Best Buddhist Writing: Racism Unintended

I promised I’d talk about it and so I will. Even before I persued the by-lines of Tricycle, I’d already coded the Best Buddhist Writing of 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. This list was easy enough to get because all the contributing authors are listed for each book in my local library catalog. Plus, these authors are much more famous than the individuals who publish in Tricycle — of course, we’re talking about the authors of the Best Buddhist Writing here — and the famous factor means that they’ll have Wikipedia pages! That makes finding out race, ethnicity and birthplaces much, much easier. So following the same methods as in the Tricycle study, here’s what I found.

Out of a whopping 136 unique authors, 21 were Asian. Percentage-wise, this is 15.4%, which is remarkably close to the 15.9% I found in the last year’s issues of Tricycle. This similarity in turn reminded me of a long ago grad school class where we discussed Thomas Schelling and mild racism.

Thomas Schelling is famous for a painstaking experiment where he showed that seemingly harmless racial preferences can create segregation. In the simulation recast here, segregation will typically occur if everyone wants even a mere 30% of their neighbors to be of the same race. They would be fine if as many as 70% of their neighbors were of a different race, and yet neighborhoods get segregated anyway.

What Schelling described is what’s now referred to as an emergent phenomenon. (If you didn’t click on the article above, you really should read it through.) As Presh Talwalkar quotes, with reference to a Schelling-type simulation of red and green “people”:

[Notice that] these “people” would all be perfectly happy in an integrated neighborhood, half red, half [green]. If they were real, they might well swear that they valued diversity. The realization that their individual preferences lead to a collective outcome indistinguishable from thoroughgoing racism might surprise them no less than it surprised me and, many years ago, Thomas Schelling.

If you haven’t connected the dots, I’m really tempted to change my rhetoric from “marginalization of Asian Americans” to “institutional racism.” But, aside from wanting to avoid being too much of a jerk, there’s good reason not to do so.

First, Schelling’s model (rightly) suggests that I shouldn’t assume that people are outright racist based on a segregated outcome. I’m pretty sure this applies to the editors over at Tricycle and Shambhala who just-so-happen-to-be-white. I’m fairly confident they’re not sitting at home complaining about how we high-achieving Asian Americans are keeping their daughters out of the nail care industry.

Second, initial conditions matter. These magazines started out with the racial imbalance in place, and so the natural interactions by which segregation emerges are likely to continue and solidify the situation we began with. In other words, it’s probably too much for me to expect white editors to keep their publications diverse when they’ve always been white, and no one’s ever really lost sleep over it.

Schelling’s model also sheds light on what to do about creating and maintaining diversity. Given that free-acting agents will unwittingly segregate their societies based on even minute racial preferences, we need intervention to establish and maintain diversity. Diverse communities don’t just happen.

So back to the Buddhist publishing scene. Segregation is real, and our individual preferences contribute to the divide. It may just be that white Buddhists have a small preference for reaching out to other white Buddhists, and that this tiny bias has much larger ramifications on the mainstream Buddhist publishing industry. It’s also true for me — I won’t lie — I wouldn’t go to a center of only white Buddhists if I could avoid it. So maybe it’s time to try something new.

There are many, many proposals that might help expand diversity in the Buddhist community. For one, editors could make a greater effort to both attract and review writing by people of color (including Asian Americans) for each issue. We can write about things that have nothing to do with race too!

The good news is that we can deal with institutional racism/ethnic marginalization without playing the blame game or feeling guilty. We have in our own hands the tools to make our publications as diverse as our community. It may take time, and it may take some extra effort, but I think we can agree that diversity is better than separate-but-equal.

16 Replies to “Best Buddhist Writing: Racism Unintended”

  1. Just for the sake of curiosity, are there any stats comparing the ratio of white authors to Asian authors that were candidates for the collection?

    Not that it is directly related, but I just counted the Buddhism books on my shelf, and 32 of 35 are written by Asians. But it is likely that if I were not living in Asia, this ratio might be different.

  2. Joseph: Thanks for stopping by! I believe that Best Buddhist Writing is an anthology of previously published material, so you could probably infer the candidate set by a survey of Buddhist works that had been published in the past year. But I don’t know what books/journals get reviewed by the editor.

    For a more narrow look… Fifteen of the Asian Buddhist writers are Tibetan — that’s 71.4% of the Asians — ten of whom take the title Rinpoche (“precious one”). This result may not be surprising, given that the book’s compiled by Shambhala. Maybe they’re biased to their own material.

  3. Dude, it’s Tricycle, it was started up by Rockefeller money, which was culled not just from Asians but working class Irish, Polish, Germans, Scots-Irish, African Americans, Mexicans, …

    You’re reading far too much into Tricycle. It’s primarily a non-threatening “gateway vehicle” to (primarily) white Buddhists . As as a use for Rockefeller money, I can’t hardly complain with that; it’s better than using it to fund folks to take over governments in tropical climates or to push for Christian theocratic government. Some of the writing was good too.

    Frankly, one of the things that is of more concern, you’ve written about it before, in fact, is the splintering of Buddhism amongst Asians and amongst Europeans and Asians.

    I’d prefer, personally, to meet a genuine practitioner no matter what his ethnic origin, and that genuine practice will never be found in Tricycle anyway, so why waste electrons over it?

  4. The subtext is that the same emergent racial factors that Schelling discovered in his simulation are the very same factors that both cause Buddhist publications to slant towards Caucasians and cause racial division in the community, even while no one in the community is “racist.” I doubt that “Rockefeller money” influenced the whiteness of Tricycle; this is the same foundation that funds the Museum of Chinese in America. If you play with the simulation, then you’ll see that a 30% bias towards one’s own (e.g. “I would feel uncomfortable joining a sitting group if it were less than 30% [ethnicity]”) typically results in a community that is more than 85% segregated. The upshot is that if you say that nothing should be done about it, then you’re effectively part of the problem.

  5. arunlikhati:

    I’m certain that those with money to dispense in the Rockefeller Foundation relied on Western cultural norms as they constructed them in order to dispense their money.

    If you look at the BoD of the Rockefeller center ( you’ll find that though Asian-named folks are well represented, there’s actually somewhat of a bias there too (mostly Cantonese Chinese names, and all of a sort of class that transcends any sort of issues to which you refer). While your first response might be “Well, Cantonese made up many immigrants!” it hasn’t been the case for decades.

    And again, I’m not certain there is much of a problem: Tricycle’s audience is extremely limited. You’re pointing to in essence a case of bad marketing and lazy reporting, if nothing else. As I said, genuine practice isn’t found there; it’s found elsewhere, and to think that the problem of racism (not to mention better propagation of the Dharma!) rests there, well I’m sorry I just don’t think that’s effective. I could ask my Asian wife, see what she thinks though. She’d probably say these European American Buddhists are all fakers anyway, but then again she has respect for my Asian teacher anyway. For whatever that’s worth.

  6. I’ve learned not to divine what people are *really* meaning when they speak and just go by what they express. It helps teach people that others are going to respond to their words and action and not necessarily divine some possible intent.

    So, I’d take it at face value if she said it to me that she believed it.

  7. Al:

    After a while people get to make up their own languages & grammars; to paraphrase the great sage Herb Cohen, language and styles of communication, being something reached at by a negotiation is, by definition, negotiable.

    That’s why it took me a while to figure out much of what my wife means.


    ( I’d (still) read it a bit differently than being “riled up” about their Euro-centrism; I’d say it’s poor quality control.

    “It wants” (or appears to want to be) an English language scholarly Buddhist journal, but so suffers from a deformity of a lack of translations of Asian scholarly Buddhist material that “it” appears to be reverberating solely within itself.

    And it ain’t the Dharma.

    Then again, I too can be annoyingly Dharmically correct, I suppose, as readers of my blog would likely infer. Frankly, what’s more pressing to me is not these, uh, dilettantes (and I’m more of a dilettante than not myself), but certified “experts” who will mix anything into Buddhism and call it Buddhism, and proclaim themselves great cultural icons for “Westernizing” Buddhism.

  8. You know…reading these sorts of things confuses the living hell out of me. I’m not Buddhist – not yet anyway, but it’s something I’d love to explore. Given that there are no temples, teachers, or groups where I’m located it means I’ve got to do all my learning via books, magazines and the web. How does a newcomer even know what books to read when her only resource is the local Borders, which stocks – you guessed it – Tricycle and Shambala Sun, along with (i think it’s called) Buddhadharma and a small selection of “eastern thought?”

    I read blogs like this and just come out more uncertain. I’m white, 30 years old. Am I a faker? Should I just stick to euro-faiths? What about paths like Hollow Bones Zen which blatantly admit to whittling out the Japanese cultural influence of the practice? Would being interested in that path make me a racist, unintentionally? I’m not Japanese…so wouldn’t it be an insult for me to try and pretend that I even have an inkling of their culture anyway?

    So much to think on.

  9. brooke — I think one thing to keep in mind is that Buddhism, at its core, is not cultural. Some cultural forms have developed over time, of course, but the Buddha’s actual teaching on how to live a life cultivating wisdom and compassion is free from all that. Basic ethics, thinking over teachings read or heard, and meditation are accessible to anyone at any time.

    For instance, I practice in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition, to the point of becoming ordained as a monk in robes, but as an American I’m not much of a Tibetophile and I’m honestly not that interested in exploring Tibetan cultural forms. I’m interested in enlightenment for the sake of others. I love my Tibetan teachers and feel the path they preserved over the centuries if the most powerful way to get there, but that’s about it. I’m a dude from New Jersey, no getting around it.

    So, sure, you can definitely practice in the zen tradition without bothering with Japanese cultural forms; the Buddha never taught about making the perfect cup of tea.

  10. Some interesting stuff here, but I won’t respond to all of it. Please feel free to tell me to accept the racial segregation in the Buddhist community. I will continue pointing out and working against what I perceive as a racial slight. I’m not exactly “keepin’ it real with the rice fields,” I’m just speaking out.

    Brooke: Buddhism transcends borders and cultures. I’m just an Asian guy standing up for Asians in the Buddhist community. I like to read Tricycle, Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma (unlike some fellow commentators). I just want to see more Asians in their by lines.

    I don’t think you’re any more racist than I am. (Perhaps poor comfort.) But now you know that even minute preferences towards people like you are part of what makes segregation happen. Just knowing that can make a difference towards a less segregated community.

  11. Here is some advice for brooke:

    Without any teacher, you might be like a small child in a supermarket with a $20 bill (or a $100 bill, maybe) — you’re hungry, you’re choosing food items off the shelf, but your choices are not going to be the same ones that an experienced adult, who’s used to preparing meals for herself, would be.

    I have picked this metaphor carefully — some adult food buyers will pick up the same junk food as the little child! Some others will be vegetarians. Some others will buy meat and vegetables, etc.

    So in spite of the white bias in Tricycle and Buddhadharma — and I do agree that it is there, and that it is unintentional — you could use these magazines to begin learning about many of the different ways that adults buy and prepare their meals. Just relax and take your time. Don’t try to do everything, or eat everything, all at once.

  12. Greetings,
    i was reading some information gleaned from “Wikipedia” that touched on one aspect of Racism and Buddhism that has an inpact on me (being of African American decent) in that there seems to be only one sect that seems to be reaching out (Soka Gakkai; ) to minorities other than White (considering famous participants like Tina Turner, and Herbie hankock). I have considered myself a buddhist in thought and feeling, but I hope to experience the full range of options in chosing my path to enlightenment or at least a better understanding.

    I really wished that I could had posted and participated in this discussion when the subject was still fresh.

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