Deconstructing Whiteness

Joy Brennan shows how Yogacara teachings reveal whiteness as a constructed identity—and how they offer a path through it, to bodhisattva activity.

By Joy Brennan

“Vernal,” 2016. Ceramic sculpture by Sergei Isupov.

The Buddhist tradition has long posited that important features of one’s collective identity are based on karmic inheritance. Some collective, karmically shaped identities are social, like one’s sexual identity as male, female, or another category. Others are cosmological, such as being born human rather than animal, god, hell being, or hungry ghost. These cosmological identities are sometimes also understood as psychological in nature, or as referencing both a life in a given cosmic realm and the presence of certain psychological traits or characteristics. So we find, for example, that hell beings are dominated by hate, while hungry ghosts are dominated by greed.

These examples clearly illuminate the tradition’s commitment to identifying shared experiential conditions based on shared kinds of bodies, worlds of experience, and psychological traits, and linking these shared conditions to the concept of karma, or action, as a causal force. Drawing on this link between collective identities and karma, we can use Buddhist philosophy to diagnose and analyze the specific qualities of contemporary collective identity formations that bear suffering and that consequently should be understood as conditioned by past actions and determinative of future states of being.

The call for white people to understand how whiteness as an identity construct came about and how it shapes our own experiences is a call to overcome this false subject–object divide and to see the workings of the mind for what they are.

One such contemporary identity is whiteness. Whiteness refers to a collective psychosocial identity that has existed for over three hundred years, at least since the first documented uses of the phrase “the white race” in the mid-seventeenth century. As an identity construct, whiteness refers to a set of cognitive, psychological, and emotional traits and dispositions that are shared by white people and thus have both individual and collective existence and force. During its historical lifespan, whiteness has had a formative influence on the legal, political, economic, and social landscapes of the United States and, to some degree, of the world. Because of its impact on our society, whiteness has been an object of analysis across many disciplines of study.

Given Buddhist thought’s commitment to examining the nature and causes of identity formations, it is necessary and appropriate for Buddhists to use the tools of Buddhist philosophy to analyze whiteness as a collective identity formation. The Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy is particularly helpful for this analysis. Yogacara, sometimes also called the “mind only” school, appeared in the early centuries of the common era as one of the philosophical schools of the Mahayana movement. Its early authors, texts, and associated practices heavily influenced the development of both South and East Asian Buddhist thought and practice. Early Yogacara thought offers an account of the nature of the mind, the mind’s relationship to the world of experience, and the mind’s role in perpetuating delusion that can diagnose key delusive features of whiteness. And it situates this diagnosis within a framework where collective identities are understood as at least partially the result of shared karma. Finally, Yogacara offers a Buddhist path- and practice-based set of responses to the delusion intrinsic to—and suffering wrought by—whiteness as a collective identity structure.

Before assessing whiteness with the conceptual tools of Yogacara thought, there are two important clarifications about whiteness itself. First, whiteness is a constructed identity. This means that it has come into being through various psychological and social forces; it is not a fixed or natural feature of the world of experience. As such, it has not always existed, may well not exist in the future, and should not be confused with the lives of people who have been raised and acculturated into white identity. This point accords with the Buddhist tradition’s basic teaching about identity formations that cause suffering: they invariably arise based on a complex set of causes, and they are never to be understood as fixed or “natural” features of reality or as coextensive with one’s personhood. To the contrary, they are the aspects of experience that must be uprooted through the practices of the path for the sake of freedom from suffering.

Second, whiteness should not be confused with skin color. It is true that skin color is used as a medium by which some individuals and groups establish whiteness or proximity to it and others are distanced from it. But whiteness as a constructed identity is a distinct phenomenon from skin color itself. This explains how it is, for example, that it took both time and political and social strategizing for Irish Americans to become white, or to come to internalize and identify with whiteness and to be seen by others as white. Pale skin itself was not sufficient for that happen. Nor is skin color alone sufficient to establish strong and shared cognitive, social, and psychological traits and dispositions of the sort a white identity carries with it.

The force of both corrective points is that to analyze whiteness with the goal of extinguishing it from shared psychological and social space should not be understood as a challenge to the lives of people who bear the identity construct or who have pale skin. To the contrary, as we learn from writers such as James Baldwin or the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, white people too are harmed by the white identity construct and will be liberated into both a clearer vision of reality and a fuller capacity to love when it is extinguished.

Three major features of whiteness, each of which has been extensively documented in whiteness studies, are ripe for analysis using concepts drawn from Yogacara thought. First, white consciousness is individualistic. In seeking explanations for a given person’s circumstances, accomplishments, opportunities (or lack thereof), and emotional, psychological, and social traits and dispositions, white people and white society tend to look for the explanation in individual life course, biology, and/or psychology, rather than in collective traits or circumstances. Second, white consciousness is ahistorical. This means that white people are blind to, or resistant to recognizing, the way that historical forces—analogous to what Buddhist teachings refer to as causes and conditions—shape a given person’s or a collective people’s circumstances and life course. Finally, white consciousness is transparent to itself; it cannot see its own contours and traits, and thus mistakes the world that it perceives for reality itself, rather than recognizing the way it participates in shaping the world it perceives. This renders whiteness invisible, to white people at least, and often also to nonwhite people who live in white dominated societies.

The Yogacara school identifies distinct characteristics of the mind that illuminate and diagnose these features of whiteness. In Yogacara thought, the mind is understood as historical (shaped by causes and conditions) and as comprised of both subjective and objective aspects. Moreover, the school’s understanding of delusion renders these features of the mind invisible to the subject of awareness. Finally, Yogacara is committed to the idea that karma is both an individual and a collective phenomenon, the latter operating by way of the intersubjective nature of beings in shared worlds of experience. These features of mind, world, and experience together can be applied to whiteness as a collective identity construct. When analyzed this way, we see that whiteness is based in delusion, produces suffering, and should be relinquished through path practices.

The idea that the mind is intrinsically historical is not unique to Yogacara among Buddhist schools. It is rather a key feature of Buddhist thought from its earliest days. The mind understood as an organ of awareness—that which perceives and cognizes our internal and external environments (thoughts and feelings, as well as the material and social worlds that we participate in)—is commonly viewed in Buddhist thought as something produced through the coming together of many elements of experience, including factors both wholesome and unwholesome. And these factors are themselves determined based on prior factors and actions. We find this idea in, for example, the teaching of the twelve links of dependent arising. Consciousness first appears as the third link; as such, it is already shaped by both the first link, ignorance, and the second link, the many conditioned factors that arise from ignorance. And this sequence has no beginning, so even the first link’s ignorance is shaped by past factors at every link.

The Yogacara school’s major innovation to the idea of mind as historical is to posit that the mind is a multilayered entity. Its top layers, or those most available to awareness, include the awareness that occurs at all six of our faculties (the five sensory faculties plus the nonmaterial faculty of awareness). These are understood to be products of both past karmic conditioning (contained in the deepest, most unconscious layer, called the storehouse consciousness), as well as various forms of identity construction organized around the concept of a self (represented by the middle layer, called the defiled mind). The idea of the storehouse consciousness draws on a metaphor that the historical Buddha used to describe karma, or action: action plants a seed, and when conditions are ripe in the future, it will bear fruit. The storehouse consciousness is a metaphor to refer to the way that past karma is stored and will ripen in the future when conditions are appropriate. Yogacara refers metaphorically to the causal potentialities produced by past actions that are “stored” in this deep unconscious level of mind as seeds. To say that the mind is historical means that unless one has put an end to karma through the practices of the path, every moment of awareness at the six faculties is already shaped through and through by the past karma stored in the storehouse consciousness as well as by the way in which that karma is filtered through the ego-making function of the defiled mind.

The historicity of mind is the first point on which a Yogacara teaching is fruitfully applied to whiteness as an identity construct. Whereas whiteness fosters an ahistorical mind, the Yogacara teaches that no ordinary, unawakened mind is ahistorical. Instead, all conscious experiences are taken to be thoroughly shaped by the forces of the past. To think otherwise is a form of delusion. To exacerbate the problem, the power and efficacy of the two deeper layers of mind tend to remain hidden, such that ordinary people mistakenly take the world as presented to them in experience to reflect a natural, fixed state of affairs, rather than to reflect their own past conditioning. This, too, is considered a feature of delusive mental functioning that should be uprooted.

Here we should attend to a distinction between two uses of the word “historical.” When whiteness is judged to be ahistorical, this refers to a resistance to recognizing how the events of the past have shaped the present, where an “event” refers to episodes within which individual people and groups of people are the primary actors. This is the kind of history taught about in schools or written about in historical narratives: the history of kings, wars, laws, and social movements. On the Yogacara account of the mind as “historical,” past causal forces are micro-events that Yogacara, like other schools of Buddhist thought, uses the term “dharma” to refer to. In this technical meaning, dharmas refer to the smallest evanescent components of all experiences, including what we conventionally call thoughts, feelings, bodily states, and moments of awareness themselves. A Buddhist philosophical analysis would show that all macro events can be analyzed using the language of dharmas. Thus, although the two uses of the idea of “historical” occur at different orders of magnitude, the point of each use converges: just as an historian would say that the present historical moment is fully shaped by the past, the Yogacara analysis of experience shows that the present moment of consciousness is fully shaped by past moments of experience and past actions. For whiteness to present an ahistorical mindset is an instance of delusion.

The Yogacara understanding of mind as subjective and objective both accounts for and counters the invisibility of whiteness. Yogacara, unlike earlier schools of Buddhist thought, uses the term “mind” to refer both to the subjective aspect of awareness (the part of the mind that does the thinking and feeling) and to its objects, whether they are internal (like a thought or feeling) or external (like a material thing or another person’s voice). For example, the mind that becomes aware of a feeling of anger, or the mind that perceives a loved one’s voice, is not distinct from that feeling or that voice. Here, the nondistinctness means that the subjective and objective aspects of awareness share a set of causal conditions, rather than arising due to entirely separate sets of causal conditions. Subjective awareness and its objects are therefore co-constructed, or brought into being together, in relationship to one another.

However, Yogacara teaches that the ordinary person does not know that these two aspects of awareness are co-constructed. Rather, we commonly take it that the subjective aspect of awareness and its objects are distinct and arise from different sets of conditions. Yogacara uses the term “constructed” to refer to both aspects of awareness when taken as distinct from one another. And this term is meant to be a corrective to how they appear—they appear as natural, fixed, distinct features of experience, when in fact they have been constructed to appear that way and are two aspects of a single experience. Our lack of understanding of this point, according to Yogacara thought, is also the nature of delusion.

We share an object world—a world of shared institutions, social practices and ideals, norms, and references—not because they are natural and fixed features of reality, but because they are shaped by the same shared conditioning forces that shape our subjective experiences.

One significant implication of this teaching is that the objective aspects of awareness are also historical, just like the mind, and that their history is directly connected to that of the subjective aspect. This idea serves as a corrective to the apparent transparency of the white mind, or the invisibility of whiteness. The idea of a transparent awareness is that objective reality is presented clearly and directly to the subjective awareness, because the latter is itself invisible, with no qualities to shape, contort, or interfere with the clear perception of reality. But the teaching that the mind is both subjective and objective shows us that for the ordinary person, there is no fixed reality to be perceived clearly by a transparent mind. Instead, both the subjective and objective aspects of mind are historically conditioned, and they are historically conditioned in relationship to each other. Thus, what our awareness perceives reflects the condition of that awareness itself, and vice versa.

Many nonwhite writers and thinkers have identified the delusive belief white people share that while nonwhite people have a race and see reality based on their experiences as racialized people, white people are free of such “distorting” influences. White people commonly take their own perceptions to reflect reality and nonwhite people’s perceptions to be filtered by their specific experiences. In this way, white experience is taken by white people as a human norm, while the experiences of nonwhite people are taken as distinctive, nonnormative, and even distorted. But if the Yogacara school is right that all ordinary people’s experiences include subjective and objective aspects that are mutually and fully shaped by conditions—which include the past experiences and actions of white people as a collective—then white experience, too, must be shaped in this way. The call for white people to understand how whiteness as an identity construct came about and how it shapes our own experiences is a call to overcome this false subject–object divide and to see the workings of the mind for what they are.

Finally, the Yogacara school emphasizes both the intersubjective aspects of experience and the collective aspects of karmic conditioning, two points that cut against white individualism. Intersubjectivity refers to the fact that through shared language and shared conceptual constructions—or ways of dividing up the world of experience—beings actually share structures of consciousness. In this way of thinking, my mind is not in fact mine alone and awareness is not a private affair. And because the subjective and objective aspects of experience are mutually conditioned, intersubjectivity entails interobjectivity. We share an object world—a world of shared institutions, social practices and ideals, norms, and references—not because they are natural and fixed features of reality, but because they are shaped by the same shared conditioning forces that shape our subjective experiences. Collective karma refers to karmic conditioning that is shared by a group of beings. The fact of collective karma follows from the intersubjective nature of experience and the inter-objective nature of our worlds. Shared karmic conditioning is nothing other than the fact that important features of both our subjective awareness and the objects it encounters arise from the same set of conditions.

White individualism sees the individual as the central agent in a person’s life and in social life. It takes a person’s experiences, opportunities, and setbacks to be the result of his or her own psychology, motivation, effort, and life course. This idea is closely connected to meritocracy, the notion that people ascend into positions of prestige and power based on their individual merit rather than due to participation in shared identities. The Yogacara school does not deny that there is individual karma, or that actions done by an individual agent produce effects that will be borne by that agent in the future. But the school argues that individual karma always occurs against the backdrops of intersubjective structure of mind and the interobjective nature of our shared worlds of experience, both of which signal the presence of shared karma. According to these ideas, the white commitment to individualism may bear elements of truth but, when taken as the proper overarching framework for understanding a human life, is largely false.

The Yogacara school teaches that the historical nature of mind, the co-construction of subject and object, intersubjectivity, and the collective nature of karma apply to all beings suffering within samsara. To use these teachings to diagnose key features of whiteness does not imply that they are unique to white people. But the delusive resistance to understanding these teachings is particularly acute within white culture, where identity formation is organized around denial of these features of samsaric reality.

We find, for example, that white religion tends to emphasize individual experience, effort, merit, and understanding, while nonwhite religion often emphasizes collective experiences and struggle and the shared pursuit of liberation. This is true within American Buddhism, where nonwhite Buddhist authors such as Larry Yang, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Chenxing Han have critiqued white American Buddhism as overly individualistic, invisible to its own norms and ethos, and ignorant of its own history and of how it has shaped white people’s engagements with Buddhist ideas and practices.

A bodhisattva aspires a new world into being. This is not a fanciful or magical idea. It recognizes the difficulty of transforming a shared world.

In keeping with Buddhist teachings since the historical Buddha taught the four noble truths, Yogacara thought does not stop at diagnosis. Like the eightfold path set out by the historical Buddha, the Yogacara school lays out a vision of the bodhisattva’s path to liberation—a path on which one can overcome, among other things, the forms of delusion that keep a person from recognizing the truth of these Yogacara teachings about the nature of mind, its relationship to the world of experience, and the collective aspects of karmic conditioning. Just as the bodhisattva’s path is long and arduous, there are no quick fixes to the problems that arise based on white identity formation. But we can draw from Yogacara three teachings that can be applied to these problems.

First, it is possible and necessary to gain insight into the historicity and intersubjectivity of the mind, nondualism between subjective awareness and its objects, and the collective aspect of karma. We start by studying these teachings, and then we study our experiences and our world with these teachings in mind. As part of this study, white people would do well to listen carefully to the nonwhite people who have already pointed out the limitations and distortions of white identity formation.

Second, Yogacara names the state of awareness that occurs beyond the delusive state that fails to recognize the nature of the mind as historically conditioned, intersubjective, and nondual. They call this state “no-mind,” a teaching shared with other Buddhist teachings such as the Perfection of Wisdom texts and, later, the Zen schools. No-mind does not mean an absence of awareness; instead, it refers to an absence of the delusion that prevents a person from recognizing how the mind is constructed, for it is this delusion that acts as a conditioning force for future delusive states. Importantly, no-mind is not a state that is achieved once and maintained thereafter. It is, rather, something that must be achieved again in every moment of experience. It looks more like clearly and willingly taking responsibility for the fullness of one’s own experiences and the collectively constructed features of the world than a discrete experience of nondual awareness, which the Yogacara school also names as possible and important on the bodhisattva’s path.

Finally, the Yogacara school recognizes that bodhisattvas’ aspirations to themselves are reality-forming. In some sense, a bodhisattva—here, particularly one who has already cultivated nondual awareness—aspires a new world into being. This is not a fanciful or magical idea. It instead recognizes the difficulty of transforming a shared world, the features of which depend on both individuals and groups and that is pervaded by delusion and the suffering it brings. Such a world is not changed by insight alone. Instead, we must constantly cultivate insight, relinquish our delusions, and aspire toward a new world not constructed based on those delusions. In this way, our actions, individual and collective, begin to accord with our vision of that new world, which is brought into being on that basis. This is difficult, but this is the work that the Yogacara school understands the bodhisattva to do. It is the work that, today, white Buddhists are called to do.

Joy Brennan

Joy Brennan

Joy Brennan is a Soto Zen priest with the Mount Vernon Zen Sangha in Mount Vernon, Ohio, as well as a professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions at Kenyon College. Her academic work focuses on Buddhist conceptions of identity construction, such as those found in early Yogacara teachings, and the ways in which human beings construct their own worlds of experience.