August 19, 2013
The current media vogue is to construe racism as something neo-Nazis, skinheads, or other marginal bigots do. This absolves the rest of us from taking responsibility not just for individual acts of discrimination and bias on a daily basis, but also for the ways in which white supremacy reinforces and guarantees white skin privilege. Racism in the US is not primarily about individual acts of ill will. One can be benign, neutral, open, accepting, and friendly to people of color and still be participating in the perpetuation of racism in this country merely by not actively working against racial hierarchies.
A good working definition of racism comes from Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States. There they argue that racial projects "create or reproduce structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race." All white people need to understand the multiple ways in which institutions in this country reproduce structures of domination that are harmful, dehumanizing, or downright dangerous to people of color.
We must make a commitment to work against racism on a daily basis. We all must be as committed to anti-racist work as we are to our daily practice. In fact, I believe that for American Buddhists, being committed to anti-racist work must be our daily practice. Our country is so fundamentally dysfunctional with regard to race, racism, and racial ideologies that we no longer recognize the degree to which it structures and influences our daily life. This is especially true for white people who enjoy privileges and unearned advantages on a daily basis, and therefore effectively discriminate against people of color. It is not enough to be sorry or to go out of your way to smile and be friendly. Racism is not about personal feelings and therefore anti-racist work requires that we move beyond feelings and emotions to action and advocacy. We must constantly be vigilant and speak out about the root causes of prejudice and discrimination—racial structuring based on white supremacist beliefs and practices in our institutions.
We must educate ourselves about these issues. Racism in the United States is now and always has been a white problem, and therefore it is incumbent on white people to talk amongst themselves about how they propose to solve this problem. Waiting for people of color to enter white spaces in order to educate white people about their blindness to racism is arrogant, patronizing, and disrespectful. Feminists have, for years, called men to task for not taking responsibility for dismantling patriarchy. The same is true for the responsibility white people must take for dismantling racial hierarchies.
Lori Pierce is associate professor of American Studies at DePaul University, where she teaches courses on Asian American history and American Buddhism. An earlier version of this statement appeared in the pamphlet “Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities” (pub. 2000).
For more discussion on racial issues in our communities, see this month's retreat, "Real Refuge: Building Inclusive and Welcoming Sanghas." East Bay Meditation Center teacher Mushim Patricia Ikeda explores perceptions of racial, sexual, and class diversity in our sanghas and expands on what it means for a community to offer real refuge.
Image courtesy of Flickr/quapan.