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Lions Roar : September 2014
Yet many Buddhists don’t want to see that struc- tural racism operates in their own communities. According to Sharpe, white Buddhists often believe they’re so goodwilled that they can’t possibly be racist, and this means that they can’t be taught. Nobody wants to be seen as racist; nobody wants to look inside and see racist tendencies. “So when you bring racism up,” she says, “there’s so much guilt and shame about it that you get shamed.” They’re not coming. What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they coming for these precious teachings that we have? This, according to Sharpe, is frequently the underlying attitude of predominantly white sanghas in regard to people of color not attending their cen- ters. “There’s a feeling of ‘It’s their issue, not my issue,’” she says. “But racism hurts everybody. IF It Weren’t For Duke Ellington, Gina Sharpe might still be in jamaica. Her mother was a legal secretary in Kingston, her father an alcoholic and womanizer. The couple divorced when Sharpe was five. Then a few years later, her mother decided to try to make a better life for her three daughters. leaving them in the care of one of her former teachers, she immigrated to the United States, where she worked as a domestic ser- vant—the only thing she could do under the radar. Sharpe describes what happened to her as a Cin- derella story. The teacher, who had a rather plain daughter, was cruel to the attractive Sharpe sisters. They were all supposed to have their own bedroom, but instead she piled them into one room and some- times didn’t give them any food to eat. Not wanting to add to their mother’s burden, the girls did not tell her what was happening. Finally, one of the sister’s school friends told her father about the situation, and he marched over to the teacher’s house. “I’ll talk to your mother later,” he told the girls, “but you’re coming with me now.” He and his wife already had five children of their own, but they welcomed the Sharpes into their family. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother got married and acquired legal status in the U.S., yet she still couldn’t send for her daughters because she didn’t have enough money in the bank to satisfy the immigration requirements. But her new husband, a musician, was friendly with Duke Ellington. One day, Ellington caught her crying and asked what was wrong. After she explained the situ- ation, he put the needed money into her bank account, and she immediately set to work on reuniting with her children. Gina Sharpe, at age eleven, left her native land. Driving from the airport through Harlem, she was taken aback by the relentless expanse of towering buildings, the dirt, and the stark absence of nature. Yet she does not remember ever being homesick for jamaica. Sharpe had always excelled academically and, at her new school, a placement test landed her in ninth grade, making her three years younger than her classmates. Moreover, she was put into an exper- imental double-honors class for especially gifted students. It was like being at a private school, only without the price tag. Sharpe was just fifteen years old when she entered Barnard, the prestigious women’s college affiliated with Columbia, and the age difference between her and her classmates proved to be too much. Unprepared for the extracurricular activities of sex and alcohol, she dropped out after one year and got a job as a secretary and—briefly—as a model. She did not have to strike Sharpe with her husband John Fowle, who describes her teaching style as direct. Many teachers aren’t able to explain Buddhist concepts in such a way that they’re part of life, he says, “but a lot of Gina’s teachings deal with the application.” SHAMBHALA SUN SepteMBer 2014 33