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.
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  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.