Growing the Ranks of White Buddhists Against White Supremacy
For the past 2 years, I’ve been talking with white Buddhists in Oakland and across the US about how the dharma can help us dismantle racism. I’m hoping to share more of this conversation here at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, if y’all are interested. I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts, conundrums, and learnings about being an anti-racist white Buddhist — share in the comments or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In her recent fabulous piece for White Awake, Mushim Patricia Ikeda gave some wise advice to white folks interested in being allies to people of color.
If you’re at the beginning of your ally journey, there’s something you need to know, right off the bat, if you haven’t already given it a lot of thought. Beyond feeling good about being anti-racist, you’re going to need to face your fear of losing your protected status as a white person.”
The white Buddhists that I talk to are hungry for spaces to talk about racism. People need space to make sense of this political moment — Trump’s hate mongering, the daily stories of cops killing folks of color, and the inspiring brilliance of liberatory movements like #BlackLivesMatter. White Buddhists are reading about this in the news or seeing the stories pile up in their Facebook feed, with aching hearts quivering with compassion but troubled minds quaking with confusion. How could all this be happening — hadn’t they been told that racism was a thing of the past?
The white Buddhists I talk to have been taught – like all white folks — that the way to not be racist is to be color-blind, to deny seeing race at all. During a recent workshop I was co-facilitating, white Buddhist participants were practicing roleplays where they were talking to another white person who was stuck in racist thinking. As part of the roleplay, one of the participants exclaimed, “I don’t care if you are purple, green, or whatever. I just see you as a person!” We all laughed because we’d heard it before, and because we’d all believed it before. There was a time where we believed colorblindness was the “right” way to think about race.
This view can get especially tangled with a Buddhist understanding of ultimate reality, where all the markers that differentiate us from each other and from the rest of the universe just melt away. I’ve talked to more than one white Buddhist who felt that saying “All Lives Matter” was needed to express the truth of ultimate reality, that the way to ending racism was to deny that race mattered at all. Yet in the Buddha’s very teachings about truth, he taught about the two truths: ultimate and relative reality. He didn’t say that ultimate reality was the real truth, and relative reality was the fake truth – they both are true. We demand that Black Lives Matter, because in the relative reality, they don’t. If we want all lives to matter, its time we started making sure that black lives matter.
Most of the white Buddhists I talk to are grateful for opportunities to talk and to learn about racism and white supremacy. With hearts hungry for justice, they are ready for new options. As white Southern activist Anne Braden said (memorialized by the FloBots), “You do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America. There is another America!” The white Buddhists I talk to are ready to make that choice, they are ready to be part of this other America.
It’s one thing to come around to saying “Black Lives Matter,” and it’s another to begin to investigate the protected status we’ve received as white people, and yet another to let go of that protected status entirely. For example, as a white person, I was taught to trust the police. I learned as a young child that they were here to protect me, and to help out if I was in distress. Yet in this time of police killings, I see that the cops also harm people, even if the police were called in to help with a mental health crisis. When I found out about the history of policing, I was even more disturbed to find that this institution was designed to protect rich people’s property from wandering off – especially slaves.
On a recent retreat, I practiced lovingkindness for long periods. What used to be one of my favorite phrases — “May I be safe and protected” – now had a hollow tone. Do I know what it feels like to be safe and protected in a way that does not come with intense harm to others? What might I, as a white person, have to lose if we successfully put an end to the institution of policing, which was designed to be racist from the beginning?
Yet as I learn more about projects aiming to reduce community reliance on cops, I also feel hopeful. For as much as I might lose, we all have much to gain by building new institutions, dedicated to community safety for everyone.
The fight against racism is not something we [white people] are called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved as if our lives depend on it because, in truth, they do.” –Anne Braden