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Buddhadharma : Summer 2016
summer 2 0 1 6 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 45 their goodness and giving them a sense of confi- dence in themselves and in their capacity to be all they can be in the world. My friend raised her hand and said, “I’ll tell you, I want to give my son fear. I want him to be afraid, because I am scared to death that he’s going to either get arrested or killed every time he leaves the house.” She didn’t want her son being cocky or oblivious to the risks he faced as a young African American male—she’d rather he be scared and alive. I had assumed that doors would open for my son, that he’d have opportunities and that he could take advantage of those opportunities if he trusted himself. I realized that my assumption was white privilege. One of the things I’ve noticed when the subject of racism comes up is how white Buddhist practitio- ners will say, “Oh yes, this is important,” but with- out a feeling that it really involves them, their life, or their spiritual path. And yet, you can’t be part of a population where there has been deep trauma and not be involved. We’re all involved. Slavery in its formal expression may no longer exist in the United States, but there are new strains that we can see in the disparity of access to a host of resources—in education, housing, and jobs. Twice as many Blacks as whites are unemployed in the U.S., and nearly six times as many Blacks as whites are incarcerated. The legacy of racism doesn’t just affect access to resources in our society. It affects our psyche and has a powerful effect on our sense of identity. Those who don’t have easy access to resources commonly face feelings of inferiority, disempower- ment, and threat. But what happens if you’re the one who does have access? Identity becomes more unconscious—there is an unconscious sense of privi- lege and superiority, of being deserving and taking what’s due. It’s very common for white people to refer to others who aren’t white by saying, “They’re African American” or “They’re Asian.” We don’t identify other Caucasians by saying, “Oh, they’re white” because it’s given that white is the default and everyone else is different. Toni Morrison writes, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” We do this in the sangha as well. Living in a white-dominant context, white people experience their centrality constantly: in history textbooks, in media advertising, in role models and heroes, in everyday conversations about “good neighborhoods” and “good schools,” who’s in them and who’s not. We watch popular TV shows cen- tered around groups of friends who are commonly all white, and we are exposed to religious iconog- raphy that shows God, Moses, Jesus, and other key figures as white. And at dharma center after dharma center, we see white Buddhist teachers. If you’re white, you don’t tend to notice this backdrop, but if you’re not white, you do.