Thursday, October 14, 2010

Helping people just like me

“I've been trying to get her to study dharma translation, so she could, you know, help people.”

I ran into a white American male, whom I'll call Chris, on a long bus ride in northern India. He recognized me through “Amy”, a friend of mine he knew and had seen me with, and he struck up the conversation with “You're Amy's friend, right?” I answered yes, and he went on to ask about our in-his-eyes-mutual friend, who's involved in many Tibet-related activities including language interpretation. I really hadn't been in contact with her much recently, and I found his interest rather uncomfortable, so after telling Chris she was busy organizing fundraisers for disaster relief (specifically the earthquake-devastated area of Jyekundo) in Tibet, I tried to steer the conversation in other directions.

Chris told me he's in India studying Tibetan to be a translator. When I asked what sort of translation he wanted to do, it was obvious that he didn't even think of the fact that there could be anything to translate except ancient texts; he responded as if I was asking whether he wanted to focus on translation or interpretation. I clarified, but he said he wasn't interested in “modern novels”. I really wasn't getting through to him that there could be things like newspapers, biographies, histories, blogs, political platforms, and so on written in Tibetan, but rather than push it, I left the issue alone. I let our conversation wander to other topics like language study, life in India, our hometowns – general small talk.

I can't remember how the following came up, but Chris had on-and-off been giving me the impression that he wanted to bring the topic of conversation back to my friend Amy. Eventually he mentioned something about her focus on modern issues and interpreting spoken Tibetan, responding to his own comments in disappointment: “I've been trying to get her to study dharma translation, so she could, you know, help people. It's such a shame.”

At this, I was shocked and furious. I couldn't believe he just said that. I tried to gather my thoughts for a few seconds before responding, but I just blurted out:

“Wait a minute. You mean, so she could help spoiled, privileged, pansy-ass white kids try to get enlightened?”

Had I thought about it a few seconds longer, I might have said, “Oh? Which people?” and made him do his own reasoning about how his comment was so problematic.

What made me furious was not his disparaging my friend, which is between the two of them and really none of my business. Rather, it was that pretty much everything I had said about Amy during our conversation was about her work for disaster relief, and Chris implied direct relief was worthless in comparison to expanding the volume of Tibetan religious texts accessible to an English-only audience. To me it felt like Chris's use of the word “people” was specifically excluding Tibetans and only including people like himself, whether that likeness was racial (white) or cultural (English-speaking Buddhists).

I really chewed him out, surely saying some problematic things myself in the process. I asked him if he had any idea what Tibetans had been doing in the earthquake zone, how all the monasteries had sent their monks as rescue and aid workers, and yelled at him to think about what practicing dharma means to them. I said something to the effect that outsiders who think they value Tibetan religion so much need to stop spending so much time studying books about it and watch how Tibetans practice. I asked him where the American dharma groups were during Hurricane Katrina (which, incidentally, affected non-white residents the most severely) to which he said he didn't know.

My emotional response went on for quite a while, expanding to my feeling that there are always outsiders wanting to get something out of Tibet for themselves and caring little for actual Tibetans. Chris didn't get openly hostile, and responded to most of my tirade not with arguments but with excuses and dismissals (derailment?). He “didn't realize how much” Amy was doing. “Both sides are important,” he stressed, referring to book-knowledge and action. He did listen, and I felt like I had some effect. He told me in his line of work, translation, it's easy to get caught up in thinking just about the people it's for. But he never apologized, and seemed to remain oblivious that he had actually done anything offensive. We parted as he got off the bus.

A couple days later I spoke with Amy. Chris had contacted her to complain about how “disrespectful” I'd been, and after calling him out again herself, she shared with me a lot of what he said. One thing I hadn't thought of when I accused Chris of ignoring Tibetans as “people” in his idea of “helping people” is that he might consider translating texts somehow helpful to Tibetans. He told Amy it was both preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture and drawing supporters to Tibet.

I'd welcome alternate opinions from readers, but as far as I can see, both of these claims are at best implausible, and rather oblivious to anything having to do with the real world.

Telling someone you're preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture by translating scriptures into English is a lot like telling someone you're preserving endangered species by putting animals in zoos. In a way both claims are true - if all animals in the wild were wiped out, or if Buddhism completely ceased to exist in Tibet, there would still be a few of the species left in zoos, and there would still be English translations of the scriptures on Western people's bookshelves. But in both cases, the “preservation” taking place is much more for the sake of somebody else who wants to observe and enjoy. And all too often, the atmosphere of scholarship and research on Tibet (as opposed to for Tibet) ends up manufacturing Western “experts” who get a lot more respect and recognition for their supposed knowledge of all things Tibetan than actual Tibetans with a lot more knowledge.

As for the idea that translating Tibetan scripture into English creates support for Tibet, it's just completely implausible. The sort of translation being done by Western scholars these days consists almost entirely of advanced texts, which would only be of interest to someone already familiar with Tibetan Buddhism. And there's a strong argument to be made that anyone who considers oneself to be at this level but who needs a translation for lack of Tibetan reading capability has their priorities backwards - but that's a topic for a completely different post.

There was one thing Chris said to Amy that made me feel like he'd at least gotten something out of our conversation: he said “I should think about benefiting Tibetans more.” But I still felt like he was more interested in justifying and exaggerating the importance of his work than pursuing any real benefit for Tibet.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dharma Wars: When Tibetans argue and White people cry "Victim!"

Recently, there has been a bit of a crisis within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The location of the crisis is New York, and so it does effect the Western Buddhist sangha.

I won't go too deeply into the crisis, but according to popular belief (which may or may not be the actual cause) A Tibetan from aristocratic background and lifestyle got upset about his lawn not being mowed and fired a non-Tibetan manager. A Tibetan lama then resigned from his position at the monastery, one thing led to another and that lama was effectively banned from teaching at that monastery or any of its affiliated centers. A lot of people believe that the aristocrat's anger over the lawn mowing incident led to the banning of this Lama. This may be partially true, I don't know. But that is the general belief.

**IMPORTANT NOTE: After speaking with several people it came to light that, although the so-called "Lawnmower Incident" may have been a contributing factor, there were also theological reasons behind the decision at hand. I won't elaborate on them here since I don't know all the details, but trust me in saying that it's far more complex than most people will lead you to believe**

The response by many western people, including at least one popular and widely read Buddhist blogger have been accusing Tibetans of abusing the western Buddhist sangha. One particularly memorable quote read:

"thanks to the failure of Tibetans to accept Americans as their equals. It is as simple as that. We are peasants to them."

The first thing that struck me as odd was, aside from the initial manager who no one is talking about, the victim in this case is a TIBETAN Lama, and his aggressor is a FELLOW TIBETAN. In short, this is infighting. With "In" being a key component of that word. How is it that when the victim is a Tibetan, westerners are complaining about being the ones abused?

This is also, clearly, an unfair generalization of 6 million people based on the inappropriate actions of a few. It is a clear example of a minority figure's action representing the entire minority while a white person's action represents the individual.

Many are pinning this as a racist issue (Tibetans versus Americans) as compared to the class structure issue that it actually is. Does anyone really think it would be any different if it were a Tibetan who had not mown the lawn? For that matter, westerners in positions of respect who perceive disrespect tend to respond in the same way, yet we wouldn't generalize all westerners in such a manner. (I'm inclined to remember my private school headmistress who summarily fired or refused to renew contracts of teachers who disagreed with her... )

How is this that when one aristocratic family acts poorly and we can generalize all Tibetans, and yet when westerners in positions of power (school, religious authority, etc...) do the exact same thing, it is the act of the individual?

I chose to respond to the blogger, hoping that other readers would see this. I received one positive response, a blogger who wrote that the original writer should have been more careful with his words. But the original writer also responded.

"It can only be resolved by Tibetans, from the top down, the intervention of His Holiness himself leading his Tibetan disciples and representatives into the 21st century reality of the Karma Kagyu in this country.

This isn't Tibet.We're Americans. Treat us like KTD is, like a bunch of peasants, banning a beloved teacher for siding with a Western lay person over an Tibetan aristocrat is the straw that broke the camels back."

In one paragraph he states that it is a Tibetan issue, but in the very next one he again turns it into Tibetan vs American. Treating us like peasants, Western lay person versus Tibetan aristocrat.

The many people who are making this argument completely fail to discuss, or even look at, the theological or situational backing behind the decision to ban (very complex on both counts, as I later found out.) Not only are they mistaken about the cause, but they are making the problem worse. Instead of discussing the actual reasons and therefore being able to petition for change, they chose instead to cry "victim" and completely ignore the issues at hand.

I personally am upset about the ban, but I am about 100 times more upset at the idiotic and racist response by so many western Buddhists who have chosen to blame all of Tibetan culture and pretend to be the victims in this situation instead of try to learn the real cause behind the decision and help the Lama in question.

Finally, the congregation of this Buddhist center, although largely westerners also has many Chinese, Taiwanese, and of course, numerous Tibetans. All of them are being effected by this ban. The Tibetans may be effected even more so due to family connections and social pressures to completely shun this lama in accordance with the banning.

So, if this IS the result of the "Lawn Mowing Incident" as it is now being called, then this is a case of aristocrats treating EVERYONE below them like "peasants" as our writer says. Including numerous Tibetans. Yet, as we so commonly see, this writer and the many others feel as though it is us, the poor westerners, who are being so horribly abused by these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Tibetans.

...and people wonder why I refuse to go to Buddhist centers in the west.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Let's Talk About Butts...

Well, this title basically wrote itself. My last REAL post, Let's Talk About Feet, dealt with the appropriation and offensive use of Tibetan religious imagery. Presumably the makers of the shoes were neither Tibetans nor Buddhists, so we can shake that off to a certain extent as ignorance. As as you may have gathered from the post, I was more upset by the responses from the Western Buddhist community 's complete disregard for Tibetan culture and the potential for offense than I was about the actual shoes.

Then today I was visiting a large market in a very large, diverse and liberal city. This supermarket really had everything, including it's own devoted Yoga corner.

All the usuals were there. Clothing, accessories, yoga mats and zafus. Zafus are circular meditation cushions, to provide comfort and support to your bum during long meditations and take some stress off of your knees. These are most widely used for Buddhist meditation in Buddhist centers. In fact, a very large number of those who produce these are Buddhist as are those who market it. Then one of the zafus caught my eye.

Yes. That is a Tibetan Thangka image of White Tara, the female Buddha of compassion and long life, printed on a zafu. Remember all that stuff I wrote about having sacred images below the waist? The makers and marketers of this Zafu are telling us to put a sacred image under our butt. And at $49.99, it's not cheap to do so. Plus, if it's in a mainstream market like this, they must be producing and selling a large number. Since these items are pretty much sold to western Buddhists in America (Tibetan homes and temples do not actually use cushions like this, by and large) it says that a solid number of Americans practicing Buddhist meditation are perfectly happy to shove a sacred image under their butt.

I'm just speechless with this one.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not Dead!

Just a quick note! Neither we nor the blog have died. Pongu and I are both running tight with work and deadlines and all sorts of craziness. The blog will continue once we both have a chance to breathe. Ideally I hope to have a post up in the next few days. Sorry about the delay!

By the way, if you have seen an issue that you think should be on the blog, please respond with it in the comments. If you don't want the comment published and just want to send us an idea, please say "DON'T PUBLISH THIS COMMENT!" and we won't. I hope you readers can contribute some good topic ideas! Don't worry, we have plenty (life surrounds us with them) but we'd love to get opinions aside from our own.

Thanks for your patience! We hope to be up and running soon.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's Talk About Feet

Anyone who keeps up on Tibetan or Buddhist news probably saw the news about Keds, (or, as we later found out, selling "Tibetan Buddhist Shoes." It was reported on the popular Tibetan news site, Phayul as well as the very popular Buddhist magazine Tricycle's blog site[Editor's Note: Tricycle has changed it's blog site and the comments are no longer visible].

The shoes featured Tibetan flags, mantras, the face of HH Dalai Lama, and even a Thangka of a Buddha, among other designs.

The Tibetan community, and world Buddhist community as a whole, was deeply offended.

Fortunately, Keds acted quickly, not only removing the offending shoes, but also issuing an apology and explaining how the error had occurred. Apparently, although Keds accepts responsibility for their lack of oversight on this issue, the offense had been committed by a partner site, which allows customers to custom design and sell shoes. Keds, however, admirably immediately contacted the site, the shoes were removed, and accepted responsibility for their role and immediately started taking steps to prevent future problems.

What does that have to do with this blog? I'm getting to it, I promise. But first I want to look at why this is so offensive.

In most Asian cultures (and I'm not talking east Asian, I'm talking all of Asia) as well as cultures with a strong Asian influence (for example, many European Muslim countries) the feet are considered dirty. Stepping over things, pointing with the feet, or placing respected objects on or under the feet is a huge no-no.

This can be a bit confusing from a western standpoint, since we don't have that association. I think almost every westerner working with Tibetans (myself included) has nudged someone with their foot, pointed with a foot, stepped over a book, stepped over a sleeping child, or stepped over food during a picnic--something like that--and been greeted with looks of absolute offense and horror. This is one that we all learn the hard way. But while the food/child/book rules are a bit harder to grasp, the religion one is pretty obvious.

Does anyone remember the fiasco a few years back when Nike made a shoe with a design that looked like the Arabic word "Allah" and there were massive protests by Muslims? Or the international threats to boycott the film "Hollywood Buddha" because the poster featured a man sitting on a Buddha head?

In short, people should know by now that putting religious images on a shoe might be offensive, and you probably ought to check with a religious authority before doing so.

So and shoe designer? That was dumb. Straightforward dumb.

And I'm sure some people thought it was "honoring" Tibetan culture, and to those people, I'd like to direct you to this post from the blog Native Appropriations. Different context, but I think it's one of the best explanations of why you should be careful when wearing another culture's sacred symbols for fashion.

But this blog isn't about the general ignorance of the public towards Tibet and Tibetan culture. In fact, I originally argued that this was not a valid topic for a post.

That is until I saw the comments on the tricycle blog.

I want to break this down as best I can. I don't know 100% which bloggers are Tibetans and which aren't, but I'm going to assume that Tibetan name and Tibetan linguistic writing patterns imply Tibetan. And I'm not going to include my own comment, which I left because I was so pissed when I saw these.

Because this is Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, I think we can safely assume that all commenter consider themselves to be Buddhist.

Number of comments (minus my own): 27
Number of Tibetan commenters: 7
Number of Non-Tibetan commenters: 9

The Tibetan writers unanimously found the designs terribly offensive.

Of the non Tibetan writers: Two neutral, Two found the designs inappropriate, and the remaining five all thought that everyone should lighten up and shouldn't be offended.

Those remaining five defended the designs by pointing to "transcendence" clinging to "things" and "symbols," "Impermanence" how the "True Buddha is not an image" or how this should be used as a lesson in non-attachment.

Others just said that they thought it was funny or wanted a pair.

So apparently, cultural offenses are anti-Buddhist, because they are clinging to symbols. However, I doubt that one of these writers would walk into a temple wearing a shirt that says "F*ck you" on it, because I'm pretty sure they would recognize that as culturally offensive. And I'm even more sure that they wouldn't spray paint obscenities and upside down crosses on a catholic church in order to make a point about the inherent fallacy of symbols.

Why? Well, they would claim being respectful of others' cultures and beliefs, but then--wait--why aren't we being respectful of Tibetan culture and belief?

The real reason? I'm 99% sure it's because this isn't offensive to White Western culture.

So if it's offensive to westerners, we shouldn't do it. But if its horribly offensive to Tibetans? Well, come on. Just lighten up! It's funny. Anyway, you shouldn't be so attached to symbols. After all, there is no true holiness!

These are people who consider themselves Buddhist, take teachings from Tibetan lamas, should know better, DO know better, but don't care.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Incident at Gyuto

After my post about living in a Refugee camp, I ran into a few perfect examples of what I was talking about. Both from the side this being a refugee camp and from the side of inappropriate behavior from "Supporters." This also goes a bit into Pongu's post about doing everything in English.

Yesterday was His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa's birthday. Since I don't live far from Gyuto monastery, where he resides, I headed over to Gyuto for the day to take part in the celebrations. Overall, it was a wonderful day with prayers in the morning, a chance to meet HH Karmapa, free lunch, a talk in the afternoon, a "Cake" made out of Tsampa (Barley this case mixed with butter, sugar, cashews and raisins!), and a performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing arts. It was hot, it was VERY crowded, but overall, it was a wonderful day and His Holiness seemed happy with the celebration as well.

But one incident really riled me up.

First I should note the demographic at Gyuto. I would say about 85% of people were Tibetan, the remaining 15% being westerners, Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans with a small smattering of others. Of those Tibetans, the vast majority were new arrivals from Tibet. I met a lot of people from Sokor Loptra (TTS, the Tibetan Transit school) which is only for people who have arrived from Tibet within the past 5 years. I also saw a lot of people from the New Arrival Center, who had arrived from Tibet within the past 2 months. The Karmapa, as a younger Lama who only escaped from Tibet in 2000, has a much greater following among Tibetans inside of Tibet or immediately from Tibet than from Tibetans in India. So the vast majority of Tibetans present were new arrivals from Tibet and very obviously so. Please read Living in a Refugee Camp for a better understanding of the situation of New arrival Tibetans.

I was sitting with some of my friends outside of the Gyuto store. We were drinking soda and eating chips and just enjoying ourselves. At the next table over, an American Buddhist nun was doing the same as us. There were lots of people and definitely not enough chairs. She was holding a seat for a friend by placing her backpack on the seat next to her.

A young Tibetan man who had arrived from Amdo only a couple of years before and speaks mediocre English came over and asked if he could take the chair. The nun, with her mouth full, responded in English that she was holding the chair. Since she did not make any hand gestures, and since her speech was muffled, the young man assumed compliance and started to take the chair. The nun then started yelling at him.

Nun: "I told you, you can't take that chair!"

Man: "But, no one is sitting there!"

Nun: "No one is sitting there now, but my friend is coming!"

Man: "I didn't know"

Nun: "Well, I was telling you, but I was eating!"

The young man apologized and went away. The nun continued to, loudly, complain about how rude these young Tibetans were.

I was shocked. I almost went up and confronted her, and in retrospect, I should have and I am ashamed of myself for not doing it. Here she, a woman who has been living in India for nearly 10 years as a Buddhist nun, has made no effort whatsoever to learn spoken Tibetan, or apparently, even simple Tibetan cultural hand gestures. She clearly has no understanding of the fact that most of the people there were new arrivals who speak poor (if any) English and might not understand a muffled comment. And I suppose I should note that while she was complaining about his rudeness, she was the one talking with her mouth full!

Here she is, living as an ordained nun in Tibetan society in India, very publically promoting her own charitable activities for Tibetans, but clearly taking no time whatsoever to understand the situation of those around her or even, during the ten years of her residence, learning the language of her host society!

I wonder if she ever interacts with Tibetans, because I find it hard to believe that she never would have learned even the simple hand gestures that mean "wait a minute" or "No" if she had spent more than five minutes with Tibetan people.

The other incident was actually very beautiful, albeit very sad and I think illustrates the mindset of this place as a refugee camp.

A friend of mine, visiting from Sikkim, held a place for me inside the temple for His Holiness' afternoon talk. She is Tibetan, born and raised in India. She has never seen Tibet.

We love hanging out and gossiping with each other, just like girls anywhere in the world, and always try to sit together at teachings.

At the end of His Holiness' address (In Tibetan, English, Chinese and KOREAN!!! With no translators. Can I just note how impressed I am???) members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts stood up to sing a song for His Holiness. Their piece was a stunningly beautiful song with lyrics and music composed by His Holiness immediately prior to his escape from Tibet. It's one of my favorite traditional style songs. The style and words are beautiful and absolutely classical. When listening to this song it's very easy to imagine oneself back in Tibet

My friend leaned over, as the song started and said, "Whenever I hear this song, all I can think is 'here we are, in the presence of His Holiness Karmapa, in our Chupas [traditional dress] listening to our music, and we aren't in our country, we can't go to our country. We don't have a country'" And she just started repeating "We don't have a country, we don't have a country."

As we listened to this elegant melody, she kept reaching up and wiping away tears. And trying to laugh off how embarrassed she was to cry in public. She continued silently crying throughout the whole song.

This is really what it means to live in a refugee camp.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living in a Refugee Camp

I've been spending a lot of time in India recently, specifically living near Dharamsala. As a result, I spend a lot of my free time in Mcleod Ganj, considered the center of Tibetan society in exile, and also a big tourism spot.

Like any tourist attraction, it has its fair share of hotels, cheap hostels, coffee shops (my caffeine addiction is pleased with this), and lots of shops.

Many tourists come here with a "Shangrila" idea of Tibet and India, and the tourist industry does cater to that to a certain extent with courses on 'Tantra,' dozens, if not hundreds, of yoga courses (a few of which are genuine), astrology, hypnosis, past life regressions, and tarot. The last three are almost exclusively offered by westerners spending time in India.

And, like any tourist attraction, people come with a sense of entitlement, a belief that their every whim should be catered to. The customer is always right, and in the case of tourism, the entire locale is the "shop."

I've always found this attitude sickening, in any location. Like the American tourist in France who believes that yelling slowly in English will make them understood, and then acts as if its the fault of the French fruit seller on the street for not speaking English in France.

Are there times when it's okay to be demanding? Yes. You sign into your hotel room and find out that the promised AC is broken and the sheets are dirty, feel free to complain. But I'm sure you can see the difference.

However, here in Dharamsala and other Tibetan settlements, there is a much bigger problem. Most tourists here, and even many supporters who are well meaning, polite and well educated, forget what this place is.

This is a refugee camp. This is where people fleeing their country, arriving with nothing, settle because they have no where else to go. This is a refugee camp.

I cannot count the number of times I've seen a tourist screaming at a Tibetan shop keeper or waiter for misunderstanding English, not taking a moment to think that this person might be a newly arrived refugee from Tibet, who had little to no access to education. Most adult arrivals get less than 5 years of a meager, amateur English education and come out with limited functional English at best.

Most Tibetans are not in Dharamsala for Business. They did not come to Dharamsala to learn English, to open a shop, to open a restaurant, or open a hotel. They came here because of the lack of rights in their homeland, fear of arrest, fear of torture, a desire to live in freedom, the hope to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the chance to learn in a Tibetan supportive environment.

They have to learn some English to survive here. They have to work in a shop or a hotel or whatever in order to pay their rent (since owning land is nearly impossible for a refugee.)

Dharamsala does not overtly look like a refugee camp for a couple of reasons.

1) It's been around long enough that you have long established buildings and institutions instead of the imagined 'tent city' refugee camp. However, if you look at other long standing refugee camps and settlements (Palestinian ones come to mind) you are bound to see a lot more concrete apartment buildings than tents. It's how things go if you've been around for a while.

2) Problems are not easily viewable from the main street level, where most tourists confine themselves.

Not only is this by definition a refugee camp, but also the problems that are not easy to see are the same as those faced by refugees anywhere.

-Newly arrived Tibetans usually don't speak either Hindi or English.
-They usually arrive with little or no money or possessions
-They usually have no paperwork, aside from a refugee document issued in Kathmandu
-Many are severely traumatized due to experiences in Tibet or a difficult escape, some are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result
-Many are suffering physical ailments as a result of starvation during the escape, frostbite, and also illnesses due to the new environment, low altitude, and dirty water
-Upon arrival in India, many must wait months, and some even years, to get an RC (Identification card for non-Indian residents) and even longer to get an IC (travel documents)
-Without an RC, Tibetans can be detained by Indian police,who have been known to abuse detainees.
-Tibetans may be subject to official curfews, and unofficial curfews are self imposed due to the lack of RCs. Many Tibetans are afraid to go out after dark if they do not have their RC
-Tibetans face extreme difficulties getting permission to own businesses
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to own land
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to get Indian citizenship
-Many 2nd and 3rd generation exiles suffer from issues of identity and displacement, resulting in unemployment, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.
-Clashes occur not uncommonly between local Indians who feel displaced by the Tibetan community, and the Tibetan refugees. These are often very violent.
-Tibetans can be financially abused by landlords and so on, because they feel as if they have no legal recourse.
-Extremely high numbers of parentless children

What does this sound like to you? It sure sounds like a refugee camp to me. All of us need to remember that.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Is he even Buddhist?"

An acquaintance of mine recently sent me a message after a confrontation with one of my close friends. My friend, who I'll call 'Max,' is a long term Tibet supporter, and a fluent Tibetan speaker. This acquaintance, who I'll call 'Joe,' had gotten into an argument with Max about ways of supporting Tibet. When he contacted me to rant, one of his questions was: "Is Max even Buddhist?"

He's not the first to ask this question either. In fact, I find this question a common way for alleged Tibet supporters to put down or delegitimize other Tibet supporters with whom they disagree.

To me, this is a symptom of a far greater problem: the belief that in order to support Tibet, you have to be Buddhist.

This is a problem for many reasons.

First of all, it isolates non-Buddhist supporters. Darfur receives support from Christian groups and especially Jewish ones! Do you think that support would still exist if Darfur supporters asked about other Darfur supporters "Are they even Muslim?" If these supporters felt that they were being judged not only as to their religion but as to their level of religiosity, I doubt that they would stay with the cause. Yet, this pressure is seen as acceptable from Tibet supporters.

Now, this sentiment does not come from Tibetans, in my experience. The Dalai Lama himself has discouraged Tibet supporters from converting to Buddhism, instead encouraging them to understand and appreciate their own faith and culture.

This claim also delegitimizes the motives of those who wish to work for altruistic purposes. It says simply: "The reason to support Tibet is because I am Buddhist, and I want to preserve Buddhism." instead of saying "We should support Tibet because it is the right thing to do, it is an issue of human rights."

The irony, of course, being that Buddhism is supposed to encourage altruistic values, and yet, in judging this way, they are discouraging altruistic intention.

Secondly, the issue of Tibet is an issue of human rights. Not all Tibetans are Buddhist, neither are all Tibet supporters. His assumption that 99% of supporters (another statement he made in the same e-mail) came to Tibet via the Dharma is thus not only problematic, but inaccurate. I remember at a meeting of about a hundred members of Students for a Free Tibet, people were asked what brought them to Tibetan issues. Less than half answered Buddhism.

Let's go back to that earlier point: not all Tibetans are Buddhists. There are Tibetan Muslims, Bonpos and even Catholics (I passed two century-old Tibetan catholic churches in Dartsedo.). When we assume that Tibetan issues are solely Buddhist issues, what are we saying about Tibetans who are not Buddhist?

To Joe, I simply responded "Max's religion and practice is no one's business but his own. It's unfair to judge how a person is as an activist and supporter based on whether or not he is the same religion as you."

Although I do consider myself Buddhist, I also find it personally insulting when someone looks at me and asks, judgmentally, about my faith. If I answer that I consider religion a personal thing (my usual way of saying "None of your damned business") I'm usually met with judging stares or comments about the superiority of (western style) Buddhist practice. If I say I am Buddhist, this is followed by an interrogation of how much I meditate, practice, etc.

This judgmental interrogation creates two major problems. The first of which being it forces away many well intentioned, sincere individuals who's experience could be extraordinarily valuable to the Tibetan cause. If Tibetans were to choose for some reason or another, not to accept help from a certain group, this would be their prerogative. However, this instead is foreign 'supporters' forcing away potentially excellent supporters solely due to their faith. One major goal in the Tibetan movement is to make it a household name and get support from all over the world. How will this support come if people are ostracized due to not being Buddhist?

Secondly, this is a group of people trying to hijack the Tibetan cause and turn it into a crusade for their own evangelical form of Buddhism. Despite their claims of being Tibet supporters, by rejecting or isolating all supporters who are not (as they deem) Buddhist, they are clearly taking potential support away from the Tibetan cause. What, then, are they trying to do? Under the guise of "Tibetan Support" they are attempting to gather and create a group that represents their own evangelical view of Buddhism.

The irony is that these same people will criticize the way China judges Tibetans religious practice, and how Chinese employers will frequently disregard a Tibetan who shows overt Buddhist faith, or how Chinese security is more likely to frisk a Tibetan wearing prayer beads. They fail to see that their actions of judging the worth and quality of a fellow supporter by their faith is, in essence, the same.

I think we need to realize that this isn't appropriate. I have decided, henceforth, when asked this question, my new response will be "I don't see how my religious affiliation relates to my work." I'm bound to make some new enemies (something which actually started less than one hour after launching this blog,) but I also think it will give me a clearer sense of who I should be working with, and who is only in this from a religiously judgmental standpoint.

I would really like to hear what readers, especially any Tibetans in the audience, think about this issue and what we can do about it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Judging Tibetans over etymology

A lot of fuss is made over the Tibetan word kyemey (also pronounced jyemey, depending on one's dialect), meaning wife or woman. Tendor has written on the topic recently (in Tibetan), and I just ran across 2007 post on Tibet Talk that addresses it too. There's a degree of debate as to the etymology of the word and likewise its spelling (it appears in several variants in many dictionaries), but the vast majority of Tibetans I've spoken with about it believe it means “low birth” in the sense that being born female is inferior to being born male.

I'm no proponent of the word kyemey, especially since there are unambiguously non-offensive words that enjoy much more widespread usage in contemporary Tibet. It actually makes me angry every time I hear it, and I'm 100% behind some of my Tibetan friends who are pushing to abolish the word. But what angers me even more is western people judging Tibetan society based on a word like kyemey and its likely etymology.

Let's step back and look in the mirror for a second. At English. The term husband is purportedly derived from Old Norse words meaning “house holder” or “master of the house”, but it's clear from the related word husbandry that there's a further notion of a benevolent lord looking over and managing something seen as unable to care for itself (the environment, livestock, or... one's spouse). As for the word wife, I've seen claims that it's connected to words for “veil”, “shame”, and a lot of other things supposedly-liberal people would be, well, ashamed of.

If Tibetans are to be judged for a word that reflects, in most people's minds, a sexist idea that women are inferior by birth, why aren't these same westerners judging their own peoples for the same sorts of sexist artifacts in their own languages? (And English is definitely not alone!) And why do westerners (even well-meaning “supporters”) behave so as to shame Tibetans about their own language as if offensive words were somehow a uniquely Tibetan thing?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Treating monastic robes as party costumes

Native Appropriations, a blog dealing with appropriation of indigenous and especially Native American culture, is reporting on San Francisco's “Bay to Breakers” event:
Bay to Breakers is an annual San Francisco Bay Area tradition, now in its 99th year. Technically it's a 12k race, starting downtown (the bay) and ending at the beach (the breakers). I don't know the exact history, or how it has (d)evolved through the years, but I can tell you it is now one part serious road race, and about 100 parts drunken costumed debauchery.
The big story is that they lost count after taking fifty-some photos of white people covered in feathers and paint and drunkenly war-whooping “playing Indian”. But near the bottom of the article, they add:
Indian costumes were by no means the only form of racist costumes. There were plenty of "Mexicans" in sombreros and mustaches, "Asians" with kimonos and stereotypical rice paddy hats, even some "Tibetan monks" (I have a picture of those):

Notice that we're not just assuming this is drunken costume party behavior; the “nun” in the center of the picture is actually carrying a can of Bud.

Is this a case of well-meaning supporters trying to find a clever way to insert a Free Tibet message in a public event (and screwing it up horribly), or just random party-goers who think they can treat someone else's religion and national struggle as a costume to put on while you party? I'm leaning towards the latter since they don't even get the color or design of the robes right, but with just a picture it's pretty hard to tell.

Even if they were trying to do something good, it's hard for me to tell where the borderline between making a positive statement and doing something offensive gets drawn. Of course they shouldn't be drunk and carrying beer cans, and mixing up the color of their robes (maybe they think TIE-bet is THAI-bet?) but what about other aspects. Would it be okay if these people had really shaved their heads? If they were carrying pictures of Tibetan martyrs? Does whether they have the permission/blessing of a Tibetan community or religious authority change anything?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

TIE-bet! Hey maybe they have TIE food?

Mispronouncing Tibet as "TIE-bet" is a classic sign of ignorance about Tibet, to the point of being a joke in many circles. I can't remember the first time I heard someone say "TIE-bet", but I remember being conscious of the ridiculous mispronunciation many years back. I was at an SFT workshop playing out a protest scenario where I was trying to enter an official meeting venue (to disrupt it, of course) while noisy protesters yelled outside. When security stopped me despite my business attire, without even thinking I blurted out something like "Damn free TIE-bet hippies, I can't even get to my office on time because of them!"

So a couple days ago in a coffee shop in Dharamsala, I overheard some young white women talking and couldn't help but notice that one of them pronounced Tibet as "TIE-bet" when speaking to the proprietor of the business, a Tibetan woman. I didn't catch any more of their conversation, but the incident got me thinking back to all the times I'd heard "TIE-bet" in the past and wondering how it's taken by Tibetans. Being that Tibet was a name created by foreign people, maybe mispronouncing it isn't as offensive as mispronouncing personal names or titles. Or maybe it is. I've lost track of how many times a person, usually a young white male, came up to me and insisted on saying "TIE-bet" while I was doing advocacy work (tabling, handing out flyers, etc.) for Tibet.

The word insisted is key here. While there have been times, like in the coffee shop the other day, when I only heard "TIE-bet" spoken a single time, I have never had an experience where the speaker apologized or switched to saying "Tibet" after being corrected. The power dynamic in situations like this is usually that we (myself and whomever I'm working with at the time) are trying to make a case for Tibet and encourage people we meet to be interested, receptive, and supportive, so there's a perceived need for us not to directly correct those who say "TIE-bet". It's uncomfortable for me and I imagine it's a lot more uncomfortable for many of the Tibetans I've faced the situation alongside. Whenever this happens, myself and others I've observed make sure to say "Tibet", correctly and clearly, again and again, in the hopes of giving the person we're talking with a hint. And it's NEVER worked.

I don't think it's just a matter of people being unable to interpret a subtle hint. I think what's going on here is a really troubling power game. The person who insists on saying "TIE-bet" is doing it because, in their mind, they're right. They've already made up their mind about Tibet - and I don't just mean the pronunciation of the "i". Sometimes they listen and nod. Usually they make dismissive comments. On occasion, they consider themselves pro-Tibet and have specific ideas on how the Tibet issue should be resolved, whose approach is right and whose approach is wrong, etc. When they do, it's not based on any real facts or knowledge, but rather ideologies and -isms (anti-Communism, libertarianism, pacifism, white man's burden, ...).

The real message in saying "TIE-bet" to someone who's already corrected you by saying "Tibet" is "I'm right and you're wrong." And I'm particularly offended when I see white people saying "TIE-bet" to Tibetans because, to me, it comes across as "I'm more of an authority on your country than you are, despite that I can't say its name right."

It's almost laughable that these people prove their ignorance by not even knowing how to say the name of the place correctly, then feel entitled to have strong opinions on its future. But it's not funny, it's frustrating and insulting. And I don't doubt that, in at least many of the cases, it's intentionally so.

Readers, do you have stories about people insisting on saying "TIE-bet" to your face? Is my interpretation of it off-base?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Doing everything in English

One issue I struggled with when I first considered making this blog was the English-language issue. If you look at the vast majority of materials from international organizations working Tibetan issues, both humanitarian and political, they're all in English. The websites, the brochures, the press releases, the videos on YouTube, etc. I knew right away this was an issue I wanted to confront, but I also knew this blog itself would be yet another example of the tendency for discussion of Tibetan issues to take place in English.

I took the approach of thinking “OK, this blog is going to be English for now and somewhere down the line I'm going to look for a way to deal with that and make it less exclusionary.” But then I screwed up by trying to express that thought in the commenting guidelines:
4. The primary language of this blog is English, and for the time being, it will be English-only. I realize this is itself problematic and welcome discussion on the issue and what to do about it.
Without realizing it I was saying, albeit in a sugar-coated way, “You Tibetans need to write in English here. Sorry but that's how it is unless you can tell me a better way to do things.” Regardless of my intention, that's not cool.

Beyond acknowledging my mistake, I want to actually do something about it, so I'm going to welcome comments in Tibetan or Chinese as well as English. I'll do my best to follow up such comments with a quick description in English of what I think they're about, but I don't feel qualified or justified trying to actually translate comments myself.

Back to the whole issue, what kind of progress is being made? International Campaign for Tibet has Tibetan and Chinese language versions of their website, among several other languages. Students for a Free Tibet, even SFT India, does not have major written publications in Tibetan online, but instead SFT seems to have focused on audiovisual media and especially online video, translating their 14-minute promotional video into Tibetan and featuring a number of calls to action in Tibetan on the SFTHQ YouTube channel. SFT's executive director Tendor also has a blog, Yarlung Raging, featuring a mix of Tibetan and English posts.

Beyond these examples, I've had a hard time finding organizations (support groups or charities working for Tibet, as opposed to actual Tibetan organizations like TYC, TWA, or the Rangzen Alliance) with Tibetan-language websites or media. This brings up what seems like it might be an unfortunate trend: the cracks in the wall of English-language domination of Tibet activism seem to coincide with organizations where there's already a significant level of Tibetan leadership.

Short of further transition away from white-dominated (or otherwise non-Tibetan) leadership roles in the organizations, it sure would be nice to see more of the present white leaders in organizations making the effort to seek out qualified translators.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Breaking down a Tirade: Common Racism against Tibetans (and others too)

In Pongu’s article Help, my bingo card is over flowing on the first day!, he posted a tirade that was sent to us via the comments. I also had a chance to see the original facebook thread (42 comments, all but 10 of which were by our tirader, whom I shall call T.) Let it suffice to say, this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Inadvertently, T provided us with perfect examples of common problematic themes perpetuated by outsiders involved in Tibet. I’d like to use his own comments as a starting point for discussion of these issues. Some of these issues are important from a wider discussion of racism, while some are very specific to the Tibet issue.

“However I think that this blog perhaps starts out with a "Tibetans are superior, white people don't understand them, Tibetans can do no wrong" attitude. This is exactly the kind of reverse racist attitude (against your own culture) that is the MOST disempowering -- to non-Tibetans.”

-Automatically judging and feeling threatened by anything that is perceived to criticize westerners, even without cause-
This comment was made before there was a single content post on the blog. He decided that any criticism of white people was automatically anti-white racism, despite having seen none of the criticisms themselves.
-Whites must always be superior-
His message here is clear, white people must be on top. Perhaps they may be ever so gracious as to share their post at the top of the pedestal with Tibetans, but any possibility of criticizing westerners is judging others as superior, and god forbid white people be anywhere but the top of the pedestal….even outside of a white country and community. This is continued when he says “it creates a lot of false power structures where Tibetans are inherently superior.” Let’s be honest, the Tibetan issue is about Tibet and Tibetans, not white people. Therefore, within the context of the Tibetan issue, Tibetans are the ones whose views matter.

“What about criticizing the Tibetans for their rampant racism, constantly taking advantage of western people, hypocrisy, etc. etc.?”

-The Fallicious Flip-
See the definition in the hyperlink. This quote is a perfect example.
In short, he feels that westerners should be beyond individual rebuke, simply because he feels that Tibetans are racist or take advantage of people. Instead of addressing the issue at hand (problematic actions by non-Tibetans), he flips the question onto a different topic as a way of derailment.
The fact that his claims of ‘rampant racism,’ constantly taking advantage of people, hypocrisy, etc. etc.’ are clearly the overstatements of a person disillusioned with the fact that Tibetans aren’t all enlightened monks is the topic for another essay. Yes, there are a number of Tibetans who do bad things, just like there are many white people who do bad things, I’ve been on the bad side of that more than once myself. However, we as outsiders have the privilege of being able to leave Tibetan work and communities whenever we like. We are not even guests, we have forced ourselves in, whether for good or bad purposes. Therefore, it is our duty as outsiders to self reflect and keep ourselves in line. If we are unhappy, we, unlike Tibetans, always have the privilege to leave.
This attitude is furthered by his statement: “Ultimately it's talking about how Westerners are the ones making mistakes, how they make mistakes, etc. It is not talking about how Tibetans make mistakes in relation to Western people.”

"And it seems to start out with the premise that how Tibetans make mistakes is irrelevant, and they are not to be held accountable for their actions. Why? Because they are an oppressed people? Because they don't have a country?Because WE are the one supposed to helping out THEM (even though they are supposed to be the ones with all the altruisim right?)"

-WE and THEM-
[I would like to note that I have not, in any way, edited the quotes, except to put them into italics. All capitalization and so on are his and his alone.]
In his continuing rant (previously viewable on my friend's facebook page, and now deleted), he goes on about how he lives in Tibetan communities, speaks Tibetan and so on. Yet here, he makes a clear distinction in capital letters between WE and THEM. This is a common white tendency, to make a big distinction between 'me' and 'other', we/them is white-solidarity versus othered POC.

-Confusing owning up to racist behavior with owing people something-
This blog, as declared in the guidelines and first introductory post, are simply about outsiders realizing and owning up to our own inappropriate and problematic behavior. We aren't saying that anyone needs to help anyone else, but simply that inappropriate behavior is, well, inappropriate! No one is telling him he HAS to help Tibetan communities, however, he has made the conscious and voluntary choice to live, work in and help Tibetan communities.

-Stereotyping Tibetans as 'altruistic' (the Shangri la Mentality)-
Even among the best intentioned, most stable minded Tibet supporter, Dharma student, et cetera, this is rampant. The idea that Tibetans are perfect Buddhas and must behave as such. It seems like a positive statement, but lets break this down. This is racist! It is saying "As a result of your RACE, you should behave in the following manner. " Sounds pretty racist, doesn't it?

Later on in this rant, T openly claims that he is beyond this stereotype and sees Tibetans accurately as they are, and recognizes this as an inaccurate stereotype, and yet here he is saying that Tibetans are the ones supposed to be altruistic. This is common in virtually all instances of racist behavior. A person claims that they (logically) know that a stereotype is false, while in their actions and statements showing that they firmly believe this stereotype and expect the other race to behave in that manner.

"Tibetans are very widely seen extremely idealistically, by the majority of the Western Tibetan Buddhist scene and it would seem also the Western Tibetan rights scene. This idealism make us subservient to the Tibetans and literally disempowers us."

-Thinking it's not our fault for idealizing Tibetans-
The idealized stereotype of Tibetans was created not by Tibetans, but by foreigners. We created this idea. He claims that it disempowers us. We created this idea, we as outsiders created a false stereotype and chose to live by it. We cannot blame Tibetans for our own racism and creating a system which he claims disempowers us. In reality, it disempowers no one. It is case of people abiding by their own incorrect, racist viewpoints. That's not disempowerment, that's racism and ignorance.

"The Tibetans' racism, xenophobia, sense of cultural superiority, and most notably their almost inexcusable ignorance and lack of interest in other cultures and their politics is arguably what made them lose their country in the first place -- Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and others have said this. Tibetans are quite prone to use Westerners for money in great variety of ways, and at this point this should be well known. Many Tibetan lamas, rinpoches, and monks basically are more concerned with making money than your enlightenment. Tibetans guys generally see Western girls as an easy f*ck and a passport/visa, Tibetan girls generally see Western guys as a passport/visa."
-Making sweeping, racist generalizations-
The passage speaks for itself.

-When non whites do it, it's the group, when whites do it, it's the individual-
If a few Tibetans do negative things, he feels it represents all Tibetans. Yet, when some white people do negative things, its always seen as an individual responsibility, no matter how widespread the action is. This applies in virtually all racism cases. Like people who say that black people are thugs or druggies, however, when several white people are also involved in gangs or drugs, it's individuals, not white culture. It's unfair, no matter how you slice it.

-Quoting a Tibetan authority to make your case, in a completely different context-
The simplest way to explain this is a more common example. A black activist speaking to the black community encourages black men to be good fathers, and racist white Americans say "See! All of these problems are caused by black people being bad! Even [insert black activist here] says that they are bad fathers!" T, if you are reading this. I'd like to see the original quote in context, please!

"Tibetans often act with total disinterest to Westerners"

-Feeling that Tibetans are obliged to be interested in/interact with Westerners-
This is a Tibetan community, we are invading their community, for better or worse. If they want to live within their community and their culture, this is their right. They are not obligated to show interest in Westerners, hang out with westerners, or anything else. Tibetans are doing their best to preserve their culture and make a Tibetan community outside of Tibet. If people like this cannot be respectful to them and their culture, I see no problem with Tibetans choosing not to interact with them.

"I am not saying that Westerners are not really ignorant of Tibetan culture (we are, even those who are dedicated to helping Tibetans and are deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhism), but the Tibetans by constrast are just as much or even more ignorant of our culture and often do not attempt to understand it, either."
-Feel Tibetans are obligated to learn Western culture-
OK, similar to the last point. But what makes this important is that these are not Tibetans in the west that we are talking about, or that the writer (living in a Tibetan community in India) was talking about! Westerners living IN Tibetan communities should be obliged to learn Tibetan culture, in the same way I would expect someone living in my home to abide by my house rules. I think I can express this better in an example, albeit a slightly flawed one. [as noted, we are not guests, we've invited ourselves]. If I were to visit an orthodox Jewish home, I would be expected to follow certain rules. No unkosher food in the house, no miniskirts, no talking about sex in front of the kids. It would be inexusably rude if I came in and said to my hosts "You need to learn about MY way of life. Stop wearing your hat, stop wearing your long skirts." It is not my place. I would expect others to respect the rules of my home and community, even if they did not adapt to my way of life because it is not the same as their own, I would expect them to respect it. On the other hand, westerners like T, an outsider here, somehow believe that Tibetans within a Tibetan community have an obligation to follow the rules of a foreign culture 8000 miles away.

"It is also white people who need to be empowered in relation to Tibetan people"

White people, even in Tibetan relations, are in a position of power. We have the right and ability to walk away at any time.

Finally, I want to put in a comment that wasn't posted here, but was posted on the original facebook thread, which unfortunately, T seems to have taken down.

He very specifically objected to the statement in the guidelines "Tibetans owe us nothing." I was actually so shocked by his statement that I copied what he wrote:

""remember Tibetans don't owe you anything". This, to me, revealed the basically racist and ethnocentric attitude of this blog. So, what, do we owe Tibetans something then?"
-Believing that Tibetans owe us something, while disregarding how we benefit from Tibetan suffering-
A commenter on the original thread responded to this by saying "And remember, Tibetans owe us nothing. If we decide to help Tibetan communities, we must do it solely out of our desire to help, not to get anything in return. Any other motive is an egotistical attempt for us to make ourselves into saviors." This goes back to the point that we, as outsiders, are forcing our way in. How can we believe that when we force our way into someone's life, even for what we believe are good reasons, they owe us something? Despite what T says earlier, its really us, the outsiders, who need to be altruistic.

As to how we benefit from Tibetan suffering, we constantly benefit from China's economic position, how many people don't save money by buying made in China products? In fact, our whole patterns of consumption, what kinds of goods even exist in the marketplace, have been determined by Chinese economic prominence in manufacturing!

More importantly, in the case of Dharma students (which T admits to being) we really benefit from the suffering of Tibetans! We continually benefit from the forced spread of Tibetan religion, which occurred when Tibet was occupied, forcing many great lamas into exile, such as the Dalai Lama. Without this, it's likely that we would never even know of Tibetan Buddhism. I say 'we' because it's important to call myself out on this one. I personally, have benefited a great deal from this since childhood. I wouldn't call myself a 'good' dharma student, but none the less, I would not have my religion, my teachers, or even my current job, were it not for Tibetan institutions being forced into exile by the Chinese.

This is just a sampling. I'd like to see what people have to say.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Let's get real about what racism is

I realize from how OT started off that a lot of white people involved with Tibetan issues probably haven't spent a lot of time thinking about race, racism, and what most people trying to do anti-racist work actually consider racism to be. So this is my take on “racism 101”. As a white male I'm far from the best authority on the topic, so I encourage readers to go type “racism 101” into Google (or click here if you're that lazy) and see what others have to say on the topic.

A really common white mistake is thinking that any discussion or consideration of race is “racist” because we're “supposed to be colorblind”. A lot of white people even consider racism to mean “racial discrimination” in the strictest sense of the word discriminate: to recognize or perceive the difference. Of course a definition that makes it impossible to even talk about race and racism without “being racist” has no place in serious scholarship or activism about racism, which brings us to looking for some slightly more sophisticated definitions.

Racial prejudice refers to making an judgement about a person based on that person's race. The judgement could be about their worth (for example, whether to hire, whether to accept into college, etc.) or just an expectation of how the person will act, what they will like or dislike, etc. Racial prejudice is a part of an individual person's judgement and decision making process.

Racism is not the same as racial prejudice. In short, racism = prejudice + power. The longer explanation is that racism is a phenomenon that appears as part of a large-scale system (“society”) when there are imbalances in power between racial groups, and the prejudices of a privileged group serve, intentionally or unintentionally, to keep other groups in a position of disadvantage.

For the most part, in our globalized world there is no such thing as “racism against white people”. There may be environments in not-primarily-white countries where whiteness is not privileged in the local environment, but in the vast majority of these cases, white people have the privilege to leave and go somewhere else if they so choose.

Consciousness of race-correlated trends is not in itself racial prejudice, but can quickly become racism when applied by a racial group with institutional power in ways that disempower people of other races.

Some examples:

“Because John is white, I expect him to look down on black people.” - This is racial prejudice, and might be consciousness of a race-correlated trend (if there's good reason to believe a majority of white people look down on black people), but it's not racism.

“In the United States, murderers are more often sentenced to death when their victims are white.” - This statement is consciousness of a race-correlated trend, and shows awareness of systemic racism taking place at the hands of the justice system, but the statement itself is not racist nor racially prejudiced.

“Asian students are really good at math and science.” - This is racial prejudice, and stated from a white perspective, it's racist.

“Most of the Hispanic bikers don't wear helmets.” - Stated from a white perspective, this is racist. For one, it's extremely likely that the person making the statement is selectively noticing examples which reinforce a stereotype while ignoring examples that refute it, especially since it's hard to tell someone's race when they're wearing a helmet. And secondly, it comes across that the speaker is judging a whole race as reckless.

As a last thought on the meaning of “racism” and “racist”, it's a lot more productive to talk about racist actions and behaviors than about racist people. You can't know what's going on in somebody else's thought process but you can see the effects.

Any treatment of “racism 101” would be incomplete without mentioning privilege. Privilege refers to unearned advantages an individual enjoys purely by belonging to a group he or she had no choice to join or not to join - for example one's race, nationality at birth, physical features, sex, sexual orientation, etc.

The classic resource on (white) privilege is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Help, my bingo card is overflowing on the first day!

Readers who don't get the title, click here.

Wow. Racism over Tibetans is a lot more intense and serious than I ever realized.

My impression before starting this blog was that the types and incidents of racism I'd be looking at would be mostly subtle, hard-to-pin-down things: systems of power and organization that exclude Tibetan leadership, well-intentioned outsiders too eager to be the principal spokespeople for Tibet, offensive words and phrases like “riots” and “ethnic Tibetans” which journalists always slip into their stories, and so on.

Yet within a few hours of publishing the OT's welcome post and commenting guidelines and having the it shared around on people's Facebook walls, the mere announcement of this blog prompted the following racist tirade. I've added boldface to highlight the points which strike me as most problematic and toxic.
Thanks for sharing this!

However I think that this blog perhaps starts out with a "Tibetans are superior, white people don't understand them, Tibetans can do no wrong" attitude. This is exactly the kind of reverse racist attitude (against your own culture) that is the MOST disempowering -- to non-Tibetans. Ultimately this attitude is not helpful to either western people or Tibetans as it creates a lot of false power structures where Tibetans are inherently superior. I thought this blog would be good, but I can see within reading it for 5 minutes of it that it is probably a Tibetan-apologist, white-man's guilt, Tibetans-are-superior forum. I was expecting something better. This is the kind of attitude I saw in your friend which I think is pretty counterproductive to everyone involved. Unfortunately the majority of the Dharma scene is also like this, as well as apparently much of the Tibetan rights' scene. What about criticizing the Tibetans for their rampant racism, constantly taking advantage of western people, hypocrisy, etc. etc.? I am all up for a forum on the mutual misunderstandings between western people and Tibetans, but this doesn't seem to be the right direction.

It may seem like I am exaggerating, but this really seems like the attitude of this blog. Ultimately it's talking about how Westerners are the ones making mistakes, how they make mistakes, etc. It is not talking about how Tibetans make mistakes in relation to Western people. And it seems to start out with the premise that how Tibetans make mistakes is irrelevant, and they are not to be held accountable for their actions. Why? Because they are an oppressed people? Because they don't have a country? Because WE are the one supposed to helping out THEM (even though they are supposed to be the ones with all the altruisim right?). None of these reasons stand to argument. Yes, as people who have received good educations and have grown up in a multi-cultural post-modern etc. world, we have a certain responsibility. But this does not excuse the Tibetans from their many many mistakes, harmful actions, ulterior motives, and blatant using of Western people which happens every day in a hundred different ways. Nor does our wish to help the Tibetans excuse us from our own excesses, our egotism, our own cultural presumptions. Better would be a forum to see the MUTUAL ways that Tibetans and Western people misunderstand eachother and behave problematically, because anyone who has been around Tibetans enough should know that both sides have a lot to learn, and no one should be exept from that very neccessary education.

Tibetans are very widely seen extremely idealistically, by the majority of the Western Tibetan Buddhist scene and it would seem also the Western Tibetan rights scene. This idealism make us subservient to the Tibetans and literally disempowers us. Learning about the good points of Tibetan culture, and trying to adapt them, is the way to go, not trying to become Tibetan, or acknowledging the false superiority of Tibetan culture. The Tibetans' racism, xenophobia, sense of cultural superiority, and most notably their almost inexcusable ignorance and lack of interest in other cultures and their politics is arguably what made them lose their country in the first place -- Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and others have said this. Tibetans are quite prone to use Westerners for money in great variety of ways, and at this point this should be well known. Many Tibetan lamas, rinpoches, and monks basically are more concerned with making money than your enlightenment. Tibetans guys generally see Western girls as an easy f*ck and a passport/visa, Tibetan girls generally see Western guys as a passport/visa. They often see us as grotesque, totally ignorant about things like spirituality, and basically barbarians. Westerners are still very much enthralled by romantic notions of Tibet and Tibetans and are ripped off, scammed, broken hearted, insulted, and generally treated poorly by Tibetans every day. Tibetans often act with total disinterest to Westerners, not even showing the least amount of respect or politeness, unless of course you can become a sponsor, give them money in some way, teach them english, or help them with some political problem. Of course, I am talking about the worst cases here, but these worst cases are pretty common also, at least in the refugee community. I am not saying that Westerners are not really ignorant of Tibetan culture (we are, even those who are dedicated to helping Tibetans and are deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhism), but the Tibetans by constrast are just as much or even more ignorant of our culture and often do not attempt to understand it, either. I don't think that Tibetans are any better or worse than any other people, but that through their great traditions of Buddhism they have developed some good habits, and through their isolation and their refugee situation they have developed some bad ones.

Basically my point is that respect is a two way street. The Tibetans have helped out Westerners, and the Westerners have helped out Tibetans, but who has helped out who more, and who is really more open-minded? Do Tibetans start blogs about how to treat Western people appropriately? No. There is often an almost palpable sense of separation that Tibetan people distance themselves from Western people with. One is forced to ask oneself after a while, what the hell are these people's problems? With that said I love Tibetans and I think they produce some of the best people in the world. I also think that they are highly overrated, and the real issue needs to be what they need to do to enter the 21st century in a respectful and balanced way. Tibetans are the ones who need to reduce their racism, not white people (at least not the ones who are interacting with Tibetans, most of whom initially think they are all angels), I am sure of that point. It is also white people who need to be empowered in relation to Tibetan people, not the other way around. Tibetans often seem to think that it's ok to act almost any way they want with Western people and I think that this is because of years and years of people putting them on a pedestal and not holding them accountable. Perhaps I am unaware of certain dynamics that happen, but this is just based on my own personal experience. I realize that this is just one aspect of the whole spectrum but I also think what I'm saying is pretty valid and true. Hopefully both sides can learn how to act more appropriately and in a way that heightens understanding and communication.
I wish this were a hoax, but a friend who saw the thread on Facebook knows the author, a student of Tibetan language and classical translation living in India, and can vouch for the authenticity. What I've quoted here is only the beginning, the part the commenter cross-posted here on OT. All in all, the tirade came to about 6 single-spaced, narrow-font pages, and counting... (he still doesn't seem to have stopped adding points)

One commenter replied:
_______, you seemed to have a lot of chip on your shoulders. Maybe you should start your own blog about the racist Tibetans and they they've wronged you and your fellow white males. It really sounds like you need an outlet to vent about how bad it feels to loose the white privilege you've enjoy since birth. Maybe start a support group for all you "victims" of nasty Tibetan racism.
Another wrote:
_______, May be you should write a manual with illustrations for us Tibetans to learn etiquettes for pleasing the White Masters like yourself.
These commenters seem to have hit one of the biggest problematic themes, the concept of “reverse racism”. The idea that Tibetans are “supposed to be the ones with all this altruism” is also extremely problematic, especially in light of the author's question “Who has helped out who more?”

Beyond that I really don't know what to say. The rant speaks for itself. The big realization for me, and I hope for readers, is that there are white people thinking these ways, and thinking there's nothing wrong with it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baby Sitting Tibetans

This post is by “Metak”, a western woman who'll be one of our regular contributors.

In my last year of university, I spent my winter break in Tibet. As a fluent speaker of Tibetan, I used it as a chance to learn more about the views of Tibetans inside Tibet.

Having spent my winter break in that way, I decided to spend my spring break meeting with potential universities about a graduate program. I knew I wanted to continue work on my Tibetan, but I was severely limited in my school choices, because I had decided to pursue non-Dharma Tibetan studies. Unfortunately, only a few schools have any Tibetan programs for non-Dharma students.

On March 14th 2008, I had a meeting with a highly respected (Westerner) professor in Tibetan studies at one of the top universities in the United States. I came into the meeting a bit more frazzled that usual. I had been woken at 3:30 that morning by a phone call from a friend, telling me that Lhasa was on fire. When I checked the news in the morning, I saw that the city I had just returned from was in the midst of massive protests. We were all holding our breath to see when the Chinese would begin shooting.

When I walked into the meeting, the professor asked me if I was alright, being that I looked haggard. I responded that I was fine, but the news from Lhasa was reported to me at 3 AM and I was very concerned about the outcome. I felt this had the potential to be something big, but I knew it would get ugly, no matter what happened.

The professor turned to me and said “Tibetans don’t realize what will happen if they actually get independence! Do you think they even consider the instability, human rights violations and collapse that would come with that?” His question caught me off guard, because it clearly told me that he had no close contact with Tibetans inside of Tibet.

“Actually,” I said, “I just got back from Tibet. They do consider it. They are willing to risk it in order to have their country back. And these problems would be their responsibility.”

“They don’t understand what that means, they are uneducated.” He responded.

“I wouldn’t say that.” I said, “I met several Tibetans with masters degrees, fluent in English, Tibetan and Chinese, who also expressed that exact sentiment. The Tibetans who I spoke to said that they understood this was a possibility, but at least these would be their problems, not anyone else’s. Every country has issues, at least these would be their own.”

“Well, do you really think they represent the majority of Tibetans?”

Had this not been a meeting in regards to my future education, I might have responded by asking “So, if they don’t have a college degree, they don’t know what’s right for them. If they do have a college degree, they don’t represent the population, so they don’t know what’s right for them. But foreign scholars like you, many of whom have never been to Tibet nor speak Tibetan, and have never lived under the constant oppression of the Chinese government, you know what’s best for them. What are you, baby sitters?”

Initially, it’s bad enough to say that a person does not have the right to make decisions for themselves, based on their own experience. We, in western society, value college degrees so highly that we believe that even if we have no direct experience, a series of letters after our name makes us more qualified to make decisions for fully competent adults than the adults themselves.

But, what bothered me even more was that this same person claiming that only the educated could make decisions, then completely disregarded the same decision made by the educated, because they did not represent the majority. In short, the message sent by this allegedly Tibet supporting scholar was clear, if you were a Tibetan, your opinion was worthless.

In the beginning, I felt like we had a new version of “White Man’s Burden,” the belief in colonial India that the British presence was necessary because the Indians were too childish and simple to take care of themselves. However, this does not cover the situation of university educated Tibetans. I feel instead that the people who express these sentiments are simply disregarding Tibetans as a whole. It makes me wonder why, if they don’t care what Tibetans in Tibet think or want, do they even claim to support Tibet at all? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Welcome to Overlooking Tibet

Welcome readers. Overlooking Tibet developed out of reflections on the problematic, disempowering ways non-Tibetans, myself included, often behave towards Tibetans, and a hope to make discussion of the topic an everyday activity for well-intentioned outsiders whose work and lives intersect with Tibet. The subject and format are inspired by one of my favorite blogs, Stuff White People Do, but with a focus specifically on Tibet.

I'm new to this, and I expect to make mistakes, but that doesn't absolve me of responsibility for what I write and do. When I've behaved problematically, call me out on it. OT is meant as a safe space for Tibetans to discuss and be listened to and respected. I've drafted a list of commenting guidelines, inspired by those of SWPD, by which I am moderating comments.

In addition to myself, Overlooking Tibet has several regular contributors who will be writing, and I welcome guest contributions.

Commenting Guidelines

Overlooking Tibet is moderated based on the following guidelines, adapted shamelessly from another blog, in the interest of establishing and maintaining a safe space. These guidelines are not set in stone, but open to discussion and evolution as OT grows and gains readership. Comments on the guidelines themselves are welcome.
  1. Non-Tibetans, be aware of your role in this space. Regardless of your actions, experiences, and involvement, Tibetans don't owe you anything. Don't behave as if they do. We, especially Western/white folks, are all part of a worldwide system of power structures and ignorant beliefs and attitudes towards indigenous peoples that disadvantages Tibetans from attaining the things we take for granted. Own up to that in your posts and expect to get called out when you don't. If you want to interact here with Tibetans, please be sure you're listening respectfully to their experiences.
  2. Remember that we are here to address the problematic things non-Tibetan “supporters”, journalists, academics, etc. say and do in relation to Tibet, in the interest of positive change. We're not here to denounce or demonize individuals or groups who have behaved in problematic ways. Sometimes a problematic tendancy will intersect with the explicit or implicit policy of one or more Tibet support groups, and in these cases, please be especially conscious not to descend into attacks or “infighting” which can themselves be disempowering.
  3. Compared to the larger anti-oppression blogosphere, the Tibetan and Tibet-support community is much, much smaller. That translates to a lot less anonymity to be had. Please bear this in mind when considering the effects of what you write. If you want a story to be “anonymous”, don't just leave out the names. Leave out the place, the date, the particular occasion, etc. too.
  4. [removed]
  5. Address the topic in the post. Comments that are off-topic or derailing will not be published. Avoid nitpicking that could distract from the real issue being discussed, and don't try to hijack discussion with your own agenda. Productive tangents are sometimes acceptable, if they stay within the topic of the blog as a whole.
  6. Focus on what people say instead of who you think they are. Avoid ad hominem attacks.
  7. If you write to express disagreement, please avoid strawman arguments. Carefully cite the exact point you're disagreeing with. Direct quotation is best.
  8. Don't threaten anyone. Even if you think it's a joke.
  9. Don't bother pointing out that “Tibetans do that too”. The power dynamics, connotations, and effects of a behavior differ radically depending on who is doing it, and the situations are rarely comparable.
  10. If you mess up in a comment and feel you should apologize, please do, but don't make the apology about you. “I'm sorry, but...”, or “I'm sorry” followed by an explanation of why you said what you said, almost always means you're not actually owning up to your mistake.