When Tara Brach came to recognize her own white privilege, it revealed blind spots. That changed her as a dharma teacher and leader. Artwork by Hildy Maze.
Until eight or nine years ago, I would have said that I was pretty conscious about race; I also would have assumed that Buddhist sanghas were welcoming to everyone. My father was an attorney who practiced a lot of civil rights law, and he had a very racially mixed group of friends, which was quite unusual at the time. In grammar school, I was one of five white kids in an otherwise African American school. I’ve also lived for extended periods of time as an outsider, including wearing religious garb—all-white clothing and a turban—for ten years. So I assumed that I was somewhat awake to these issues, but I got the rug pulled out from under me thanks to some friends of mine in the D.C. area who started letting me know what life was really like for people of color, beyond my bubble of experience.
One of them is a friend in a diversity-focused sangha who described driving around with her father when she was growing up. Periodically, he’d be pulled over by the police for nothing, just because he was a Black man. She described how painful it was to see the humiliation he felt every time she witnessed that happen, to know that he felt his dignity was taken away in her eyes. If that had happened to my father, if I had watched him be humiliated like that, it would have shaken my world as a young person.
Another friend came to a dharma class where I was talking about raising our children, mirroring their goodness and giving them a sense of confidence 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.
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.
One of the things I’ve noticed when the subject of racism comes up is how white Buddhist practitioners will say, “Oh yes, this is important,” but without 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, disempowerment, and threat. But what happens if you’re the one who does have access? Identity becomes more unconscious—there is an unconscious sense of privilege 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 centered around groups of friends who are commonly all white, and we are exposed to religious iconography 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.
In order to feel that the trouble “others” are having isn’t “out there” in the world, separate from us, we have to get close. The trouble is “in here,” and it wants our attention. Shortly after Ferguson, I attended a vigil of grieving mothers in Washington, D.C. There were about fifteen women from all over the country whose sons had been killed by the police. They travelled the nation sharing their stories. One of them told us how her son got shot the day before her birthday. He had been planning her party. Another shared that after her son was shot, he said to the police, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Why did you shoot me?” One woman’s son was about to get married; another was shot yards from a hospital, but the police refused to take him to the emergency room. These mothers’ stories broke my heart. They would break the heart of anyone who got close enough to listen. As white people, we can live for decades without being exposed to this reality and not care enough to be part of the healing. We have to let our hearts be broken or else we’re going stay in a very insulated identity. We have to pay attention.
If white people are going to have the courage and honesty to look at where we’re holding on to dominance or enjoying our privilege, we also have to find a way to forgive ourselves.
White people need to be aware of white privilege, to notice how many doors open for us in this life. The current that gives access to money, power, and success supports us; there’s a feeling of fitting in, of being part of the culture that’s on top. And it isn’t just in society out there—it happens in spiritual communities every bit as much.
An African American man attending one of our meditation classes for the first time wrote about feeling singled out and unwelcome because he was Black:
When I arrived, I was a little early, so I sat down at the end of the second row and began to read a book I had purchased waiting for the meditation. The building slowly filled to capacity and it seemed that by the time the meditation began, every seat in the house was filled except one—the one next to me. I became a little set off by this until the ghost of racist past sat down next to me. He said, “Empty seats are devoured in this hall, so why am I sitting next to you?”
His rap filled my mind with anger and frustration. I ignored and tried to focus on the meditation. I couldn’t. He said, “Why am I the only person to sit next to you? Do they think you’d rob them?”
“No, that’s absurd,” I replied. “I don’t think they felt that way.”
The ghost responded, “Well, maybe you have an awful smell?”
“No, I’m clean.”
“You look intimidating?”
“I don’t believe a forty-one-year-old Black man in dress pants and a button-down creates fear and intimidation.”
“Is it because you’re new?”
“I don’t know.”
This situation bothered me for the rest of the evening to the point that I didn’t and couldn’t follow the rest of the dharma talk. I remember the teacher announcing that volunteers were needed with the tea and snack table. It was my intention to help out, but I thought to myself:
They don’t want a Black man to help.
So right after the service was over, the ghost of racist past escorted me out.
That was about four years ago. The unusual and beautiful end of the story is that he and I became friends, and he now serves on the board of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW); he also serves on an advisory committee of people of color that is helping us examine how to evolve IMCW’s culture in a way that is more inclusive, diverse, and equitable. He didn’t go away. But that’s not what usually happens, and I can understand why. It’s painful to know that for all our best intentions, white Buddhist practitioners are missing an awareness not only of what it really means to carry a certain identity but also of how to be sensitive to the impact of that identity. Over the last few decades, we’ve had a handful of teachers of color in our broader community give deeply of themselves in the effort to wake us up, often in the face of a lack of willingness, interest, or understanding among white teachers and practitioners.
Part of me is moved to tears by the suffering this perpetuates, but another part is hopeful about sangha and what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “beloved community.” The legacy of slavery and genocide in the United States, the ways in which white people occupy a place of privilege and dominance that we’re so often blind to, is very particular. It takes effort to know what happened and to know our part in it. But it’s not about shaming people. In fact, one of the things I find inspiring about the very beautiful movements that have been emerging, especially among the frontline communities that make up Black Lives Matter, is the focus on love. For the folks fighting against oppression, self-love is a central force, and that’s true for all of us. We’ve got to love ourselves and each other through this. If white people are going to have the courage and honesty to look at where we’re holding on to dominance or enjoying our privilege, we also have to find a way to forgive ourselves. We are not personally bad; we are part of the collective conditioning. And yet we can be responsible and respond in whatever way is called for.
What heals us? What helps awaken us to that space of beloved community? The dharma will do it.
We have to learn about the particulars, and we need to engage with others. At our dharma center in Washington, D.C., we have affinity communities: groups for people of color where it’s safe to begin to process the effects of racism, and also white affinity groups. I recently completed a yearlong white-awareness group that deeply impacted my self-understanding and attunement to others. We need to be in spaces where it is safe to speak our truths and examine the identities that have accrued, and then, as we grow more mature and able to speak from wisdom, we need to be with each other in mixed racial groups. We need to be able to name where the hurts are; to be able to name our sorrows and fears; to not be afraid of anger. So often in Buddhist communities, anger is considered bad, but anger is a part of the weather systems that move through our psyches. We have to make room for these emotions, and there are wise ways to do that.
So we’ve got to engage with each other. White people need to be in solidarity with those who have been suffering from white dominance. We need to get on their team—not in order to help out “the other” but because it frees us all. This means that rather than simply trying to bring people of color to our centers, we transform our culture. We extend ourselves by building authentic relationships with people of color and, by engaging as allies, actively support initiatives that undo racism in our society.
Recently I was part of a mixed-race teaching team at a Buddhist retreat that was historic in the extent of its diversity. On opening night, when I looked around and saw that nearly half of the people in attendance were people of color, when I felt that richness of being together and the shared intention to wake up, I started to cry. Everything in me knew, This is the community I want to belong to.
What heals us? What helps awaken us to that space of beloved community? The dharma will do it. The more we pay attention, the more we’ll recognize the trance of separation and, from a deep longing for connection and freedom, start examining the causes. But that desire needs to become intentional; we have to want to understand the landscape of what has happened in this country and what’s actually shaping our own limited sense of identity. We need to ask ourselves, “What is it that I’m not seeing?” And if we sincerely want to know the answer—if we want to wake up—we will open our eyes and our hearts. We will begin to free ourselves from the suffering of separation, act in ways that serve the healing of racism, and discover the blessings of realizing our true belonging with each other.