chagrined retraction of a naïve blogger

The to-my-eyes sudden and highly disturbing emergence of a virulent white identity politics on the national stage (see for example here), has led me not only to reconsider the label “White Buddhism” but to take down the posts in which I tried to explain what it was supposed to label. In the Facebook discussions following the posts, I believe it was Justin Whitaker who suggested that I was writing from a position of privilege. My first reaction was Well Duh, we’re all privileged on this bus! But I also recognize that yes indeed I do write from a position of privilege—the privilege of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, of working for a Japanese-American Buddhist organization, of growing up in a multicultural environment (avant la lettre, before the concept was formulated), of having worked for a black community development organization in Oakland, and—yes—of being a white male. Most importantly here, the privileged ignorance of truly believing that the lunatic fringe would remain minor and isolated, that it would stay under its rock.

Some of the reaction to my attempt to formulate a label for a particular ideology seems to have been based on the ability to employ a degraded discourse defensively. That is, to accuse someone making an analysis of racism of themselves being racist. A recent essay on use of the term racism in the NYTimes (Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It), pointed out the ambiguity of accusations of racism—how the accusation comes to be turned back on anyone who points out racism. This is the fantasy of erasing racism by never seeing it—by placing it under erasure. Certainly easier than actually reflecting on the role of white privilege and white supremacy in the formation of an ideology, a system of belief that has come to be widely held, that one holds oneself.

Other reactions were notably more substantive. Amod Lele’s blog post (both here and here), for example, was disturbingly informative enough to raise my own self-defenses, and therefore suggest that there was indeed something that I needed to reconsider. At that time, however, I thought that further explanation might suffice. Given the nature of public discourse now, however, I realize that further explanations are not in fact sufficient.

There are welcome changes being initiated among convert Buddhist institutions in the United States. Ann Gleig pointed this out, and indeed the glossy Buddhist magazines have given it cover-space attention. Here at the AAR, during the session on Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism, Dawn Neal described efforts on the part of institutions such as Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Center to remove the economic and social barriers to participation in the insight community.

At this point this is, however, all about a label. An analysis of the ideology of whatever it is to be called is still needed, including its origins as an apologia by white proponents in the nineteenth century, and its rise to hegemonic status in many representations of Buddhism as a consequence of white privilege and white supremacy. Much of this groundwork has been laid by Joseph Cheah in his Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford 2011). (Full disclosure thingy: I had the privilege to chair Dr. Cheah’s dissertation committee and learned a great deal from him in the process.)

Such analyses are now even more urgent, and the phrase only detracts—especially now—from conducting such analyses. The ideology remains and anxiously awaits a better name.

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6 thoughts on “chagrined retraction of a naïve blogger

  1. Richard, thank you so much for this post. I very much appreciate your willingness to listen and to change your mind. It is all too rare to see someone do that (perhaps especially on the Internet).

    Your post is spurring some reflection on my own part. We do need a term for the new Buddhisms, and seeing this post I increasingly think that the term I have preferred until now – “Yavanayāna” – is itself not appropriate. I suspect I’ll be posting more on this in the next couple months.

  2. I’m feeling a deep sense of betrayal by this. It is very saddening and dismaying. But this is not a new feeling as someone who has made it a point to be upfront about the contradictions of my conflicted subjectivity as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert.

    I make this comment not to start a conversation. This is not an exchange of feelings. I am telling you how I feel regardless of what your reasoning may be against the use of the term “White Buddhism”.

    There will be a degree of validity to whatever reasoning there may be against the use of “White Buddhism” because it should be a tentative and contested term. But this is precisely why it holds potential if we own it and speak about it.

    I really don’t care about the reasoning. The game of reason and respectability is on the side of systemic whiteness; it is rigged not only to ensure that those who are “othered” by systemic whiteness will lose, but to also add further injury of humiliation simply by virtue of the fact they refuse to play by prevailing rules of reason and respectability—including respectability around the use of any connate terms surrounding whiteness, like “White Buddhism”.

    Non-white, non-Western lifeworlds have had countless problematic labels and categories imposed on them—this is a basis for the construction of race/whiteness, the basis of systemic humiliation and domination. It is not a matter of choice that we are marked by inadequate labels or categories but a matter of response-ability.

    I am as much complicit in White Buddhism as you are and I am more than prepared to own the label.

    If at this conjuncture, under these heightened circumstances, those benefiting from the intersections of whiteness and Buddhism cannot even muster the courage to work with “White Buddhism” in all its messiness and riskiness—”Oh, we need a better phrase because blah blah blah”—who do you expect to trust your professed intention to dismantle systemic whiteness?

    I don’t.

  3. Richard, it’s certainly possible I am being swayed by Ed Ng’s vitriolic negative reaction to this retraction (which I’ve just read on Facebook and which I counsel you to read), but I question whether effacing the identifier “white”—just in the moment of the latest triumph of whiteness—is wise. I have appreciated Amod’s critique of your previous pieces and benefitted from your dialogue with Ann Gleig, and, as a white cis hetero male, have done my own soul-searching. Nothing in what I’ve uncovered in my reading or myself or my country has dissipated the benefit of continuing to see the contemporary development of Buddhism in America (and politics in America) in the context of whiteness. Yes, the term that you are, as they say these days, “walking back” is provocative and easily misconstrued. But are those adequate reasons to retract it? Your posts have pushed the limits of an insufficiently unquestioned discourse of whiteness. I do not read in this post of today a powerful enough reason to back way from what you have contributed. I simply do not see how “the phrase only detracts—especially now—from conducting such analyses.” I still see it as pointing *toward* such analyses—especially now, as you say. Can you articulate further your qualms? I had rather see you reaffirm your insightful unmasking of this continuing oppression.

  4. Pingback: bad penny: the return of “White Buddhism” | Richard K. Payne

  5. Pingback: Farewell to “Yavanayāna”Love of All Wisdom | Love of All Wisdom

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