I’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.