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Growing the Ranks of White Buddhists Against White Supremacy

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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 dawn@bpf.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

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Comments (18)

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Mmm. Nothing about police and slavery in the article you cited. Mostly about police and poor white people, largely immigrants. Just as you note that there was a time “[you] believed colorblindness was the “right” way to think about race,” so do some of us look at your clinging to black-white dichotomies and the use of the term “race”. You *choose* to identify as white, though perhaps not what other people associate with your whiteness. At least, you choose what it means to you, if anything. Just as someone can choose to be proud of being black, or native American, or anything else. Or ashamed. Or one can feel that one’s ethnicity is largely irrelevant to one’s identity. It is not simply a matter of white privilege, or only white people who transcend clinging to notions of their ethnicity. As far as different cultures go, within and transcending ethnicities, yes we can see some relative truths. Talk of “white people’s legacy of violence” is a reflection of shame in people who are trying to overcome it by looking out to others who haven’t experienced that stage of shame. Talk of black lives matter, and the few hundred black folks killed by police every year, but ignoring the thousands killed by other black folks? Another example of the racist view some of us have left behind. The other side of the coin of talking about “black people’s legacy of violence” as if there were something especially violent in black people, that says “like all black folks, taught to distrust the police.” While ignoring that there are plenty of white folks taught to distrust the police too. Maybe not in the usually middle upper class white Buddhist ranks, but there are plenty.

    I cringe more than laugh when I hear people with to-me dated perspectives talking as if they were so much wiser now. Partly because I have been there, and because I know today’s perspective may seem similarly archaic someday. I think there is a higher level of colorblindness than focusing on the faults and supposed privileges of one ethnicity. A higher level than continuing the use of the term “race”. A level where one can discuss and appreciate the wonderful aspects of all cultures and subcultures, as well as the challenges and pains that may be typical in them. A level where neither white nor black nor brown nor red nor olive nor yellow nor rainbow pigmented people are singled out, based on their pigment, and universally assigned negative qualities. Somehow, the notion that doing this to the “right” group of people as being a higher state than colorblindness makes me cringe. A step on the way to higher colorblindness perhaps, but it can be so easy to stop there, what with there being a whole industry dedicated to promoting race-based divisions. There’s the white person who has overcome the presumption of guilt career track. The person of color track where it’s ok if you were raised to believe that all of your troubles are due to white people and their whiteness. Also ok if you were originally raised to believe in colorblindness but now realize that whiteness is a great evil in the world. Then there’s the countervailing track for white people who believe all their problems are caused by people of color. All the same industry in the end. Who does it serve?

    I want to believe that you have good intentions, and actually mean to decrease suffering in the world. It is hard sometimes to believe that it is a high priority, at least compared to demeaning white people as a whole. Perhaps just a passing stage, just an over-correction from “denying seeing race” to “only seeing race.”

  • Eko Joshua Goldberg

    Geoffrey, I found it painful to read your comments on this article. I think you have completely misunderstood what this piece was about. Talking openly about white people’s legacy of violence is not about shame or guilt. It is about love and wanting to build a new legacy that is not about white supremacy or racialization, but rather about justice for all people.

    And, at this current time, none of us is free of the the pervasive influences of the racist society that we live in and that white people perpetuate and create through our everyday upholdings of white supremacy. To say this is not to reinforce shame about having a certain shade of skin, texture of hair, or any of the other random arbitrary things that are used in North America to classify people, or to suggest that how we have been racialized is truly who we are. Rather it is to be able to look at how the white supremacy of the culture I was raised in plays out in all its ways — in my my mind, speech, actions, relationships, workplace, neighbourhood, city, country. Only when I can see it can I be effective in doing something about it.

    You wrote: “You *choose* to identify as white, though perhaps not what other people associate with your whiteness. At least, you choose what it means to you, if anything. Just as someone can choose to be proud of being black, or native American, or anything else. Or ashamed. Or one can feel that one’s ethnicity is largely irrelevant to one’s identity.”

    This assumes a level of individual agency that I don’t think anyone has. Yes if you are white you can choose how important you feel that is to your sense of self, but there is no getting away from how being white creates certain privileges and entitlements, no way in which it becomes irrelevant to day to day life. When I hear white people say this, I am struck by how that belief is in and of itself a form of white privilege, to be so much part of the dominant structure that it seems normalized and universal and hence invisible.

    This is an innocence that is only made possible by dominance. I know as a trans person, a Jew, and a person with a disability that if you are part of the marginalized group the “ism” you live in is never not relevant. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth”. (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/tanehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me/397619)

    There is no intrinsic negativity in being white. We are not doomed to be abject moral failures or to oppress Indigenous people and people of colour just because of our physical attributes that lead us to being classed as white. The problem is not our whiteness, the problem is white supremacy. White people can be and must be part of the undoing of white supremacy. We can’t do this as long as we refuse to see the harms that it is doing or want to hang on to the fantasy that everyone is equal and that injustice does not exist.

    I hope this is useful in helping re-read Dawn’s article and maybe seeing things in a different way.

    P.S. In the article tracing the history of policing: “In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols”.

  • Milo

    Thank you, Dawn, for your practice of lovingkindness.

    Thank you also to BPF for this opening of space for people to talk about this. I read the comments so far, from Geoffrey and from Eko.

    I take issue with any insistence on “training” people to think a certain way. It strikes me as stifling– intellectually, spiritually, and interpersonally.
    Education is a different story.

    I am interested in alternative approaches to undoing racism that don’t rely on adopting a view.

    I am curious about how conceit plays into this conversation, in the Buddhist sense of the term referring to the underlying sense of “I am” in the mind-heart stream. Abandoning stances of being greater, lesser, or even equal to others, what remains?

    Could our successes in the adventure of vibrant human connection, as well as our failures to understand one another, celebrate themselves, grieve themselves?

    For me, the practice of steady, moment-to-moment awareness, rooted in the practice of the 8-fold path, allows space for the totally immediate yet utterly gradual work of undoing racism.

    May we cast aside all fetters on the spot as we do the patient and vast work of saving all beings from suffering.

    What is the most important thing in the whole world?

    Can this work have a feeling more like water than like something clunky and/or volatile?

  • Milo

    I, too, want to help “building new institutions, dedicated to community safety for everyone.” What a beautiful intention!

    I get inspired when I think that if I treat my immediate surroundings with simple kindness, so simple it’s almost invisible, that saves all beings, in the sense that, if everyone did this practice, the world’s problems would stop.

    We need to take what Zen calls “the backward step”!

    (and a further comment that all my comments, although I have carefully read Dawn’s article, are a general, not specific, response to the overall conversation in our dharma communities and society about racism.)

    Nice article, and also I am really grateful for all the good work going on. I also think we can do better, and wonder how we can do so in a joyful, connected, wonderful way…

    we need to come together more, I think.

    that’s all for now. bowing,
    Milo

  • Anita

    Grateful for this piece and all you and BPF are doing to help us as Buddhists to look deeply into how our lives are all diminished by our culture of white supremacy and systemic violence against The Other. I’ve been wondering if anyone has suggested another banner to add to your beautiful series addressing racism, militarism, and climate chaos, one that would point to the karma of colonialism and the vow to work for justice for indigenous peoples.

  • Kristin

    A major subject we need to explore as white Buddhists is “white privilege”. Wether we like it or not it still exists. We can get rid of our own favoring of our own race but too many people do not understand the concept and/or flat out refuse that it exists. We have to find a way to eliminate white privilege, but I don’t have any idea how I myself can help eliminate it.
    We also needs more ideas about eliminating inequality as well as taking back our neighborhoods before the entire country turns into a police state.

  • John Eden

    Thank you, Dawn, for helping me wake up to yet another level of my own blindness… I sometimes wonder how much there is yet to go, if there is ever an end to this, feeling how deep those old roots of conditioning are in me. But in the context of the dharma, the example of the sangha – you! – I find some release of the constricted heart that so often grips me in seeing what’s happening out there, so hope that my own closed heart places can open.

    So thank you for this and all that you do. Thank you for this space. This heart.

  • John Eden

    Ah, and thank you, Eko Joshua Goldberg, once again for articulating so beautifully the view on this! What you’ve said here – tho I didn’t read much of the negative comment (I’m trying to avoid negativity lately) – is so perfect and accurate. I guess you’ve read _Between the World and Me_ – I have been suggesting it to everyone since I read it… maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone could persist in the misunderstandings that seem so prevalent after having read that book. It led me to reading Baldwin again, and discovering such wonderful things there!
    P.S. — I still read your vows on white supremacy/racism occasionally as part of my devotionals…

  • Reirin

    Thank you all for your comments! The Milwaukee BPF group just hosted an event on Right Speech: Listening to the Other Side – Compassionate Speech in a Fractured Society. As there were a few people of color present (one of the presenters is black), the issue of white privilege was apparent, even though it was not the only issue.
    Even after having read books and been in workshops on the topic of racism, I still feel far away from true understanding of my own (secret) hang-ups and position when the rubber hits the road. Years ago, I would have solemnly declared to be treating everyone as equal, but I am not so sure any more. My son-in-law is black, and I have a new bi-racial granddaughter. I love them both as they are, but sometimes I might wish that they were white, to make life easier for them…
    The only way to real understanding is communication: get to know each other, find out how everyone ticks, and we will also learn more about ourselves!

  • Dawn Haney

    Thank you all for your comments & reflections, a few additional thoughts from me:

    I’m always surprised when people read shame into my writing about whiteness — it’s through seeing the systemic structures of white supremacy that I dropped white shame and felt ready to engage with this work side-by-side with folks of color. My commitment to fight racism is driven by my own experiences of knowing what it’s like to be harmed by oppression, made less than because of the life I was born into. Fighting for racial justice is fighting for my own freedom.

    When I hear folks propose other views of race (or a preference for no view), I want to ask: Who shares your perspective? Who are you alongside in your efforts? In my own learning about race, I choose to listen carefully to folks who have been most harmed by US atrocities: slavery, genocide, racist immigration law, border fences, & internment camps. If my views are at odds with what those folks are saying, I first assume they might have a perspective that I don’t have direct access to except through listening (I’ve written a bit about the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/we-see-only-part-of-the-elephant-collective-leadership-at-bpf/)

    Anita — we’d love some new banner slogans for the next time we make some! I’m wondering if there’s a way to weave together both colonialism in the US/Canada and throughout the southern hemisphere? The Karma of Genocide? Maybe there’s also a banner to be made about the Delusion of Borders.

    Eko – please share these vows on white supremacy/racism with the rest of us!!!

  • Eko Joshua Goldberg

    From being inspired by what Katie wrote in http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/honoring-direct-action-reframing-compassion, and the ensuing discussion:

    I vow to:
    * work diligently to stop forgetting the reality of white supremacy, i.e., to see more clearly
    * be honest about my white privilege and use it to help build anti-racist movements
    * challenge systemic racism, colonialism, and white supremacy
    * challenge interpersonal violence, hatred, and bigotry rooted in racist, colonial, and white supremacist thinking
    * talk with other white people about how white supremacy, white privilege, racism, and colonialism plays out in our lives and in our communities, talk about what we can do to change that, and then follow through with action
    * celebrate, appreciate, and promote the survival and liberation work being done by Indigenous people and people of colour, and provide solidarity/support in ways that are requested
    * listen when I get called out for my deluded thinking and mistaken behaviours, and learn from my mistakes
    * invite advice, critique, and comment

  • Milo

    you know, reading all this and reflecting on it more, as well as listening to a nice interview with the author of the Jim Crow book this morning, something new is emerging for me (I am new to this conversation).
    I think that a lot of my resistance to this conversation may be that I see wisdom in how the buddha created a sangha where people dropped caste entirely– I always liked that, and also where issues of identity are dropped (this is what I mean when I talk about shedding views rather than adopting one). This outer form reflects the “noble sangha” type of sangha which is the inner seeing, or inner heart release wherein we may not drop our conditioned views (we’re necessarily bound by this, but we don’t have to be rigid about it) but we apprehend our experience in some deeper way, in which separation and unkindness just don’t make sense. I think this is important.
    So, I think I feel defensive/reactive/triggered when I hear fellow Buddhists talking a lot about identity. That might not be all of my reactivity around this, but it’s at least a big part. What I’m picking up now is an appreciation for what you’re saying here, Dawn, and others… this point about two “sides” of truth, relative and ultimate, interacting.
    In trying to make our society more peaceful, in the face of institutionalized violence, and cultural patterns– often unseen– of racism, I’m seeing more clearly your reasons for not minimizing these issues of identity.
    I have personally some real trauma (I guess you could call it) from times in my past when another, for example an african american person, has been quite upset about racism in a situation where I didn’t see it. In recent years, again, supported by my buddhist practice, I may have felt some confusion or reactivity, but I had enough mindfulness to listen and investigate with a more open mind. I’ve heard stories from friends sometimes of really surprising racism that I never knew was going on (such as cops regularly stopping to interrogate a friend of mine for no reason other than how he looked, and another friend being asked if she was “part of a prison program” by a guest at Zen Center when she was in fact a longtime resident). So, anyway, I have some kind of traumatic experiences actually of feeling threatened and confused when anyone called out racism, but really, as you point out Dawn, listening is the key.
    Another thing, though, that complicates the issue, or gives it a twist, is that I feel, again, that there is a “deeper,” or “ultimate” truth. Meaning well, working to dismantle racism in a big way, I think often the “view” that is being advocated sometimes sort of overlays and smothers the alive experience. That’s the shadow of it. For example, in the world of literature, many wonderful writers are no longer studied because they are considered “dead white males,” but they are actually amazing. In other words, the overfocus on identity-related (gender, race, whatever) readings smothered the kind of reading that focuses on just the raw poetic power. This is getting a little side tracked, but it’s a nuance of the same example of the buddha’s sangha, where all caste was dropped when you entered. There was something more sublime waiting on the other side.

    I think we, especially perhaps as white people, might consider this listening. I think my

  • Milo

    (those last couple lines were not meant to be included)
    …just to wrap up my point,
    so, yes, something more sublime waiting on the other side…
    and yet, these two truths. it’s not as though the other side is some kind of peaceful cave. Buddhism is clear that nothing is not a thing! When greed, hate, and delusion go out, or diminish in some way, in a moment, it makes us more intimate with our relative world.
    I like how you are talking about this, Dawn, in your story about being on retreat and doing lovingkindness practice about feeling safe and protected. How you used to enjoy it, but now, maybe your heart has grown much bigger to include many more beings in your wish. This strikes me as a nice example of how we can get quite cozy in our world of self, but eventually, if we do the practice, our heart opens, we get more intimate with all life.
    So, to sum up this inadequate rambling, I want to offer up another question that emerges for me in this conversation. Something about… how to balance challenging privilege and power and really shaking things up, but on the other hand, where appropriate, to kind of create the conditions for peoples’ hearts to open. No easy answer there, perhaps.

  • Milo

    And one more idea is that, as Buddhists (white or not) we may have something really important to offer #Blacklivesmatter movement by exploring how upaya, or skillful means, can strengthen the movement.
    And in turn, how do we address our own Buddhist communities (or selves) not wanting to look at racism. We need skillfulness, sensitivity, and wisdom there too…
    so, I’ve come around to nothing really so new or novel, but some more heart opening around this issue, so thank you for holding the space for that.
    And may the conversation continue… may we find the words and skills to manifest a world where all people can feel truly safe.

  • Milo

    http://sfzc.org/radical-dharma—an-introduction-to-race-love

    this is a recent talk given by rev angel kyodo williams
    I’ve listened to the first half, and like it. thought it fits in well here.

  • John Eden

    Just wondering if there’s an intersection here with John Lewis and the Congressional action sitting for gun control in the US Congress… Any interest in getting involved there?

  • Somatodrol

    It’s amazing that these abuses still exist, it is painful to see these events in humanity.
    Great blog, very good information!

  • Jeremy Mohler

    Dawn, thank you for posting this. I’m still working hard to reconcile the insight I find on the cushion and in conversation with other white folks with my political understanding grounded in Marxism. This helped move me closer.

    Question: where does the Buddha talk about the “two truths: ultimate and relative reality”? I haven’t seen that before.

    with warmth,
    Jeremy

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