“The fundamental black/white binary endures, even though the category of whiteness or we might say more precisely, a category of nonblackness effectively expands. As before, the black poor remain outside the concept of the American as an “alien race” of “degenerate families.” A multicultural middle class may diversify the suburbs and college campuses, but the face of poor, segregated inner cities remains black. For quite some time, many observers have held that money and interracial sex would solve the race problem, and ,indeed, in some cases, they have. Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.”
My wife and I have started watching a new show called Parenthood, (very loosely) based on the <a href="1989 movie of the same name. The television version is set in Berkeley though clearly some alternate reality Berkeley who’s had its progressive-liberal claws removed and it looked like the pilot, at least, was actually filmed here in the Bay Area, so it’s local connection was an immediate hook. I find myself wanting to like the show more than I actually do. It’s leaning toward being good, but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
Sarah Braverman, the Diane Wiest character, played here by former Gilmore Girls mom Lauren Graham, has an interesting story line. She’s clearly being written as the plucky, down on your luck, possibly working-class character in juxtaposition to her upper-middle class siblings and parents. Her sister is a high-powered attorney and one of her brothers seems to own his own business. Her other brother (the Tom Hulce character from the film) seems to be a screw-up, but he also lives on a houseboat, has a wealthy girlfriend, and works in a recording studio. Unlike his movie character, I don’t see him getting thrown out of a moving car in front of his parent’s house any time soon.
Sarah, on the other hand, never went to college. She’d been a bartender in Fresno before leaving her alcoholic husband and taking her two teenaged kids with her back to Berkeley where they have to live with her parents while she looks for a new job. In last week’s episode, she enrolls her kids in the local high school; but because of some transcript or bureaucratic mix-up, her daughter is being forced to repeat the 10th grade.
When the mom finds out, she goes to the principal’s office to plead her daughter’s case. Now, this show is a mellow-drama, so this scene is full of heavy-handed music and platitudes while the mom bravely holds back tears and the principal wear a stern yet compassionate expression. In one of the subsequent scenes, we see the principal taking the daughter out of her class, ostensibly escorting her to the 11th grade. Mom won.
This post is about language and about travel. And this is a post directed more toward my readers who have served time, as it were, in academia, either professionally or as a student. But, of course, it is certainly not limited to those folks. Whatever your background, feel free to chime in!
In the days of yore, when Buddhist Studies was just emerging as a distinct discipline in European and American higher education, it was more or less expected that if you wanted to do Buddhist studies work, you were going to have to learn the traditional Buddhist languages: Pali and Sanskrit. Probably some classical Chinese and maybe even Tibetan. Serious east-Asian scholars would need to learn Japanese as well and to the extent that 99.9% of academics back in the day were well-educated white men with a classical education, they were no doubt coming to their fields having learned Latin and French and/or German in secondary school or college. Polyglots ruled the school.
To this day, there remains a certain breed of scholar who believes that real Buddhist Studies work requires language study. Real Buddhism is to be found in the texts, in the words of the Buddha, and to read those texts you need to know the language. And these folks will be quick to tell you what a travesty it is that the number of mono-linguists seems to be outpacing the number of polyglots.
So there are problems. There really is discrimination, poverty, sexism, and homophobia in this country, no matter how much we would like to believe that these things are nothing more than ephemeral prapaÃ±ca, illusory delusions of the unenlightened. The fact that they are real means that there is suffering out there, that people cope in a variety of ways. Some of us write exceedingly long blog posts about it. And this one attempts to answer the question of why you should care.
There are those who wish this conversation would go away, who staunchly claim that “race is a construct” and that we, especially as Buddhists, should be “better than that.” I want to address that point of view. I want to answer the question of why I think that having this conversation is important for Buddhists, for Buddhists of a certain political persuasion, and for people in general.
There is much confusion about the term white privilege. It seems fairly clear to me that many people assume that white privilege is the same thing as white racism, that white people are somehow choosing to be white racists, or that white privilege implies that all of us white folks are privileged in the narrow sense of the word (i.e., receive special, largely financial, benefits). And if someone fancies him- or herself as progressive or coming from a working class background, these associations can rub them wrong way. It’s an understandable response to a concept that is difficult to understand. But, and speaking here (full disclosure) as a progressive white man with something closer to working class roots, I think it’s worth struggling with this concept in an attempt to really understand what it means, to figure out if it really is little more than a synonym for white racism.
Short answer: no. No, it’s not.
A friend is compiling short testimonials about coping with “isms” (racism, classism, heterosexism, religious prejudice) in higher education for college-bound kids from underrepresented populations. She asked me if I had anything to contribute because her wife mentioned that she thought I’d come from a working-class background. It got me thinking.