White Buddhist Race Talk
There has been a lot of talk about race and Buddhism here over the past several months, and some of our white readers seem to be wondering why. One commenter outright called a recent post “racist.” When it was pointed out during that the conversation was dominated by white men throwing around intellectual concepts created by other white men during this post, all sorts of hell broke loose, including one of those men saying he was discontinuing his support of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. During another thread (I can’t locate it at the moment), someone upset about a focus on race responded “I thought this was about greed and human ignorance.” The list goes on. In general, the pattern is that whenever a post specifically zeroes in on whiteness, white supremacy, or racism in predominantly white sanghas, at least a few white readers will respond defensively. Or will in some way make a suggestion that focusing on race is dualistic, or divisive, or in some way or another “not Buddhist.”
As a Buddhist practitioner who is racialized as a “white man,” I feel compelled to speak directly about some of this because I feel that our very collective liberation depends upon it. First off, I’d like to offer two observations, specifically aimed at white readers.
1. Overall, white folks in countries like the U.S. and Canada are not used to being called out by race. It’s one of the numerous privileges of being a member of the dominant culture, where your physical appearance and general view of the world tends to be the standard or norm. In such a context, “race” is either about other people, or something that was used to divide and oppress in the past, but now should be discarded. As such, being called “a white person” often comes as a surprise. Something long invisible (to the person) suddenly is made visible. Exposed. Questioned. Maybe even vigorously attacked. It’s uncomfortable. Unsettling even.
2. White Buddhists (in North America anyway) tend to be liberal, progressive, or somewhere further left on social/political spectrum. There’s an almost default sense that racism is something perpetuated by conservatives, regardless of whether it’s in the form of ugly, individual actions or in the promotion and upholding of systemically racist structures. Furthermore, I think the sincere belief in “being a practitioner of Buddha’s teachings” brings about a lot of cognitive dissonance for the average white practitioner who either is called out for a specific act of racism, or who experiences a general calling out of how white folks are complicit in white supremacy. The want to be viewed as “a Good Buddhist,” failing to recognize how much attachment they have both to whatever their notion of “Good Buddhist” is, but also to whatever their notion of “white person” is.
I see both the unsettling feeling, and also the attachment to a racialized Buddhist identity, present in the upset of white practitioners during discussions of race. There also seems to be a tapping into the suppressed pattern of colonization that has been passed down from generation to generation. Think of all the violence and oppression it has taken to “settle” the continent during colonialism. And then consider how this process of “settling” has been internalized generation after generation. Every non-indigenous group has ingested some of this poison, which in my view, also appears whenever racial discussions get heated, divided, and/or shut down. Given that white folks have been at the top of colonial pyramid in North America and elsewhere, our commonplace, default responses to “race talk” are to seek “settlement.” Some aim to put it all in the past. Some aim to create a definitive list of “good guys and bad guys” and then work to position themselves as one of the former. Some aim to defend themselves and the status quo. While some simply aim to avoid it all together. Regardless of the form, what I notice is the desire to have it all settled. Finalized. Done. Which mimics colonization itself. Both in the violence of it, and also the way in which it seeks to control collective stories. To suggest that there must be a single, final way to view reality and how we are together.
This post by Breeze Harper from last summer about the 50th Anniversary celebration of San Francisco Zen Center has haunted me since I first read it. The whole thing is worth reading, more than once, as are the follow up posts she wrote over the next month and a half. For most white practitioners, it probably will take several reads and plenty of contemplation to truly get a sense of all the layers being expressed. Forgive me if that sounds nasty; I’m just keenly aware these days how slow the process of decolonization seems to be. Over and over again, I run into well meaning, intelligent white folks – people who look exactly like me – that turn away, act defensive, or posture that we live in a post racial world the moment race is brought into a discussion.
Anyway, let’s look at one paragraph from Breeze’s post:
Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.
Mindfulness whiteness sesshins … I fully endorse that idea.
Beyond this, though, there are so many aspects of convert North American Buddhist practice communities that are taken as basic forms and approaches, but actually are rather “white” in conception. The commonplace blending of psychotherapy with Buddhist teachings. The curious relationship with the Asian ancestry, which is often either demonstrated through an attempt to strictly adhere to “Asian” forms or a nearly complete rejection of those same forms as “unnecessary,” and/or “cultural baggage.” In fact, the very manner in which Buddhist centers are laid out – the use of space – is often “white” in ways that are completely invisible to most of us white folks. One example that comes to mind is the resistance many white dominated, lay sanghas have towards programs that support the community at large, or even spending a lot of energy on the needs of families and children. White folks seem most attached to the strong public/private divisions that are a mainstay of colonialism, which plays out in how the space of a sangha (particularly lay sanghas) is used or not used. African-American Law Professor john a. powell has written a lot about the use of space. In this piece, which explores how “public” and “private” space in the U.S. has been divided along racially determined lines and understandings of space, powell points out that just as the Civil Rights movement opened up public space for blacks and other folks of color, much of the power and privilege shifted to private spaces. Including many of our sanghas, which seem to function as quasi-public entities – open to “the public” until that public, or certain members or groups of that public, are deemed “a hindrance” to practice.
Speaking of space, over the past few years, my zen center has been considering whether to move from our current location or not. As the head of the board, I have been at the center of all of these conversations, a placement that – as a white male – hasn’t been lost upon me. I’m finding myself struggling with the tone and tenor of many of our conversations. Over and over again, the issues of “noise” and “disappearing parking” seem to dominate the day. The strongest voices advocating for this are long term members who are regular meditation retreat practitioners – nearly all of them white and solidly middle or upper middle class. There are a lot of issues tied up in this kind of response, including the struggle to figure out how to practice as lay communities in urban settings, but it’s difficult to ignore the overwhelming undercurrent of privatization in the desires of some of our white membership. When a new light rail train line, connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis, is primarily viewed in terms of the potential noise is might bring to the area, you know something is off.
I don’t have a lot of grand solutions or ways forward to offer on all of this. Certainly, suggestions like mindfulness whiteness retreats might be helpful, but ultimately I don’t think anyone knows the whole way forward when it comes to race, racism, and healing all the suffering involved. The way forward is going to require a lot of conversation, deep listening, deconstruction of attachments to identity, and also new, more liberated ways to both embrace differences and the Buddhist teachings on emptiness. This is especially true for white folks, who for far too long as a group have failed at all of these activities.
The synergy of difference and sameness can’t be realized through clinging fiercely to either pole. Let’s figure out how to let go and build anew together.