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.


  1. There's no denying that at this point, Tibetan and foreign communities are interdependent. This kind of interdependence means that interaction between the two communities is not a one-way street. There are undeniable ways in which both sides have both helped and harmed each other. Sure, Tibetans don't "owe" anything to foreigners, but considering how closely Tibetans and foreigners work, is it such a crazy idea for both sides to be mindful?

  2. Hi anonymous. I wouldnt say interdependent. first of all, foreign communities DEFINITELY don't rely on Tibetan ones. As for do Tibetans rely on foreigners? that's its own question entirely and I think should be answered by Tibetans, preferably those inside Tibet and therefore representing not only the majority, but the Tibetans who actually have on-the-ground experience of the current situation.

    But interdependence means a somewhat equal balance of reliance. Foreign communities definitely do not rely strongly upon Tibetan communities, if at all.

    In line with that, please take a look at the level of infliction of harm. Have Tibetan individuals done bad things to western individuals? Absolutely, and the other way around. And these are the actions of individuals.

    However, in the same way western communities do not rely upon tibetan ones, we have inflicted far more harm upon them than they on us. Forgetting even issues of racism, please remember that we, the western communities as a whole, are active contributors and beneficiaries of the occupation of Tibet.

    That said, I feel communities should be mindful of each other, no doubt. I don't think I said anything contradicting that. But my issue is the deep seated sense of entitlement so many outsiders feel.

    My big point is that foreigners need to remember this is a TIBETAN issue, not a western one. As outside supporters, we are the ones who need to adapt to the new host culture, not expect tibetans in tibetan communities to adapt to us. That does not excuse innapropriate behavior that a Tibetan may partake in, but the point is remembering upon whom the burden to be flexible lies. And it lies on us, the outsiders.

  3. My initial reaction to anonymous's comment was that it's just a “politically correct” rephrasing of the ideas behind T's ranting.

  4. I think Metak teased out the idea well.

    The issues being raised here are the crux of this whole discussion. Basically, there are two communities interacting. The rules are not the same for the communities, but in what ways should each community act towards the other?

    Getting back to Tibetans (as it is indeed their issue, and it is the responsibility of outsiders to adapt to the host community), in what ways should Tibetans act towards outsiders that would further their own cause? Isn't this an ongoing concern for the Tibetan community? These are questions the Tibetan community deals with, and I am not trying to answer them here. I'm just pointing out the fact that they are being asked and it's an important part of the equation.

  5. Anonymous, you started off the second paragraph of your post acknowledging that this is Tibetans' issue, but then immediately turn around and begin posing questions about shoulds. I think you're asking this in the wrong forum, and even if you were in the right forum, you're the wrong person to be asking it.


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