A White Buddhist and Privilege

MeditatorI’m writing today’s post as a white male American Buddhist. I shouldn’t introduce myself as a privileged white Buddhist, though. Not because it’s unfair—but simply because it’s redundant.

To be clear, my privilege didn’t come as some sort of elite pedigree. My family lived in the urban projects, neither of my parents held a college degree, and I didn’t spend much of my childhood getting to know them because they both worked more than full-time jobs to cover the bills. My Jewish immigrant progenitors weren’t colonists, settlers, politicians or plantation owners. They were persecuted refugees who didn’t come here until long after the turn of the twentieth century—where, overworked, they continued to endure prejudice and discrimination—and they voted Democrat and Civil Rights all the way. But my white privilege runs even deeper. I am privileged by the very fact that I’m a white American dude.

At the very least, being a white American means that I don’t have to deal with the humiliation of my race being shoved in my face day in and day out. After all, I’m the default. When most Americans think of a doctor, soldier, lawyer, engineer, judge, police officer, professor, firefighter or astronaut, they think of white guys. Not minorities. Not women. When I apply for a nice white collar job, I’m the white guy they had in mind. I’ve never had someone look at my skin and wonder if I have a criminal record or illegal immigrant in my blood. I’ve never been arrested for opening the door to my own house. It’s nice. It’s privilege.

The tipping point is when my privilege flows thick with entitlement. I know that I’m privileged. I’m a liberal college-educated fellow, a registered Democrat who votes with his pocketbook. I’m well aware of the racial inequity that continues to grip our nation. I didn’t ask for this privilege—but that’s the catch. Who asked to be born and raised in the laundry room, the children of the migrant workers, the offspring of the plantation hands? They didn’t ask for their socially constructed disadvantages either. It is the apotheosis of white privilege when we can look in the mirror, acknowledge our unearned privilege, then walk away and chose to deal with it on our own terms, if at all.

In the Buddhist community, I often find myself in situations where my privilege seems to vanish, if not work against me. In a downtown Cambodian temple, people stare at me as though I’ve walked in from Mars, and the most conversation I can get out of anyone is that I don’t belong there. There’s a not-always-implicit challenge to prove that I’m legit. In a Japanese American temple, I’m reminded that it was people who looked like me who arrested and detained over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans, most of them citizens, resulting in irreparable losses and shame. And there I stand in their temple—even if willed by every fiber of my being, I can never be Japanese American. I can never step out of my whiteness.

So it’s easy to fall back on the familiar comfort of my white privilege. I don’t relish having to deal with my otherness. When I involve myself in the Buddhist community, I seek out individuals who I can most relate to. At Asian temples, I inevitably find myself sitting down with the other white folk. I attend centers where the overwhelming majority of the teachers are white and teach in English. My core practice is meditation, I don’t feel comfortable chanting, and I refuse to bend my beliefs contrary to what I independently understand through science and logic. Buddhism is something I want to explore without any of the cultural barriers that I don’t get, to frame within the Western mindset I was raised with.

The snag here is in building a community around white privilege, a condition rooted in inequity. In searching for similar people and familiar nonthreatening structures, I run the risk of alienating and marginalizing others from my position of unearned privilege. At the level of a simple meditation group dominated by white Americans, the racial dynamic may prove awkward for people of color. Buddhist magazines that I subscribe to, such as Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma or Tricycle—yes, edited and published by white people—all feature a much higher proportion of white writers than the American Buddhist community. As far as I am aware, they make little more than token efforts to reach out to writers of color.

Even by attempting to “strip Buddhism of its cultural baggage,” my best intentions are suspect by virtue of my white privilege. Over the centuries, Buddhism has been intricately woven into numerous societies’ cultural heritage, not easily teased apart. From the perspective of many Asian Buddhists, I am little more than a cultural colonialist when I walk in, decide what’s Buddhism and what’s not, what I want to take with me, and what I’d rather discard. I can’t bring myself to blame them. Never mind that many teachers in Asia have attempted to strip Buddhism down to the bare essentials. In at least the context of North America, my uninformed actions can easily be misconstrued as a manifestation of my white privilege. It may not be fair, but nor is my unearned privilege.

So what is a white Buddhist to do? The first step is to acknowledge our unearned privilege and our part in its ongoing ramifications. We may not be titans of industry or academic heavyweights, but across the board, we enjoy benefits from being white that are denied to people of color in the same economic spectrum. I can’t give up my white privilege—if only I could abandon it on a park bench and walk away—but I can make myself aware of it. I can choose not to close my mind and run from situations where I must confront the drawbacks of what it means to be white in America. In the context of the Buddhist community, this understanding is imperative if only because the majority of American Buddhists are not white, and are largely marginalized in systems that favor Buddhists who are white.

Further progress will undoubtedly involve outreach and plenty of listening. As Mushim Ikeda Nash states, “I am convinced that to truly accept one another as Dharma sisters and brothers, we must first hear one another, making the commitment to practice compassionate listening for as long as it takes.” In the world of social justice, there already exist templates we can build upon. The next steps we take may not be clear until we’ve reached that juncture; however, we must walk down this path together, as a broad community that certainly doesn’t agree on everything, or even anything.

The future of American Buddhism is in its diversity. In forty years, the Asian American community will more than double in size as a proportion of the United States, while the share of white Americans will continue in its decline, its erstwhile majority erased. But the privilege I enjoy as a white man will persist, even if greatly diminished. In order for a more diverse community, we white Buddhists must recognize the unearned privilege that we are loathe to admit and step further outside of our cultural comfort zones. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.

Until then, there’s always the Angry Asian Buddhist.

20 comments

  1. Charita says:

    Wow. I’m very impressed by this post. It seems like you’ve really thought this through and you make insightful observations. You hit on many facets of the issue and the fact you draw from personal experience definitely adds depth to your insights. I wish more white, males in this country had this perspective (especially the policymakers).

    One thing I would like to add is that there is never just one type of privilege or disadvantage. Not all white people are privileged to the same degree because race isn’t the only factor (the author also mentioned his gender and nationality). The intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc all affect a person’s (dis)advantage in society. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to really pinpoint which of these many factors is the most salient. So, this ramble is just to point out that not all white males are considered equal in our society, so in many instances perhaps “privileged, white male” does sound redundant, but then again, perhaps not.

    great post, i really enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you for this post. I am often arguing against this stripping of ‘culture’ and getting to the ‘basics’ or ‘true’ Buddhism that takes place in American Buddhism. Your post gets to some of the consequences of these actions!

  3. Nathan says:

    There’s a lot in this post to chew on, and definitely that should be chewed on by white convert Buddhists especially (myself included).

    “Not all white people are privileged to the same degree because race isn’t the only factor (the author also mentioned his gender and nationality). The intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc all affect a person’s (dis)advantage in society. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to really pinpoint which of these many factors is the most salient.”

    This is a very important point that Charita makes. And I think one of the issues that gets so many lower and middle class whites riled up. Struggling to make ends meet, getting dumped on by their boss on a regular basis, watching the rich fat cats make millions – they don’t FEEL privileged at all. This is no excuse in my opinion for failing to wake up to the default benefits of their skin color, but it definitely is a place to remember for those speaking to them about race issues in the U.S. I think the pressure point to waking up is going to be different for every one of us. Some might respond to clearly presented anger, some to rational dialogue, some to something else all together. It’s up to us in the white American community to wake up and get on board with a different way of being – but it might be helpful for people of color to remember that we, too, have different backgrounds, experiences, and levels of awareness about our place in society. And that it’s more complex than just white= the same set of privileges in all cases.

    Best,
    Nathan

  4. arunlikhati says:

    @Charita: Thank you for pointing out that privilege is many layers and complex.

    @wanderingdhamma: I’ve always felt confused about this issue. From reading your blog, I think you’d know more about this than I do. I always had the impression (from my teachers) that Ajahn Mun sought to practice the true Dhamma, dispensing of traditions he saw as frivolous — is this true? I understand that because of the context, this wouldn’t be seen as a colonialist or appropriating someone else’s culture. But it speaks to a complex dynamic (more complex than a double standard) that is very real. Any thoughts?

    @Nathan: You bring up a good point. From my gut, I’m put off by these arguments. Class is not the great equalizer insomuch as white privilege is relative; poor people of color still have it worse than poor whites, even if both are social specks compared to the Boston Brahmins. But my better side acknowledges that for me to dismiss these class-based objections off hand is hypocritical. I’ll have to work with this in the future.

  5. wade says:

    I’m glad that you post these articles. I find them frustrating and an ongoing practice (to listen, to not get overly angry, etc), and I find them fascinating.

    I have not so far agreed with alot of what you’ve said – but I think I’m beginning to understand why you see it that way. I think. 🙂

    I feel like I want to engage with you in this discussion, but it’s very difficult. I really feel as if I’ve been told that whatever I say, it doesn’t count. (yes, I’m white) That my perspective doesn’t count. That might not be your intention – or anyones intention – but it’s the way it feels from this side of the aether.

    All I can say right now is that, as a white convert Buddhist, I try hard to listen to your voice. To really hear what you are saying and figure out if I’m part of that problem.

    I’d be very interested in hearing what you feel are the better ways to do things. For instance, you mention the experience of going to a “non-white” temple, and then finding another place where you fit in instead – I’m genuinely interested in what other options you would suggest. The split – as you describe it there – appears to be either intrude where you are not wanted, or find someplace where you are wanted. The way you phrased it, that seems like a no-win.

    I’m sure that somehow here I’m coming across poorly, but I want to express that my intention is one of seeking understanding – not to flame or insult. Please, if I do insult, just patiently explain why or how.

    • wade says:

      btw – I realize it’s neither realistic nor fair to expect concrete examples of what to do “better”. I probably shouldn’t have even phrased it like that.

      I just want to see dialog, I suppose.

      Anyway, sorry for the quick double reply.

  6. Arunlikhati: Yes, this is an interesting issue. You are right that these kinds of reform seem similar and are in some ways. But I think the difference is the sources of authority. Teachers like Ajahn Mun are within a tradition of reform that comes with the authority of being part of a lineage of monks. So Ajahn Mun and before him, when King Mongkut was a monk too, they reformed the tradition to try to get it back to their idea of ‘Buddhism.’ This happened throughout Theravada Buddhism’s history in Southeast Asia. While more newcomers to Buddhism don’t necessarily have the authority to reform Buddhism- they are not part of this tradition of reform. Others argue that American/Western Buddhists are simply adapting the tradition to their respective home countries. And of course adaptation is a crucial issue, but it must be done very carefully as there are many consequences to doing this– one of them is pointed out in this post- ‘A White Buddhist and Privilege.’

  7. GK says:

    Hello,

    Interesting conversation. Regarding the original article about the Vietnamese, I lived in an upscale/high-end area of Honolulu right next to a Vietnamese family of 6. They stayed up all night, fought loudly and regularly cooked some rather, um, ‘fragrant’ dishes–sometimes burning the food but they were devoted Buddhists.

    As a full-blooded Native American, I’m a rarity to begin with. As a student of the Dharma, I’m even more rare in that demographic. My tribe, the Navajo, have a number of similarities with the Tibetan people(look up Peter Gold’s book if you are interested in the subject). I don’t have strong ties with my culture, even though I spent my childhood growing up on a reservation.

    I ended up attending a small preparatory school where I was one of two Native Americans–the other guy was only half-Native. All my friends, pretty much, have been white people. Some of them have been affluent, some have been dirt poor, some have been middle class. What do I attribute to all this?

    Karmic conditions from previous lifetimes. If you are studying the Dharma, then the interactions that you have with people in this lifetime are the conditions/karmas from a previous life being resolved. If you feel like the ‘outsider’ most likely you did the same thing to others in a previous existence. Now, that negative karma has ripened and you are experiencing the result.

    When you have created the right karmic conditions by merit/positive force generation, like real committed Dharma work, then you will find your sangha and your guru/teacher. Then you’ll stop feeling like the outsider, no matter where you go. People will be receptive to you, they’ll inquire about your situation and want to know more. So, instead of meeting the people who shun you or push you away, they’ll welcome you with open arms and you’ll find your dharma family. Or in Hawaiian, your o’hana. (By the way, I feel more ‘Hawaiian’ than I do ‘Navajo’. I connected deeply with the culture, the language and the spiritual traditions.)

    From a Dharma perspective, it has nothing to do with race. It all has to do with seeds of karma ripening in this lifetime. I come from a culture where there is no Dharma, no Buddha even mentioned or referenced in the spiritual culture. You might even say I was born in a ‘remote area or region’ as mentioned in some of the sutras. That was probably the result of negative karma from a previous life. I might have disparaged the Dharma or committed some other negative action.

    But here I am, studying the Dharma for the benefit of all beings. I have taken refuge in the Triple Jewel and I’m not letting go of it. I love studying the Dharma and am hungry for more. The karmic conditions have arisen that I have found my way back to the Dharma and for that I am grateful.

    This is whole matter about race? Not from my perspective.

  8. zensquared says:

    Weren’t you Asian in many earlier posts? Haven’t you written about your Asian immigrant forebears in the past, on this blog? I’m confused.

  9. NellaLou says:

    @zensquared. I think the objective is to view things from another’s viewpoint. So Arun is stating his attempt at that viewpoint.

  10. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    I’m also confused. Arunlikhati, white male American Buddhist, don’t you also run a website called Angry Asian Buddhist?

    Or, to put it another way, the website named ‘Angry Asian Buddhis’ is actually written by you, an Angry White Buddhist?!

    I’m seriously confused and would really appreciate some clarification! Thanks.

    Marcus

  11. Marcus says:

    Oh, just seen NellaLou’s response.

    So Arun is an Angry Asian Buddhist writing as an (Angry?) white Buddhist?

    Is that right?

    Marcus

  12. Scaccerus says:

    Get over it. This is the kind of self-referential and self-concerned obsession that made white men the eaters of the world in the first place. If you spend less time focusing on you, and what color you are, and where you come from, you may be able to relate more to others in ways that have nothing to do with what color either one of you are. And the same thing applies if you’re an Asian mocking the honkeys. Just get over it. Not ignore it, deny it, condemn it, or celebrate it: just drop it, and try to pay attention to the people around you without relating everything to your stupid skin color.

  13. Charita says:

    @Scaccerus

    Well first, while I think a lot of people would agree that we should try to relate to others regardless of the color of our skin, gender, age or our background, it is often not so simple to “just drop it” as you suggest. By the way, I’m curious to know how you differentiate “dropping it” from “ignoring it” because to me they seem very similar in this context. If you refuse to talk about this issue, acknowledge its existence, or even mildly attempt to explore how our identity, including ethno-racial and socioeconomic background, affects our interactions with others, then you are the one that seems to be ignoring it and denying it. But now, I suppose I’ve put you in a dilemma because if you respond to this you are clearly not “dropping it” and engaging in a discussion about something which you think should not be discussed. But of course, people are free to change their opinions and I imagine you could contribute a productive perspective if you left the accusatory tone at the virtual doorstep.

    But besides the first point, I also might agree with you on that last one. Skin color does seem stupid at times, or rather, the social construction of race and colorism are the products of what seem to be limited, stupid humans.

  14. Gurudas says:

    HAHAH! White Priviledge, now that’s some funny shit right there. Hey, you want to come join my cult?

  15. aj says:

    excellent post. i was thinking so many of these same thoughts myself (why “western” buddhist spaces tend to be disproportionately populated (with the exception of mostly asian–usually 1st and SOMETIMES 2nd generation Asian/Asian Americans—mostly “white” practitioners (i.e., you rarely see other “people of color” like african americans, latino/as, or even asian AMERICANS). the same can certainly be said about most of the “big names” in “western buddhist” circles (e.g., pema chodron–whom i like very much).

    but the issues brought up in this post ARE important and i applaud the writer for having the insight (if not “courage?”) to bring them up in such a public forum (which, if some of the comments on this forum are any indication, appear to still be a rarity among “privileged” white westerners).

    you can’t talk about buddhism without talking about it roots in asia. and you can’t talk about asia in a western context without talking about the history/ies of how asia has been (generally “negative) representated/constructed/thought of in the west (usually by majority “white” westerners).

    indeed, Scaccerus’ comment that everyone should just “get over it” while espousing the cliched notion of “color-blindness” is understandable, though not particularly unique. it’s difficult to talk about politics, let alone something as “incendiary” as race, when talking about something as personal as religion, or buddhism.

    nevertheless, whiteness is less about race, per se, than what this author rightfully points out: privilege. point of fact, the privilege to say “get over it” and having that opinion stick, while scarcely having to deal with the consequences of such a contention (i.e., not having one’s “caucasianness” shoved in their face 24/7 like other “non-white” minorities.

    so yes, this is a debate worth continuing. kudos.

  16. Nik says:

    this is a really great article; i think it really does justice to the complexity of what it means to be a white and identify as Buddhist in America. i think the most practical point to take away first is that the public face of Buddhism in America is extremely white and middle-class, while the reality and plurality of Buddhists in America is primarily of Asian decent and less economically affluent.

    i would also add that the idea of an “essential Buddhism” may be something of a red herring. the way Buddhism is practiced by many white Americans is already distinctly American insofar as “choice” is a distinctive (though by no means completely idiosyncratic) feature of “belief practice” in American culture (i use that term because while atheism and agnosticism may not be religions or spiritualities as such, they are still underpinned by cosmological assumptions and also involve public acts of morality).

    so part of why i say that “essential Buddhism” is a red herring is because the science and logic that i, too, wish not to reject is, i must still admit, a part of the culture in which i live. so just as Buddhism in India didn’t invalidate the existence of the Hindu devas and Buddhism in Japan didn’t seek to refute the existence of kami, i don’t see anything inherently wrong with trying to incorporate the dharma into western enlightenment rationalism.

    the real issue is the chauvinistic implications of thinking we can define “essential” Buddhism instead of understanding the way we practice is but one hue in a vast spectrum. and to me, it really comes down to practice: and by that, i don’t mean meditation, but concrete action in the world. and that should include celebrating and supporting other Buddhisms and other religions more broadly, even as we recognize that we are outsiders to such traditions.

    another aspect of American culture that seems to be at work in a few of these comments anyway is individualism: the culture of rejecting the role of culture. the hostility of Scaccerus’s comment is a perfect example of this. to acknowledge the importance of race and privilege isn’t the same as “relating everything to your stupid skin color”: that’s a straw man fallacy. race may be a social construction, but it’s one with real implications on the life-chances of people in this country.

    similarly, Wade’s comment that “I really feel as if I’ve been told that whatever I say, it doesn’t count. (yes, I’m white) That my perspective doesn’t count” is precisely the sort of privilege the author write about. the assumption that one’s own voice and perspective should and will always count is a privilege not everyone enjoys: imagine what it must feel like to be a first or second generation immigrant. insofar as there’s this persistent question of what can we do better–i do commend the openness of that attitude–i would suggest the answer lies in moving beyond meditation. if you want to tie it to a doctrine, you could look to the concept of engaged Buddhism. practice in meditation, in my opinion, should be a kind of training for the rest of life. it’s really not a difficult thing to figure out. help others when you can, especially those with less opportunities than you, and consider ceding the stage, from time to time, to those who don’t have as much chance to speak, if the opportunity presents itself. and if you find yourself feeling resistant to ideas that leave you feeling left out or hostile, i’d say that’s a good thing to meditate on.

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