White-Washing the Buddhisms: Unacknowledged Privilege and the making of a White-Safe Buddhism

First, a round of applause for Lion’s Roar which has taken up the issue of racism in American Buddhisms with several articles (on whiteness by Lion’s Roar Staff, white privilege by Tara Brach, stereotypes by Chenxing Han, and invisibility by Funie Hsu).

These articles highlight the role of white privilege and the domination of American society by white people. White domination encompasses all forms of popular religious culture, whether the present mainstream of conservative, fundamentalist evangelicalism, or tiny alternative sidestreams like the Buddhisms. This domination motivates the formation of a white-safe version of Buddhism in America, and simultaneously constitutes the largely unconscious expectation of white-safe spaces. It is this privileged expectation that Buddhism/mindfulness be white-safe that propels pushback against dissenting views and representations of the history of Buddhisms in America. The racial character of this pushback is evident in the comments to the article on invisibility, “We’ve Been Here All Along,” by Funie Hsu. Hsu writes eloquently of the Kimuras, Japanese-Americans living in California’s Central Valley, and the nexus of religion, racism and politics that led to the creation of America’s concentration camps—part of American history often denied by silence. White privilege is basis for the dynamic that Hsu describes, pointing out for example that “the white ownership of Buddhism is claimed through delegitimizing the validity and long history of our traditions, then appropriating the practices on the pretext of performing them more correctly.” That dynamic has been present from the very earliest contacts between European imperialists and the societies they came to dominate (see Donald Lopez, Jr., Curators of the Buddha, particularly his own contribution, “Foreigner at the Lama’s Feet.” University of Chicago, 1995—and one of the single most important sources for understanding the formation of the Buddhisms in Europe and America as found today.)

Tynette Devaux, editor of Buddhadharma in which Hsu’s article appeared, calls attention to the tone of these comments, saying

We don’t usually get much feedback from readers, but this one struck a nerve with several who took the time to write to us. The tone of these letters surprised me — some were quite angry at Hsu and lodged personal attacks (“She should be grateful for what she has”; “She ain’t no buddhist”). Others were more tempered but equally defensive (“I felt judged and unwelcomed”; “The article is implicitly racist toward white people”).

The resistance displayed in these comments indicates the expectation that the Buddhisms must be made safe for white people for them to be acceptable. These are the same attitudes evident in the belief that anyone who is not white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, heterosexual, male is only a marginal, irrelevant, or threatening presence in American society. Writing on identity politics, Chase Strangio has pointed out that this view “is morally indefensible because what it really does is tell people that their very existence is the problem. It suggests marginalized communities should wait until white, straight men are comfortable before demanding their right to exist.”

The history of Buddhism in the United States does not begin in the 1960s when white males such as Alan Watts discovered it—and much less in any significant sense in the mid-nineteenth century with fragmentary appropriations by American transcendentalists. It began in the second half of the nineteenth century with the importing of Chinese and Japanese laborers to work on the railroads in California and the sugar plantations in Hawai’i.

White privilege is largely invisible to those who have it, since the privilege is that of being the norm—conceptualized in semiotics as being the “unmarked term.” As Wakoh Shannon Hickey has written

A key feature of privilege is that when we have it, we are largely oblivious to it: we take it for granted as normal, natural, or deserved. We may deny or fail to notice that we receive advantages, access to resources, and more positive attention simply because we belong to a dominant group, and that our advantages depend directly upon other people’s disadvantages. Privilege means not having to notice that we have it. (“Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,” in Buddhism Beyond Borders, Mitchell and Quli, eds., emphasis in original; earlier online version in Journal of Global Buddhism, here).

The invisibility of privilege is found, for example, in Hadley Freeman’s discussion of identity as a political issue: “white straight voters don’t have an identity – they are just people.” Unless specifically named (“white,” “straight”) identity is invisible and therefore normative—that is, everything else is deviance from that norm (and yes, the term “deviance” is used here to mean both a statistical deviation from the majority, and the moral meaning of being a deviant).

Perhaps the most subversive effect of white privilege is claiming the authority to define Buddhism and the dharma. Most subversive because by itself, presenting what is actually an interpretation of Buddhism as simply the truth, the authority to define precludes in advance any awareness of, much less, consideration of alternatives. The dynamic is identified by Hsu: delegitimation, appropriation, claiming authority and authenticity in representing the tradition. This dynamic has as its consequence a dominating authority over the tradition. An example of delegitimation, perhaps “infamous” is the appropriate adjective, is Helen Tworkov’s 1991 editorial in Tricycle in which she claimed that “Asian American Buddhists…have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.”

Also exemplary of claiming authority over the tradition, of the right to define Buddhism and the dharma, is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s claim that “if mindfulness-based interventions have anything profound, healing, and transformational to offer the world, it is only because they are firmly grounded in the Dharma—not so much as expressed in the particular cultural and religious forms of the Buddhadharma—but as universal dharma” (Foreword, Teaching Mindfulness, McCown, Reibel & Micozzi, eds., Springer, 2011, xx). The claim to “universal dharma” simultaneously delegitimizes all other Buddhisms by locating them in the particular, and at the same time claims that the form he has to offer is pure of any cultural context. There are in fact only local and culturally conditioned forms of Buddhism, including its appropriations by the mindfulness movement. But this fact is made invisible (placed under erasure) by the metaphysics of essence & manifestation—the claim that mindfulness practice is the essence of Buddhism, that it is the original, pure, authentic and authoritative teaching of the founder. The consequence of that rhetoric is to make mindfulness appear to be a context-free and value-neutral mental technology.

Making the cultural context and implicit social values of mindfulness invisible is essential to sanitizing the Buddhisms to make them white-safe.





5 thoughts on “White-Washing the Buddhisms: Unacknowledged Privilege and the making of a White-Safe Buddhism

  1. But when or how is using “White-Safe Buddhism” over “White Buddhism” not functioning in a similar way to make avoided questions about white people’s complicity in the racialised oppression of others white-safe? Isn’t “White-Safe” white-safe?

    Whatever “White Buddhism” may be it is a discursive field of struggle. Saying that the problems arising from the intersections of systemic whiteness and Buddhism are real but that we need a better term to investigate these problems—who will decide when a term is finally “balanced” or platable enough? White people?

    If there are risks in using the term “White Buddhism”—rather than fret about its tentativeness and contestability and who it might offend (as is the case with any cognate terms for racialised habits and system of white domination)—isn’t it precisely the point of using this term to expose the taken for granted affordances built and maintained by denigrating the human dignity of others? Isn’t it the point to make it difficult for interpretations of Buddhism white-safe?

    Is “White-Safe Buddhism” a better analytical conceptual placeholder than “White Buddhism” because using “White-Safe” makes uncomfortable discussions about the problems arising from the intersections of systemic whiteness and Buddhism just a little more… safe? But safe for whom or what? Were those white Buddhist commentators who attacked Funie Hsu feeling unsafe even though she did not even go so far as to use the term White Buddhism and was rather gentle in the article?

    Is it still all about white people and their fragile feelings?

    • I actually really like the term “white-safe” Buddhism–to me it goes right to the heart of white privilege in Buddhist communities. My white students are often afraid to visit Thai and Sri Lankan temples because they feel uncomfortable and unsafe (which is precisely why I drag them to non-white Buddhist temples, so they can feel uncomfortable for a change). I think the term “white-safe Buddhism” exposes the privilege that drives exclusion in mostly-white Buddhist communities and rhetorically invokes the concept of white fragility. I don’t think it is less on point than “white Buddhism,” which makes Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans who also participate in white-safe Buddhist groups invisible. I would say that indeed, those commentators who attacked Hsu felt unsafe–and instead of looking at how they have the privilege of feeling safe most of the time, they attacked Hsu for their inability to cope emotionally with seeing white supremacy (i.e., they enacted white fragility). I really like this term “white-safe Buddhism” for nailing the rhetoric (“safety”) that whites often invoke when they are challenged to look at the ways they have been complicit in white supremacy. To break down white supremacy in Buddhism communities, white people have to be willing to go to “unsafe” Buddhist centers, talk to “unsafe” Buddhists, and have “unsafe” conversations.

      • Thanks Natalie. For the record, I do not think that one term is inherently better than the other, as using either one is a matter of discursive struggle, so it comes down to matter of the situational and analytical challenges to be addressed.

        I’m remain undecided about arguments of “White Buddhism” invisibilising the participation of non-white people in Buddhist formations favouring systemic whiteness—because this is a fact for non-white lives, that we have to “play white” in many everyday scenarios.

        So I’m still inclined to say that it is not as if “White Buddhism” is further erasing the experiences of non-white people but that calling it as such could serve to direct avoided attention from all parties, white and non-white, towards the tricky, invisibilised habits of systemic whiteness that is already taken for granted as ordinary—non-white people already have to participate, often in unseen and unrecognised ways, in whiteness anyway. Calling it bluntly as White Buddhism can serve a purpose in highlighting this—and accepting complicity, even amongst non-white people, is a necessary first step.

        My position is that the insidious operations of systemic whiteness, regardless of whether we call it “White Buddhism” or “White-Safe Buddhism”, cannot be reasoned with or persuaded otherwise but must be thwarted and frustrated at every turn. At this juncture, the term White Buddhism seems to me to be particularly triggering…which means it has potential, or at least that’s the thing to explore.

        Admittedly, “White-Safe Buddhism” could be less triggering than “White Buddhism”. But ultimately for me, facing up to the triggers of discomfort is the crux of the matter to address, and if any particular concept used in the interrogation of racialised oppression is triggering to white habits—that to me is precisely the button to keep pushing.

  2. Great insights, Ed. I agree about preferring the more triggering term–I find “white-safe” more triggering than white Buddhism, personally, because of its utter absurdity: why do white people need to create a “safe place” for being white? But as usual, I could be very, very wrong. 😉

  3. Pingback: White-washing Buddhisms: the unity beneath sectarian identities | Richard K. Payne

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