Reflections on Intersections of Identity with African-American Buddhist Lesbians

Recently I completed research on the psycho-spiritual experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians (AABLs) in the Insight tradition. One of my dissertation committee members asked me why I ordered the identities as I did, in other words, why African-American first, Buddhist second, and lesbians third. I wrote in a footnote:

The women in this study are women who identify in a variety of ways. They may identify as same-gender-loving, Black, gay, lesbian, African-American, Buddhist, Buddhist practitioner, or based on Buddhist principles regarding non-self, nothing at all.  The use of the words “African-American,” “Buddhist,” and “lesbian” (AABL) in that order is not meant to suggest that research participants share the same order of identity. I have experimented with using a variety of combinations including Lesbians who are Black and Buddhist, Buddhists who are Lesbian and African-American, etc., but have opted to use African-American Buddhist Lesbians because AABL demonstrates an alphabetical order that flows more poetically and “prosetically,” in my opinion, than other combinations of identifiers.

Never having studied intersectionality research and never having conducted intersectionality research before, I did not fully understand why my professor asked me about the order of identities until I began conducting the research.

During the construction of the research proposal, I realized that the measurement tool, the Fetzer Institute’s Spiritual Experience Index (SEI) created by Vicky Genia, would be a useful measurement tool for this population if I changed some of the wording to make it familiar to people who identified as Buddhist (in the Insight tradition), and added some demographic questions related to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Why the changes? Through my year-long course called Developing Intercultural Competence in Pastoral Counseling, I knew it was important to capture this information because all people should receive care they can understand as care. Everyone’s culture contributes to their understanding of what care is. When caring cultures collide, care may not be perceived as care, and given the preconceived expectations for care, hurt and pain may be the consequence.  Dissertation projects regarding people with intersecting identities should be constructed with an ethic of respect for differences.

During the dissertation proposal construction, it was not my intention to know if research participants had a hierarchy of identities, but I did want to know whether their intersecting identities as Black lesbians who practice Buddhism in the Insight tradition had an impact on their psycho-spiritual experiences as it relates to the teachings and practices on nonself. Given my interest in how the nonself teachings and practices are experienced by these women, I conducted interviews with five of the 31 women who participated in the SEI. Some of the self and nonself questions I asked were

  1. What does the word “self” mean to you?
  2. Are you a self?
  3. Have you let go of trying to preserve self?

I did not ask “As a Black woman, are you a self?” or “As a lesbian, are you a self?” or “As a Buddhist, are you a self?” or “As an African-American Buddhist Lesbian, are you a self?” I asked the questions in an open-ended manner so that participants could answer the questions from whatever perspectives they wanted to approach the questions. Some women voluntarily talked about race, gender, sexuality and religious and spiritual practices, but near the end of one interview, Norene (not her real name) said:

… I’m curious…about…the intersection of being a lesbian, being an African-American, being a Buddhist, I’m not quite sure how all of your questions necessarily touched on those…And how you’re going to discern from – other than naming who I am, I am Norene, I am a lesbian, I’m an African-American, I’m a Buddhist, with your questions, how are you going to put that together?

I replied with nervous laughter and said, “Maybe you’ll find out shortly after I find out.” and we both laughed. I proceeded to explain what I was doing and why I was doing it and she said “That’s great. Great. Now I get a better sense.” but I had not really answered the question. I did not say I intended to use a Sequential Nested Transformative Strategy because I did not really hear her question. Why not? Was I still nervous? Tired? Unsure? Had Norene not made her statement about intersectionality and identity, I would have contributed to her not having a better sense of what the research was about. Her desire to know more than even I knew at the time made me nervous, but it served as a reminder that when developing intercultural competence, one must remember they can abuse power as an individual and as a member of social systems that invisibilize others. As a researcher interested in doing the least amount of harm to research participants, shouldn’t I leave participants with a better sense of what the project is about?

Norene’s statement was an invitation for me to go beyond the project description and share some details about how I intended to produce knowledge.  As I reflect on this missing piece, I see the value in making methodology information accessible so that research participants can make a more informed decision about whether they want to participate in research projects.

Image courtesy of Tagg Magazine.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Intersections of Identity with African-American Buddhist Lesbians

  1. I am curious to see what you discover as you analyze your results Ayo. I used to work in the field mental health research with social psychologists many years ago and have worked on a couple of HIV research projects within the past 5 years. I wish I would have known about intersectionality research back then.

    Given your dissertation topic, you may like Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book, “The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality & Gender”. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

    Wishing you many blessings and success on your dissertation!


    1. Dear DeShannon — I defended my dissertation on January 22nd. One thing I found is that regular meditation (including Lovingkindness Meditation), meditation retreats, being in a diverse and inclusive sangha, and the interpretation of Self as interdependence resulted in what I call Remarkable Relational Resilience. The dissertation is long. Please let me know if you’d like me to email you a copy.

  2. Dear DeShannon — Thank you very much for your reply. I can say this for now…the analysis shows what I’m calling a “remarkable relational resilience” for people who have been invisibilized.

    Thank you for telling me about Earthlyn’s book. I read it and utilized it in my dissertation along with writings from Angel Kyodo Williams, Jan Willis, and Faith Adiele.

    Wishing you well on your journey,


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