying “Oh, this is Henry. You will notice he is black.” Once even mentioning to a person of color “Wow, he must have thought we were quite progressive when he saw you here!” The visitor was also a person of color. The speaker wasn’t being malicious but honestly thought that this was an appropriate statement to make. It made all of us uncomfortable. It was simply a weird thing to say. The lady mentioned that she felt as if she was on display solely on the nature of the color of her skin. When it was brought up to the speaker, she took offense at being so “misconstrued” by us.

    Onto the earrings. I may simply be lost on any pop culture or musical references but I only passingly know who Nina Simone, Pam Grier, or Angela Davis are. As such, refer back to the beginning of my comment of me simply saying nothing outside of “nice earrings!”

    Thanks for the reflections on the night.


    1. A class series joining Buddhist-based meditation with work on white privilege, for white folks, has been offered for a number of years at East Bay Meditation Center ( in downtown Oakland, California. I believe it’s titled something like “Interconnected: Mindful and White in a Multicultural World.” The lead teacher is Kitsy Schoen, who is fantastic, and she has been assisted by Christopher Bowers and by Marcus Liefert. (You can see brief bios and links to anti-racism work for all three of these dynamic teachers in the “About Us / Teachers and Leaders” section of the East Bay Meditation Center’s Website.) As a person of color, I look to Kitsy, Christopher, Marcus, and other white allies to join with people of color and multiracial folks to continue to shine the light of compassionate awareness and the commitment to social justice on institutionalized white privilege in the U.S.

    2. I am deeply appreciative of this blog post and I can speak from my own observations that it has caused quite a stir in the SFZC community (yay!). I just wanted to reply to the above poster in regards to his comment “the idea of whiteness mindfulness would be an interesting one. Although I doubt many centers would go with it.” In an age when capitalist corporations and organizations (which can even include SFZC) are becoming synonymous with nameless and faceless identities I want to remember that institutions are made up of people. An institution does not have to make a formal statement about being “with” something or not if its members do something about it. I live at Green Gulch and am one of many individuals who want to engage in the exploration of white privilege and institutional racism and what it means for our practice and making Buddhist practices truly available to anyone who is searching for their authentic self and a deep sense of connection and community. Already some great resources have emerged in this posting stream for GGF individuals wishing to explore these topics within the sangha. Thank you! Oh yes, and I was not at the Greens party and I am super disturbed at the image of this dance in corsets and makeup, etc. Surprisingly (or not) no one mentioned it as a highlight…

  14. I live in a post-hyper-racial-awareness culture in Sacramento, CA. No offense, y’all in this thread, but you sound so Old School 60s you worry me.

    I am happy to observe that the problem here is being misdiagnosed. Breeze is not being dissed and victimized, nor is hypersensitivity on her part the problem. Instead, the prob is “being treated with kid gloves,” a higher-level circumstance of crass discrimination but one that is at-core benign.

    Unhappily, the Bay Area may be too much a mosh pit of Political Correctness to work through the problem that exists, but I would like to offer well-intended words of aid.

    Breeze’s circumstance is tantamount to having an excellently operating brain but being in a wheelchair in a nursing home and being treated as if she were demented and not all there by the nurses. “Don’t you look pretty today,” says one nurse who barely glances at her. “Aren’t those pretty earbobs you’re got,” says the second nurse. “Isn’t that Nancy Reagan depicted on them. How cute!”

    Yes. Vomit wells its way up into the neck.

    Breeze, you are in a great position (because of your smarts, mostly) to address your personal problem and do it for the benefit of others. When you are treated weirdly in the ways you describe, raise the level of the conversation. Abruptly change the topic and discuss some esoteric issue (or whatever, that interests you). Take charge.

    You want to correct circumstances when people are victimized, but to do this you have to never feel victimized, yourself. Indeed, with all your talent and ability, you should be able to change the paradigm easily (once you’re acclimated to this strategy) when your antennae detect incoming weirdness.

    You also may have to make an effort to always assume people are well meaning – and here’s the kicker – EVEN MAKE YOURSELF ASSUME THIS IN RARE INSTANCES WHEN YOU KNOW THEY ARE NOT WELL MEANING. Both parties in a conversation have the right to change the topic. Don’t talk about those things that corner you, leaving you with nothing you can say that feels appropriate.

    Unhappily (perhaps) sensitivity training for white people is radically the wrong thing to do. The problem stems from white people [Buddhists especially] being over-aware of differences, over-sensitized, too easily feeling the pea at the bottom of the pile of mattresses. What they need is authenticity training and in most areas desensitization. I suspect that white people going to the classes that Mushim Ikeda describes will take it all in and come out seeing Breeze all the more exclusively as a black woman and not as a unique individual.

  15. well i am a “white” person (family background: Spain and Italy) and i would never have mistaken the person on your ear ring for angela davis. While socially conditioned racism is there another big issue is education. I believe at least 50% or more of the history curriculum in junior high school and high schools in America should be dedicated to study of African American and Native American history. But they don’t want to do that for obvious reasons.

    1. Tomas, that is exactly one of the biggest problems I see: miseducation and misdirection of ‘facts’ that keep the superiority of whiteness/Eurocentrism at the center of K-12 education in the USA.

      I am not sure where the people who commented on my afro, grew up, but they most likely did grow up in the USA.

      I grew up knowing who a bunch of non-white figures were because they were a household name. I grew up in a black household and my parents told me about who I needed to know about and why. The black ‘movers and shakers’ my parents taught me about had a ‘black’ narrative and not a ‘negative white’ narrative behind their actions and positions. What I mean by that is that if I did hear about ‘black’ people in K-12, my black ‘heroes’ were ‘the enemy.’ Black Panthers were painted as ‘insurgent militants who hated white people.’ Never did I hear about the amazing health and food justice activism they did. They were just disorganized and crazy ‘n*ggers’ who wanted to cause trouble. Never did I read or hear in K-12 that the BPs were well organized and understood structural racism, white supremacy, and how corporate capitalism was keeping everyone down ( not just black people).

      I went to an all white k-12 system so that was my experience. The books nor my teachers knew or wanted to tell a counter-narrative about Black people, such as the Black Panthers. You know, a counter narrative that actually explains what they truly did, who they truly where, etc? The kids I was surrounded by only knew a few ‘black’ figures and they were always ‘slaves’. History books that I read in K-12 started the history of ‘black people’ as ‘slaves’ or usually without ‘agency’ or ‘power.’

      I am remembering Rosa Parks and how she was ‘constructed’. She was not a ‘real’ activist, just sat down at the ‘white’ seat because she was tired. It was as if none of the amazing social justice activism she did was ever noted or put into the memory of the collective population of the USA via our school books. The common story of Rosa Parks tells a narrative of her just randomly deciding to not get out of the ‘white’ seat. She doesn’t have much agency and we are led to believe that she had not been doing activist work against white supremacy for years…. along with a plethora of other black people.

      And few white racialized people are taught more about Malcolm X. I can’t tell you how many white people have sincerely told me that they think that Malcolm X is this one dimensional person who “hated white people” and that the opposite of him was “Martin Luther King” who “loved all.” We are taught that some angry white guy killed MLK jr because he didn’t want black people to be desegregated. Counter stories actually propose that MLK jr became TRULY threatening to the govenrment when he started messing with corporate capitalism and the government’s interests in making sure eveyone is a slave to capitalism. It was okay if King wanted to be ‘equal to whites ‘ as long as it happens in a way that encourages a consumer capitalist society. But when King started critiquzing capitalism as the TRUE culprit to sustaining all the ‘isms’, and he wanted to start taking that down, the government didn’t like that and took him out. … but that story isn’t told because USA wants people to never question being a consumer capitalist citizen.

      Drives me nuts. Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox, but yea, there is just no critical education on purpose and it’s part of the problem.

  16. This is a bit late, but I am late to most things.

    To self-identify: white male, early 40s.

    The vibe at SFZC is as you describe. There are some really good people there, but it’s treacherous ground.

    Yes, Baker Roshi left on bad terms because he behaved badly.

    But here’s the other thing Baker Roshi did, deeply problematic to me but at the same time worth discussing: he monetized the Zen Center. One of the things about practice is that while institutions are not necessary, they can help. However, institutions are institutions, and as such they require money to sustain themselves. This is not a bad thing: I hit a real bad patch in my life and, restarting a defunct practice, presented myself at SFZC. I lucked into some genuinely helpful people there who would not have been there had SFZC no institutional existence.

    So, the question is, how to pay for this? I now sit at an almost entirely Chinese temple. It’s pretty well-funded, because the cultural norm with the practitioners is that a portion of the household income goes to the Sangha. While I am sure that Thich Nhat Hanh gets the occasional large contributions from non-Vietnamese, I would wager that the bulk of his support comes, in relatively small but regular increments, from the Vietnamese community.

    Baker Roshi chased SF money, which means white money. Why? To build the institution after the founder’s death. That money comes with strings–many or most of them, you might say, invisible–and you saw them at play when you attended the talk. This is what happens when people pay for a Zen Center: they own it.

    I came to Buddhism, interestingly, through a fully-ordained Mexican-American teacher, with group led, aside from the teacher, by a South Asian woman, Filipino man, and Latina woman. I just take in the instruction, help with the podcast, and sit my ass on my cushion and work on my method. I feel lucky as a person to have found this situation, but also as a white person. I will note, however, that the teacher himself presides over no formal infrastructure though he does teach at the largely Chinese temple belonging to the lineage.

    I suppose my point is that the answer to these questions you raise should be at least to some extent found in the peopling of our institutions of practice. Who’s running the show? We need to patronize, if need be financially (though I’m perpetually short of cash), those institutions which are peopled by people of color.

    1. And there we have it, folks! Bill’s point is also my experience as a white person who has worked in the area of racial justice for almost 50 years–cannot be done in a white-dominated context! Of course Abbott Steve Stucky listened attentively to you, Breeze. That’s what white liberals are trained to do–diffuse any challenge to white structures with a cloying surfeit of politeness. And I am not even faulting him or his institution for not being able to be other than white-dominated. It’s the nature of the beast to protect itself. What possible reason could there be for white people to need to be educated in 2012 about white privilege/white dominance/white power structures? Has somebody been keeping reality a secret from them? I said it before, and I’ll say it again (then I’ll stop–promise)–the reason institutions dominated by white liberals do not change for the better in terms of race/culture is that their system is not broken for them!

      1. Susan, I am not sure what possible reason there could be for white people needing to be educated about structural racism and whiteness in 2012. Maybe I am just naive or hope the best for people, but maybe they really don’t know that they NEED to know? Or maybe they already think they need to know what they already need to know? I don’t know. The problem is that I am not a ‘white liberal’, so I don’t know what goes on in the collective consciousness of white liberals who make the claims that they didn’t KNOW that they were perpetuating whiteness. I just don’t know…

        I felt listened to by Abbott Stucky, but you know, that’s all I really wanted. What folk do with my suggestions or information is up to them. I can’t FORCE anyone to do anything. I can plant the seedling and they can either water it and fertilize it or just let it die and wither away.

        I said what I wanted to say to the abbott, and that is that. I feel fine with having done that.

    2. Thanks Bill for reminding me of this and what strings are attached when one wants to create an institution using the investments of the white racial status quo. Possessive investment in whiteness comes to mind to me. Lipsitz’s book.

      I don’t want to assume that all institutions that have been built with ‘white liberal wealth’ function in a way that protects itself from acknowledging its potential role in structural racism and whiteness… but it is something to think about…

      1. Actually, one thing I thought I might comment on before but didn’t is that you’re way too nice about this. Waaaay too nice.

        I actually think you should assume, as should we all, that white funding produces white institutions. How could it do anything but? Functionally, this is how it works. We should be open to surprises but I have yet to experience one in this regard.

        For me, the best way for me to read an institution or organization is through how it’s funded and how it’s staffed. Who does what job, and who pays them to do it? Along these lines of thought, I am convinced that the most radical thing a white practitioner can do at a place of practice is sweep.

        I will raise what to me is an exceptionally serious issue as regards whiteness and practice, which is a shocking tendency of “well-educated” white people (count me among them) blithely dismissing all sorts of elements of the practice through centuries, milennia even, of working things out, in order to either “develop an American Buddhism” or (it’s driving me to break the Fifth Precept) a return to “the empowering and self-revealed teaching of original Buddhism.” That last is a direct quote. So much Oriental superstition in the centuries between Siddhartha and us white Americans: discard it! At some level I might admire the raw balls it takes to casually disregard centuries of practice by pracititioners far more dedicated than most of us, but as it actually happens it’s a totally destructive process.

        Practically, it seems to me that what we need as practitioners (and as people) is to form non-white institutions to support our practice. This can be done on the cheap: lay practitioners can support each other in their living rooms. Also, SGI is a big exception to the rule of white-dominated convert Buddhism. SGI constantly gets badmouthed by other Buddhists, so you know they must be doing something right. Me, SGI was my intro to Buddhism through a friend, but I have some karmic obstruction with chanting. As you might gather from the length of this comment, sitting my fanny on a cushion silently is a far more radical act for me than moving my mouth.

        1. Bill I have to be ‘nice’. I have told Susan that I can’t just ‘go off.’ I have tried the anger thing for years. For some stupid reason, I find myself in white “Everything” and I just feel like I want to talk about these issues but also know I have to be nice, because the first 25 years of being “angry” didn’t work. I grew up in an all white working class New England town. Went to school at Dartmouth College on scholarship in the 1990s. uber dynastic whiteness. Funded by white conservatives. Yea, crazy place to be in….. I used to be really OPENLY ‘angry black woman’ about it and all it did was get me in trouble. I have to be careful if I have an online presence. I have to make sure that what I say doesn’t screw me over. When I apply for jobs, thus far, I haven’t gotten anyone calling me back. It’s because of my online presence and my views that make most of the places I apply to work at probably too scared to hire me. I’m ‘confrontational’ simply by the work I have chosen to do as a BLACK WOMAN. I mean, of course I have to be ‘nice’ and ‘accommodating.’ Of course I have to use the language of the master to talk about these issues– and still, that is never a guarantee that I’ll be taken seriously. I can’t be Tim Wise. I think he can do a lot more and be more angry because at the end of the day, he is still a white male with privilege talking and that gives him a free pass to some extent. And he will always get paid to do this too. Goddess knows how much he makes in comparison to the hundreds of us POC who do this shit for free and then ‘earn’ high blood pressure, nightmares, anxiety, as part of our ‘reward.’

          I am not going to lie. I am terrified of being physically hurt because I eventually pissed of some white person. I have a close friend who was racially bullied at work and she told the white man (she is black) who bullied her that she would file a grievance. In retaliation, he called the police and lied that she had beaten him down (despite she being 100lb and 5’2″ and he being 6’3″). They instantly believed him and arrested her and put her in jail. Though she was exonerated of charges, the organization that this man belonged to never cared that the charges were dropped or that he lied to the police. The continue to support him while she is constructed as a ‘trouble maker’. The police have proof that he lied, but no, it doesn’t matter…

          … I am not going off on a tangent, but this incident that happened to my very close friend has also traumatized me and reminded me that I have to be ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ when talking about this subject as a BLACK FEMALE. I also have to remind myself to not get too caught up in it; so caught up that I die at 40 from the physical stress brought on by racial trauma that never seems to end. I can’t tell you how many people of color just drop dead, prematurely, because of the stress of doing this shit. I simply can’t be that another casualty. I can’t.

          Sorry if it seems like I’m going off on a tangent, but yea, I have to be nice because I know what is potentially at stake. What happened to my friend is not an anomaly. Friends and family of African descent, from all generations, talk about being ‘set up’ because they pissed off the wrong ‘white elite’ people. It would be so easy to get rid of me (if I weren’t as ‘nice’) if a white person with a ‘good reputation’ (that I make feel ‘uncomfortable with my inquires’) called the police and lied about something I did not do. So easy.

          What is SGI? (Sorry if I missed that).

          Yea, Bill, you are right. Look at who is funding it and who the top administration is. Yup, I should rethink this whole thing with that in mind. Thanks.

          1. To be sure, you’re absolutely right. I was very close with someone who paid great prices, again and again, for speaking up in white institutions. I admired her so much because she was truly brave, and yet it was incredibly painful to see her pay that price, again and again. All the more painful, clearly, for her, and yet she never quit. I on the other hand, was able to, sometimes in the same organization, speak up, walk out, etc., and everyone would pay attention and think a problem needed fixing. It was awful. That said, it is important to be tactical and preserve oneself. That means as you correctly point out that your range of options is relatively limited in white contexts.

            You’re certainly right about Tim Wise. I’ve been sort of bummed about him lately, and registered my discontent by viciously unfollowing him on Twitter, because he has all kinds of stuff to say about the right at this point (admittedly, he has cause) but precious little about white liberals, lately anyway. I don’t know what that’s about.

            What I can say is that I hope the practice saves your ass (pardon me!) as much as it’s saved mine. The good news is that when push comes to shove we each have to sit on our own cushion and stay on our own method. At some level, the institutions matter, but at a basic level, it’s on us.

            SGI is Soka Gakkai International, a lay organization that practices Nichiren Buddhism, i.e., Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Asking a practitioner from another tradition what they think about SGI is fun, because a lot of the time you’ll get the practitioner to drop all pretense of hip equanimity and they’ll start badmouthing them. They get called a cult, etc. Nobody ever asked me for any money when I did a bit of practice with them, nobody pressured me, they just seemed to have a good organization that returned phone calls. That said, I lucked into a good Ch’an situtation, and have stuck with it. SGI is an interesting institution. I believe Herbie Hancock is a practitioner, as is Wayne Shorter, and they completely know what’s up.

  17. Thank you everyone for your thoughts and observations.

    I did want to update you that Abbott Steve Stucky did email me about five days after I posted the blog topic. He wanted to schedule a time to talk to him. So, I went down to the Zen center today to meet with him at 230pm and shared with him what I do overall (as a critical race and whiteness studies scholar), my history growing up , and a few suggestions to help the sangha be more attentive to whiteness.

    I recommended the book by Joseph Cheah Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation.

    I explained to him that the author does a superb job in explaining what it means to build a Buddhism practice/site/sangha ontop of structural whiteness (if that makes sense). I was also suggesting that “white privilege” as a word and to train the sangha about may not be as useful as using terms such as structural whiteness/structural racism. I Feel like “white privilege” is still focused on ‘individuals’ and not on structures, institutions, and systems. Not saying it’s a ‘bad’ term to use, but I think it doesn’t always get to the root of the issue.

    I was very nervous but also very honest, so we’ll see what happens. I felt like he was sincerely interested in hearing about me and my perspective.

  18. Ugh. Both laughing and completely embarrassed that I made this same comment/mistake the other day regarding your earrings(and wish that I’d read this article before seeing you!). There is much to say here about my lack of familiarity with a variety of streams of “othered” US cultures and my own racialized subjectivity. My first impulse after reading this article was to question my own assumptions around the image on your earrings and the background I bring as a reader of them. I agree that it is true that Nina Simone and Angela Davis look nothing alike, so what was my thinking process that led me to believe your earrings pictured Angela Davis? Though I read a few of the initial comments here and will repeat a bit from them, I don’t think that the only thing that contributed to the mistake was that Simone was depicted with an Afro on your earrings, though such may have been primary. Admittedly, none of the three images that I am familiar with of Simone show her with an afro and all of the images of Davis that I have seen/remember seeing depict her with one. The fact that I can count the images from albums or facebook that I associate with Simone and my recall of Davis is more generalized is a facet of this personal inquiry that I find curious. As someone who has read pieces of Davis’s writing, generally is of a “progressive” bent, and tends to jump up to utilize my privilege as a white male to organize around anti-racism and racial equity, I admit that part of the mistake may have resulted from my potential over-focus on certain types and styles of racialized-politicized iconography connected to the civil rights and radical progressive histories of 1940s-1970s in the US which also indicates my lack of knowledge of other knowledge frames such as music and the arts-though I have a clear picture in my head of James Baldwin, I couldn’t say in the least what Richard Wright looked like. Further, my comment may have indicated my desire, my *want* to recognize who was depicted on your earrings. backtracking somewhat, I wonder what my confusion and that of other white racialized subjects says about a more general commodification of images and people within cultural discourse excerpted/adopted/stolen from Black and/or African American cultural fields; to what extent are images such as that of Davis marketed/used as signifiers to white folk and others?

    I do hope that your in-laws will still be around and/or that we might find some way for you to join me on the PLTS campus for most of the day on Sept. 26 as you might be interested in a program being held here that dovetails with your interest in examining racism/structural racism at the homogeneously white zen center. Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity will be here for our Founder’s Day event that day to deliver an address that he has titled “Bonhoeffer’s (and Our) Postracial Blues”. He is known primarily for his 2008 book _Race: A Theological Account_ which explores the theological roots of the modern racial imagination and the making of racial identities. Let me know if you might like to join me that day; I’d love it if you would.

    To close, after a brief Google search, here are two separate images of Simone and Davis, though I think it’s obvious which is which, I’ll let your readers decide. and . Lastly, as a white, gay/queer-identified male who loves Quentin Tarantino and all things Sapphic, I hope I would never, never mistake Pam Grier for any other woman of any race. That said, maybe I did?

    1. John I didn’t remember that you didn’t know who was on my earrings. Doesn’t make me angry or upset, but I do think it’s notable that only white folk have not known/made the mistake. Yea, I don’t expect everyone to know what Davis looks like, but it does say something that a “leap” is made to believe that it must be Angela Davis. I should put a picture of myself on the earring with a huge afro and see if I get the same comments LOL

      But yes, there was a LOT of focus on Davis’s iconic afro, so I can see how such as “leap” could be made.

  19. I congratulate Breeze for speaking out and being acknowledged here by others. I can imagine her surprise at the response. Many practitioners of color have spoken out so I have hesitated to join this dialogue here as it is an old one that tends to spin out many stories or add to the overwhelm. It is one that is not only about religious centers but about the world. We just expect something different (for some reason) from those who are espousing and profess to be living in truth and love. We expect complete awareness and transformation from folks who like ourselves are on a lifelong journey. My heritage is primarily of African descent and I was ordained as a Zen priest at SFZC in 2008. I saw and I knew whose home I entered in 2002 with my black face. Although, I no longer need consciously put myself in front of such harsh triggers as face-to-face racism to heal, I stayed in the pit of the whiteness to heal my disdain for whiteness (skin and consciousness). During my years there I witnessed the others and I witnessed myself. In that process I was able to clearly see the Buddha’s teachings of compassion and that it had nothing to do with being nice. It had to do with being fully in my heart–whether it was breaking or mending. How was I going to take on these teachings in view of what I experienced from others in the center? What did it mean for me to lay down my sword for a moment and listen? Was I willing to end my revenge against all transgression and disregard I have experienced in living in a dark body? I was tender and had to bring tenderness to myself for the first time in my life–no lover, no teacher, no mother, no father, no sister, brother or friend, just me. And that was the inner journey.

    On the hand, there is the political nature of things that also call for transformation. But often the integration of the political and the personal are unsuccessful. Trainings in the Buddhist centers have led many to think that people of color, need personal attention, need personal allies or need something other than what they themselves came for. Like everyone else we come for the teachings and we want those teachings to be adhere to. Non-harming. Is what you say timely, honest, kind, necessary, etc? Honesty. Buddha’s teachings are not only personal but political in the context of our lives in this country.

    1. Thanks Zenju. I am glad you have reached out to me because since reading Seeking Enchantment, and learning about your Zen Priest ordainment at SFZC, I have been wondering how you handle the obviousness of the sangha being so entrenched in un/conscious class privileged whiteness and the obviousness that you are Black.

  20. @Breeze, I really hope this discussion has given you something positive–it certainly has done that for me. @bill, cut brother tim some slack–unlike most white folks, he chooses to deal with the dregs of whiteness almost all day almost every day; @Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, thank you–as a Christian I know little about your pratice, but we have a saying, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and by the fruit of your wisdom and compassion I am knowing you as somoen I am glad to share the planet with.

  21. Thanks to all for this thoughtful dialogue. I left SFZC four years ago to continue taking sittings onto the streets,gardens, shelters and churches of San Francisco. Everyone is warmly welcome at all meditations offered by Jana Drakka Community Services. To find the schedule visit
    Bowing to All
    Jana Drakka

  22. You know, I just read through this document and how it is possible that prominent Zen teachers can conduct “immoral” behavior yet not truly be reprimanded for it or lose followers. I may not agree with the entire document, but I think it gave me a fresher perspective about the “silence” behind so many “male” spiritual leaders (and in this case, Buddhism) who engage ins sexual misconduct with their students. Interestingly, there are plenty of reference to Richard Baker from the SFZC. Anyway, I thought I’d share the link with everyone. The report is called

    “Zen Has No Morals!” – The Latent Potential for Corruption and Abuse in
    Zen Buddhism, as Exemplified by Two Recent Cases
    by Christopher Hamacher. The link is here —>

    On another note, I have decided to just “let go” of everything and move on to other things. Someone who had been privately emailing me about my struggles with this situation basically told me that they do not waste any of their time trying to help her particular buddhism sangha (which is predominantly white) with learning about race and whiteness. She (an African American woman) justs leaves it up to them and I a getting the feeling that I probably should just save my sanity and do the same thing.

    Thanks again everyone for the dialogue!

    1. Zen does have morals, despite the efforts of a lot of people to pretend otherwise. They’re called the Precepts. Sheng Yen once noted, briefly but absolutely importantly, that any practice not thoroughly based on the Precepts cannot be called Buddhist.

      My teacher once was going over the Precepts with us, and, predictably, nobody was willing to fess up to sexual misconduct but damn sure people wanted their intoxicants. So, of course, the predictable question: “you mean I can’t have a glass of wine with my meal?”

      Well, my teacher said, you certainly can have a glass of wine with your meal, but you’re going to get tipsy.

      “So, it’s OK to have a glass of wine with my meal.”

      Well, my teacher said, that’s not the point. He repeated the standard line about no, the Precepts aren’t per se Commandments, and no, there’s no eternal Hell, per se, you’ll be damned to if you break them.

      “So, it’s OK to have a glass of wine with my meal.”

      Look, my teacher said, I’m a Dharma teacher. “Right.” What’s the Dharma about? Seeing things clearly, as they are. If you can cut through all the nonsense and get to what really is, that’s the trick. That’s where you stop suffering. “Right.” So, my teacher said, if you can explain to me how drinking alcohol, or lying, or sexual misconducting, or stealing, or killing helps you see things clearly, I’m all ears. In my experience all of them tend to wind up the mind even tighter than it already is.

      Pretty simple reasoning that doesn’t play well to those with sense of entitlement.

  23. Cultural appropriation is an unfortunate deed still in our culture today. A year ago, during my first year of college, I was introduced to this concept as well as many other similar topics.

    I am very inspired and truly grateful for my sisters of African diaspora I can learn from!

  24. Update

    Today I attended the Spirit Rock retreat, “A Day of Healing for Women of African Descent”. It’s a Buddhist meditation center. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Konda Mason led the retreat. It took place today for about 8 hours.

    Seriously, I have never participated in anything like this before. I felt completely at home. And the funny thing is, about 7 or 8 people commented on my earrings and knew who it was LOL. I was wearing Angela Davis today… but I also wanted to share that Nina Simone was played on the sound system in that room and funny that we collectively knew who Nina Simone was, the depth of her words, what she represented etc.

    And in that space, I could be myself. There seemed to already be an understanding of how racism, sexism/sexual violence, whiteness are realities in our collective lives. That we need to heal from it.

    Such a different space to be in. And I have to admit, the Dharma teaching really “click” with me when it come from the perspective of Zenju and Konda and their personal experiences with the trauma and anger of racism, sexual violence, the desire to want to be an activist and change it, etc.

    And I don’t mean to knock the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness that I have really only experienced Buddhism in…. but I simply don’t get the same “click, I get it” when I do participate at SF Zen Center, Green Gulch, or the Berkeley Zen Center. I think with the exception of times I have spent talking to Abbott Sojun Mel Weistman in which I “get it” (who is not a person of African descent, but of white and Jewish descent), no one else in the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness has really made the Buddhadharma click with me the way Zenju Earthlyn has. As a matter of fact, it was her book Seeking Enchantment that really helped me “see” what the “purpose” could be in bringing the dharma into my “rage” and anger from racial trauma and normative whiteness.

    This was the first event of its kind at Spirit Rock. Huge attendance, which means it was REALLY needed; That us women of African descent crave this fellowshop and healing space. I am so grateful for Zenju and Konda for bringing the dharma to us and truly GETTING where so many of us were coming from (in terms of needing to heal from the anger and trauma of racial and sexual violence). And what was even more beautiful was that the event was “accessible”. They had a sliding door registration fee of $25-$55, but also, they said that no one would be turned away due to lack of funds. And if you didn’t have a car to get out there, then there were car pools. Accessibility is key, and I think about the various times I have wanted to do certain retreats and go to certain Buddhist centers and the retreats, or just staying there for a few days was clearly only available to wealthy people.

    I know there are many “forms” to engaging in Buddhism. It would seem that the forms/styles that Zenju and Konda offered seemed to “click” with many of us there, who couldn’t quite “get” how we were perpetuating the cycles of our own suffering. And how wonderful it is to be in a space in which I don’t have to try to “prove” that racism and whiteness are real problems in the Bay area; in the USA ; in the world. After spending the whole day there, I realized how ridiculous it is that I have spent so much time in largely white dominated spaces in which I physically and emotionally exhaust myself trying to explain what “racism is”, how “whiteness operates”, and that “No, I’m not making this sh*t up in the head.” I have been depriving myself from this my entire life. At the end of the day today, I really asked myself , “What would happen if I stopped participating in certain spaces in which I can never just be ‘me’? What would happened if I shifted and just focused on spaces like the ones today?” Maybe I should not stop participating all together, but rather really Limit my time in spaces of whiteness (or spaces in which whiteness is not really acknowledged as ‘problematic’) and simply stop engaging with all the same questions, ‘Well, I don’t understand white privilege or my whiteness. Can you please tell me? Can you please educate me?’ Because it’s obviously really just strained me … I think I’ll just take a LONGGGG break and start taking care of myself.

    Good night! 🙂

    1. Hi Breeze,

      It was very interesting for me to read this. I just attended a Dharma Talk last night at SFZC. The talk was given by a woman who has been hired by SFZC to help them look at White Privilege and institutional racism.

      I left the talk a bit confused. I think you say somewhere here (or someone else) that in 2012 White people shouldn’t have to be trained on this topic. This is what I was thinking upon leaving (although it is now 2013!). Being White myself, I felt pretty embarrassed to have to hear what I already know or should already know. I don’t want to think I’m not part of the problem, because I could easily be without knowing it.

      I am therefore very glad to have accidentally run across this blog and learned that there is a real need for this type of training at SFZC. Being close to SFZC, I am both embarrassed by the need and glad that this step has been taken.

      Thank you for your generous nature in helping SFZC move towards this solution, and I hope you know that this training has begun.


  25. Pingback: Making Mistakes
  26. Richard Baker, if you’ll excuse my language, is an F PIG. And I’m sure it was him or one of his male followers that were like that toward you. Ugh. Gosh I remember the whole scandal when Herb Caen was alive. And as far as I know he continued that behavior to the next center, which, btw, was run by a gay F pig….but it’s all ok, because he’s dead, he was part of the LGBTQ comm, and it’s all excused. All of it. Ugh.

    Just be careful, there are many that want to exoticize you. GL

    1. Wow, it’s been a few years since I posted this. I need to check out who Herb Caen is. I don’t know much about the history of SFZC. It’s several years later, so I am wondering if I should now NAME who it was or if that powerful ZENPIRE will punish me for doing so. Stupid how I have to be ‘afraid’ to name who it was, right? But, we live in a sexist and racist system that punishes us for calling out racists, sexists (as well as other people who uphold power and privileges through being oppressive).

      On a side note, as an animal compassion advocate, I try not to demean humans by calling them a pig since pigs are sweet creatures and I have never been verbally or physically attacked by a pig 😉

      1. And even though this happened 6 years ago, the male friend he was talking to was actually my husband and Baker didn’t know that the woman he was referring to (me) was the wife of the man he was asking that question to.

  27. Thanks Breeze, I am ethnic Italian, but have got kinky hair, but yeah, clearly has become part of my practice to deal with my differences with white culture. Then mixed into that is the other one of sexuality, which is a big hornet”s nest with endless threads, backlash hardliner stances by white, stuffy priests against the sex scandals. This worries me if we can’t enjoy eachother’s beauty any longer, which happened to me when I met a young man at my center, I was judged, villified and disposed of by the Abbess (a married Korean) who has since been asked to step down. Yet what makes me the most sad is how much time we have to spend paying attention to these social interactions, instead of just being the beautiful you. Most people are just not very socially adept, who maybe just wanted to speak to you, but could not think of anything to say like, my name is —, nice to meet you. The errings may just be conversation starters, like your errings, et el. But I have been on FB Soto Group, and it has become clear how white the posts tend to be, and how white male goofy Zen remains, only a few women post and comment, and the two admins delete a few my posts that they claim are ‘marginal’, but when questioned they essentially lie about following the rules for deletion, saying they are not ‘Soto’ zen enough, which is never true. My struggle sounds a lot like your post. The constant questioning, why is she deleting it, and then the white male crew who actually start getting angry at me for asking why. But yes, name the names, if they are abusing power. She reminds me of the aggressive white female priests I have oft encountered at various Zen centers. It is not any different than the power and politics one can suffer from in work places, or social interactions, and not just related to race, could be sex, could be age (now I in my 40s), could be jealousy, could be class relations, small town folk mistreated those from the big city, on and on, its all called human-created suffering. So what can we do in Zen to train ourselves to let it go, right when it happens, remain clear, accept this world, white on black on red, as our own Mind. Continue sharing your experience. Let’s not forget, even to share this in such an honest and open way is still a unique form of subjectivity for most people. When they like your hair, like their hair back, be a mirror, or say, nice eyes, we be the wiser, do not even respond to nice hair, offer your hand, your name, and change the subject, or have a laugh, that is what is cool about Zen people, they get these cues more quickly than most others. Keep writing!

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