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.