The Murder of George Floyd Must Be a Wake-Up Call for White Buddhists

In this commentary from Ray Buckner, they urge white Buddhists to see the call for the end of white supremacy as a Buddhist call to “make this life livable for all sentient beings.”

Ray Buckner5 June 2020
Photo by Donovan Valdivia.

In 2005, in the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina, a white man named Roland Bourgeois Jr. threatened to shoot anyone “darker than a brown paper bag.” This he did. As A.C. Thompson describes in “Post-Katrina, White Vigilantes Shot African-Americans With Impunity,” Bourgeois and other white vigilantes shot three injured black men in Algiers Point — a predominantly white neighborhood existing within a much larger African American community. Seeking refuge out of the widespread suffering in New Orleans, three black men headed to the ferry which could take them out of the area to safety. They, along with about eleven other black men, were shot by white militia-men.

Although these black men were attacked, they were demonized, and denigrated as “thugs” and “looters.” Rather than attending to their suffering, and the forms of mass-death enacted in New Orleans in the days and weeks that followed the hurricane, black Americans were actively attacked by white Americans and blamed for trying to survive.

We wake up to the news this week that the president of the United States called for the state-sponsored shooting of “thugs” and “looters” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This racist dog-whistle is meant to allow for the state-sponsored and militia targeting of those calling for justice, which would include the charging of white police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of black American George Floyd.

It is my responsibility as a white Buddhist, and white person, to confront the anti-black racism of this nation, and of my heart.

Minnesotans are calling for the transformation of an entire system that actively, relentlessly, and without impunity kills black Americans. They are calling for the transformation and, for some abolition, of a police system that takes black lives away from them.

They are calling for the transformation of injustices and the responsibility to hold this nation to account for the violence it enacts against our black citizenry. In turn, they are called “looters” and “thugs.” They are threatened with violence. They are threatened, in fact, with the very violence they seek to transform, by the very systems that enact those forms of suffering.

These are the systems that killed Breonna Taylor, a black woman and EMT worker killed by police. The systems that killed Tony McDade, a black trans man killed by police. The systems that killed George Floyd and Eric Garner and Oscar Grant. They call for the transformation of these forms of violence. They call for Black Lives to Matter. They call for the end of white supremacy and the racist police state.

Is this not a Buddhist call? As a white Buddhist, I write this in anger, solidarity, and grief. I write knowing that it is my responsibility as a white Buddhist, and white person, to confront the anti-black racism of this nation, and of my heart. It is no one else’s responsibility. It is my own.

It is both my and our responsibility to make this life livable for all sentient beings, and to confront, in particular, the racism endemic to this nation.

In Buddhism exists the concept of inter-being: there is this, and so there is that. Well, there is murder, and so there is protest. There is slavery, and so there is a racial hegemony. There is an empowered police state, and so there is abuse. There is black suffering, and so there is my suffering. For white people, it is all too easy to ignore these interconnections. It is too easy to ignore the pain that black people live with in this nation and the violence enacted against them. It is too easy to refuse the continued legacy of slavery and the ways the United States serves the white public and demeans all other racialized bodies. It is too easy to name “looting” as the problem and not the active denigration and violation of sentient black lives.

No more black lives can be taken.

As Buddhists, we are taught to see clearly, or to try to. This is one of the core features of our path: how do we see clearly what is in front of us? As a white Buddhist, it is my responsibility to see clearly into the ills of racism that live within me, within my communities, and within this nation. It is my responsibility to see clearly into racism and the structures that uphold it. If I am not seeing clearly, I am obscured by the greed, hatred, and delusion that is racism — the denigration of black lives in this nation and the upholding and centering of white ones.

Let us see clearly in this moment. Let us as white Buddhists interrogate the continued history of anti-black racism in this nation. Let us look deeply into the maintenance of white supremacy in this nation. Let us stand in solidarity with protesters against police brutality in this nation. Let us work to undo white supremacy and all forms of hegemony that exist in this nation.

No more black lives can be taken. No longer can we allow white lives to matter more than any others. No more can we allow racial hegemony to be a part of our collective path. May we transform ourselves and the systems we exist amongst in order to transform the suffering and the racism of this nation and this world. May we make it so.

photo of Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner is a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research examines sexual violence in American Buddhism and transgender experiences with Buddhism in the United States. Ray’s article, “Buddhist Teachers’ Responses to Sexual Violence: Epistemological Violence in American Buddhism” (2020), was published in The Journal of Global Buddhism. Ray’s article, “Zen in Distress: Theorizing Gender Dysphoria and Traumatic Remembrance within Sōtō Zen Meditation” (2020), was published in Religions.