Waking up to Racism

Dharma, Diversity, and Racebell hooks

Buddhists in the United States include fifth-generation Americans of Chinese and Japanese heritage, second-generation Korean-Americans, recent immigrants from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their American children, along with converts from European, African, and Latino backgrounds. As with other groups, Buddhists with common cultural and sectarian orientations have tended to stick together. With the end of the melting pot ideal, issues that once addressed racial and cultural diversity have been redefined in the political terms of multiculturalism. As this special section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race suggests, the views of Buddhists from different races and traditions reflect the society at large.                           


For some time now I have been writing fragments of a book, Buddha Belly, about the meaning of Buddhism in my life, about the Buddha I have been carrying in my belly for more than twenty years now. These writings are often funny, witty takes on my experience as a black female with Buddhism. I have been lucky because Buddhism has come to me from so many different directions that even when I was not seeking, I was always found. That thought, too, makes me laugh, because many of my religious white comrades are obsessed with seeking. When I was young, talking Buddhism all the time with them, I was always amazed and sometimes envious that longing to seek meant to them taking a trip, backpacking to Tibet, joining this community somewhere on the other side of the planet, finding that special teacher. Inwardly, I was a bit ashamed that I could never gather the courage to share that I had no intention of going anywhere—that to go places was about time and money and a will to travel that simply was not in me. The time I needed to study and write, and the journey to blessedness, to enlightenment, well, that could take place anywhere, or so the confinement and limitations of my circumstances made it essential for me to believe.

We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right. Nor does it surprise me that black people, and other people of color who have grown up in the midst of racial apartheid and racist domination, often feel the need to stay home, to stay in our place. Often we feel we have no right to move into a world that belongs to someone else seeking to discover treasures—not even if they are spiritual gems. It is important to recognize and interrogate these two positions without the judgment of good and bad. We can hold the reality that imperialism paved the way for white folks seeking to go anywhere in the world and claim ownership, to walk on many paths, simultaneously with the understanding that much of what has been found there—in that initial violent colonialism, continuing neo-colonialism, and journeying rooted in compassion and good will—gives life as much it takes and has taken life away. We can hold the understanding that enlightenment as an expression of spiritual devotion and practice is not bound by time and space even as we recognize the necessity of cultural borrowing, hybridity, and the mixing of traditions, lifestyles, and practices. We can understand racism within the circles of Buddhism in the United States if we surrender our attachment to binary, either/or thinking, if we let go the need to “own” any position as better, right, more correct.

Illustrations by Alison M. HopkinsTo many of my white comrades who accepted their interest in Buddhism as “natural,” my engagement always made me suspect, the object of spectacle, someone to be interrogated. “And why are you interested in Zen? And where did you first become interested? And who do you follow?” These questions are usually asked of anyone new to Buddhism, but what a person of color hears, whether it's intended or not, is that we are being singled out. These interrogations presuppose that I—and not they—am the other, that there is no ancestral connection between me or other people of color and the cultures in which they search to find Buddhist truth. This is the cultural arrogance that white supremacy allows. No wonder, then, that many black people, people of color, have felt that they cannot maintain a connection with their race and culture of origin and walk a Buddhist path. To some of them, choosing such a path in this country has been synonymous with choosing whiteness, with remaining silent about racism for fear of being dismissed, for fear of bringing in issues that are not really important. Often the disillusionment people of color feel is a response to idealized assumptions that spiritual communities will be places where the racism encountered in everyday life will have disappeared. Why do we think working at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore (which I did) will be any freer of racial tension and hostilities than working at Macy's? While some of us hear the dilemmas of the rare individual black person who has lived in a Buddhist community, who has studied with teachers, who has served, most folks refuse to write about these experiences. Many people of color have retreated from communities into a monastic culture within. When the openness is there, they will speak their experiences. Often white people share the assumption that simply following a spiritual path means that they have let go of racism: coming out of radical movements—civil rights, war resistance—in the sixties and seventies and going on to form Buddhist communities, they often see themselves as liberal and marginalized, proudly identifying with the oppressed. They are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism or the ways in which Buddhist communities may reflect racial hierarchies. This is made more problematic where the emphasis in the predominantly white communities is on letting go of the self.

I am often asked when talking about racism in Buddhist circles to be specific, give examples. In part, this longing emerges from the reluctance of white people in power to accept, and see clearly by opening their eyes, that white supremacy informs the shaping of Buddhist communities, individual interactions, publications, etc. That reluctance can only be transformed in spiritual practice, not by proof. There is never enough proof. We see the absence of people of color in predominantly white Buddhist circles. We hear the silence of those voices. What will it take for the individuals in those circles to seek an understanding of that absence, which comes from within?

Illustrations by Alison M. HopkinsTo understand that absence there has to be a concrete understanding of how racism works, of how white supremacy shapes personal interactions. Progressive whites who have no difficulty challenging institutionalized racism may have no clue about challenging the day-to-day xenophobia and racism inside everyone. When people of color are reluctant to enter predominantly white Buddhist settings it is not out of fear of some overt racist exclusion, it is usually in response to more subtle manifestations of white supremacy. Even to speak or write for a Buddhist publication where white people are in power evokes the concern, and sometimes the fear, that one’s words, thoughts, and being may be distorted, presented in the way that speaks only to the need of white readers. It is no simple matter to find a space within Buddhist circles where compassion has surfaced with an intensity that overshadows racial injustice and racial hierarchy. Recently, I wanted to join in a retreat with Pema Chodron. I grappled with the concern of whether or not the white comrades there would turn me into an object and distract my attention, or whether even my own hyperawarness of being the “only” or “among the few” people of color would distract me. Finally, I overcame these concerns, only to find all the places were taken. It did make me laugh. I had wasted so much time thinking about the question of race, that I had lost the moment. This is always a challenge when one’s life is lived in spiritual practice. How to be attentive to the things of the world, the unjust systems of domination, like racism, white supremacy, colonialism, without losing one’s sense of direction, without losing one’s way.

In the United States there are many black people, and people of color engaged with Buddhism who do not have visibility or voice. Contrary to a certain cultural arrogance that enjoys calling attention to—in a trivializing way—the quantifiable presence of black people in Nichiren Shoshu, there are many black people who identify with diverse traditions, walk on various paths, who practice in silence, who rely on the monastic culture within. It is a challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to accept that not seeing something does not mean it does not exist. Clearly, the time has come for more people of color in the United States to move out of the shadows of silence and speak about the nature of their spiritual practice. That silence is often imposed, a response to fears that one might not know enough, that we will be looked down upon, especially by whites. I have always been reluctant to speak about Buddhism, for fear I will mispronounce words, not have all the details and information that will prove me a dharma voyeur and not a card-carrying Buddhist. Surely it is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their “control” and “ownership” of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego’s need to be recognized. Rarely have I heard or read any really prominent white person engaged with Buddhism discuss any fear of being arrogant when speaking about the subject, grappling with issues of ownership, or authenticity, posing the question, “Will the real Buddhist please stand up?” I am quick to say, “I am not a 'real' Buddhist.” It has been useful to meditate on the subject of being a real Buddhist. In those moments of contemplation and quiet, the awareness surfaces that so many people of color fear not being worthy in ways that escape the attention of our white comrades. This fear of not being worthy is not always a response to the reality of subjugation. It also has to do with the practice of humility, not being presumptuous, not assuming rights and/or the experience of being in awe. I am always reminded of that spirit of awe when I contemplate the passage in the biblical Book of Psalms where the seeker marvels at the wisdom of the teacher, completely open to the possibility that “such knowledge is high, I cannot attain to it.”

Illustrations by Alison M. HopkinsLately, I often playfully want to ask the “real Buddhists to please stand up.” Studying different traditions, I learned early on that “real” Buddhists have teachers they know and name, have studied specific paths, done translations, can speak with authority. Certainly there is always a need for experience and knowledge rooted in traditions, but it is not a spiritual given that these are the places where peace, union, and spiritual awareness are found. What am I to make of the fact that every journey I start that is to lead me to a face-to-face encounter with a teacher is interrupted, short-circuited? Each time I have set out in the direction of Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches and guides my heart, something happens. Often my teachers have no faces, no bodies I can touch with my eyes or hands, no skin color I can see, no race. This absence may keep me on the path, for it is an absence that does not preclude contact, connection, transmission—even though there are times when I wonder, Am I never to be a “real” Buddhist? And what of all those white men, those writers—Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and many others—who may never have and will never feel the need to ask that question, including some who can find their way to “legitimate” Buddhism even in death? Then there are all the nonwhite people, many Asians from various ethnic groups with long traditions of Buddhist practice, who are angry, who want to counter the hegemony of whiteness with their own insistence on received right, authority, realness. How to separate the need to dismantle racism and white supremacy in Buddhist circles from the desire to construct more diverse hierarchies of domination? That is a challenge only profound spiritual practice can help us meet.

bell hooks is a Distinguished Professor of English at the City College of New York, a feminist theorist, and a cultural critic. Her most recent works are Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (Routledge, 1994) and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994).

Images 2,3,4: Illustrations by Alison M. Hopkins.

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Duke_PA's picture

Many of the comments here are fairly disturbing. Why is there so much anger at the thought that white dominated American buddhism might be exhausting and oppressive for a black woman? Bell Hooks is a brilliant scholar of feminism and race. I'll take her word on how she experiences it.

freetoflyfree's picture

I do not understand? If you are true within yourself, why would you dwell upon what others thought of you or your beliefs? If you are true within yourself why do you seek enlightenment or affirmation of your beliefs from a group. Any gathering of more than two human beings, including religious groups, is a political institution, fraught with all the dynamics, posturing and manipulation inherent to it. Once you recognize this you choose to participate or you can choose not to participate in the group. Dwelling on any difference between group members is just one of the dynamics of group politics where someone must always strives for group domination.

Tree201's picture

Thank you.

georgeaquinas's picture

I am finding that discussions/thinking/contemplating issues of gender/sexuality/class are the most informative and challenging in my growth into Buddhist practice. All of these are social constructs that are deeply ingrained in us and are also so hidden that they are almost impossible to detect. I don't think that we can recognize the inherent violence/racism/sexism that informs and upholds our society without people having the courage to speak out and call out these aspects of our society and challenge us on our privilege. Thank you bell hooks for this.

All of us cling to ideology and identity and this is most true in our aspects that touch closely to our identity--sexuality, gender and race and especially privilege.

Many boats and we leave them all on the bank. But I am finding this particular boat to be very helpful in my journey across the very wide river.

shangies's picture

Agreed! I find that deconstructing issues of gender/sexuality/race/class/ability etc go along with my Buddhist practice, rather than coming into conflict like many people seem to think.

Zenju's picture

Greetings Ven. bell hooks, Once again thank you for putting a voice to the relative experience of our lives. Many folks want to live in the boundless, un-embodied world, which is impossible. We are embodied for a reason. These bodies are the location of awakening and therefore understanding the nature of suffering in the context of embodiment is crucial in this country. We can't just walk into a Buddha hall without bringing ourselves. Our ignorance is our suffering. Buddha never said drop your identity but rather informed us of the distortions placed upon appearance. We are usually not having a direct experience of each because of the systemic oppression in place in this world. One is not enlightened simply because they are blind to race. They are just merely blind. If feels that some of the folks here would benefit from more understanding of the reason your article was so important to those who walk the Buddha Way in a dark body and how the lived experience shapes the spiritual path. I offer my book hoping it may help this discussion: The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender (Wisdom Publications - http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/way-tenderness). I await your book Buddha Belly! Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

shangies's picture

Thank you for sharing your book! :)

georgeaquinas's picture

Yes, indeed your book is very important to this conversation. I'm working my way through it, slowly. Too many "put down the book and let things settle in deep" moments to read it at a normal pace. Thank you for this work.

myers_lloyd's picture

There's never enough proof. And never enough open listening, enough proof or not.

frank vilaasa's picture

It’s interesting reading the comments section – maybe even more than the article itself.
Everyone seems to be agreed that the author is suffering from.... something . She herself, being a person of color, attributes this to ‘the cultural arrogance that white supremacy allows’ – i.e. she is made to feel inadequate, insecure, dominated etc because of certain inner and subtle ‘racist’ attitudes that other sangha members are carrying.
Where the commenters disagree, often vehemently, is in how we are to relate to her suffering. Some think we should empathize with her, take her message on board, and look within at our own previously unperceived racist mindset. Others are of the opinion that she should take responsibility for her own suffering, and do something about it herself – rather than blaming those around her.
There is no doubt that a pernicious form of racism exists in the world at large – and especially so in the US. In that context, victims of racism are definitely deserving of compassion and empathy. The question here is – has racism infiltrated the sangha? Does the author have a valid point in feeling victimized within the Buddhist community? Or is she just bringing her own outer worldly ‘victim’ mentality with her into the sangha, and projecting it onto those around her?
Here the argument becomes more subjective, and we can only really speak about our own experiences.
I’ve belonged to various sanghas over the past thirty years, and in my experience the overwhelming majority of sangha members do not think in terms of differences, but rather what unites us. If anything, differences are appreciated. While there are always a percentage of members interested in the exercise of power and authority, the majority have little or no interest in power structures, and just want to devote themselves to spiritual practice.
Spiritual practice in general, and Buddhist practice in particular is about dis-identifying with the body and the mind – including gender, age, skin color, and concepts of race, ethnicity, and culture.
So to put these concepts front and centre as an issue that needs addressing within the sangha, as the author has done, is a bit like saying to your spiritual teacher ‘Can I be excused from dis-identifying with my skin color? I really want some recognition and appreciation for the way it looks’
In other words, I personally feel that – within a Buddhist context - it is essentially her problem, and there is no need for sangha members to get defensive about this.

NancyLanceAlot's picture

One day I found myself to be the only person of a certain skin color in a city of people of another skin color. It was illuminating to be in the minority. Since you have identified yourself as white male elsewhere in your comments, just gotta say, a member of the dominant race and dominant sex probably never has experienced overt or micro-aggression -- except from other suits, perhaps. We are studying the teachings of a golden man who withered from fasting and turned brown in the sun in search of enlightenment, and his example is all we need: Do all we can to practice in this lifetime, encourage one another to do the same, and remove micro-aggressions from the sangha.

Tree201's picture

And here lies the problem. You assume because he identifies himself as a white man that he has not experienced aggression. This is the talk of victimization, of someone who refuses to see beyond her own ideas.
One can accept there is racism towards blacks in America and accept that white people can be subject to mistreatment, too.
My half-sister, who is white, and also a 58 year old disabled woman, was just last week beaten by two police officers and thrown in jail under false charges.

shangies's picture

Of course white men can experience aggression, however the system of racism is one that privileges white people, so although he may know what's like to be oppressed for various factors, included disabilites, financial statuts, etc., he will not know what it is like to grow up experiencing racism in a racist society. That's very unfortunate about your sister and the conclusion from that is that police brutality is an important issue, and people with disabilities are often neglected in this world. And you are right when you say "One can accept there is racism towards blacks in America and accept that white people can be subject to mistreatment, too." However the mistreatment that white people face may be because of bias or some other factors, but it is not racism. And it's important to note that racism is much more than just the dictionary definition of bias because of skin color. I for one will never understand the experiences of a disabled person, just like a white person will never truly understand the experiences of a person of color. However we can still acknowledge these struggles and support each other.

Tree201's picture

So you seem to believe that only black people experience racism? And certainly no white person would ever experience it? Wow.
You seem to be neatly categorizing the problems and struggles of people in our society in such a way that one is worse than the other, so that by your own statement, a person who experiences disability could not in any way know what it's like to experience racism. This is complete BS, and what you're doing is the same thing racists do when the categorize people and determine for themselves who deserves what kind of treatment. You may type out that people need to acknowledge struggles and support one another but I don't believe you believe that yourself.

shangies's picture

Only people of color experience racism because racism is a system of power that privileges white people.
I'm not sure where I have stated any hierarchy in the different forms of oppression that exist so not sure what you mean by that. Nor do I see where I implied that people can't experience multiple forms of oppression. That's actually called intersectionality (there are many papers you can easily google on this). A person can be a disabled person of color, and thus suffer from both racism and ableism. A queer white woman may have white privilege, while also experiencing sexism and homophobia.

Tree201's picture

You are delusional if you think only people of color experience racism.
I can't even take you seriously.

shangies's picture

there are many books/articles/papers on critical race theory so if you cannot take me seriously then you can refer to an entire field of academia instead.

Tree201's picture

No. I have a college degree and have studied these kinds of material. However, I prefer to experience life, not read others' opinions of it in "academia."

cdgoodison@gmail.com's picture

How have white people suffered racism?

shangies's picture

We are human, even if we are Buddhist practitioners, we are still practitioners and we still have much to learn and unlearn in this world. To assume that outer world problems do not carry into our Buddhist environments and our own mindsets is foolish and conceited.

frank vilaasa's picture

I certainly don't assume there are no outer world problems in Buddhist communities. All I am saying is that, in my experience, racism is not a major one of these. But as I said, this is a subjective impression, based on my own experience. And I'm just another white guy, so what would I know?? I would like to hear other sangha members of color speak about their experiences with this issue - as it relates to being a sangha member.

shangies's picture

In my experiences, these issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, etc. are often dismissed by sangha members. The system of racism is strengthened through ignorance, and dismissal. So the fact that you don't hear about racism among our fellow sangha members is a testament that there is a problem in the way we address (or don't address) issues that are affecting and hurting people. While I may not experience explicit slander based on my race from other Sangha members, microaggressions are definitely common, and these are the result of lack of awareness and concern for how deeply rooted racism is, and how it affects people of color. To understand race, as a social construction that has lead to a system of power, is to understand that to not talk about race and to not deconstruct racist/subconsciously racist mindsets perpetuates the system of racism. Thus we cannot exclude our fellow Sangha members from a being a part of a system of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, etc, just because we practice Buddhism. These are forces that have largely influenced the ways that we think and perceive, thus we must acknowledge and learn about them in order to deconstruct our own mindsets.

shangies's picture

The way I see it is that all of our struggles are interdependent and therefore deserving of our attention and compassion. To call her struggles an outer worldly "victim" mentality is to position our lives as independent from the "outer world," when in fact we are all connected to this outer world, at least while we remain in samsara. Disidentifying with our bodies does not mean disidentifying with issues that affect other people, because to do so would be to disidentify with our compassion for others. Speaking out against racism and sexism doesn't equate to creating attachments, rather it is exactly what we should be doing, that is if you agree that Buddhists should be extending help to other beings. This is an act of selflessness, not selfishness. If we want to help end suffering, we must be extending that help to the suffering of others, and that means disidentifying with our own egos and learning about these issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. to create a more open and aware mind for ourselves, and to be able to help our fellow beings.
Black and brown folks are oppressed in so many ways in our society, and if you read this entire piece and think it alludes to " ‘Can I be excused from dis-identifying with my skin color? I really want some recognition and appreciation for the way it looks’ ", then you are unaware of critical issues that affect people and do not realize that Bell Hooks should be receiving admiration from ALL Sangha members because of her dedication to creating awareness and acceptance for all the people suffering from a system of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity that our society is built on. Bell Hooks has dedicated her life to helping others, while many of us remain too attached to our egos but instead call it "wanting to find enlightenment...(but only for ourselves)"
Just because a group of "Buddhists" live and practice in a space together, does not mean that we can escape the world that breeds these systems of oppression that are strengthened through ignorance. We cannot excuse ignorance as a way of practicing detachment.

shangies's picture

I'll try an analogy: If a group of people are being crushed under rocks, and your pocket is spilling out rocks that contribute to the rocks that are crushing them, would you ignore it and call it "disidentifying with our attachments", or do you learn how to stitch up your pockets and stop contributing to their suffering as well as start teaching others how to also stitch up their pockets to help those people who are being crushed?

If you agree that you should learn how to help others, then you would agree that we should be learning about how racism, sexism, and other human made social constructions have affected the ways we think, how we can unlearn these biased subconscious ways of thinking, and how we can help others also do the same. Both in order to help those who are suffering from these issues, and to increase our own awareness. This is simply part of our practice. It is not in conflict with actual Buddhist thinking. The Dalai Lama and other great teachers also speak on these issues, as should we all. They've also discussed and acknowledged issues within Buddhist spaces, as should we all. Just like Bell Hooks is doing.

I often find that Buddhists do not talk acknowledge issues that are present in our spaces. There is still much ego in our thinking, no matter how good of a practitioner we aim to be.

sitlind's picture

Thank you, bell hooks, for this article even (or especially) 20+ years laters. A strong dharma lesson, one of which I need to be reminded. I hope I and others can open our hearts to hear this suffering in our culture. We see the evidence of the suffering that mindless privilege creates daily, if we look; so mindless that we don't even recognize it as racist. In Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, we affirm our commitment to listen to suffering (and, by natural extension, to be moved by it). hooks' words have helped to open my heart to the suffering my mindlessness has contributed to.

bbyrd's picture

My gosh, I'm surprised that there's any consternation at all about bell hooks' 20+year old article. We just need to sit and listen, then perhaps look around at our own places of practice. The good news is that nationally there are more and more women (white) in teaching and leadership roles. The bad news is that for the most part, everybody is older and white. Like me! Ha! But I'm lucky. I live in El Paso, far away from the usual spots folks go to get the word. Our little zendo is probably 50% white and 50% Mexican-American and Mexican who come together to sit and stare at the wall. Younger people even. Not much happens. It's the summer monsoon season now and we get a little rain. The hummingbirds thrive in the heat. Likewise, the cactus flowers. But I shouldn't forget: Across the river from where I live--10 minutes in a car--a terrible drug war continues to go on. Vicious cartels fighting for the right to supply drugs and other services to citizens on this side of the river. It's a piece of the same cloth. Thanks, bell hooks!

radcopter's picture

The responses to this essay are troublingly dismissive for a community that, one would assume, is more enlightened (pun intended) than a run-of-the-mill internet comment board. Many of them repeat the same themes that have come out of the recent focus on race: white people explaining race to those that live it everyday, dismissing a person of color's perspective because they seem to be angry or resentful, or even suggesting that a discussion of white privilege is inherently unwelcome or inappropriate. bell hooks is writing about her experience, the truth of her personal experience, and from a perspective than many people on this board apparently do not share. We do not get to tell her that this experience she is describing is wrong, or that she is wrong for the way she perceives the white Buddhist community. Indeed, the comments on here seem to support her claims that some people involved in Western Buddhist practice have problems with race. This essay, though old, is timely, and engages with questions and issues that many people who frequent this site have apparently never really confronted. If you're angry at her, you need to sit with that for a bit, and really think about what it means when someone comes to a Sangha and can walk away with the experiences and observations she shared.

dmurray110's picture

I don't think I'm being dismissive. The "just listen" which I've heard a number of times I get. Listen to others, listen while staring at my wall. But sometimes when we get up from our cushion we have realized that there is some work to be done. Is it my maleness? I don't know, but I ask with all sincerity, what an I supposed to do about my white male privilege? The answer never seems to come. My question gets dismissed as my dismissiveness. If there is no action to be taken we might as well just complain about politicians on Facebook.

Duck's picture

"The "just listen" which I've heard a number of times I get. Listen to others, listen while staring at my wall. But sometimes when we get up from our cushion we have realized that there is some work to be done. Is it my maleness? I don't know, but I ask with all sincerity, what an I supposed to do about my white male privilege? The answer never seems to come."

I appreciate the sincerity of your question, and the sitting and listening that gave rise to it. Yes, sitting and listening is where it needs to begin. And, equally yes, there is work to be done.

Here is a link to an article by a radical Black feminist that actually gives some ideas about what to do. It doesn't focus on race per se, but you can easily apply it:


To that list I'd add educating yourself on the perspectives of others (bell hooks' article is a good start!), maybe (if your means allow it) making a donation or offering time to a cause that takes up race or other equality issues, suggesting to your sangha that they examine issues of power and privilege that may be present, etc.

The important thing is to plant a seed by doing a small action in the service of righting the imbalance of power. Once that happens, trust that your bodhi mind--the mind of fearless and compassionate inquiry into the nature of suffering--will grow that seed, often times in ways you can't know in advance.

radcopter's picture

I'm a white male also, and I've struggled with the same question. I think one of the best things we can do is understand what it means to have the privilege and what it means for others to not have it. There are aspects of our lives that we take for granted, like being able to walk down a street at night and not be treated as a threat, or not fearing for our lives when we are pulled over by police. Once we understand how the privilege works for us, we can see how it doesn't work for others and build empathy for them. Recognizing the privilege is the first step. Perhaps you already do and these words don't do much for you. I can't say. I haven't figured it out either. All I can suggest is to find empathy with others whose experiences are vastly different in ways that we (you and I, white men) have never really considered, and that this difference in experience has produced generations of people living in fear.

shangies's picture

What can you do with your white male privilege?
Educate yourself! We all have so much to learn and unlearn, and as Buddhists we should know this. Having certain privileges often gives your words more weight and a bigger audience, so use those privileges to educate others about issues that place people on different hierarchies. We must be willing to put in the effort to learn more, if we desire to become more aware, and to help lessen the suffering of others.

Tree201's picture

I live two doors down from a white man who can't get a steady job and has a daughter with severe epilepsy who makes regular trips to the hospital via ambulance. He recently asked to fill buckets with water from our hose because their water was shut off. Please, by all means, tell him that he has privilege as a white man.

shangies's picture


As a white man he has white privilege. That doesn't mean he can't suffer from various other factors such as ability, finance, etc.

dmurray110's picture

The trouble with hurling "white privilege" is and what? What am I supposed to do about it? This kind of article makes me feel a bit like this http://youtu.be/-4EDhdAHrOg

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

danstezo's picture

what you supposed to do about it? waking up i suppose.
start stepping out of a racist matrix on which this whole western value system is build on. start listening to kendrick lamar, listen some hours of terence mckenna. dhamma was and is always to see the things as they are, not how we would like it to be based on our cultural value system. this total eurocentric view on the world is destructive. dhamma is not like that. its not a hobby to self-brand yourself as an open-minded person, or to give you a 'human touch' at reception small talks.


dmurray110's picture

You seem to be missing my point. Racism exists. White privilege exists. Blue privilege exists. Good looking woman privilege exists. Young and strong privilege exists. Intelligence privilege exists. My question remains, what should I do about it? Would it help if I declared, I hearby renounce my whiteness. Please treat me like an unprivileged minority. Seriously, what? It is about the nail. How to we remove the nail?

shangies's picture

Blue privilege doesn't exist.

But yes, there are many types of privileges! What we can do is become aware of all these factors that benefit us, while marginalizing others. I am straight-passing, able-bodied, middle income, and a fluent english speaker. Because I am quite articulate, I can use this to speak to others about issues that affect people. If you are a white man, you are more likely to have people listen and respect you, so you can use this to also educate a larger group of people. But first we must be educating ourselves and apply it to how we act, interact, and perceive the world. It's about deconstructing the biases of our mindsets, and helping others deconstruct theirs as well.

Tree201's picture


katemack's picture

Ms hooks.... so sorry that the colour of my skin is not to your satisfaction.

I'm still unclear as to what us "unsatisfactory people" are to do .... but thank you for pointing out that the people like me should not engage in conversation with persons of colour because that is an offensive act -- an interrogation even. Of course, refusing to speak to a person of colour could be interpretted as an equally hostile act. Oh what to do, what to do -- to speak or not to speak, that is the question.

Man, this is hard to sort out for a "hi, how are ya" kind of Canadian.

danstezo's picture

if its hard to sort out, you need to practise more perhaps? with compassion and study? start by reading books by afro-american authors, start learning about the stories of 'the other', perhaps this is a way to learn more about your interconnectedness with other human beings?

katemack's picture

Who among us doesn't need more practice?

Tree201's picture

Wow. Instead of accepting that you disagree with someone's viewpoint you have to question their practice and compassion and intelligence?
Interconnectedness indeed.

shangies's picture

You can't simply accept someone's view when that view is the exact opposite of compassion. If you read this article, which is about a wider systematic form of oppression that affects millions of people, and instead make it about you somehow being banned from talking to people of color, then that is a huge display of egotism. You are making this about yourself when really it's about your desire to not educate yourself about these issues and instead remain blissfully ignorant to a mass source of suffering that our ignorance perpetuates. If you were to become more aware about race and gender (and many other issues affecting our thinking and perceptions), then you would understand that this has nothing to do with not being allowed to talk to people of color, but instead about becoming more conscious of our interactions and how they relate to issues that affect people.

You can't help end suffering if you have no desire to try to understand different sources of suffering.

katemack's picture

Thank you kindly for that bill of indictment. Your characterization that my "huge display of egotism" is a consequence of my "desire to not educate myself about this issues and instead remain blissfully ignorant..." was quite a boatload. And overall, you're right -- I have an ego.

I also fully cop to being ignorant and clearly, you are more knowledgable in these matters than I. The things I know nothing about would fill a universe or two. For example, I'm still not sure what to do about my white privledge in these social circumstances. 'What concrete action should I take to arrest these wrongs? The only thing I have any control over is the actions that I take. I have no control over the actions of others.

I don't know where in the world you're from but where I come from, NOT talking to someone is considered EXTREMELY rude. It's just horrible, dehumanizing behaviour. Just not on. I've also just learned that my "normal" -- that is, culture bound -- conversational opening gambits (so, how did you get interested in Zen? Buddhism? ) could be interpreted as interrogative or suggesting that I somehow deem the other party as "an interloper" who doesn't belong... That was a bloody surprise to me, I can assure you, but I learn something new every day...

But back to the topic at hand, namely curing me of my ignorance -- what is your reoommended course of action in these social situations? One of those things I thought might be a possibility is a "speak when spoken to" approach. The advantage of that, of course, is that the other speaker's opening comment will provide social cues into what areas are considered culturally safe to discuss. The downside is that it could very easily be misintpretted as "standoffish" or "snobbish" or "hostile".

Looking forward to your recommendations. Thank you.


shangies's picture

I am definitely no expert in the topic of racism and am constantly trying to further my own understanding. You're absolutely right when you say that you only have control of the actions you take. And that's important to acknowledge when addressing white privilege. It doesn't make you a terrible person to have any type of privilege, what matters is the actions you choose to take knowing that you have these privileges. When it comes to other people's actions, I would say that you do have a certain degree of influence over other people. Especially if you are white and articulate, people are more likely to listen to you and take your words more seriously.

And the point I was making when I made the statement about the ego was that this article is not saying that you shouldn't talk to people of color. It was addressing how because of racism, certain questions and statements towards people of color may be uncomfortable because we have grown up our entire lives hearing these statements from racist people. For example, I get uncomfortable when people ask me where I am from because they usually mean what is the country my family originated from and not just, what part of america are you from. Or when people say, "what are you" when they mean what is your ethnicity. These types of phrases automatically place me in this "other" territory. Because of the color of my skin, I am automatically something other than normal. Often people ask me what I am and then compliment me on how good my english is, because it's assumed that I'm not a normal american citizen that's grown up here my entire life.

So when you read this article and the only conclusion you draw is that you can't talk to people of color, then you are drawing an incorrect conclusion that is partly because of the fact that you are making this issue about yourself. I read this and I think about how I should be more conscious about black people and latinos in Buddhist environments, and how I can create a more welcoming environment for them.

Your question on what white people can do is a common one and here are some of many articles that you can google! A lot of it has to do with your mindset, because you can't really make changes towards something unless you first understand it. Hope this helps!


Tree201's picture

you just proved my point. thank you.

shangies's picture

If you are saying that I am questioning your practice of compassion then yes, of course I am. Because your words are displaying the exact opposite of compassion.

Tree201's picture

Fortunately, I don't depend on your judgment.

NancyLanceAlot's picture

Thank you, bell hooks, for all your expressions and teachings in this article. I am dismayed (well, yeah, I'm Buddhist but I'm experiencing turbulent emotion...) by the "white-washing" of the real pain and suffering of minority groups, especially in the current social scene. When I have the chance, I ask fellow whities to never use terms like "color-blind"--we should fill our eyes with all colors as they truly are and respect and appreciate them just like that; to never say stupid things like "all lives matter"--this is a given, and it demeans the vital message "Black Lives Matter"; and to avoid that ridiculous grade-school squawking about "I don't care if a person is brown or green or purple"--again, just avoiding the acceptance and appreciation of folks exactly as they are.
Americans are utterly missing Buddha's teachings, for this discussion to occur at all. Get out the choppers, brothers and sisters, time to slash the attachments, slice the stupid, and slay the hate.