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.