Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections—Book Review

Mogan Freeman would seemingly prefer if less were said about it!

3 Likes

2 Likes

What exactly is “whiteness” and/or “white culture”?

For a very short, if US-centric, introduction to Whiteness, I like this essay by Joel Olson

The seminal work on the subject, though, is of course “White” by Richard Dyer:

5 Likes

Thank you bhante… the word seems pretty harsh and divisive.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. Whiteness is harsh and divisive: it was invented to divide the world up into a White “us” and a Colored “them”.

5 Likes

I haven’t read this book, but as a recently retired academic I can say that one thing scholars are good at it’s inventing categories. Ever heard of the concept of “soft power?” It was made up in 1990 by the prominent Harvard political scientist and some-time U.S. government official Joseph Nye who wanted to invent a new term to describe a certain type of influence exerted by countries, the most notable of which (and not surprisingly given Nye’s nationality) was the United States. Now people talk about “soft power” as if it’s some sort of incontrovertible “fact.” It’s not. It’s a made up concept that (in my opinion) notoriously associates a vague set of foreign policy approaches with a singular idea about “power” (itself a mental construct).

My point is, academics and scholars at present seem intent on institutionalizing a category of “whiteness” for the purposes of explaining a wide range of cultural, economic, political, and social relations. The concept is not so much about “race” as it is about aspects of society that are extremely complex and complicated but which scholars like to pigeonhole into arbitrarily determined systems of classification. I couldn’t have found a better time to retire from academia.

7 Likes

More like it was “named” in 1990. Soft power has been a tool of empires since Ashoka first sent out his missions. This is like saying the chelonoidis niger was “made up” in 1824. I assure you the Giant Tortoise existed long before it was named.

And it’s the same with “whiteness.” It was invented during Europe’s colonization of the world, and only recently is getting called out (by name) within respectable institutions.

Just like naming species of animals, identifying and naming social constructs helps scientists do the theoretical work of identifying how such things evolve and adapt, persist or perish, over time. The work of naming is important if we want to understand how a thing (be that the origin of species or the evolution of societies) operates.

The fact that such terms as “soft power” are still in use 30 years later is the proof of their utility, and of the importance of naming the otherwise-invisible elements of our own culture.

3 Likes

Well, I’d say that’s the issue, not the fact that the term was coined. If you want to talk about things, you have to give it a name. I don’t think that is anything new in academia, especially in, to use another term, the “soft sciences”. We can see it with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. If people were going to try to study mental illness “scientifically” there had to be some way to know that everyone was more or less trying to treat the same group of people. But it becomes problematic when people then think that the specific disorders are somehow a solid and completely known thing. They aren’t. But for people experiencing them, the situation is often a big problem. Denying the use of names to describe a constellation of symptoms does not help them solve the problem.

But the problem with critiquing the term whiteness on these grounds is that it is that it de-legitimizes the analysis of society that folks are making when they use that term.

The term “soft power” was a useful way to talk about that thing.
The term “schizophrenia” can be in some situations a useful way to talk about that thing. The term “whiteness” is just a a useful way to talk about that situation now. Is it a useful way to talk about everything in the world related to race and privilege throughout all of history? No. But when you deny the use of the term “whiteness” you are denying the fact that the situation it is referring to exists. And that is a problem.

5 Likes

And those concepts, such as species, are not perfect. The concept of whiteness is one way of looking at society. It doesn’t capture everything.

4 Likes

The concept of ‘toothpaste’ doesn’t capture everything, but it’s still useful.

Let’s say whiteness was modified to be more understanding of non-white people, such that e.g. levels of discrimination and prejudice were reduced. At that point, would it be more important to note that whiteness isn’t a complete concept, or would it be more important to celebrate that change?

2 Likes

Relevant wiki article for those who want a better understanding of how the idea of ‘whiteness’ has developed historically:

See also:

3 Likes

I think things are getting more divisive and racialised, rather than less. Also toothpaste isn’t used as a lens through which society is analysed.

1 Like

You will need to be a bit more specific about which country and issues you are referring to. Furthermore, it’s obvious that in some countries, some people are upset by some changes. You’d have to look at specific places to even start discussing whether that means that things are “getting more divisive” or whether that’s just a noisy minority who think they are losing out, and as far as others are concerned, things are getting much better.

Different countries are very different. For us in NZ it would be totally ludicrous (but relatively recently recognised) to insist that British/European culture should trump Māori, who were here first. In the UK it is very different. I attended a talk about 20 years ago at an Oxford college where the speaker was talking about issues of facilitating integration into British culture for recent immigrants. For me, and for a Canadian woman who asked the questions that I would have asked, the talk was almost completely irrelevant to the problems we face (unless we decided that those of European descent should be integrated into the indigenous culture).

In our case, it’s an ongoing discussion of recognising the cultures of all who have come here. I think that’s the only healthy approach. However, the indigenous (Māori) people do actually have a treaty with the Crown, so they do have certain rights that need to be recognised.

3 Likes

I had in mind the Anglo-Sphere, but more specifically the UK and USA. Whiteness is a very racialised and so divisive way of analysing society. Similar to Marxism, but with less focus on class and a shift to idealism over Marx’s materialism. Regarding the specifics of your post, being Welsh I do sympathise with the Māori.

1 Like

Well, the US is a classic case of extermination and suppression of indigenous people, and enslavement, and later suppression, of forcibly imported black people, the ramifications of which continue until this day. It’s very complex. So, in some senses I agree. The problem to be addressed is solving the issues arising from those past, horrendous, actions, and the attitudes that lead to continuing problems, not discussing what the definition of “whiteness” is. We’ve made some progress on improving things here, but still have a way to go.

2 Likes

Since slavery was legal? Since Jim Crow? Since segregation? Since the literal race riots of the 1970s? What golden era of past nondivision are you thinking of specifically?

5 Likes

I didn’t say there was non-division. I said things are getting more divisive. As with Marxist class struggle, the more you frame things in terms of racial groups the more division you get in society. I’m not denying there is racism. Sadly there will always be racism, but the new liberal obsession with race isn’t helpful. The people who are obsessed about race these days are racists and liberals.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Nietzsche

1 Like

A highly inflammatory phrase which really isn’t helpful. Nor, seemingly, at least in the US, based in reality.

Perhaps this thread should be locked.

2 Likes

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.

4 Likes