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The No-Self of Identity Politics

It’s a kind of Buddhist-feminist koan: if the personal is political, and the personal (self) is also illusory, are politics illusory, too?

Addressing a recent conference of engaged Buddhists and liberation theologians, professor of theology Dr. Melanie Harris candidly recalled how her encounters with Buddhadharma initially challenged her womanist framework — Black feminism that centers race, class, and gender in analyzing systems of oppression.  Following these early brushes with dharma, she soon realized:

We would have to redo identity politics completely, from a Buddhist perspective. 

Dr. Harris delivers her talk at the Union Theological Seminary.

Identity politics without identity might seem like game over.  But as womanist practitioners like Dr. Harris well know, feminism — in its diverse manifestations — has been grappling with the paradox of contested identities for quite a long time.  Many permutations of the conflict have boiled down to the seemingly simple yet piercingly profound question, variously couched in philosophical, biological, or equal-rights terms:

“Ain’t I a woman?”

What makes a woman?  In the fight to establish the lady-vote in the United States, it had something to do with race.  Hence Sojourner Truth’s famous speech at the Women’s Rights Convention of Akron, Ohio in 1851, in which she exposed the hypocrisy of white suffragists who claimed to fight for equality while ignoring or even profiting from the subjugation of Black women.  Today, racism within ostensibly “universal” women’s movements is so tired, yet incredibly persistent.  (Remember the paternalistic “liberation of oppressed Middle Eastern women” as one of the justifications for U.S. imperialist wars?)  It’s enough to make plenty of folks give up on the word “feminism” altogether.  Still, I think most of us at Buddhist Peace Fellowship can agree that neither race nor ethnicity qualifies or disqualifies a person from womanhood.

So what else could it be?  Perhaps heterosexuality — in the specific, socially sanctioned form of marrying a guy and birthing a few future-heterosexual children.  This was the strong view of many U.S. feminists of the late 60’s and 70’s who shunned the “Lavender Menace” (radical lesbian feminists) for their “mannish” and indecorous ways.  Homophobia — overt and subtle — still infuses plenty of supposedly pro-women spaces.  And even in the staunchly pro-hetero world, institutionalized incentives, support, and punishments for female procreation vary wildly across race and class-stratum.  (Think of the “anchor babies” accusations hurled at working-class immigrant mothers of color, and last year’s Wisconsin bill pushing criminalization of single motherhood.)

Okay.  If we agree that women deserve respect and inclusion in women’s empowerment movements regardless of sexuality or how many babies we may or may not have, then what else does it come down to?

Physiology?  “Real Women Have Curves?”  What about skinny women?

Anatomy?  Oppression of trans* people continues to divide many feminist circles — from gender verification controversies in women’s athletics, to the transphobic gender essentialism of Derrick Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance movement.  The gender binary underpinning man-woman dualism is looking pretty shaky these days, both from a biological perspective (humans are built, genetically and physically, in more than two configurations), and acknowledging multi-gender cultural systems that have existed for thousands of years.

The samsaric whirl of identity is endless; the “myth of shared female experience” (as author of Black Girl Dangerous Mia McKenzie recently described it) dissolves on closer inspection.  In The Second Sex, Simone DeBeauvoire famously noted that “One is not born a woman; one becomes one.”  But what if being a woman is not the point?  What if, rather than only viewing feminism as “women’s empowerment,” we use a view like that of scholar (and Buddhist) bell hooks, who summarizes feminism as “a movement to end sexist oppression”?

Could endeavoring to end sexist oppression help free us from the confines of a fixed “self,” and point our focus instead toward historical processes of harm, sources of resilience, and creative means for social and political transformation?

Can we honor identities, with their long tails stretching far into the past, their wide breadth spanning entire societies, and their ongoing change, their beautiful in-out breath?  Can we befriend identities without reifying them?

Sitting across from me as I write, my friend’s laptop displays a sticker: “Brown and Proud: Todos Somos Arizona.”  I believe there is room for this kind of compassion and upaya (skillful means) in anatta, no-self — when we look for the meaning beyond fixed identity.  When we befriend identity-as-experience, connecting it to our movements against oppression.

Organizer and anti-war activist Clare Bayard beautifully expressed this sentiment just yesterday, so I leave you with her words.  And would love to hear your thoughts on identity, politics, dharma, gender, and power!

On my heart: the breathtaking beauty of queerness and chosen family. I love my family of origin, and I also am so grateful for queer chosen families, the kind where we help carry each other down the rockiest stretches of the road, and then celebrate the hell out of each others’ fabulousness. I’m so grateful for how queerness saves lives in so many ways, and invites us to see each other so fully– both who we are and who we can grow into. Queerness benefits everyone– teaching us all how to live into our most wonderful, authentic and loving selves, and how to build communities that keep us alive and celebrate our gifts. Queerness asks us to risk joy, to relentlessly search for wholeness, and to seek new visionary ways of respecting everyone’s dignity.

Be well, everyone, and see you tomorrow as we continue our exploration of Sex, Gender, Power: A Systemic Take On The 4th Precept of Buddhism.

Metta and solidarity,


Photo credits: Jeremy Kirk, Dora King, Kristen Krissy Guest, and Lily Tinker Fortel from “Enlightenment and Liberation: Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians In Dialogue.”

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Comments (9)

  • sabryna

    thank you very much for this article! as someone dealing with culture and discrimination and also with buddhist thought and practice i have felt lots of confusion about the question that you wrote about here, wondering how i can work in a peaceful way with the suffering around discrimination here in the “multicultural” city berlin. this article brought some clarity about how i can continue exploring this topic.

  • Katie Loncke

    I’m so glad you are finding it helpful, sabryna, thank you! I would love to hear more about what you see going on with discrimination in Berlin. And also what your practice is like. Amazing to know that we can connect across the continents!

  • Bob

    Yes this article is in the vein of things I often contemplate. Does the illusory nature of reality preclude political radicalism ? If our nature is empty yet we fail to comprehend it then should we take the advice of the buddha and devote our time to personal realization of dhamma? But if the subjective and objective dimensions are inseparable then who’s to say that mediation is more liberatory than activism? I suspect that western Buddhism with its culture of extreme privilege (think Boulder colorado) might be better off serving soup at a homeless shelter or engaging in civil disobedience than the endless refinement of subjective pleasure. I mean the yogic cultivation of pleasure is pretty nifty, but lets not get too big headed about it.

  • Melissa

    Ahhh Katie, this is such a great post! I wish I had discovered it earlier! I wrote about identity on my blog a couple of weeks ago too – the posts complement each other. Scott Mitchell wrote a really great response to it too that you should definitely check out. Here’s my post: and here’s Scott’s:

    Would love to hear what you think.

  • Katie Loncke

    Wow, how fabulous, it looks like we’re all on such similar wavelengths! So much to appreciate about both of your posts. Hella feeling this from you:

    “[O]ne of my criticisms of American Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole) is using the rhetoric of meditation, no-self, non-attachment, etc. as a way to quell complaints of legitimate socio-economic problems rather than actually dealing with the problem.”

    YES. All of the yes.

    And I’m digging the way Scott bounces off your post to argue that rather than identity being “something” we need to “drop,” it is actually an illusion we can investigate and deconstruct. Thinking of it that way reminds me that it is a process that induces qualitative changes in understanding and experience.

    And as you point out, the process of deconstructing the self might look different depending on the context, and what is at stake. People who have been taught to thoroughly devalue themselves because of racism, transphobia, ableism, or other forms of marginalization and oppression may need to come to the process with a lot of love and tenderness, like you say, rather than delving in with an attitude of clinical detachment.

    Thank you both for putting words to this! So necessary.

    One question I have, that I have struggled with a bit in engaged Buddhism more generally, relates to the question of WWBD (What Would Buddha Do?). Maybe he would have, as you say, acted to end poverty, rather than only counseling the Eightfold Path to alleviate and end the suffering exacerbated by poverty. But, on the other hand, is this what the historical Buddha actually did? This is an honest question — maybe you know more about this part of the history than I do, and I would love to learn more… to my understanding, the Buddha established orders of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, monks and nuns, who lived in a type of voluntary poverty, though not purposely life-threatening destitution. And he may have counseled king Ashoka to rule in a benevolent way, but I’m not sure he was making specific policy recommendations.

    Sometimes it seems like engaged Buddhism wants to look to the Buddha as an example of a political strategist. Similar with some progressive and radical Christians, citing the example of Christ. I’m curious about this because, one, the Buddha’s historical and social context was so different from the way things are since the age of global capitalism, and two, even though he was a Sammasambuddha, maybe he didn’t always make perfect political decisions?

    What’s your take on the WWBD approach? Sorry it’s a bit tangential; I would just be super interested to hear your thoughts. :) But we can also keep riffing on the identity questions! So rich; the importance of cultural pride and resilience in the face of imposed identities and oppressions, at the same time as we try to kindly re-work and put to rest the mirage-phenomenon-habit of separate self.

    Also, hi Bob! Yep, it seems like political organizing and community justice work could be great avenues for practice. In my personal experience retreat time is still extremely precious, though. It creates special conditions that just aren’t really possible in my regular, super-busy day-to-day. But maybe it’s because I’m not advanced enough, yet, that I still live with that dualism. :) How about you? What relationship do you find between retreat time, if you use it (I’m assuming you’re a layperson, not a monastic!), and life off the dharma-campuses?

  • Bob

    Thanks BPF for hosting this awesome conversation. I think there can be shaming and judgment of radicals within Western Buddhist (WB) sanghas. Like if you really understand Buddhism then you’d shut up about all that social change talk. Nah.

    Katie, to answer your question, formal meditation practice is very important to me. I spent a few years on retreat a while back. There once was a time when I actually thought I was going to “get enlightened” if I meditated enough! I know, I know, Buddhist comedy hour has arrived. Seriously though, I do believe that meditation led me to have greater joy and insight. I respect people who devote their whole life to stabilizing and deepening Buddhas awareness. I think that was the Buddhas main message, not societal revolution. Identity is an issue that emerged after having some (tiny) meditative stability. The identity I discovered was one passionately devoted to addressing injustice and exploitation along with the related issue of ecocide.

    My revulsion to modern society is essentially pre Buddhist, I’m concerned with a basic ethical understanding of power and propaganda. I contemplate the reality that it was my tribe and my ancestors who gave birth to the societal pattern of global imperialism which in its modern form is threatening to bring nuclear devastation and ecological collapse. I think that the Buddhist spiritual message of withdrawal is a siren song to westerners who share a disproportionate burden of responsibility for creating the nightmares of greed and authoritarianism. The violence of contemporary Capitalism / Imperialism is invisible to people brought up within conventional western modes of understanding. This is an issue where more years in school definitely does not lead to greater awareness. I think we have reached a point where any serious ethical discussion must be framed in terms of species survival, along with examining the extreme disparities of power which have come to define our modern age. Being ethical for privileged folks like me, means acting to lessen the suffering of exploitation.

  • Bob

    I just want to amplify this fantastic quote

    “[O]ne of my criticisms of American Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole) is using the rhetoric of meditation, no-self, non-attachment, etc. as a way to quell complaints of legitimate socio-economic problems rather than actually dealing with the problem.”

    I mean this is quite real, I have sat in rooms with Buddhist teachers and other assorted yogic types when they offer up this kind of stuff. I hope that the Buddhas profound teachings on the nature of emptiness are not used primarily to defer responsibility when challenging circumstances arise.

  • Melissa

    Hmmm…on the question of WWBD, you know, I hadn’t considered that I might be divorcing my personal ideal of Buddha with the actual historical Buddha by saying that Buddha would do things that perhaps he really wouldn’t have. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

    I guess the historical Buddha can be read as both radical and conservative. He did introduce a casteless structure with Buddhism but he also was incredibly reluctant to ordain women and only did so after being convinced by Ananda. So, you’re right. Historically, he doesn’t seem to have done anything to actually end poverty. This is disheartening in some ways.

    Here’s my question. Is it possible to be ‘enlightened’ in the modern day and not be active in social justice movements? Or rather, what is enlightenment or awakening when we look at it in this context of action over intention?

    In one of my interviews with Enkyo Roshi, she said that she’s never known an enlightened person, only people acting in an enlightened manner for a moment or two. I think this is very true. If we apply this to the Buddha, what does that mean? Maybe it means that he really is just another flawed human being who tried the best he could to teach a system to end suffering. In that case, how should we regard him? I guess as engaged Buddhists, we need to stop holding up Buddha as the image of perfection. He’s just the finger, not the moon. So maybe we need to point at ourselves instead?

    Sorry if this seems rambling and incoherent. My brain is on overdrive right now because I had honestly never really considered the fact that maybe the historical Buddha wouldn’t do what we would. But, like you said, who knows…things are so different now than they were back then.

  • Katie Loncke

    Not rambling and incoherent at all! Makes me wish we could sit down over tea and talk about all these things for hours (smile).

    “He’s just the finger, not the moon.”

    Mmm, I like this a lot. It seems like different Buddhists may have pretty different views on the Buddha, some viewing him as sacred, holy, and perfect, and others seeing him as human and flawed. But given my upbringing and worldview, I tend to see him as someone who developed a completely on-point process for liberation from suffering, but did not necessarily know transhistorical strategies for social justice or political emancipation. Which is fine with me — he did more than enough!

    Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “The next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community; a community practising understanding and loving kindness, a community practising mindful living.” Do you think this maybe relieves some of the pressure of WWBD? Maybe the historical Buddha’s individual political choices matter less if we think about collective enlightenment as a sacred process of trust, care, and decisionmaking?

    Not sure if that makes sense, but somehow the whole conversation about identity, self, and the notion of a perfect Buddha who makes perfect political choices makes me wonder how or where collective emancipation and enlightenment could fit in.

    Hit me back! :) Hope your week’s going well. And has your film web site launched already? Exciting!

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