Saturday, March 23, 2013
She asked, “can’t we just move past all these race issues?”
She said, “all this race talk makes me feel uncomfortable.”
She asked, “really, when was the last time someone was lynched?”
She said, “racism doesn’t even exist anymore.”
She asked, “How can I be racist if I love Beyonce?”
She said, “I don’t see color.”
She asked, “You’re only half Black, right?”
She said, “That doesn’t really apply to you because you’re not even all Black.”
She asked, “Your brother dresses super fly, is he a rapper?”
She said, “I love gangster rap; Kanye West is so cute.”
She asked, “Why can’t I say nigga too?
She said, “My bestfriend in the 2nd grade was half-Black.”
She asked, “How do you starve if you’re on welfare?”
She said, “My check was only $925—I’m going to need Section 8 soon.”
She asked, “What is wrong with you people?”
She said, “Nigger.”
and I just laugh.
Friday, February 01, 2013
The focus of my paper is racial bias in the diagnosis of psychological disorders. In the United States the majority of clinical psychologists are of European/Caucasian decent. This paper considers the possible consequence of Eurocentric clinica practices. Racial bias in this context can be seen specifically as an increased or decreased likelihood of a particular diagnosis based on the biological markers associated with the concept of race. The marker of skin color is of primary focus. For hundreds of years people have associated meaning and value with skin color. This paper is an investigation of how clinicians in the field of psychology might misdiagnose a client based on the associations they have to the skin color of their client and/or their misunderstandings of cultural language and behavior.
The majority of the source material for this paper were studies that specifically addressed racial bias in the diagnoses of specific pathologies. In researching this phenomena it became evident that racial bias is most commonly present in the diagnosis of Axis I disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depressive disorders. One study also looked at diagnostic racial bias in developmental disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. While the studies focus on Axis I disorders, we will see that racial bias may also affect Axis IV and V diagnosis. Of the studies reviewed they were almost exclusively contrasting the diagnoses of European Americans and African-Americans.
These studies had as few as a hundred participants and as many as over 1500. The studies were conducted in several areas of the United States and most often included more than one county. The studies were set in state-supported mental health triage centers, other inpatient locations, as well as in outpatient programs. The evaluative tools most often employed were the DSM-IV itself or specific scales or tools from the DSM-IV. One study did use definitions from the International Classification of Disorders (Simpson et al., 2007).
The clinicians that made the actual diagnoses were most frequently psychiatrists or psychiatric nurses though one study used counseling professionals with either a Masters or Doctoral level of education. Only one study discussed the race of the clinicians and they were almost exclusively white, other than one clinician of mixed race (Schwartz, 2009).
This paper will also demonstrate that the abnormal psychology of an individual is affected by the social and institutional manifestations of racism. It is important to understand both how racial bias affects diagnosis as well as how racism affects the potential for various pathologies.
There are four themes that all the reviewed studies overtly or inadvertently address. These four themes will be the lens through which we view the effects of racial bias on diagnosing psychological disorders. The first theme is that of how normalcy is constructed and how that conversely defines social deviance. This will allow us to examine how culture can be mistaken as pathology. Second is the issue of cultural competency, the lack of which many believe to be the primary agent of racial bias in clinical settings. The third theme is that of language, significant in client’s description of symptoms. Lastly, we will look at the interplay of institutional racism within psychiatry and the institutional racism of the society in which psychiatry is practiced.
Definitions of Normalcy
If disorders are understood, in part, as a deviance of social norms, it is important to consider that these norms were likely defined and reinforced by the dominant group. There is historic evidence of treating cultural difference as a disorder, intentionally or otherwise (Ali, 2004). This is presumably what led to the development of culturally-bound symptoms in the more recent versions of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). However, do these culturally-bound symptoms sufficiently mitigate racial bias? Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) provide examples of how definitions of normalcy could possibly result in pathologizing cultural norms. These disorders are not culturally bound and yet one study found that African American youth are more likely to be diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD and ODD (Schwartz & Feisthamel, 2009). The authors noted that these were disorders of deviance and the authors were concerned that certain cultural behaviors such as communication style were being seen as deviant by teachers and clinicians from the dominant group. The behavior of these youth might have also felt distressful or dangerous to members of the dominant group, even if no harm was intended.
These so-called “disorders of deviance” also serve as an example of how racial bias in diagnosing Axis I disorders may also affect Axis IV and V diagnosis. If a youth is punished for this deviance by being asked to leave the classroom or by being unnecessarily medicated this could lead to other life stressors or decreased academic and social functioning. This is speculative on my part and no studies suggested this to be the case. Never the less, these implications are troubling.
Another article discussed the intersection of gender and racial bias in the diagnostic process (Ali, 2004). For example, this author found evidence of sexist descriptors of women of color in the DSM casebook. If white women’s sexuality is viewed as the norm and other sexual values that are culturally specific are seen as a form of dysfunction, this would suggest that implicit in the field of psychology we find that different standards of normalcy are dependent on race.
It may be also that the sexualized descriptors are left over cultural assumptions from racist constructions of ethnic identity designed to marginalize and objectify women of color in colonial times. Colonialism offers us another perspective on racial bias in psychology. In considering the question of normalcy we can also look at the origins of psychiatry. Post-modern authors put psychiatric racial bias in the context of capitalism, empiricism, patriarchy, and other modernist ideologies (Fabrega, 2008). One of the blind spots of many modernist thinkers is their ignorance or negation of an implied colonial narrative. That is to say that in their observation, be it anthropological, pedagogical, or psychological, there is a sense of supremacy and domination in their evaluations and methods. Post-modernists suggest that western psychology is inherently racist since it is based on the same colonial narratives of other modernist assumptions and practices. As well, they would admonish us against culturally bias definitions of “mental illness” and even “empiricism” (Fabrega, 2008). A post-modern critique of western psychology will note that it is a field founded, developed and dominated by mostly white men. What has been considered normal in this field may only be normal for the people who dominate the field.
Another study discusses the potential consequence of psychiatry being dominated by a ruling class. In addition to finding that youth of color were disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD and ODD, Schwartz & Feisthamel (2009) found that African Americans were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia or other psychotic conditions than their white counterparts. Twenty-seven percent of the African Americans in the study were diagnosed with schizophrenia as compared with seventeen percent of the European Americans. Meanwhile, European Americans were more likely to be diagnosed with non-psychotic mood disorders. This suggests the potential that behavior that might be cultural and quite normal in a given culture, may be seen as threatening and diagnosable in the dominant culture. Put another way, when cultural behaviors deviate from a social norm create by the dominate culture, these behaviors are more likely to be seen as pathological.
The authors maintain that these findings are consistent with prior research. They also suggest that part of the issue may be access. They suggest that suspicion of a mental health system dominated by the ruling class combined with a cultural stigma of mental illness may cause African Americans to be assessed at a later stage of the disorder, therefore having a higher rate of a positive diagnosis. Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford, and Muroff (2003) further suggest that if this suspicion on the part of the African American client manifests as despondence it could be mistaken for a flat affect thus increasing the potential for a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
There is specific evidence that the DSM-IV’s culturally-bound symptoms do not sufficiently mitigate racial bias. In a study of racial differences in DSM diagnosis using a semi-structured instrument, Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford and Muroff (2003) found that African Americans were disproportionately over-diagnosed with more severe disorders, usually schizophrenia, and conversely, African Americans were disproportionately under-diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. If white people are more likely to get less psychotic diagnoses or black people more likely to get more psychotic diagnoses than this suggests a tendency towards “othering” people of color and reinforcing the normalcy of white people’s mental health. Furthermore, if the culturally-bound categories were designed to account for cultural differences between races, then how could this discrepancy occur? The authors found that separating subjective symptoms from cultural norms could be problematic:
“Distinguishing hallucinations that indicate poor reality testing from culturally governed interpretations of subjective experience may be difficult” (Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford and Muroff, 2003). This study came to the conclusion that using semi-structured instruments does not eliminate racial bias in part because while the DSM is ostensibly and objective tool, clinicians themselves are required to make subjective judgments about how to apply these objective criterion and this allows a loophole for unconscious predictive bias on the part of the clinician. One study exemplified this idea by suggesting that how clinicians connect their observations of symptoms to diagnostic constructs differed depending on if the client was African American or European American (Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford, & Muroff, 2003).
The post-modernist critique maintains that the same cultural insensitivity found in other modern, post-colonial disciplines such as anthropology and economics is also found in western psychological research and clinical application (Fabrega, 2008). Most studies suggest that cultural competency is the culprit of a biased or adulterated diagnosis. Issues of cultural competency suggest that the clinical interaction takes place in a historical and social context and that the interaction between clinician and client is not without the same prejudices that affect society at large. This is evident in the analysis of normalcy. While it is suggested that racial bias is a systematic and institutional problem, these biases are played out between individual clients and individual therapists. Therefore, the cultural competency of individual clinicians is a significant factor.
While the study of racial bias in the use of semi-structured instruments suggested that such instruments do not sufficiently mitigate bias the authors suggest also that clinicians competency in using such instruments is also important. If clinicians are trained on how to use sociocultural demographic information appropriately ethnocentric bias may be diminished (Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford, & Muroff, 2003). The authors put particular emphasis on training clinicians to raise cultural alternatives to perceived symptoms. The authors of this study also suggest that symptoms of paranoia may actually be a learned response to racism, that clients may be suspicious of a clinician or institution based on past experience with racism. Part of cultural competency is to understand that social context in which clinical interactions take place.
Cultural competency also refers to the clinicians understanding of how symptoms may present themselves differently in various cultures. We will investigate this idea more in depth as we look at language. Schwartz & Feisthamel (2009) point out that symptoms of schizophrenia manifest differently for African Americans than European Americans. If a clinician doesn’t understand this, a misdiagnosis seems likely.
Several studies suggest the need for better cultural competency training and research. Schwartz & Feisthamel state that there is a perception in the psychiatric community that African Americans are more likely to have schizophrenia. Regardless of if this is accurate, the authors suggest that the very notion could predispose clinicians to demonstrating bias during diagnosis.
A very important aspect to cultural competency is language. Language is the key to understanding how a client interprets their own condition. Particularly problematic is how to interpret self-reported information. This is important to the examination of racial bias due to the fact that how a client describes a symptom may be bound by local dialect or cultural stigmas and the meaning of either could be lost on an unskilled clinician.
Sometimes there may simply be a language barrier. Other times it may be a cultural barrier that manifests linguistically. Sometimes clinicians misinterpret culturally specific language as a pathological symptom. For example, studies on symptoms that had previously been described as a cultural syndrome called ataque de nervios (attack of the nerves) in mainly Latinas, was found to not be a “clinical entity” but instead a problem of functioning in relations to certain social circumstances (Halgin & Whitbourne, 2010). Similarly, Alisha Ali (2004) explains that women of color may be more likely to describe psychological ailments in physical terms, in part due to the potential of being stigmatized within their ethnic culture for having psychological problems. For example, I have learned in my own work in the field of HIV that in some Latino families psychological manifestations of HIV are attributed to “el cancer” (the cancer) due to the stigma associated with HIV and it’s association with homosexuality in this culture.
One literature review on studies that compared rates of depression across different ethnicities found that family physicians and interns are less likely to recognize indicators of major depression in Latinos/Latinas and African Americans when using brief depression symptom questionnaires, and thus less likely to diagnose this population with depression (Simpson, Krishnan, Kunik and Ruiz, 2007). While there may be several reasons for this, the way that symptoms were described on the questionnaire may not have been culturally relevant and/or the clinicians did not recognize the answers given by these ethnicities as indicating depressive symptomology. How a question is worded, be it written or spoken, may affect the validity of the answer. If the question does not employ (or the clinician does not understand) the local “idioms of distress” the answer will be less likely to represent a valid response (Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford, & Muroff, 2003).
One important aspect of cross-cultural language competency is that it applies not just to ethnic cultures but youth cultures, queer cultures, and class cultures. The more a clinician understands the slang of the cultures with which they work, the more effective and accurate a diagnosis can be made.
Psychiatric Implications of Institutional Racism
Lastly, it is important to consider the interplay of institutional racism within psychiatry with the institutional racism of the society in which psychiatry is practiced. Already apparent are several examples of racism within the practice of psychiatry: disproportionately higher diagnosis of more serious diagnosis in people of color, disproportionately higher diagnosis of less severe disorders in white clients, insufficient mitigation of bias in the DSM-IV’s culturally-bound categories, a field dominated by white practitioners, lack of cultural competency by white clinicians, and misunderstanding cultural descriptors of symptomology.
The various explanations and suggestions offered make an attempt to explain the discrepancies as evidence of racial bias in diagnosis. However, there is one explanation which highly undermines this hypothesis and in doing so sets forth a startling hypothesis of its own. Looking at the possibility that higher rates of schizophrenia in African-Americans may not be attributed to a predictive bias, the authors consider the idea that perhaps the diagnosis rates are actually correct (Schwartz & Feisthamel, 2009). We are then left to consider if there is something about being African-American in the United States that contributes to higher rates of schizophrenia among that population. In other words, can racism be the cause of pathology? By in large the authors suggest that this is unlikely and that clinical bias is a more likely suspect of the discrepant prevalence. None the less, these alternative explanations are important to consider. Some authors maintain that studies have shown that living in lower socioeconomic levels can cause or exacerbate schizophrenia and that the life stressors that poverty entails can contribute to triggering schizophrenia (Haglin &Whitebourne, 2010). In the United States, African Americans are more likely to be poor and to experience barriers to housing, employment, and health care.
What this would effectively mean is that due to institutional racism, simply being black acts as a genetic factor in a diathesis-stress model of dysfunction. This does not suggest that the genetics that make up racial markers carry within them a predisposition to mental illness, but that the environmental factors predispose individuals with certain genetic racial markers to schizophrenia. One author goes so far as to say that these diagnoses are a pathologizing of the traumatic response of people of color to oppression. Furthermore, in a society where people’s worth is associated with their ability to function in the dominant construction of normality, this phenomena is akin to blaming the victim (Ali, 2004).
Other important issues that relate to psychiatry and institutional racism is the fact that African Americans are less likely to access preventative care, to receive psychiatric care prior to hospitalization, less likely to leave a hospitalization with a specific diagnosis, less likely to have health insurance, and less more likely to experience the stressors of poverty (Sohler & Bromet, 2003).
Working from the assumption that a diagnosis is the first step of a treatment plan we find that an exaggerated, diminished or otherwise mistaken diagnosis can lead to inappropriate treatment and poor management of mental illnesses. If race is a component of such a misdiagnosis, this raises serious issues of social justice and accountability within the psychiatric community.
Situations in which people of color are being misdiagnosed with psychotic disorders can have serious and even irreversible affects on their lives. These patients are likely to go onto intensive treatment in the form of hospitalization, strong medication with strong side effects, or even Electroconvulsive Therapy. If they do not in fact have schizophrenia or psychotic symptoms such so-called treatment would be unethical.
The other manifestations of institutional discrimination mentioned also affect treatment. While not having health care can inhibit early diagnosis, it can severely impact treatment. The Surgeon General has reported that African Americans receive inferior and inadequate treatment for mental illness compared to the population at large (Schwartz, 2009).
One study on diagnosis and treatment of depression in the Latino/Latina community found that issues of language and cultural competence were mitigated in the treatment of depression in states where patients were more likely to be seen by physicians of their own ethnic groups. Furthermore, successful treatment rates would be higher if education and intervention materials were presented in ways that were culturally appropriate (Simpson, Krishnan, Kunik, Ruiz, 2007). The authors of another study made a similar assertion suggesting that “race matching” between client and clinician should be further explored (Neighbors, Trierweiler, Ford and Muroff, 2003). However, it is not likely that this would be viable in many communities given the disproportionate number of white clinicians.
These studies offer empirical evidence of how clinical psychology has done a disservice to people of color. Conversely, they offer guidance on how the field of psychology and psychiatry can become more culturally competent and maintain its empirical and altruistic integrity. Addressing these issues will lead to better treatment for people of color and a strengthened sense of validity in the field of psychology and psychiatry overall.
Ali, A. (2004). The Intersection of Racism and Sexism in Psychiatric Diagonsis.
In P. J. Caplan & L. Cosgrove, Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis (pp. 71-75).
Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Jason Aronson. (Original work
Fabrega, H., Jr. (2008, Summer). On the Postmodernist Critique and Reformation
of Psychiatry. Psychiatry, 72(2), 183-196.
Haglin, R. P., & Whitbourne, S. K. (2010). Chapter 2: Classification and treatment plans, Chapter 9: Schizophrenia and related disorders. In Abnormal psychology: clinical perspectives on psychological disorders (Sixth ed., pp. 276-305). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill. (Original work published 1993)
Neighbors, H. W., Trierweiler, S. J., Ford, B. C., & Muroff, J. R. (2003).
Racial Differences in DSM diagnosis Using a Semi-Structured Instrument: The
importance of clinical judgment in the diagnosis of African Americans.
Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44(3), 237-256.
Schwartz, R., & Feisthamel, K. (2009). Disproportionate Diagnosis of Mental
Disorders Among African American Versus European American Clients:
Implications for Counseling Theory, Research, and Practice. Journal of
Counseling and Development , 87(3), 295-301.
Simpson, S., Krishnan, L., Kunik, M., & Ruiz, P. (2007, March). Racial
Disparities in Diagnosis and Treatment of Depression: A Literature Review .
Psychiatric Quarterly, 78(1), 3-14. doi:10.1007/s11126-006-9022-y
Sohler, N., & Bromet, E. (2003, March). Does Racial Bias Influence Psychiatric
Diagnoses Assigned at First Hospitalization? Social Psychiatry and
Psychiatric Epidemiology, (38), 463-472.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Most of my blog posts at http://americasbirthdefectembra.blogspot.com/ are spurred by personal observations or experience. What spurred me to write this post today was watching HGTV for several hours. As I watched several shows featuring multi-million homes [one worth $185M], I again noticed that every homeowner was white. This caused me, once again, to think about white privilege.
Some may ask for a definition of white privilege. Still others question its very existence. There are many who have written about white privilege and who have defined it. The concept of white privilege almost demands a discussion [and definition] of "race." I will save that discussion for another blog post. I like to define white privilege as the inherited ability to have access to resources that are: (1) taken for granted [often not even thought about]; (2) an inherited sense that one is not "the other;" and (3) inherited power.
I must add that while white privilege is most evident in wealthy white people, white privilege also extends to non-wealthy white people. In North America, white privilege is the norm. Peggy McIntosh [a white woman], who travels and lectures extensively on white privilege describes it much more eloquently than I in her article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."
A white person born in the U.S. is born with access to many resources that remain unavailable, at least in large part, to non-whites. This includes better schools, homes in better neighborhoods, ability to gain job interviews and land jobs, lack of denial for resources solely because of skin color and automatic acceptance into a club that excludes non-whites. There are social norms and expectations, based on historical events and current practices, which elevate whiteness to be the norm.
The advantages of being white are numerous. Probably the most important advantage is the sure knowledge that decisions made about you are not based on your race. You're confident in the knowledge that the reason you were denied housing, a job or college entry, was not because of your race. White people can choose to be around people who look like them most of the time. White people see themselves widely represented [positively] in all forms of media. A negative action, behavior or crime committed by a white person is not an indictment of the entire race, e.g., the white people on "The Jerry Springer Show" do not represent all white people.
Some people argue that the problems are socio-economic based and not race-based. "Poor is poor," many say. While socio-economics do, indeed, play a role in access to resources, a child born with white skin is automatically a member of an exclusive club, a club whose members already have the advantage. Consider, also, two men in their fifties, one black, one white. The white man [born into white privilege] has already climbed the ladder of success. At a young age, he had access to better educational facilities, access to better, higher-paying jobs [with benefits], access to partners successful in their own right or with inherited family resources, the ability to purchase one, two or even three homes and the ability to pass on these privileges to yet another generation. By his mid-50's, he is no longer chasing the dream. He has lived and experienced the dream and is now looking forward to years of leisure - if he so chooses. The non-white man, on the other hand, is still chasing his dreams. He began his life as "the other," already behind, not a part of, the norm. He spends his entire life being pre-judged and then judged by the color of his skin. His skin color may deny him access to better schools as a child, prevent his entry into higher education, relegate him to entry-level jobs and deny him access to financial resources. In short, he has spent his entire life attempting to prove that despite him being "the other," he is capable, he is intelligent, he is not this, he is not that. Even in his mid-50's, he lacks the financial security of his white counterpart. Instead of looking forward to a leisurely retirement in a few years, he is still struggling just to make ends meet.
Most white people do not recognize their white privilege. It is as much a part of them as their white skin, their grandfather's nose, their great-grandmother's blue eyes. You get up every day and its existence doesn't cross the mind.
My intent in this post, and indeed on all the posts in this blog, is not to anger, but rather to make the reader think, examine and discuss.
Saturday, May 05, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Aug. 18, 2009
While sleep escapes her
she lists her confessions.
I was conceived in part because of race
this was 1966
I was delivered in a white-walled hospital on white bed sheets
beside the spirit of thousands of white babies before me
amidst white doctors
and white nurses
while people of other races
held the janitorial jobs—
scrubbing toilets, dumping garbage
serving food, doing laundry
I grew up in a predominantly
because white privilege bleached the streets
in the image of their choosing.
I went to schools packed with a predominantly
all-white student body with all-white teachers
and all-white administrators and all-white textbooks
transcribing an dominant Eurocentric colonialist perspective
whose white privilege excluded the accomplishments
and contributions of people of color
because they were taught to do so.
White employers hire me
based on my privilege of white reflection
I gain entry into places because of my white status—
universities, clubs, bars, jobs, organizations of the elite
summer camp, student exchange program
Because of my whiteness
I am excluded and protected
from gangs, juvie, prison, military service, racial profiling
and other lower socio-economic traps
I am permitted unlimited entry
to free drugs, parties, neighborhoods, stores, and gated communities
without suspicion or second-guessing of my right to be there
because I am a gold-card-carrying white person
with detailed, specified entitlements
they serve me and my white brothers and sisters
respectively and accordingly.
I am alive and here today
in this white-washed apartment
owned by my white landlord
holding this job, savings account, car, clothes, and all the rest
thanks to my sweet little white ass.
And believe me,
when I tell you,
that I never forget it,
nor the heavy responsibility
that comes with it.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
1. Stay with discomfort
2. Monitor defenses: being humble and keep mouth shut until you no longer feel defensive
3. Allow guilt and transform it into motivation
4. Think of racism as personal/interpersonal but be clear that these interpersonal interactions happen within systems and institutions- that the systems depend on people to reinforce them and that people can also reinforce systems of racism and oppression
5. Keep a both/and attitude (as opposed to either/or). For example, many white people have worked hard to get what they have AND they had a lot of help from the benefits of white privilege
6. Be vigilantly mindful: at any given moment consider how whiteness and privilege are playing out or have played out in this moment.
7. Take active responsibility for the personal behavior AND the systematic arrangements in your community. Do not enact the privilege of being able to live seemingly unaffected by these issues- the privilege of non-action
8. Consider the costs of white supremacy/privilege for the dominant (white) group.
9. Do your best to make racism and whiteness visible by naming it when you see it- out loud, even if it may damage personal bonds with other white people
10. Get comfortable with resistance and defensiveness- don’t let your ego be bothered by people’s responses to your concerns.
11. Stop believing that addressing issues like this is an extracurricular activity called “activism”- this is an issue of human and communal suffering, not politics
If you step into a meditation class in The United States, the chances are the room will be filled with mostly middle-upper class white folk. Often however, the spiritual practice that is being taught has originated in a location with very few white people. This is obviously not because Caucasians and/or Americans of European decent are the only ones interested in meditation or Buddhism. In order to strengthen our spiritual communities, it behooves us to contemplate the state of our sangha as well as the state of our mind.
First, let us consider how Buddhism came to America. From the beginning, Buddhist communities were affected and changed by racism. The first Buddhist temples in the U.S. were Chinese temples built in San Francisco in the second half of the 19th Century. These temples were seen as suspect by the dominant white community. These prejudices were based on ignorance and racial stereotypes. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as well as the 1924 Immigration Act greatly curtailed emigration from Asian countries and therefore the growth of Buddhism in the United States. Furthermore, in an effort to be more accepted as U.S. Citizens many Asian Americans converted to Christianity. This is especially true of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Buddhism began to have a mainstream appeal in the U.S. during the 60s as beat poets and hippies began to practice the Dharma. While many young people of color were working hard towards civil rights in the 60s, many young white people were on a more personal, spiritual quest. For some it was a passing phase or just another consciousness-bending experiment but others took it very seriously. Some of these more ardent practitioners decided to go to countries like Japan, Thailand, and Tibet to learn about Buddhism in the countries from which it came. Of these sojourners, most were men and most were white. These were the people that could afford the privilege of traveling to another country for an extended amount of time. Some of these men returned to the U.S. and began to spread the Dharma via a mass media system that was dominated by white people. In doing so, they became iconic spiritual leaders. It is important to note that this is not a critique of their intention or sincerity. Nor does it take away from how hard these practitioners have worked. However, understanding the social conditions in which Buddhism and meditation have become popularized in the United States will help us understand its lack of diversity.
Even though your accommodations at foreign monasteries may be minimalist and free, it still takes money to get there and back. Racism and poverty have been inextricably linked in the United States. A white person is simply more likely to be able to afford such a journey. Furthermore, a white person may feel safer traveling, even to a non-white country. In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh notes that part of white privilege is being able to travel alone or with a person of one’s own race without expecting embarrassment or hostility. In this day and age of terrorism and racial profiling, travel can be more difficult for people of color. Each year, many young US citizens travel around the world. Many of them feel it is their right to do so. Many white spiritual seekers carry with them this same sense of entitlement. While there is nothing innately wrong with their desires, it highlights an example of a privilege that should be available to anyone, not just those with privilege. It is likely that white practitioners have to work diligently to carve out the time and money to make these opportunities happen. This does not mitigate the fact that a person of color would likely have to work harder for the same opportunities.
Another privilege that whiteness brings is the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in social justice or anti-racist work. For people of color, the choice is one of self-preservation and survival. The consequence to this is that white people have the privilege to be more focused (energetically, financially, and socially) on themselves and issues of personal significance, issues such as spiritual growth. White people are more likely to have more time off and more money to devote to their practice.
Money is another difficult issue for postmodern American Buddhists. In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka the culture is oriented towards supporting spiritual practitioners. People of all sectors of society contribute greatly to the proliferation and maintenance of Buddhism, similar to the way Christianity is supported in the U.S. Without that social or cultural support, Buddhist meditation centers that are not tied financially or socially to Buddhist countries struggle to exist. However, the United States is a capitalist country and the market place has helped Buddhism flourish. Self-help books are among the most widely read and best selling in the country. Buddhism, especially so-called Vipassana meditation has, as it has assimilated to the western-conditioned mind, embraced and integrated both western psychology and economics. Any Barnes and Nobles will have a Buddhism or Self-Help section with books by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Susan Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hahn, Suzuki Roshi and of course The Dalai Lama. The first of these three authors are arguably the leaders of mainstream American Buddhism. Besides being best selling authors, all three have founded the countries leading retreat centers. Despite the fact that the traditions in which they practice come out of India, Burma and Thailand, all three are of European decent, all three are white. All three lead several retreats per year that cost hundreds of dollars per participant. More often than not, it is white folks who can afford such retreats. It is through their books and retreats that many U.S. citizens discover Buddhism. It is through their work that the infrastructure of what is arguably the most popular form of Buddhist meditation in this country was created. This poses a conundrum for these Buddhist leaders, a modern-day economic koan if you will. How does Buddhism survive in a market-based society without excluding those against whom the market discriminates [read: without excluding poor people and people of color]?
To their credit, most major U.S. Buddhist traditions, schools, and retreat centers have some sort of diversity program. Some offer scholarships to people of color. A few meditation centers now offer retreats and classes that are exclusively for people of color. This segregated solution is no doubt important. Meditation requires, above all, a place in which one feels safe and respected. These groups offer people of color that safety as well as an opportunity to talk about issues specific to non-white practitioners. After all, if meditation brings to the surface our deepest wounds, who can argue against a space for people of color to heal from the wounds of racism?
However, this solution does not address why such groups may be necessary in the first place, or why Buddhist teachers, monks, and authors in the United States are disproportionately white. For this we look again at the institutional and systematic underpinnings of racism. The leaders of many Buddhist retreats are authors. It has always been more difficult for people of color to publish books, especially if they are not related to racism or social justice. White privilege comes in the form of white networks. Most authors get published in the same way many people get jobs: through personal networking. White people are simply more likely to network with other white people. Spiritual networks are not so different from any social network. People tend towards people like themselves. Christians practice with other Christians and Muslims with Muslims, etc. There are black churches in the south and white churches in the suburbs. So, Buddhism has a similar though less acknowledged segregation. These white networks offer not just book deals, but job positions at retreat centers as well. It is rare to go to a lay Buddhist retreat and see a person of color on staff.
The irony is that even though there are many, many Asian-American families still quietly practicing Buddhism, and even though a white person may still be a novelty in a Thai monastery, it is this white face that is now the face of Buddhism in the United States. Often when the term “American Buddhism” is spoken, it is not referring to the generations of Asian Americans who have been practicing Buddhism in the United States. While one cannot argue that spirituality is reserved for white people, it seems clear that skin color affords one more opportunity for spiritual development. Combined with institutional and systematic discrimination within the media and market systems, people of color seem to have less access to Buddhism classes or retreats or may simply feel emotionally unsafe in such white-dominated spaces. Just like in any spiritual endeavor, there is no singular easy solution to fighting racism. However, in upcoming articles I hope to explore these themes in greater detail as well as discuss how white people on the path can be spiritual and social allies for people of color on the path.
Christopher Bowers is an MFT intern and writer. He hosts a social blog about white privilege at www.whitepriv.blogspot.com and another blog of his own creative fiction and non-fiction writing at www.cryingjustbecause.blogspot.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com
Monday, December 20, 2010
Our daughter Yunhee was adopted from Korea as an infant, joining a white American mother, father and older brother, who was born into our family. (One of our oft repeated family jokes is the story of her middle school classmate who asked me, "Does Yunhee know she's adopted?") Race was an often daily topic in our family. I'd had fifteen years of anti-racism education by the time Yunhee came home, not to mention growing up in Korea as a highly visible person of racial difference, so I was certainly comfortable addressing the topic. But I remember on so many occasions, when Yunhee expressed intense emotion about the subject (often as the result of a comment by a classmate), and even as I might be giving her my full, sympathetic attention, I was aware of a little voice in my head asking, "Can it really be that bad?" Of course, as Yunhee's mother, I had many tangled emotions and longings as I witnessed her distress. I didn't want my child to hurt - ever, for any reason. I wanted her to learn appropriate social customs, which include containing and channeling the expression of emotion in consideration of others. But that little voice was a result of my own conditioning as a white American: racially, I have had it easy. Without my having done anything but be born with this color of skin, I have automatically (and usually unconsciously) been granted a measure of status, advantage and influence. I have grown up surrounded by social structures, media, interactions and institutions which reinforce the centrality of my racial identity, so much so that I don't even notice them. I have never endured a steady barrage of negation about my race. In general, the experience of being white in the U.S. is comfortable, unchallenged, affirmed and taken for granted. It's no wonder that I don't notice it, and no wonder if I can't imagine what it would be like to be a person of color in this society. Privilege plays out in many concrete ways, some explored here, but it's also pervasive as a state of mind. This diminishing of the experiences of people of color, as expressed by them, is one of its more insidious aspects. There are so many versions of this avoidance: "Why are you playing the race card?" "I understand your concerns, but I have a hard time hearing you when you're so angry." "I know there are some problems, but we elected Barack Obama!" In other words, "Please reframe that so that I can stay comfortable." *** Because it can be really tricky trying to see my own invisible patterns, I find it useful to borrow some awareness from other aspects of my life. I can get a clue about privilege in thinking of my experience as a self-employed artist. I'm often made aware of the fact that people with salaried positions, benefits and health insurance don't seem to be able to imagine what it's like to live without these. (I'm fortunate to currently have health insurance through my husband's job, but have gone for years without it when we were both self-employed.) I notice that salaried people frequently make requests for unremunerated services or time that show that they're completely unaware of what it's like not to have a steady income. For instance, teachers' conferences expect presenters to pay for the privilege of attending, assuming, I guess, the support of a school district to cover registration and travel. Most writers and illustrators don't have the extra resources for this, unless they have other jobs as well. The feeling I often have is that salaried people can't even imagine what the questions are that those of us who are self-employed have to ask all the time. (This is not to suggest that self-employed people are the targets of anything, but merely to point out an example of privilege in the oblivion of people who are salaried about the lives of people who are not.) *** Once I've identified that part of my avoidance around race, particularly my discomfort in listening to people of color express their feelings about being mistreated, is a privilege I no longer want to participate in, I've made a start. The next part is a human one. Open my heart, and let it break. And keep listening. Anne Sibley O'Brien is a writer and illustrator who writes about race, culture and children's books at "Coloring Between the Lines." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org