Saturday, 10 May 2014

"Are you more black or white?"

This was my reaction after seeing my last post on Buddhism spread across the Internet, just with a bit less fur and a few less whiskers:

I presume that it was received well because people can relate to my experience, which has encouraged me to write more - so thank you! I suppose the next "big" part of my identity is my ethnicity. I'm half Jamaican, a quarter German and a quarter English. I'm mixed race.

The first time I really started to think about being mixed race - recognising my ethnicity - was when I watched Rabbit Proof Fence around the age of 13 (I grew up with a film fanatic of a father):

I didn't grow up in a Jamaican household. I don't even feel like I grew up in a British household. I definitely didn't grow up in a German household. I can't really associate a "culture" to my upbringing; it was neutral. I had the odd jerk chicken and rice dish, but then I ate chicken dippers and fish and chips too. How far do cultural practices reinforce one's ethnicity? Do I have to eat rice and peas and speak patios to "be" Jamaican?

This blog is not intended to cause any harm or offence to any readers, but to only reflect the writer's personal experiences and introspective observations.

I went to a school (a girls' school) that has predominantly Pakistani and Indian students. By the time I was in Year 10 (about 15 years old for the international readers), I found myself having mostly Asian friends. And, with this, I tended to be heavily questioned by my peers - who were not Asian - about my "reasons" for doing so. I was expected have reasons...

Why do you always hang around with Asians?
It's like you want to be Asian...

There was an implicit inference that I should hang out with my own. But who is that? Black people? White people? Jamaican-German-English people?

I have recently taken a double Honours module at university called Subject to Culture: Individuality and Identity, a seminar-based module designed to allow to critically assess their factors that contribute to our values, identities and sense of 'self'. Are we unique, different to others and autonomous? Or are our identities, on the other hand, shaped and moulded by a number of different cultural and social forces to which we must comply? Simply, whether our behaviour and thought processes are subject to culture.

One of the seminars concentrated on the "White Subject", looking at Richard Dyer's essays on whiteness. Dyer, a self-identified white man himself, explores the significance of using the term "white", which suggests that white is not a race but is instead a given and universal state of the human race. In other words, when we say coloured people, we do not mean white people; we mean non-white people. One is visible and the other is invisible.

Professor Richard Dyer

Dyer thus argues that being white is an invisible racial position, a position against which other ethnicities are examined and othered. White is granted. White is a position of power. Looking at representations of white people by whites in Western visual culture, whites, according to Dyer, are symbolised as pure, good and knowledgeable, which comes to form the cultural construction of whiteness as a racial category. Along with that, all of the symbolism associated with blackness becomes associated with “blacks” as a race. Also explored is the binary oppositions of one race and another when understanding race, i.e. whiteness vs. blackness, and the constructed normality of whiteness makes whiteness the privileged side of the opposition. 

It is Dyer's pursuit to make us see whiteness as strange rather than a benchmark for what is normal; to bring "white culture" into our consciousness rather than in comparison with other ethnicities. To see white as a colour.

Heavy stuff, huh? I wanted to use this opportunity in university to explore my racial position, my mixed-raceness and in fact explore whether such a thing actually exists. 

In this book, Dyer reflects on his own whiteness by referring to his childhood memories and adolescent experiences. In school, Dyer - who knew at this point that he was homosexual - found himself wanting to befriending one of few black boys in his school and being envious of his Jewish friend and his ethnicity. These friends were, too, part of an oppressed minority. He felt "at home" with this Jewish friend. 

Now, I've never really looked deep into the reasons for why I made friends with my Asian peers easily, but Dyer really did get me thinking. I don't fit into the "white box" or the "black box" and neither do my Asian friends. I felt that I didn't have to live up to any racial stereotypes around these friends. I didn't have to randomly speak patios to assert my blackness on others, for instance. I didn't place myself on the racial scale of blackness to whiteness. I found my own racial position. I could be me. 

At an Asian-themed birthday party.

One thing that has always grated me is being asked whether I'm more black or more white. I am asked as if it is something you can quantify and calculate. It would seem that people are referring to my behaviour. Do I act more black or more white? Why do I have to be one or the other? Either I'm "too white" or "not black enough". To this day, I have no idea what either of those comments mean. 

It would seem that I am defined by others in such purist and exclusive terms that I must be one ethnicity or the other, and not both. This demonstrates Dyer's ideas of races being binary opposites. If I am not black (if I do not "act black"), then I must be white ("act white"), and vice versa. It is as if my identity is being measured by virtue of being half black. According to Dyer, whiteness is invisible, it's not something you pick up on. But in my experience, being half black almost illuminates my white side. Being mixed race allows that invisibility of whiteness to become visible.

When speaking to my black peers, they see my afro hair and my non-white complexion. They see black. They suggest that mixed race people, by virtue of having "black blood", should be black, should act black. Well, tell me: how do you be or act black?

Looking at whiteness and blackness (in their binary opposite states), it is as if race - being white or being black - is just as performative as gender. Despite the colour of our skin, it seems to me that our behaviour creates our race. Race is constituted by that very behaviour. In my case, in order to be black - to identify with black people - I had/have to act a certain way. To me, race is an "act". Blackness and whiteness are not natural, but are a learned performance of identity.

I think Suki Ali, a mixed race researcher in Mixed Race Studies, is correct when saying that children don't see colour. It was as I grew up that I realised that I did not fit into either the whiteness or blackness categories. And I think that's okay. I've had to find my place, find my own racial position away from the pressure or expectations of others. And for that, I am grateful to have attended the school I went to.

The world we live in a dominated by racial ideology, organised by racial categories. I feel as if I, a mixed race girl living in the early 21st century, have an important mission in this life. After attending the premiere of Pratibha Parmar’s feature-length documentary film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, I wrote a reflexive article about Alice Walker. Every now and then, I think about Alice Walker's experiences in the age of "liberation" in the American South. I think about her courage as a black woman to marry and have a child with a white man at a time when segregation was lawful. I think about her courage.

In honour of Alice Walker.

Being mixed race is not only a mixture of two heritages but a symbol of cultural mixing and a symbol of change. A symbol that the treatment of race has come a long way but still has a long way to go. Maybe that's just my liberal voice speaking, but I am not afraid to speak my truth. I am not afraid to be me.

"In my work and in myself I reflect black people, women and men, as I reflect others. One day even the most self-protective ones will look into the mirror I provide and not be afraid." - Alice Walker

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

‘Coming out’ as a Buddhist

When first getting to know someone, the following typically comes up in conversation (in brackets are the usual responses I receive):

Name: Gabrielle Westhead (Gabriel? Gabriella? Okay, Gabby it is)
Year of birth: 1993 (you don’t look a day over 14!)
Hometown: Slough (I'm sorry to hear that)
Current occupation: Student at Oxford Brookes University (Wow, you go to Oxford?)
Ethnicity: Mixed White and Black Caribbean (AFRO! Can I touch your hair?)

I have come to involuntarily bow my head down at this point.

And lastly:
Religious views: Nichiren Buddhist...

Now, the last one comes as a bit of a shock – or at least a surprise – to some. People I meet generally associate being British with being Christian or being mixed raced with being atheist, having no religious beliefs at all. But, nevertheless, I am a Buddhist. I practise Buddhism. Specifically, I practise the philosophy and ideals of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, a Buddhist monk who lived in 13th-century Japan. Practising a philosophy means that Buddhism is part and parcel of who I am and how I live my life.

I'm what we Nichiren Buddhists call a "fortune baby", a baby born to a woman who practises and I, in turn, inherit my mother's "good fortune". Growing up, I went to various Buddhist activities for young people and really felt part of a big family - but never felt that Buddhism was my religion. At around the age of 15 (I say that's the age when you start living your own life), I started to explore religion. I went to a Baptist church with my best friend at the time for at least a year. I learned about Islam through my friends at school. But neither religion gelled with me.

Just as I was starting my GCSEs, I began getting bullied in my all girls' school (over a boy, believe it or not) and this went on for 2 years. It was painful, particularly because it was inflicted by people I had been friends with for many years, but I was determined not to be defeated or to retaliate. I was determined to change this situation, no matter how long it took. This is when I decided to take Buddhism seriously. It was the perfect opportunity to see if it worked for me. Friends kept asking me how I was coping. I wanted to sing the praises of Buddhism, but fear was holding me back.

Like some Christians, telling people I’m a Buddhist, that I practise Buddhism, feels like I’m "coming out". It's as if I'm publicly declaring a long-held secret, and once out I feel more 'like me’. But why? That’s the big question. Responses to my Buddhist "declaration" vary from person to person, from place to place, from country to country. I tend to get one of five reactions though:

  1. Oh, so you meditate… Teach me! (And they always start to hum)
  2. Wait, you’re not Asian… Are you?
  3. Wait, you’re not a monk… Are you?
  4. You worship the Buddha statue, right?
  5. And my personal favourite: So what animal will you come back as when you’re reincarnated? I want to be a fly.

Buddhism, and its many representations in popular culture and even in the classroom, can be steeped in stereotypes and peaked in prejudice. Yes, some Buddhists meditate. Yes, some Buddhists live in monasteries and are monks. Yes, some Buddhists pray to the statue of Buddha. But not all Buddhists. I practise Buddhism within a Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). I chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, not meditate. Soka Gakkai, literally meaning "Society for the Creation of Value", is a worldwide network of lay Buddhists dedicated to a common vision of a better world through the empowerment of the individual and the promotion of peace, culture and education. A just, sustainable and peaceful world.

Everything in this blog is a representation of my beliefs and my beliefs only and in no way do I intend to represent the views of all Buddhists around the world.

SGI was established in 1930s Japan as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (the Society for Value-Creating Education), a study group of reformist educators. The group, inspired by Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhist teachings, were dedicated to reforming the Japanese pedagogy and opposing the militarist government of the time. They were conscientious objectors. Under the leadership of the current SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, my mentor in life, has emerged as one of the largest and most dynamic Buddhist movements in the world. An international movement to reform society. A socially-engaged Buddhism.

Founding president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (front row, centre)
with Soka Kyoiku Gakkai members in Fukouka, Kyushu, 1941

While this all sounds heavily political (with a big P), it isn't. SGI members believe that reformation of institutional structures and creation of social change can be achieved by undergoing "human revolution", an inner transformation or a process of bringing forth our full human potentialBy extension (and person by person), we can positively transform the environments we live in. And that's what I did in school.

On a small scale, we manifest the courage, compassion and wisdom (which characterise the innate Buddhahood or Buddha nature we all have) to overcome daily and ongoing personal problems with employment, family relationships, health challenges etc. On a larger scale, the bigger picture, we make practical efforts to bring humanity closer together. The way I see it, to be a world citizen, you must engage in global issues. SGI members can engage in a wide range of community initiatives aimed at achieving constructive change in our individual lives and society. It's a grassroots movement.

Some of the activities we do include:
  • Regular local discussion meetings, where we ask questions, receive encouragement and simply make friends
  • Public educational programs and outreach projects (as a non-governmental organisation)
  • Contribute to our local communities (even directing relief programmes for victims of natural disasters)
  • Participate in interfaith dialogues to build religious cooperation (as someone once said to me, we can't make everyone Buddhist, Christian or Muslim so the only way to achieve world peace is create forging links between us.)

Being an SGI member permeates the way I think about life, my life and the lives of others. It has given me an awareness of human rights. In 1957, the second SGI President, Josei Toda, made a declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons as an "absolute evil" which threaten humanity's right to live. He asked the youth of the Soka Gakkai to take united action towards their abolition. Every year since 1983, Daisaku Ikeda (the current president) writes a peace proposal to offer his perspective on global issues, which he presents to the United Nations - and this includes nuclear abolition.

I am a member of the SGI-UK Youth Peace Committee (YPC), a group of around 20 young people who meet to study these annual peace proposals and plan practical initiatives that support lasting peace. Doing this "on the side" has opened my eyes to the invisible threat of nuclear weapons, a major factor that undermines the dignity of life. We're currently in the middle of planning a public exhibition, a tour of study lectures on this year's proposal and an interfaith activity.

As a nascent Japanese "export" religion under the operation of an international lay body, this draws numbers of non-Japanese members in and demands scholarly analysis in turn. Scholars of new religious movements, like Bryan Wilson, have noted that there's nothing "monkish" about SGI. I simply see it is an extraordinary movement among ordinary people. Having been brought up amongst the warmth and engagement of SGI-UK (the UK branch of SGI), I'm perhaps a little biased. Just a little...

It has become common practice for the media to warrant derogatory connotations and wrongful stereotypes of Buddhists. Fortunately, the co-founder of Scoop, a New Zealand media outlet, picked up on Ikeda's great efforts and requested an interview with him. Things are changing.

What I actually do.

For me, and 12 million other SGI members around the world, Buddhism is about realising your true identity, transforming every obstacle into an opportunity to grow, actively being a world citizen and sharing a common consciousness and concern for world peace. It's nothing recluse, secret or ascetic. It's about being the best you you can be. It's about using Buddhist philosophy in our daily realities. It's about using the "Buddha resources" we already have within. It's about having hope.

I propose that when Buddhism is spoken about, we should say “Buddhism(s)” so as to not offend or generalise. But as a 20-year-old mixed raced girl from Slough, introducing a new vernacular for a world religion might be a tiny bit tricky. So I’ve come to realise that the best way to diffuse such prejudices is to speak up and speak out with my truth.

Perhaps now when I say that I'm off to a "Buddhist meeting" (which is at least once a week), it will seem a little less ominous and stealth-like.

If you want to know more about SGI, please give this short informative video a watch:

I'm out (pun very much intended).