Exegesis of a White-privileged Notion

I’m going to take the amateur linguist in me for a spin. C.N. Le’s blog post on Asian Nation last Thursday was perceived as ridiculously offensive, even racist, by a number of White bloggers. I walked away from this post with different conclusions, perceiving no racist finger pointing, and instead a strong affirmation of the very same sentiments I occasionally experience at multicultural Buddhist retreats. In spite of heated back-and forth-comments, which have made liberal use of the terms racist, racism and white privilege, I believe further discussion is necessary. How did we come to these different conclusions from the very same words?

This rambling exegesis is an exercise in exploring how our personal experiences and biases blur our judgment. It’s important to read Le’s piece in full, but the following sentence is the one that garnered the most heat.

I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.

The different interpretations of this one sentence have diverged at the meaning of microcosm, at the interpretation of White-privileged notion and also around the context of the notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor. I’ll tackle all three, but not in that order.

In Le’s entire article, the only apparently unqualified use of the word White is in this single phrase, White-privileged notion, and it seems most readers’ divergent conclusions begin here.

The term White-privileged is completely novel to me. Its meaning is both obvious and yet elusive. Note the humble hyphen. The hyphen is the glyphic hint that White-privileged notion is not to be confused with White privileged notion, where the latter denotes a notion of people both privileged and White (among other interpretations). The hyphen tells us that this word is derived from the noun White privilege. The suffix -ed tells us that the word is an adjective derived from the base noun. For example, the word black-billed (as in black-billed magpie) denotes something with a black bill, not something that has been “billed black” or “billed and black.” Usually, the -ed suffix infers direct possession—white-tailed deer is a deer with a white tail, red-spotted newt is a newt with red spots, black-headed gull is a gull with a black head—but not always. Consider that a three-legged race is not a race with three legs, but a race where the participants compete by means of “three” legs. A narrow-minded argument is not an argument with a narrow mind, but one where the argument is made by means of a “narrow” mind. Likewise, a White-privileged notion is not a notion held by people who are both privileged and White (nor a notion of privilege that is characteristic of White folk), but instead a notion arrived at by means of White privilege.

So when other bloggers have suggested that Le was making a blanket statement about White people, their interpretation is apparently one that overlooks or fails to parse the humble yet significant hyphen. Indeed, this miscommunication is evident by at least two other blog posts which repeated this very phrase as the unhyphenated White privileged notion, thus arriving at a vastly different conclusion than what Le’s hyphen indicates. The intended meaning—a notion arrived at by means of White privilege—does not accuse all White people, not even all people who enjoy White privilege, of holding this particular notion. This latter interpretation is evidenced not only by a proper grammatical parsing, but also from what we know about Le in the broader context of his writing.

Another source of controversy was Le’s mention of a White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor. One blogger accused Le that his words are colored by his own biases, and I agree. Le’s words touched a chord that connects me and millions of other Americans based on our experiences of seeing very, very few White people in jobs of manual service in our major cities, from Los Angeles to our nation’s Capitol. Perhaps we’re more biased to notice racial inequity than White people, as after all we’re usually the ones getting the shaft. We overhear this notion explicitly articulated in off-hand comments others make on the subway, waiting in line or when we were students in class: “That’s the sort of work for [MINORITIES]!” This notion comes out of White privilege—it’s a White-privileged notion. Certainly not everyone with White privilege shares this notion. It’s evidently not the case that White people across America flee from washing dishes or pushing the mop. But when out of 50 White people at a retreat, only a single one volunteers (and follows through) to help clean up at the end, this disparity reminds us of the White-privileged notion that many White people are above such work, that it should be left to people of color.

One last miscommunication centered around the word microcosm. A microcosm is a small scale model that captures the characteristic qualities of a larger system. Le talked of a microcosm of a notion of a racial disparity in labor. He did not talk about a microcosm of society. Indeed, the very event where White participants at Deer Park Monastery left the clean up work to people of color is a perfect microcosm of the White-privileged notion where White people leave manual labor to people of color.

Arguably, I have no trouble coming to this less outrageous conclusion of Le’s words because of my personal experiences and biases. After all, like Le, I’m Asian American. I even speak Vietnamese. I have also been to Deer Park Monastery multiple times, and I have many friends, both Asian American and otherwise, who have attended all sorts of multicultural retreats there. I have much more in common with Le and the topic he’s writing about than many of the bloggers who have so harshly criticized him.

The criticism of Le’s post falls along the very same lines that, in a different context, many liberal Whites would consider to be unfair. When White bloggers paint Le’s words as racist, their arguments echo those of the Republican Senators who grilled Judge Sonia Sotomayor on her own comments on race and ethnicity. Le’s words were examined exclusively out of the context of his record as a writer and more narrowly on the point he attempted to convey in his piece.

Without talking to Le himself, we cannot actually know what he intended to write. I imagine that he might acknowledge that he could have written his blog post more clearly, especially had he known that a large number of White Buddhists were going to read it. I’ve taken apart his assertions and presuppositions, juggled his entailments and implicatures. I understand how he unreasonably set the White participants in the worst light possible. But he didn’t call them racist.

I certainly believe that our divergent understandings of Le’s words was chiefly guided by our experiences and biases. Reading the article as an Asian American who routinely blogs about race issues in the Buddhist community, I’m inclined to zone in on the complex sentiments that Le was trying to express, without losing sleep over how, say, White people might be unfairly framed. In contrast, the description of a White-privileged notion stood out so prominently to others that Le’s larger context was lost. They were able to zone in on the unjustness in his piece that resonated with them more personally than it could have with me. And it’s important to note that our biases are not determinative. There are White bloggers who defended Le and Asian bloggers who criticized him.

If there’s any conclusion to this ramble, it’s imperative that we question our own assumptions and the conclusions they lead us to, especially on a topic as sticky as race.

12 comments

  1. zenagain says:

    A very well-thought out and written analysis, Arunlikhati. As an Asian American myself, I also feel that the reason why Whites and non-Whites end up talking past each other on these kinds of issues is that people of color look at racism more on the institutional level while Whites are more likely to consider the issue on the individual level.

    I think that is why many Whites feel personally accused and attacked when the topic of White privilege is brought up when in fact, people of color tend to discuss the idea as it operates more on the institutional level (at least I do).

    Combined with the fact that many White Buddhists see themselves as more evolved, mindful, and/or socially sensitive than most other White Americans, their negative reactions to Le’s comments are understandable, but still an overreaction.

  2. Todd A. says:

    I read the original blog Arunlikhati is talking about, and I guess I didn’t go back to read the reactions because i moved on thinking “those stuck up people! And at a Buddhist retreat they intentionally went of all places!”. Funny thing is, I’m white. But I’m heavy tattood and I don’t like much of popular culture. That means most “white” people look at me and assume I’m a criminal and/or a drug addict. I quickly identified with the people who’d been left behind to do the work because white and “white” are very differnt in my mind, which is the distinction I felt was being made by the term “white-priviledged”.

    While I agree with the original post and Arunlikhati’s disection of the reaction I can’t agree with Zenagain’s intimation that whites are being overly sensitive. I certainly hope he’s right that most minorities think of racism as an institutional issue, because it’s horrably hurtful (there are certain Asian grocery stores I can’t get service at, tattod or not). However, when racism is discussed, 99% of the time it’s about the “white devil”. No wonder white people get defensive.

    The real issue here is not blame or skin color, it’s self-importance and arrogance. Yes, many Americans have been told that the Dharma is a self-help course and so they approach it as such, as those types of people do e
    with all situations. They’re there, where ever that may be, to get some ego trip and then move on to the next stimulous. Cleaning up after a group function is not going To get them the attention they’re craving. They’re hungry white ghosts who happen to have grasped vainly at the sustanance of this retreat and moved on, hoping the next thing will satisfy them.

  3. zenagain says:

    Hi Todd, thanks for sharing your experiences. I like reading new perspectives like yours, especially from someone who’s also considered “different” in certain ways.

    I just wanted to clarify that in my post, when I referred to Whites overreacting, I meant in the context of a simple discussion or blog post in which the issue of racism or White privilege is mentioned.

    I did not mean it to refer to when a White person directly experiences disrespect while interacting with someone else and in fact, I agree with your point that Asians can racially discriminate against non-Asians very easily.

  4. Al Billings says:

    I’m quite skeptical that a sample size of one white couple who promised to help and didn’t (why? Who knows since no one asked them) is really a proper springboard for talking about white privilege (or white-privilege).

    I find this discussion to be going nowhere and I’ve already unsubscribed from one blog because of it. All I see is people alienating potential allies, rather than moving people, together, towards solutions.

    Good luck.

  5. Todd A. says:

    Zenagain, that you for such a compassionate reply. I was really trying to discuss two poitns, and it sonde like I did not do so distinctly enough.

    My first point was that I was surprised the original post being discussed had triggered so much racial discussion. For me it was much more about class and the type of “get enlightned quick” Western Buddhists that are really just there to justify their feelings of superiority.

    I was not acusing you of belittling my experiences as a target of racism. Those were offered so I could show at least a tiny basis in the reality of the experience of racism. Your reply clearly shows you are a compassionate, open minded person, and I thank you for being such. Rather, I guess I was trying to (too briefly) explain that I think a large amount of “white guilt” stems from being contstantly told we are responsible for whatever instance of racism is being discussed. While I absolutely must contend with the karma of my ancestors I can’t be held directly responsible for paritcular racist actions they may or may not have comitted.

  6. Discussion on this topic here and at Angry Asian Buddhist has been very interesting. While I attended a Theravadin temple in Michigan, which had a white monk as the abbott, I observed the peculiar dynamic of the temple’s white members showing little involvement in the temple’s basic operations (it was the Thai families that brought the monks their daily noon meal); but when it came to building new structures, or other similar activities, it was the white members doing the manual labor. White members more often attended retreats; the Thai members seldom attended retreats. When I attended festivals there, I really had to be persisitent to be “allowed” to help out by moving tables, cleaning up, or whatever. But if I persisted, the Thai women noticed and were glad to give me things to do. I suppose because on my first visit to the temple, someone handed me a drill and instructed me on helping with a project at that time (building a gazebo on the temple’s grounds), I continue to assist in other building tasks, such as the construction of the temple’s new meditation hall and rebuiling a porch that had collapsed.

    I think sometimes, there are some whites who view Buddhism from an intellectual perspective, they are more interested in having an academic rather than practical knowledge of the Dhamma. Just my own very limited observations.

    I have started a new blog at http://mybuddhaispink.blogspot.com/ where I plan to discuss my experiences with Buddhism from a gay man’s perspective. There is an interesting dichotomy within this dynamic as well. Thank you for this blog. I will be following.

  7. NellaLou says:

    Arun said:

    “Perhaps we’re more biased to notice racial inequity than White people, as after all we’re usually the ones getting the shaft.”

    This is a very important perspective and perhaps the crux of the issues about sensitivity and privilege.

    Anyone who has not on a regular basis felt social friction due to the color of their skin is simply not sensitive to this aspect of life. It is beyond the realm of experience of the individual and therefore also tends to be beyond the realm of even imagination. (this could be said of gender issues as well)

    It is about what is and is not taken for granted in life. When something is taken for granted it does not reside in consciousness. Most people in general take most of their lives and interactions for granted. In my not always humble opinion, most people go through life in a semi-conscious state. That includes me as well sometimes. One could toss it off as simply a lack of mindfulness but it is both on an individual and collective level. And this ignorance is a source of suffering for everyone.

    Too busy with distractions to pay attention-real deep attention-to even observe everyday situations.

    As a young person I grew up in a highly diverse environment. I took that for granted. At the same time being White certain avenues were open for me that were less available to my friends. They never spoke of it so I was not aware of my privilege.

    Only when I was working my way through university was my closed mindset pointed out to me. Specifically I wrote an essay analyzing certain cultural conditions in India. My professor at the time gave me a good grade but wrote a small comment “Why no Indian authors in your references?” I looked again and realized he was quite right. (Thanks Prof. Sharma!) And I had known of many that could have been used but weren’t. So I had to question why not.

    It was a bias that I was previously unaware of. I cited Whites as authorities and not non-Whites. It was a glaring example of Orientalism (in the Edward Said sense) in action-the imposition of White views on non-White cultural analysis.

    It is a subtle and pervasive thing. And it is systemic.

    I wouldn’t call it a bias on the part of you, Arun or others who take notice of it. I would call it an awareness through experience.

    Many will refuse to listen, really listen to those who bring up the topic since it does challenge the status quo. But hearing the voices of people who have been disenfranchised for any reason is the first step in addressing inequality and in the Buddhist sense equanimity.

    As a White woman primarily living in India these are issues I now grapple with daily. White privilege as a hangover of colonialism still abounds but so do stereotypes of White women and resentment in terms of “relative deprivation” a serious developed/developing world class and status issue. It is very complicated and I have written about it elsewhere.

    Personally I am glad my status quo was and is continually challenged. Addressing and questioning the underlying assumptions of both personhood and societies is one of the most fundamental activities of Buddhist practice and of human life.

  8. NellaLou says:

    Al said:

    “I find this discussion to be going nowhere and I’ve already unsubscribed from one blog because of it. All I see is people alienating potential allies, rather than moving people, together, towards solutions.”

    This is a very interesting comment. People unsubscribe from my blog all the time when I challenge status quo or talk about “unhappy” subjects like suicide, PTSD, inequality etc. But for every one that unsubscribes 5 more subscribe.

    “..moving people together, towards solutions.” I have no doubt about Al’s intention with this statement but my concern is how can people move together if we do not ascertain where they are at right now? If we exclude/ignore people because they do not acquiesce to or agree with our opinion there is no possibility of ascertaining anything.

    Solutions to issues that are so long standing and entrenched will not be solved by joining hands in a circle and singing “We are the world” or other such reductive acts. If we really want to know we have to be willing to listen and engage. Even if that engagement is uncomfortable to our long standing viewpoints. And yes alienation is one possible result. But so is understanding.

    The fact that the blog was subscribed in the first place indicates some point of mutual contact. And of course over time opinions can change. But to unsubscribe is to ignore the issue when it challenges one uncomfortably.

    This is the very act of marginalization.

  9. Todd A. says:

    It seems to me that it’s not the discussion that may or may not cause alienation but rather an individual’s defensivness. There is a reverand who has spoken a couple times at my temple. At first I really did not like her – which I felt a little guilty about. In a later dharma talk she mentioned that people often don’t like her because she is up front about asking them to confront their suffering and the bad karma they create. I reflected on my inital reaction to her and she was right. Not only was I not comfortAble with what she was saying, her voice and mannerisms remind me very much of someone else who I do Not like. It was only in being willng to listen to something/someone I was uncomfortable with and reflecint on that moment that in was able see past my own filters on the reality of the situation. The same attitude is necessary for all moments in life, I find. Even the most skillful lessons are useless to those who don’t want to hear them.

  10. Todd A. says:

    Not to continue to stir this bee’s nest, but I saw an article in the local paper that was interesting related to this subject of ‘white-priviledged’ attitude titled ‘When white people deal the race card’. :
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/politics/2009548541_reverse28.html

    I think it shows both the good, bad and ugluy side of the reverse viewpiont of this discussion.

    Good : “Sure enough, white men, with the notable exception of the U.S. president, still run our world. They dominate Wall Street and Hollywood. They own and run the largest media companies. The U.S. Senate has but one African-American member, although more than a few women.

    Yet not all white men run the world, or belong to the right clubs, attend the best schools or have uncles in the executive suite.”

    Bad : “…conservatives all of a sudden back(ing) the issue of discrimination when it happens to be nonminorities forwarding the case.”

    Ugly : “…As long as most people have been able to rise, even though they recognize discrimination might go on, they don’t think too much of it.”

  11. Doug says:

    @Richard Harold:

    I think sometimes, there are some whites who view Buddhism from an intellectual perspective, they are more interested in having an academic rather than practical knowledge of the Dhamma. Just my own very limited observations.

    I can confirm the same phenomena at the Japanese-American temple I used to go to in the US. The local Japanese-American community would pitch in to paint the temple, cleanup the shrubbery and such, but a lot of whites didn’t. I remember once helping with the spring bazaar and washing dishes, and I was amazed at all the hard work Japanese-Americans did to maintain their temple, and how this was a kind of Buddhist practice on its own. I wish more Buddhist converts appreciated this point.

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