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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
the opportunity to cultivate sensitivity, kind- ness, patience, but still, there’s an honesty that has to happen. I think, too, for teachers of color, some- times people kind of take away our narra- tive, our history, and they see us as people who don’t struggle, who are not sensitive. We’re anomalies, you know? People are surprised to learn that yes, I’m still afraid of the police. Yes, I still get followed in stores. Yes, I struggle with feelings of not being good enough. Yes, I’m still angry. It’s impor- tant for people to hear. angel Kyodo Williams: It’s breaking the bubble of the dharma commu- nity, right? When you leave the community, if you’re not wearing your robes, you are—to the rest of America—a black man. When I’m not wearing my garb, I walk out the door and the regard that I get is just the ordinary regard or disregard that someone has decided to show me, and that’s also important to bring up and recognize—there are places in which we’re not “held” as the teacher. As a person who has grown up in my tradition, I can see how other dharma practitioners are inap- propriate at times because they’re relating to me as a black person, not as a teacher. An example would be overfamiliarity, approaching me in ways that are more like a buddy. I know that that’s not consistent with how that community generally holds its teachers. It’s tricky. Where is the line in terms of sharing that? As you said, we hold the microphone. We have relative power, but because so much work has not been done and so much has not been addressed in overwhelmingly white sanghas, our nar- rative becomes a danger in itself. The shar- ing of our narrative can be viewed lama rod oWens: Lately I’ve been having honest conversations with white practitioners who are opening up about racism—simply witnessing and allowing grief and guilt and sadness to surface, holding the space for that. That’s so important. Whether you’re a person of color or not, we need to connect to that energy, that really uncomfortable stuff, to acknowledge that it’s there. angel Kyodo Williams: Ultimately, though, I think white practitioners need to come to understand the landscape of race and sys- temic racism and whiteness and privilege for themselves. That’s not our job. It’s not the job or the role of the folks of color who are in the sangha. What most often happens when people get the idea that “Oh! We have to do diversity work!” is we all turn to the one or two or three people of color and expect them to be on the diversity commit- tee. But now, for me as a leader, that line is blurred. lama rod oWens: You’re the leader, but you’re also part of that group. For me, there was a choice I had to make. I had to recognize the privilege that I had—hav- ing this leadership and the authorization to say what I needed to say in order to help people cut through things—and that means sharing where I’m at and how I’ve struggled as a person of color in Western dharma. I hold the microphone. I’m at the front of the room. That’s incredibly power- ful, but it’s also dangerous, because if my practice isn’t strong enough, then I can be that angry black man on the cushion with unexamined rage. My practice has given me lama rod oWeNs is a resident teacher with Natural Dharma Fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts aNgel kyodo Williams, Sensei, is spiritual director of the New Dharma Community and author of Being Black winter 2 0 1 4 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly 23 lama rod owens and angel Kyodo williams discuss the challenges of being teachers of color in predominantly white sanghas. dialogues