Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections—Book Review

I somewhat agree that framing things in the wrong way can be problematic. The “whiteness” thing can be just a redherring that attracts picky responses that really have nothing to do with the underlying issues.

What I would say is that in my country, Australia, the US, and Canada, there is a hugely disproportionate number of First Peoples and Black Americans in prisons, and with various other problems such as low engagement with education, and so on. I think there are similar statistics in the UK. What I care about in my country is going someway towards fixing those issues, since that would lead to an improvement for everyone.

[There are, of course, “white” people who have issues with prison, lack of education, etc. Most of the changes that would address the problems of first peoples/black people/etc would also help them.]

I have very little sympathy for statements that seem to me to seek to trivialize these problems, such as “white is not a thing”, “if we could just ignore race(/gender/etc) everything would be rosy”, and so on. It’s not rosy, it needs to be addressed.


I would much prefer that the people who are not making a contribution to the thread (that hasn’t already been made) stop posting.

@Ceisiwr, I think you have made your opinions abundantly clear. Why don’t you take a break and try to learn from other people’s experience. Your posts are doing nothing to improve the discussion and in fact they only seems to be intended to shut it down.


I remember reading a study a few years ago regarding sentencing statistics. It was found that when being sentenced for the same crime people of a white ethnicity received a lighter sentence than those of a black ethnicity. I’m unsure if it included other white European ethnicity amongst British ones, or Asians (Indians, Pakistanis in British lingo). If I remember correctly they also had the same criminal history, roughly. That suggests to me an unfair bias. Now anyone who is concerned with justice should be concerned with those findings, and they do need addressing. I think though we can do that without the divisiveness of “Whiteness” or White privilege, or the non-winnable game of intersectionality. I think we can also address bias in the courts without having to tear down capitalism and even society in order to build it up again, which is something else i tend to hear. Such thinking has all the flaws of the French revolutionaries IMO.


There was a post wanting to shut down the discussion Bhante, but it wasn’t mine. Mike and I are having a perfectly polite and reasonable discussion, where we are exchanging ideas. If however you don’t want me commenting any further I will of cause respect that request. If you only want people to post who agree with you I think that’s a shame, but it’s your show as it were. If you don’t want me to comment on any of your political posts in the future just let me know too, as I’m likely to disagree with them and so be critical of the majority of your views in that area.

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Hmm, That’s actually an additional problem that I don’t even consider. I have little idea of how the UK works but I think here it’s not just that certain groups get harsher sentencing, it’s that certain groups are committing more crimes, and that really needs to be addressed. In some cases higher crime rates are due to laws that were arguably put in place to target certain groups. Marijuana being illegal for example, which seems rather ridiculous when alcohol and tobacco are legal.

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Dear All,

This is just a gentle reminder about the forum Guidelines and FAQ.

Thanks for keeping the conversation respectful.

With Metta


If you would like to talk about your experience of Buddhism and Whiteness then by all means go ahead. But if you are just going to constantly push back against the very concept of the OP, then you are not adding to the conversation, you are trying to shut it down. Not by calling for the thread to be closed, but by constantly and without pause discounting the very analysis of the problem that doesn’t even affect you.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with me.

I also don’t see the topic as political. It is only made so by people pushing back against the topic. The purpose of the book in the OP is to help people understand how Buddhists may be falling short in their practice and teaching when it comes to race.

Again, if you are only adding your (same) opinion (again and again), then you aren’t contributing anything to the topic and you make it difficult for others to actually stay on topic.


I can think of two ways that analysing whiteness could be divisive. It could be acknowledging existing divisions and/or creating them. Which do you think is happening more, and what evidence do you have? Please note that I won’t be interested in assertion, so I would like evidence, please.

From my perspective, I think there already is division in society, and analysing that division is very helpful. For example, as a teacher, I know for a fact that the black children are criminalised more in education. Research shows that equivalent behaviour between white children and black children is disciplined differently. I’ve seen this as a teacher when involving multiple managers in charge of diversity. Even people who learn to know better don’t act like they know better.

And, as we all know, People with stereotypically white names are more likely to get jobs than someone with a name that brings with it negative stereotypes. Here’s a writeup of studies involving two universities.

I grew up poor. I grew up with a criminal father who ended up in prison for killing his first-born child. I grew up around children with fathers in prison. Therefore, I grew up with children who knew criminality more intimately, as a member of their family rather than as an idea in media. The white children around me who were involved in crime – as victims or as perpetrators – were more likely to be judged as children. The black children around me – again, involved as victims or as perpetrators – were treated differently, as explained here. And here’s guidance from a leading charity for children about how adults perceive children differently based on perceived racial characteristics. To quote:

Adultification is a form of bias where children from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities are perceived as being more ‘streetwise’, more ‘grown up’, less innocent and less vulnerable than other children. This particularly affects Black children, who might be viewed primarily as a threat rather than as a child who needs support (Davis and Marsh, 2020; Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2019).

Finally, in the UK, police target black children for invasive strip searches more.

I see these as racist divisions. If they are not, could you please correct me? I think these racist divisions hurt black people. If I am wrong, could you please correct me? I want to see things change, and that means white people like me who are part of maintaining the current status quo have to change. If protecting white feelings is more important than improving black lives, could you please correct me?


I’m a third-generation immigrant. I pass as white English, and I grew up in poor area with high levels of white racism and moved to a less poor area with still high levels of more polite white racism. Therefore I’ve been part of a lot of “ha, you’re English too!” racist talks, which is both sad and amusing, because I can shut it down by having a foreign surname (one that clearly links to a national group often despised by white racists).

I am confronted by my otherness, my mother’s otherness, and her parent’s otherness regularly. The UK government has, I believe, passed a law making it easier for people like me to be deported in case we are unwanted. My wife has been targeted for abuse because “an English girl shouldn’t marry a foreigner” at work.
My non-white students tend to be confronted with their blackness regularly. They are disciplined more harshly by teachers – I have seen this with my own eyes. Evidence suggests that this is statistically significant across the population. Students resist racial integration in shared spaces to an extent which is very visible.

White people not wanting to take on the task of confronting their whiteness is not a solution and not a strength. White people have constructed a world where others must apologise for their otherness regularly, and face more limited life experiences because of it. (People with stereotypically white names are more likely to get jobs than someone with a name that brings with it negative stereotypes, I posted a link to the study earlier). It is an unfair burden to elide whiteness, and it is an unfair burden which maintains the racial superiorities inherent in “I am the default, and I don’t have to bother”. Colour-blindness is not a solution, as it merely elides the issues in favour of but I’m alright, what are you complaining about?

To quote Martin Luther King:

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Confronting whiteness is not convenient, I agree. But it won’t put you in prison, it won’t make your children’s lives in school harder, and it, at worst, results in a kind of shame that you can take on and tackle by yourself. I, for one, am glad that the effects are so transitory.

So, if you think talking about whiteness is a red-herring for a factual reason, please explain and give those facts.
And if you think it is a red-herring because if makes you feel lesser, then the good news is that you’re not being oppressed, you’re just being asked to be a better person. Isn’t that a worthwhile journey?


This is such an unfortunate stereotype.

It has been interesting reading the comments on this thread, reflecting about the various groups that I’m involved with, and wondering what difference, if any, I could make. My primary practice group was, for some time, my local Thai monastery. I still attend that, but the teachers who could speak good English have wound up in different places. It’s such a short-sighted idea that noone at such places have deep practice. It’s actually pretty obvious when one is on a retreat who the people with deep practice are when they come to the monastery to provide breakfast, etc. Those have the sort of calmness that otherwise only the monastics have.

Then there is a loose group that includes various White, Sri Lankan, and Thai people, with the occasional ethnic Chinese. Not super organised but we’ve run a sutta discussion group since lockdowns started.

Then there is a local “Insight” group which is pretty much totally white, but has the advantage of being organised and having some people who have quite a lot of experience. Interestingly, there’s very little awareness of other Buddhist groups in these circles (apart from Zen groups, which are equally white). Many in this group are very in favour of engaged practice and so on, but overlook that Fo Guang Shan, who have a presence here, are huge in that area—FGS ran support centres after our 2011 earthquake and are savvy enough to organise attractive events that many local politicians and other community members turn up to. They do a lot to raise public awareness of Dharma.

I don’t recall coming across any Māori or Polynesian people at any Dharma/Dhamma events. However, one of the effects of Colonisation was that those groups are now much more active in Christianity than the White community, so perhaps they are less likely to be seeking an alternative spiritual practice.

So that brings me to the question of what, if anything, I should be doing about the makeup of such groups. It’s obviously a no-brainer that in my education role, making sure all groups have an opportunity to study is good for them (and good “business” for us). It’s less obvious that I should be concerned about, for example, a lack of Māori people in New Zealand Buddhist groups, when Māori are currently in the process of revitalising their own culture.


Wow! Really? As someone who was born in India and grew up in the UK (England, Midlands) in the 60’s and 70’s, I would say we are getting less divisive and less racialised. It’s great over here now compared to where we were back then, especially for those - two generations down from me - who are currently in school.

Back then we had the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech from Enoch Powell. You can imagine that my parents didn’t feel particularly welcome :laughing: - Now I find Rish! on the ballot paper for Prime Minister. I’m not sure that the current Tory membership are quite ready yet to go for someone with his (ahem…) “background” :wink: .

Just one persons perspective though. Maybe it’s different for you in Wales

Is that right? I can’t seem to find any evidence for this. My admittedly very limited experience suggests that without the public framing, the problem is still there, but it’s just concealed, often in plain sight. Bringing it out into the open and giving it a name and definition, allows it to be investigated, including statistical analysis, and dealt with in a sensible manner. Especially in those areas where we suspect (what is now known as) ‘institutional racism’.

You know: first you 1) name the problem, then 2) see if there’s a cause, then 3) see if there is a possible solution and then 4) follow the path to the solution :wink:


As a teacher in the UK (again, in the Midlands) I am happy to report your optimism is well-founded. Racism does occur, and some teachers just don’t understand how what they say and do is harmful. But staff and students work much harder to be anti-racist than was happening when I was at school in the 90s.


You know: first you 1) name the problem, then 2) see if there’s a cause, then 3) see if there is a possible solution and then 4) follow the path to the solution :wink:

This was great :smiley:


As a teacher in the UK (again, in the Midlands) I am happy to report your optimism is well-founded. Racism does occur, and some teachers just don’t understand how what they say and do is harmful. But staff and students work much harder to be anti-racist than was happening when I was at school in the 90s.

I’ll add this (slow mode so can’t edit): By focusing on the potential for racism, rather than being colour-blind to race as it it doesn’t matter any more, there is less tension. This is directly opposite to the idea that you cause division by talking about the issues.
This brings to mind sad cases of abuse within families. From personal family history, not talking about a family member being abusive hides the abuse, it doesn’t negate it. It might hurt some or all members of the family to talk about and acknowledge the abuse, but that response of hurt doesn’t mean the honesty and openness is wrong.

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I am assuming here that you are talking about the last decade or so. I agree that there is currently a growing climate of division in western societies, and it is remarkable that the same issues are being transported simultaneously from USA to UK to OZ to NZ to Italy, France, Spain, Germany etc. which should already be a red flag. But I think it is important to understand where this climate comes from. If we blame other regular people in society for it, we participate in the division and we are the useful idiots of those who need to foster division. It is quite clear to me that this climate of divisiveness is being created by those who are in a position to steer public debate, that is people with money, and therefore access to think tanks, media, including legacy and social media, social influencers, celebrities, politicians etc. People who are capable of creating a buzz around predetermined issues with the specific goal of creating division.

Why do these people need to create division? Because they are under threat of losing their status and power by the current conjoncture whereby the entire western world is entering into economic recession after decades of decadence in many areas, driven by the greed of the actual, real decision makers (not the politicians who are merely servants of the real power centers). When this happens, the elites are afraid that the populace might unite to voice their common legitimate grievances, so the elites must keep people as divided as possible.

How do they create division? I think the best example here is ‘wokeness’. Take a legitimate issue such as racism or feminism, stretch it to such an extent that it borders on absurdity and then fire fierce debate on the matter on all the screens people’s eyeballs are locked onto. What you get is on one side people correctly arguing that these issues are legitimate ones to talk about and on the other side people correctly arguing that the debate has been rendered absurd. Thus people enter in bitter arguments, pointing fingers (it’s the fault of liberals! No, you don’t understand, it’s the fault of conservatives!) at each other, not capable of understanding that they are engaging in a pre-programmed behavior.

Liberals, just like conservatives, are victims of the campaign to sow division. The solution imho is to refrain from pointing fingers at our fellow citizens and instead understand who is fostering the division and why.

To me the real question here is: is such a statement soothing the division or is it fostering it?


Is it —?or isn’t it — strange that after an OP that presents publications that invite “white Buddhists” (I don’t warm to this term but that’s who the book(s) is about) to look at themselves, their attitudes and their practices, instead of actually pausing to think and then maybe writing, “Perhaps we could do more of this and less of that” …. we get a long thread where at a guess 90% of the contributors are white, and there is a protracted discussion of whether whiteness is or is not a homogeneous state?

Where’s self examination that the OP invites us to make? Where are the suggestions for new strategies that can be deployed to respect and thank those people who preserved and taught the Buddhadhamma for two thousand years? Where are more strategies for reaching out to BIPOC people who don’t have Buddhism in their heritage?

It rather reminds me of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. We’ve got a bit of a cheek haven’t we, not being content with invading and colonising a large number of countries and pillaging their crops, products and human labour, to finish it all by co-opting the finest religion and reshaping it to fit our own needs?

This is a moment when I don’t feel proud to be a member of the Forum and I’m so grateful for the small number of posts above that do unpack the meanings of the OP for the rest of us that can’t see beyond the whiteness of our own noses.

And I want to apologise to all participants and readers who have felt distressed or marginalised by what they have read in this thread. You deserve better.


There’s a book I just read called White Fragility. I promise that it is relevant at this point. Here’s the Wiki page: White Fragility - Wikipedia


I’m going to throw a few rambling thoughts in here. I’m not sure I’m the best qualified (where I’m from, Ireland, has had a fairly homogeneous population up to perhaps 30 years ago). There has been a lot of inward migration since then (a change, I guess, from extensive often rather involuntary outward migration), much from Europe and the EU but much from elsewhere too so, for example, my own partner is from a Chinese background, one sister-in-law is Thai (brought back from Australia by my brother where a lot of Irish people spend a year or two on working holiday visas in their youth :slight_smile: ), though another sister-in-law is just a plain ol’ Irish girl. Anyway, thinking and having to deal with this whole race issue is fairly new here. I’m not going to get too into that.

Still, Buddhism does tend in a fairly white, educated and affluent direction in terms of membership. Though, one certainly would come across Thai and Sri Lankan etc. people far more in it than one would expect in everyday life, so it’s really hard to judge. :man_shrugging:

I suppose Irish and white (Europeans etc.) Buddhists do tend to invariably be converts (there just hasn’t been the time for that not to be the case). That must be a significant issue. I come from a fairly typical Irish Catholic working class background; most of my relatives, parents, uncles and aunts still are. I have noticed that foreign Catholics living here do tend to fairly seamlessly slot into that whole scene (Filipinos, Polish etc. – even priests coming from African countries where missions originally went out to, now that so few Irish people become priests – a bit ironic). I guess, apart from the language, the experience is fairly similar everywhere. I can remember one or two Catholic converts from my teenage years when I was still being dragged along to mass. They were really serious about the whole thing, very quick to get involved, sign up for roles etc. I suppose when one is brought up in a religion one tends to take it more for granted, maybe be a bit more complacent about it all, not think so deeply about it. So, I guess a Catholic coming in from abroad is going to have a similar mindset and attitude in that way to Irish Catholics. I wonder if a foreign Catholic showed up in a church where everyone was a Catholic convert, would they just find it all a bit over-earnest and just a bit too much? I guess back when Jesus or Buddha were originally walking the earth, then everyone at the time was a convert. However, things probably get a bit different when a religion is there for several generations passing from parents to children. Hopefully, Buddhism in the West will get to that stage. Realistically, IMO monasticism (the role of monks and nuns) needs to become more prominent if that’s going to happen (the religion heading towards how it is practiced out in Asia): the whole individualistic retreat centre approach is only going to go so far.

I commented earlier that Buddhism does seem to tend white, affluent and educated in the West. In terms of race and whiteness (an issue raised by the OP), the reasons for that are definitely worth pondering (though I don’t feel terribly qualified to speak on that).

That does leave affluence and education too. Certainly in the US, the conditions of the “working class” (usually defined as those without a college education) has gone backwards since around the 1970s, work conditions getting more precarious, standard of living falling in relative terms (whereas the “middle class” has become more affluent relatively and the top few percentage doing really well – inequality has risen rather sharply). I don’t have much experience of US Buddhism. However, Buddhism centred on expensive retreat centres is not exactly conducive to the participation of less affluent folks. At least in Ireland, any of the more Theravada groups tend to be donation based, which probably helps. Sunyata, one of the main retreat centres in Clare in Ireland (run by a grass roots group of volunteers), doesn’t ask for anything upfront. There’s an envelope slot in the entrance hall to the main retreat hall and at some point during a multiday retreat, one can quietly slip an envelope or some money into that. If one didn’t give anything, no one will really notice. Nonetheless, things do still skew more educated and affluent on average.


I agree that we need more of a sense of community.

When my wife and I were at a family program at Shambhala Mountain, Colorado we met a young couple with two small children. We asked them how long they have been Buddhist and they answered, “we were born Buddhist.” That’s the problem with stereotypes and generalizations, since they were white, we had just assumed they were convert Buddhists. This was about 20 years ago, so by now there could even be 3rd or 4th generation white and African-American Buddhists at that community. The Shambhala tradition is not our preferred Buddhist tradition, but they have done a good job at creating a community environment.


Here is a very insightful critique of the book White Fragility written by the prominent Columbia University professor John McWhorter:


This is a powerful critique from a particular perspective:

Being middle class, upwardly mobile, and Black has been quite common during my existence since the mid-1960s, and to deny this is to assert that affirmative action for Black people did not work.

What do people who experience racism and aren’t upwardly mobile need? Sadly, they are less likely to get publishing contracts or to write for The Atlantic.
And this historical and personal perspective does not elucidate that affirmative action is creating social mobility now, at a time when measures of social mobility are extremely low.