The Sistah Vegan Project

Archive for the category “Spirituality and Religion”

On Revisiting Being Called “Racist Cunt”, [Mis]Interpreting Zen Buddhism, and Excusing Abuse

I continue to be mindful to a plethora of people in which mindfulness (at least how I perceive it to be) is not reciprocated. At this point, I’m trying to understand why I don’t have it in me to be ‘nasty’ and try to hurt their feelings like they have hurt mine.

Why do I actually care about the feelings of people who call me ‘racist cunt’ for doing critical race studies, or for other disgusting language used whenever I politely blog on the Sistah Vegan project?

In addition, outside of my blog space, why do I continue to believe that if someone is impolite, cruel, nasty, etc., I shouldn’t hate them or assume that their ‘bad’ behavior means they have a ‘bad’ spirit/soul? Why do I still believe and tell myself, “They aren’t really like that. Underneath all of the anger, hate, vitriol, etc., there is the capacity for mindfulness and unconditional love”?” As of this evening, I really question how I’ve been dealing with this phenomenon and wonder if I’m just too “stupid” or “naive” to realize I am accepting “abuse” and being an apologist for their behavior and rationalizing it through the logic of my Zen Buddhist practice.

Maybe I’ve completely misinterpreted the precepts of Zen Buddhism (?)

Short post, but it’s been on my mind this evening.






Mindful or deluded?: Reflections on being a ‘racist’ anti-racist student of Buddhism who is seeking wellness.

This is the latest comic piece from my new series, Snarky Fanon. I created this the day after I returned from my first class at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA (EBMC). The class was called “Resilience and Well-Being for People of Color.” It is a three week long class.  Snarky Fanon is my new satirical comic series based on my love of critical race studies, including Frantz Fanon, Sarah Ahmed, and George Yancy’s work around critical race phenomenology, the black feminisms of  bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Katherine McKittrick, and the field of decolonial theory.

This was my first time participating at the EBMC. If you’ve been following my blog series about my personal experiences with Buddhism in the bay area of California (in which I fuse with critical race and whiteness analysis of those experiences), then this comic will probably make sense to you. If you are unfamiliar with the series, you can start here:

  1. Part I:
  2. Part II:
  3. Part III:
  4. Part IV:

EBMC is not ‘supportive’ in a superficial way (by superficial, I am referring to organizations that just have sentences written down that claim they are against all those “-isms” on some piece of paper in their policies section, but it’s not really enacted at a deep structural/institutional level). Literally, being anti all those ‘-isms’ is part of EBMC’s concept of mindfulness. Why? Because to blatantly ignore the reality of things like structural racism and white supremacy on the collective lives of non-white people that you’ll find at EBMC would be unmindful.  I’d consider such unmindfulness a form of dysconscious violence/discursive violence (which I’ll talk about a little later).  When I participate in a sangha (EBMC) that prefaces their classes or dharma talks with the direct acknowledgment that we in the USA live within a mainstream value system in which structural ableism, racism, sexism, CIS Gender privilege, heterosexism, and classism are the norm, then I know that that is home for me. When we are told that we are sitting in a building on land (USA) that was violently taken from indigenous people and built largely by enslaved Africans, I know “I have arrived.” What that does for me is encourage me to keep ing asking deeply Buddhadharma-engaged questions like: How have structural, institutional, and overt violences of/from the European racial colonial project (which includes not just racism and white supremacy, but heteronormativity, transphobia, and sexism) affected me 500 years later? How have I potentially perpetuated suffering by benefiting from particular forms of such structural violence? What does it look like to engage in the buddhadharma in a way that makes such violences fully present?

I’ve also been thinking a lot this past week about the obvious micro agressions from white [male] Buddhists I received after I posted my experience of healing, love, and comfort at the Buddhist retreat for women of African descent at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA on Sept 8 2012. I was basically called a “racist” because I actively chose to seek out a sangha of women of African descent who wanted to heal from the emotional and physical pains of both structural and overt forms of racism/sexism/sexual violence in the USA.  It is their opinion that I am ‘racist’. This is how they have defined “racism” and/or have not read the plethora of books written that define USA “racism” and “whiteness” in a completely different way (and I do provide those links on my blog). Or perhaps they have read this canon and have drawn the conclusion that the canon of USA critical race studies does not explain “racism” the right way.

For me, I realized that actively choosing to participate in a women of African descent Buddhist retreat for the first time in my entire life was actually choosing not to accept the violence and abuse that I had been experiencing in mostly “post-racial ‘we are all human so stop talking about race'” spaces of whiteness (including work place, university, as well as certain sanghas or Buddhist events). When I speak of violence and abuse, I’m not talking about the conventional notions of such acts (such as going out and beating someone up on the street, or hurling racial epithets at them). I’m talking about dysconscious racism. I’m talking about discursive or rhetorical violence. I am going to point you to an excerpt from a blog that defines these concepts quite well. In it, the blogger says

I am using Foucault’s concepts of rhetorical violence, which see violence as a set of political, ideological, cultural, and discursive strategies employed by dominant powers. Rhetorical violence is the violence of “modes of domination,” which need not be employed “in a direct, personal way.” Violence in this context goes beyond committing physical violence to include also discursive and emotional violence. Anti-Black racism, which is violence against Black people, takes many forms – emotional, representational, discursive and physical – and it’s not a practice that’s exclusive to one particular race/ethnicity.(source:

I’m talking about the repetitive emotional pain and damage done to tens of thousands of non-white people in the USA who are living and/or working in spaces of ‘post-racial whiteness’ and they have to personally deny their lived realities of racism and white supremacy because the USA racial status quo just doesn’t want to hear “alternative ways of knowing, feeling, being.”  To go into a space in which it is expected that everyone has a white Euro-Anglo middle/upper class ontology/epistemology in the USA, by default, creates intense amount of pain and suffering for tens of thousands of non-white people and poor whites. And I need to make it clear that I’m not saying it is wrong for people to have a white middle/upper class Euro-Anglo background, history, epistemology…however, I do become concerned when “post-racial” whites in the USA, practicing Buddhism in white dominated sanghas, ignore that their epistemologies are racialized and believe that their way of Buddhism is universal and the best way to interpret Buddhism. What is troubling is that these standpoints are not named as “subjective” and are only one of a million ways to ‘know’ the world [of Buddhism].

Is it possible that “post-racial” white practitioners of the buddhadharma in the USA believe that because they have been practicing Buddhism, they collectively feel that they are automatically ‘above race’ or ‘above’ considering the significance of racial formation and racialization on their consciousness and their interpretations of Buddhism? Most have rationalized to me that to bring in ‘race’ is to ‘pollute’ the ‘purity’ of Zen Buddhism; to taint it with ‘ego’. Hence, to be ‘post-racial’ is ‘pure’, but to think about the significance of ‘race’, ‘racial formation’, and ‘whiteness’ and its effects on a Buddhist sangha or individual practitioners of Buddhism is ‘impure’This is not surprising, as Joseph Cheah writes that the translation and interpretation of Buddhism for a [white] Euro-American Buddhist convert demographic took place during an era of colonialism and Orientalism in the late 19th century. This is significant because during this period, it was the ‘pure’ and ‘objective’ white male European Orientalist “experts” who took various forms of Buddhism from ‘the Orient’ and ‘sanitized’ it (through translation and interpretation of only focusing on specific ‘texts’ versus other Buddhism practices seen as ‘too esoteric’ or ‘trivial’) and made it more ‘logical’ and ‘objective’ for the Occident (the global West) (Cheah 2011). They did this through the “objective” lens of EuroAnglo centric philosophical training and ‘scientific method'(a.k.a. positivist understandings of reality through colonialist, imperialist, and white supremacist value system that denied that valid knowledge can be gained from embodied experiences of non-white, poor, and female human beings) (Cheah 2011). Even though Cheah was not looking specific at Zen Buddhism specifically, I feel strongly that his theories and analysis could help me understand more deeply, why so many “post-racial” [white] Buddhists do not wish to critically reflect on such issues or send me microagressions as their responses to my observations.

The interesting part about me being accused of practicing ‘racism’ by white , mostly male, Buddhists is that they did not even consider anything that I had to say to be valid or worth thinking about because it did not fit into their [interpretation of] Buddhism.   Having lived in a racialized nation in which their epistemologies and ontologies are primarily on center stage (but they perhaps dysconscious of such privileged and/or racialized placement) as ‘pure’ and ‘unraced’, this would perhaps make sense that my ontology and epistemology were dismissed.  I started thinking about how critical whiteness scholars such as Charles Gallagher and Peggy McIntosh propose that white Americans are collectively unaware of how this center stage does not reflect the reality of those who do not exist in such white middle to upper class privileged spaces of inclusion (Gallagher 2008). Similarly, Grillo and Wildman theorize that

to people of color, who are the victims of racism/white supremacy, race is a filter through which they see the world. Whites do not look at the world through this filter of racial awareness, even though they also comprise a race. This privilege to ignore their race gives whites a societal advantage distinct from any received from the existence of discriminatory racism. [Grillo and Wildman] use the term racism/white supremacy to emphasize the link between the privilege held by whites to ignore their own race and discriminatory racism. (Grillo and Wildman 1995, 565)

However, critical race scholars, Joyce E. King, Karen Sihra, and Helen M. Anderson disagree with Gallagher, McIntosh, Grillo, and Wildman’s concept of the collectivity of USA whites being “unaware” or “unconscious” of how race and whiteness operate and benefit them. Instead, they theorize that the collectivity of white racialized people in the USA engage in “violent consciousness” that operates as something called dysconscious racism. King argues that it is “not the absence of consciousness (that is, not unconsciousness) but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race as compared to, for example, critical consciousness” (King 1991, 134).  Furthermore, what is particularly interesting about King, Sihra, and Anderson’s engagement with the theory of “violent consciousness” is that they lay the groundwork for me to see how the rhetoric of Buddhism as “peaceful,” “non-violent,” and “harmlessness” operates amongst certain “post-racial white sanghas” (and individual post-racial white Buddhists) who are engaging in dysconscious racism. Buddhism is rooted in ‘anti-violence’ and ‘harmlessness.’ Of course, how one engages in a Buddhist life is subjective and up to individual interpretation–fostered by one’s racial, gender, class, national, etc., embodied experiences and investments. However, Sihra and Anderson look at the concept of ‘harmlessness’ beyond physical acts of violence and

toward an understanding of violence that also includes the harm of failing to interrogate the lenses through which we see — lenses that simultaneously make visible and obscure. This latter understanding of harm is what we refer to as violent consciousness, which we assert is a central component of the phenomena of dysconsciousness, arrogant perception, and normalization. (Sihra and Anderson 2009, 379)

I would argue that even though many “post-racial” white Buddhists (and “post-racial” white vegans I have met over the last 7 years) do not participate in the violence of overt racism, such as calling a black person the n-word or lynching them (physical act), I personally read their responses to me are acts of discursive violence and dysconscious racism. I am also wondering if it’s possible that in general, do “post-racial” sanghas of whiteness act as sites of discursive violence and dysconscious racism by the very fact that deep discourses around, and engagement with  structural racism and white supremacy are just not part of their discourse of mindfulness?   Is the collectivity of “post-racial” white folk who engage in dysconscious racism, an example of how the physically violent act of maintaining whiteness and racisms (i.e. lynching and segregation) from the Jim Crow era has shifted more towards the violence of discursive and covert acts/forms of normative whiteness (as well as structural racism and normative whiteness)? Is this the pivotal difference between how whiteness and racism functioned in the spaces of pre-Civil Rights era and a current Post-Civil Rights/Obama era? Maybe it is so subtle and ‘invisible’ to the “post-racial” white folk in the USA, that bringing the ‘visibility’ of race and whiteness up causes so much anger and defensiveness…. Especially in the Buddhist (and vegan) community because of the fact that so many people are practicing Buddhism and/or veganism as a way to engage in ‘harmlessness’ and become a ‘good person.’

Lastly, I think it is notable that during my entire life, I have never been accused of being a ‘racist’ when I live in, participate in, go to school at, white places/institutions. Never have I received anger from any white person when I told them that my parents consciously chose to move to an all white town to raise my twin and I (they never said, “Hey, you’re parents were racist!”), went to a white college, or declared me a “racist” for doing my work in an all white discipline.  Perhaps it is not a problem if I consciously surround myself with white people (?) It also never seemed to be a problem that I participated in all white Buddhism events many times in my 8 years of practice. However, it became a problem or ‘unsettling’ if I ever hinted that I would want to consciously choose to attend a historically black college or even apply to African American studies programs for graduate work and look at the cultural aspects of veganism amongst women of African descent in the USA (I was seen a being ‘racist’ for doing a call for papers for the Sistah Vegan project that sought out ways to understand how race and gender affected black vegan females when I was doing my Masters work at Harvard University in a post-2000 era. The accusing demographic were a plethora of white ‘post-racial’ vegans. Their micro-aggressions became empirical data of ‘post-racial’ whiteness that I used to write my masters thesis and earned the Dean’s Award for).  Lastly, I am reminded of how most white kids freaked out at Dartmouth College, where I attended undergrad in the 1990s, when they saw “all the black kids sitting together”, but no one freaked out that all the white frat boys or white sorority girls sat together. (Am I the only one who sees the contradictions in those responses?)

So, back to talking about safe space. I consciously chose to participate in the Buddhist retreat for women of African descent and the EBMC because I am not able to achieve ‘wellness’ in  covertly violent and abusive spaces of post-racial whiteness (and these spaces are not limited to certain Buddhist spaces. These simply are ALL ‘post-racial’ spaces of whiteness in the USA that I have lived in, went to school at, etc that I need sanctuary away from).

And as usual, I want to let people know that this is MY opinion fused with my ‘over-educated self’ and training in critical theories of race, decolonial politcs, and black feminisms….and my love of the Buddhadharma’s offerings. My words are not fact. It’s just my standpoint and how I experience the world. My mind is always changing. How I felt last week was not the same way that I felt last year and I’m sure it will be very different in one month. I am open-hearted and honest about my experiences and am being very mindful about how I convey them to the best of my ability….

P.S.I think it would be really helpful for people who aren’t familiar with EBMC to actually take time to listen to this video below that explains, essentially, what it means to CONSCIOUSLY build a sangha that is anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-ableism, and supportive of LGBTQ people.

Works Cited

Cheah, Joseph. Race and Religion in American Buddhism : White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, Charles A. “”The End of Racism” As the New Doxa.” In White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, edited by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 163-78. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Grillo, Trina, and Stephanie M Wildman. “Obscuring the Importance of Race: The Implication of Making Comparisons between Racism and Sexism (or Other -Isms).” In Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, edited by Richard Delgado. Philadelphia: Temple University 1995.

King, Joyce E. “Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers.” The Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 2 (Spring, 1991) (1991): 133-46.

Sihra, Karen, and Helen M. Anderson. “Exploring Pedagogical Possibilities for a Nonviolent Consciousness.” Philosophy of Education (2009): 379-87.

The micro-aggressive responses that “‘we are all post-racial’ whiteness” produces…

Since posting my three part series about whiteness in Buddhism, as well as how racialization affects spiritual practice as I experience it in the Bay Area of California, I have received comments from Zen Buddhists who have determined that I am ‘racist’ or ‘practicing’ racism for having written about ‘post-racial whiteness’ within American Buddhism and/or for having participated in a Buddhist retreat of healing for women of African Descent. I think the most interesting observation from these comments is that they are almost always from ‘white’ and ‘male’ Buddhists. I receive the exact same comments and emails from white, usually male, vegans who feel strongly that I should not be applying critical race and critical whiteness analyses to the cultural phenomenon of American veganism for my doctoral studies. In the rare times that I do point out to them, “Wow, it’s 9/10 times that it is white men who tell me that I am ‘racist'”, the accusing party will ‘educate’ me that their opinion about my work/analysis has nothing to do with the social implications of being white men in which structural racism-sexism and post-empire whiteness afford their demographic the most favorable outcomes (and I am specifically talking about racial and sexual configurations of power in the USA). Instead, they tell me that it is their ‘superior’ Zen Buddhist training (or their superior training in “European philosophical logic debate,” if not Zen) that makes them “immune” to the ‘ego’ creating divisions of ‘human labels’ because of their ‘superior post-human’ minds.  Um, can you say ‘micro-aggressions’? It is my belief that it is these micro-aggressions that are produced by a “we are all post-racial” whiteness ‘ego.’   It is not that I want people to automatically agree with every single thing I say. However, there is a difference between wanting to engage in a dialogue about our differences in opinion vs. just replying with micro-aggressive words. I usually get the latter, and in doing so, in a manner that conveys that even though they have not picked up one book about critical race/whiteness studies, or admit to me, “I’m not really sure what ‘racism’ or ‘whiteness’ are because I don’t have any training in this field but…” and then they  decide to EDUCATE me anyway. However… As I receive these micro-aggressive comments, I am actually inspired to continue doing the dissertation work that I am doing, and other writing projects and literary activism that ‘out’ the violence of “‘we are all post-racial’ whiteness” in the USA. This is how I interpret the Buddhist precepts and how to alleviate the suffering that reality of racism and whiteness in the USA has produced. Being ‘post-racial’ about it is dishonest (and this is how I interpret the precepts about being more mindful about such dishonesty).

I am on the last revisions for my dissertation work for the academic year of 2012-2013. The quarter at UC Davis starts up at the end of September 2012.

Over the past few years, I have dedicated a lot of time to helping people from all walks of life. Some of you have expressed interest in transitioning into veganism, but don’t know how to start. Others have asked me to help them become more mindful around issues of whiteness and structural racism. And some of you have contacted me about how to achieve a vegan pregnancy and lactation period.

I truly have enjoyed helping and consulting with folk. Every time I engage in these issues with you, I learn a lot and feel like it helps me become a better teacher.

However, as much as I would love to do this for free, I have financial responsibilities. I am requesting donations to help me finish up my last academic quarter and to finally earn my doctorate degree at the end of this year. If you enjoy the work that I do and/or have benefited from anything I have done or said, I would appreciate a monetary donation towards my tuition fees. Whether it is $5 or $50, every bit will be appreciated.

Some of you have asked me why I need help with paying for school: “Aren’t you a famous and published author?” Yes, I did create the book Sistah Vegan, but like most authors, unless our books are New York Times bestsellers, we get a small amount of return on this. I only made about $666 in royalties this past year. I truly do this work because it is in my heart; becoming rich and famous was never my motivation.

As an incentive for donating, I will have a raffle for those who contribute a monetary donation. The winner will receive a signed copy of my 2013 book Scars, to be released by Eight Ball press. It is a novel that explores the life of a black teen lesbian living in rural White New England. One of the four major characters is a vegan and enjoys promoting the ideas of food justice for human laborers and non-human animals.

Deadline for school fees: September 15, 2012

Amount needed as of September 14, 2012: $1000.

How to donate: I accept Paypal donations to the email account breezeharper (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thank you to everyone for all your support over the last 6 years.

Excerpt from Dissertation Introduction in Progress .

Tentative Title: Neoliberal, Afrocentric, and Decolonial Food Politics: From Racialized Consciousness to Vegan Commodity 

Looking at and beyond neoliberal whiteness (i.e. “white bourgeois lifestyle politics”) this dissertation will articulate and show how race operates in the creation of several vegan spaces (consciousness and physical) and consumption patterns of particular vegan commodities.

First, to understand and conceptualize contemporary forms of race, let alone white bourgeois lifestyle politics, one must understand how race, racism, and whiteness operate as structures, versus individual racism. All of us in the USA live the effects of race in all spaces: from psychic spaces, to community spaces, to cyberspace (Tuana and Sullivan 2006; Yancy 2008; Zuberi and Silva 2008) This includes the ethical consumption and alternative foods movements (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Guthman 2011; Harris 2009; Williams-Forson 2006; Nocella 2012).Though Nocella and Torres directly critique individuals (i.e. “white people”), I have chosen to focus on the system of racialized hierarchies. Such a system produces and privileges “whiteness” and white people; this dissertation seeks to reveal how such a system is experienced by particular racialized subjects in the USA who desire to create vegan spaces, as well as those racialized subjects living in spaces of coloniality.  “A systems approach helps illuminate the way in which individual and institutional behavior interact across domains and over time to produce unintended consequences with clear racialized effects” (Powell 2008, 791). Powell’s analysis of structural racism helps me re-orient the question of how race operates, within spaces of veganism, from being an individual phenomenon to a structural phenomenon, revealing that no one can escape its negative consequences. I also will be using the terms normative whiteness, neoliberal whiteness, and systemic whiteness, to more broadly define the concept of white supremacy as it relates more to structures and systems and less toward individual racists. Such a positioning of white supremacy from individuals to systems and structures moves away from the traditional scholarship that understood white supremacy in terms of individually violent acts of whites towards non-whites (see Almaguer 1994; Frederickson 1981). In this dissertation, I will be using Lori Pierce’s concept of white supremacy (i.e. neoliberal whiteness and normative whiteness), which is defined as “The conscious or unconscious promotion and advancement of the beliefs, practices, values and ideals of Euroamerican White culture, especially when those cultural values are represented as normal” (Pierce in Cheah 2011, 3). The “common sense” notion that neoliberalism is the “natural” course of action to achieve equality is one of these ‘cultural values’ underlying the modern day value system of whiteness; it is the same operation of race that Bob Torres and Anthony Nocella find problematic within the value system of mainstream American vegan consumerism.

This dissertation will focus on how particular racial concepts operate within the realm of veganism. This will be achieved through analysis of the book Sacred Woman (Afua 2000), Food Empowerment Projects (FEP) Food Empowerment Brochure, and PETA’s Cruelty Free Vegan Shopping Guide. PETA, FEP, and Sacred Woman are located within the landscape of vegan food philosophies to produce “cruelty-free” and “ethical” spaces across multiple scales (consciousness, the body, the home, the community, and the globe). However, these three sites represent three different engagements with vegan commodities as the method for achieving ethical consumption, and ultimately, a more socially just planet. Such differences are not so much about food, as much as they are about the social, political, and economic relationships underlying these vegan food commodities and spaces (i.e. neoliberal whiteness, decolonial politics, dysconscious racism, ‘race-consciousness,’ and sexualized-racism). Through the lenses of critical studies of race, ethical consumption, and food politics, this dissertation will explore such underlying relationships.

On Buddhist Sanghas, Divesting in Post-racial Whiteness, and Nina Simone

This blog is a continuation of my initial observations about normative whiteness at the San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th Anniversary celebration as well as my second posting about those observations/feelings.

A. Breeze Harper

This past weekend I attended the Spirit Rock retreat, “A Day of Healing for Women of African Descent”. It’s a Buddhist meditation center out in Woodacre, California. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Konda Mason led the retreat. It was 8 hours long. I have never participated in anything like this before. I felt completely at home. And the funny thing is that about 7 or 8 people commented on my earrings and knew who it was (LOL). I was wearing Angela Davis… but I also wanted to share with you that Nina Simone was played on the sound system in the space we were together in. Amazing feeling that we collectively knew who Nina Simone was, the depth of her words, what she represented etc. “We are listening to Nina Simone… Angela Davis is on Breeze’s earrings.”  The song Four Women, by Nina Simone, echoed through the air:

My skin is black, my arms are long
My hair is woolly, my back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again
What do they call me? My name is aunt Sarah
My name is aunt Sarah, aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow, my hair is long
Between two worlds I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia, my name is Saffronia

My skin is tan, my hair fine
My hips invite you, my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me? My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown, my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see, my life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days, because my parents were slaves
What do they call me? My name is Peaches

And in that space, with these women who were in attendance (and that includes the ones who not only registered , but those in the room in spirit such as Nina Simone and India.Arie) I could be myself. With these women, there seemed to already be an understanding of how racism, colorism, class struggle, sexism/sexual violence, whiteness are unfortunate realities in our collective lives; that we need to heal from it. For me, there was no frustration of trying to ‘prove’ that it is real. For me, there was no high blood pressure being raised to provide a list of ‘published materials’ to educate anyone about the realities of racialized-sexualized violence. And I loved the love and openness gifted to all women of African descent there. We were all of different hues, ages, sexual orientations, able-bodied status, age, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. I know that in many cases, just because it’s a ‘black’ space doesn’t mean that all women of African descent will feel at home. I acknowledge the severe issues of colorism, transphobia, homophobia, and ‘you must only be in romantic relationship with a black person’, that exists in the collective USA community of African descent. This space was truly one of healing, because I didn’t hear any of that nonsense being perpetuated. It was great that I didn’t have to ‘defend’ why my husband is a white man (you wouldn’t believe how many times I have been questioned about how my soul-mate is not a man of African descent by black people!)

This past weekend was such a different space to be in, in comparison to my experience with San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Center at Green Gulch. And I have to admit that the Dharma teachings really “click” with me when it came from the teachings through Zenju and Konda. With their personal experiences with the traumas and anger of racism, sexual violence, the desire to want to be an activist and change it, etc, the buddhadharma truly resonates with me. I believe that their method of teaching the buddhadharma is significantly shaped by the lived experience of being racialized and sexualized as “black” and “female” in the USA. It’s called what Katherine McKittrick refers to as a black female socio-spatial epistemology. See her book Demonic Grounds and she will break down how we develop our knowledge-base (epistemology) through our embodied experiences in racialized-sexualized spaces in the USA. What does the collective knowledge system of women of African descent look like, particularly since it has been produced through geographies of violence (lynching, rape, Jim Crow, racial neobliberalism, racialized uneven development)…and geographies of resistance (the space that Nina Simone’s words creates for women of African descent; the space we were participating in at Spirit Rock that helped us ‘defy’ the ridiculous notion that America is ‘post-racial’ and that having such a ‘racially exclusive’ event ‘keeps racism alive’)?

Yes, there are a lot of challenges that non-white racialized people face, even in spaces of Buddhism, when we want to have such events, or write solely about the fusion of being a practitioner of Buddhism and being a non-white racialized subject.  I remember Angel Kyodo Williams had difficulty finding largely white Buddhist bookstores who would sell her book (which is about being black and practicing Zen). They saw that as a way of ‘creating divisions amongst human beings.’ In my opinion, her book is a literary space of resistance against the devastating consequences of perpetuating the myth that the only real Buddhism is one entrenched in ‘post-raciality’ : Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (Compass)

And I don’t mean to knock the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness that I have really only experienced Buddhism in. I do appreciate what I have received from them and the relationships that I have developed… but I simply don’t get the same “Click! I get it!”, that I did at the retreat. I think with the exception of a few times I have spent talking to Abbott Sojun Mel Weistman in which I “get it”, 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 Zenju Earthlyn’s 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. The other people I give due credit to are Thich Nhat Hanh and Jan Willis..

A lot of women were in attendance at the retreat, which tells me that this was REALLY needed, and that women of African descent are interested in what the Buddhadarma offers (and I say this in response to a plethora of Buddhist practitioners- usually white- who make the claim that black people have no interest in what the Buddhadharma offers.) Us women of African descent craved this fellowship and healing space. I am so grateful for Zenju and Konda for bringing the Buddhadharma to us and truly understanding 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 retreats, or just stay there for a few days but it was clearly only available to wealthier people.

I know there are many “forms” to engage 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. After spending the whole day there, I realized how ridiculous it is that I have spent so much time in largely ‘post-racial’ 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 these types of healing space my nearly entire life. At the end of the day of that retreat, 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 in which ‘post-racial’ whiteness is not really acknowledged as ‘problematic’ (and by this, I don’t mean all white spaces or white bodied spaces. I am speaking specifically of spaces of whiteness in which the subjects of structural racism and implications of whiteness are ignored as significant problems). Maybe I should consider stoping my engagement 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; and coupled with the facts that I NEVER get paid to spend HOURS of my life each month, educating people for ‘free’, yet I’m unable to pay for my tuition to finish my doctoral program, adds more to such stress.

I invest my time into critical whiteness/race awareness education for the racial status quo, but I’m not being ‘invested in’ in terms of getting help or assistance for me to finish the very education that makes it possible for me to teach the collectivity of white folk who ask me to teach them for free. I know I should not be expecting to get rich off of what I do, but it would be nice to be able to pay basic bills, complete my education, etc. I was reminded of the concept of Dāna, yesterday, as a form of appreciation and investing into a belief system of harmlessness and the people who uphold it that I truly believe in. I believe in Zenju and Konda. And I also believe deeply that though they taught us with love and open hearts, they should not be doing this for ‘free.’ We live in an economy in which cash-money is a very necessary energy for survival.  The women accepted any Dāna we could offer. This made me think about how so many of us black females are simply not ‘invested’ in, in the USA. We are usually ‘divested in’; this is how I understand how structural and institutional racisms, as well as the machinery of whiteness, operate. Too often, black women are simply expected to be [white] society’s emotional and physical mammies. Too often we give A LOT of our selves but when it is time for us to be invested in, it is usually not reciprocated in terms of monetary investment.

Zenju and Konda should not have to bare the burden of such expectations and I was glad that the women at the retreat contributed Dāna to these two wonderful spirits. Investing in them, their work, is investing in women of African descent who are committed to resisting the violence of what Roland Barthes calls post-empire whiteness (see the chapter  Theorizing White Consciousness in a Post-Empire World: Barthes, Fanon, and the Rhetoric of Love)  and I call neoliberal whiteness (another way to refer to this is post-colonial whiteness); it is a divestment in structural racism, a divestment in spaces of post-racial normative whiteness, and a divestment in other legacies of racialized colonialism. I invested in Zenju’s newest book, Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner

. And as I think about these concepts of investment vs. divestment, I have started thinking about if my participation in sanghas of ‘post-racial whiteness ‘(well, more like ‘post-racial’ middle to upper class whiteness), whether my dana over the past 5 years to these spaces, has been a ‘divestment’ or an ‘investment’ for myself (as well as women of African descent that I rarely, if ever, find in these spiritual spaces.) Tough questions I am still trying to grapple with….

I also realized that I don’t think I responded to the San Francisco Zen Center the way I deeply and truly wanted to. I have to think about this and figure out how to articulate what I mean in the near future, but I realized that when I met with Abbott Stucky to discuss the ‘meaning’ of my blog post about the whiteness of the 50th year SFZC celebration, I didn’t really fully engage in the way I wanted to because I think to some extent, I continue to be incredibly overwhelmed and exhausted from explaining “whiteness” to white institutions (despite me ‘thinking’ it is my calling to do so… and that’s another story for another time I guess). And not only am I exhausted, but I still wrestle deeply with the fears and the repercussions of being “honest” to white organizations or institutions about “whiteness” (even if they ask me to be ‘honest’). I will have to sit on this a little more, but I do struggle through my fears, trying to be more transparent and honest. I think that such fears are something that is hard to explain to the collectivity of white males that I have interacted with throughout my life (I say ‘collectivity’ to indicate that it’s a theme I see from the majority, but it’s not necessarily all). I don’t hear the same fears from them of being punished or reprimanded for speaking the ‘truth’ about the realities of sexual and/or racial violence and injustice that is produced by the machinery of whiteness; their conscious or unconscious possessive investment in whiteness (see George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness) simply protects them from it or/and makes them oblivious to it. And it makes sense, because they collectively aren’t usually ‘victims’ of racialized-sexualized violence within the machinery whiteness (check out Steve Martinot’s book Machinery of Whiteness), so why WOULD they have such fears? My apologies if this is not coming across as articulately as I’d like it to. I ‘fail’ so often at trying to be “me”, which means being fully honest and transparent in talking to “white” collectivity (even in ‘mindful’ compassionate oriented Buddhist Sanghas) about whiteness.

Yes, let’s talk about ‘fear.’ I do have fear. I’m not going to lie. I have tremendous fear. Fear holds so many of us back, regardless of our racial or ethnic experience.

I have collective cultural memories/images of “punishment” of black racialized people being retaliated against for trying to be transparent, honest, or changing the way things are. I have images of lynching. I have images of police brutality. I have images of chain gang workers. I have the memories of friends and family telling me how they have been retaliated against for trying to reveal, expose, talk about and teach about whiteness and racism. I have images of so much… more than images… it’s deeper than that. It is somatic. I can tell myself intellectually that I should not focus on that past or on that collective history of racialized violence that occurred to ‘us’ to make sure the status quo’s possessive investment in whiteness is not ‘taken down’… but the somatic takes over and I am shut down at being FULLY ME because I feel like I need to survive….

I remember a type of fear the impeded my response at Green Gulch 3-4 years ago, after the Sunday public lecture. It was during lunch, outside. A white woman told me and a Chinese woman that she didn’t understand labels like “African American” or “Black American.” The conversation was a long time ago, but I remember I was briefly explaining that I was a new graduate student interested in African American females and vegan food studies. The white woman said with confidence, “What’s the point of referring to people that way? I mean, racism would just disappear if we’d stop referring to each other like that.” I remember I  and a Chinese woman were sitting at that table and being blown away by such ignorance of how racism and whiteness operate; how it could simply be ‘erased’ if you (and by ‘you’, the white woman meant us non-white people) didn’t engage in identity politics. And this white woman wasn’t trying to be mean, she was ‘sincere’ with her ‘understanding’ of how to eradicate racism. I remember being too scared to reply to this white woman with complete honesty. The Chinese woman simply shook her head at the white woman and said, “You don’t understand.” It was all she could really say. I could feel the frustration in her response as she was shaking her head. I could feel how she wanted to say more, but simply couldn’t. I know we both wanted to, but I felt emotionally paralyzed…But now I realized what I could have said to this white woman: “My friend, there are two things you should know: ‘Forget that I am Black….and never forget that I am Black.'” That would have been a perfect answer for that situation.

Because that it much of what I learned during the retreat. Yes, I am a woman of African Descent; a black female racialized-sexualized subject…. But, how can we be mindful of what that means? How do we understand its impact on our lives but at the same time, not let it be the defining factor of our life?  How do we forget that we are Black and never forget that we are Black and how do zazen and the precepts allow us to find liberation?

On SF Zen Center, Addressing Whiteness in Buddhism, and Moving Forward


This is the second part of the ongoing dialogue started from my August 2012 blogged observations. This blog was about my participation in San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. Below is a video of me sharing information about a book (see picture below) to help interested parties move forward in engaging with the implications of normative whiteness within predominantly white Buddhist sanghas. I recommended this book to Abbott Stucky of the San Francisco Zen Center at the end of August 2012 and they have ordered it for the sangha. Thanks SF Zen Center for meeting with me and hearing my take on mindful engagement about the implications of whiteness in predominantly white communities/institutions.

Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Aar Academy Ser)
by Joseph Cheah

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….

Eating the Buddhadharma: On Mindfulness, Nutritional Racism, and Food Justice

I recorded this for Turning Wheel’s 2012 food justice series in response to the ad I saw while walking down University Ave in Berkeley CA this summer 2012…

…and wanted to repost it for Sistah Vegan. Go here to follow Turning Wheels’ Buddhist oriented food justice series. For the hearing impaired, Turning Wheel transcribed it.

Early Memories of Race in New England: Consumption, Healing, and Zen Buddhism

The first 7 minutes of Early Memories of Race in New England are about my experiences with race in predominantly white areas. Part I, I share several excerpts from my memoir that I’m working on. In parts II and III, I speak of incorporating Zen Buddhist philosophy into healing around these issues, as well as using it to engage in fruitful dialogues around race, food, and healing. This series is about 55 minutes in total. EARPHONES or A GOOD SPEAKER SYSTEM ARE SUGGESTED. I can’t hear it on my crappy laptop speakers, so you may need Earphones or connect speakers to your computer. Sorry about that. I need to buy a microphone for the video camera. The books are refer to in these video blogs are listed AFTER the videos.



Books I mentioned
Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (Compass)

Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism

Below is a picture of my son Sun on my lap at the Berkeley Zen Center in June 2010.

Sun Harper-Zahn at Berkeley Zen Center

Sistah Vegan: On Consuming Love

In this video I speak about consuming love as a way to find love (versus consuming fear, violence, anger and expecting that that will lead you to love).

Vegan Healing, Racial Healing, Zen Buddhism in Black USA Communities

At the beginning of June 2009, my husband, son, and I spent a week at the Zen Center at Green Gulch in Marin County, CA. The week was called “Work Week.” Instead of paying to stay there, we exchanged our volunteer services for room and board. Oliver (my husband) built a shed and cleaned a water filter. I mostly took care of our newborn, but did have a chance to wake up early (well, early for me) and start hoeing Green Gulch’s organic farm crops at 6:00am, during “work meditation,” the first morning.

Green Gulch field

Green Gulch

The Zen Center at Green Gulch is my favorite Zen center in the East Bay of California, simply because of the gorgeous estate the center is on, the wonderful trails along the grounds, and the 20 minute walk from Muir Beach.

Above Veiw of Zen Center Green Gulch grounds

Above View of Zen Center Green Gulch grounds

Now, of course, as someone who is deeply entrenched in black feminist theory, critical race theory, and food studies, I quickly noticed that the demographic of the folk at the Zen center are predominantly white. It’s simply an observation, but wanted to point this out because it is very noticeable. It may very well reflect that fact that Green Gulch is located in Marin County which is incredibly white and middle to upper middle class. Like I said, I’m not hatin’ on anyone, just making an observation.

During one of the evenings that I was at the Work Week, I helped to prepare dinner. Now, what I like about Green Gulch is that you are guranteed organic meals that are vegetarian and vegan. Many of the veggies come from Green Gulch’s own farm. The evening that I helped to make dinner, I learned how to make vegan sushi.

Making sushi, vegan style, at Green Gulch in June 2009

Making sushi, vegan style, at Green Gulch in June 2009

The dinner came out quite well. I ended up preparing the sushi rolls with my 10 week old son on me, inside of his baby carrier. He slept the whole time. I unfortunately didn’t get a picture.

Me, some friends, and husband and son (Sun) at Green Gulch

Me, some friends, and husband and son (Sun) at Green Gulch

All and all, I think it’s great that the Zen Buddhist Center at Green Gulch, as well as the Berkeley Zen Center, offer environments that support those who have chosen vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

What are your favorite religious or spiritual places that are supportive of you vegan or vegetarian lifestyles? Please share. I’m also interested if you notice the ethnic demographic of your community if your community happens to be Buddhist. (Remember, I’m interested in black feminist studies and black female studies) If you live in the USA, how many people of the African Diaspora are part of your Buddhist community?

I’m also asking these questions because I am interested in my own personal experiences with Zen Buddhism because I have found that the philosophies of the practice are very effective for someone like myself who is interested in compassionate ways of reconciling and healing from racism (internalized, overt and covert). Simultaneously, I’m quite impressed that the practice is very supportive of plant-based diets. Food related health disparities are quite prevalent amongst brown and black communities in the USA. Could Zen Buddhism (and similar) actually help to heal the hearts of those brown and black folk suffering from racism, as well as physical ailments due to imbalanced diets?

I don’t consider this question too extreme, as Buddhist practitioners of the African Diaspora , such as Charles Johnson, Jan Willis, and Angel Williams tackle racial conflict, racism, and the need for heart healing in their pratice. I’m currently reading Angel’s book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace. The other year, I also read Jan Willis’s amazing book Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist – One Woman’s Spiritual Journey.

Anyway, these are just thoughts, running through my head. It’s probably because I personally feel I have benefited so much from Zen Buddhism (for my spiritual healing due to years of heart suffering from racism in the USA) and whole foods veganism (for health issues that run rampant in the black female community).

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