Buddha sculpture under construction.

Waking Up to Whiteness

For our practice to have meaning in today’s world, says Greg Snyder, it must include a thorough understanding of our racial identities and their impact.

By Greg Snyder

Sydney Buddha, 2007 — Ash phase.
Ash, iron, and aluminum.
138 x 189 x 114 inches.
Sculpture by Zhang Huang.


Like it or not, we have all been racialized—that conditioning affects each and every one of us. Unfortunately, many Buddhists are not working diligently to realize this, despite Buddha’s instruction that we clarify how dukkha has come to be.

We resist terms like “racism” and “white supremacy.” Yet in our current age, we are obliged to see race as a frame for realizing our vows of liberation and no harm if we are to have anything meaningful to say about either. Using broad spiritual terms like greed, hate, and delusion is too often like using a telescope to find a microbe. In our practice of self-illumination, in order to see unconscious thoughts and behaviors, we need more precise frames.

The Soto Zen ancestor Eihei Dogen offers a succinct explication of the path in a way that is relevant to the study of race:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be illuminated by the myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind, as well as the bodies and minds of others, drop away.

Whiteness is an identity defined against other identities and experienced as separate; therefore, it squarely qualifies as a conditioned, separate self. If we substitute “whiteness” for “the self” above, it begins to point the way for how we might engage the problem of race in our dharma practice and in no way compromises the integrity of the teaching.

To study the Buddha way is to study whiteness.

When we honestly introduce the frame of whiteness, the mind turns in this direction. Just as the eightfold path or Mahayana precepts provide a frame for illuminating our thought, speech, and behavior, the frame of whiteness illuminates unseen mental and interpersonal behaviors. The first thing we must do is courageously adopt this frame so we can apply it to all aspects of our practice.

We did not create the internalized logic of white supremacy, but it is ours to replicate if we are not awake.

We may, however, need to spend some time clarifying the frame of race. Reading about the history of race can help do this while also revealing aspects of our conditioning. It is freeing even just to know that whiteness and white supremacy have a beginning and are not the timeless characteristics of everyone with lighter complexions. Memoirs of white people who are doing the work of waking up to whiteness can encourage us and unveil a process of transformation for which there is little mentorship. Stories and critical analysis by people of color that were not predigested for the special care of white folks—meaning they might induce rage, shame, fear, crisis, and a sense of alienation from a world we unconsciously felt was ours—help us understand the past and current harm of white supremacy. We must work diligently to take in these perspectives without argument, externally or internally. This is not to say we give up our agency or capacity for discernment; rather, we recognize that we are conditioned within a reality limited by the entitlement and privilege of whiteness. We must let our bodies steep in the courageous tellings of lifetimes of perseverance in the face of dehumanization without shoring up our position.

We can also study whiteness by making it an object of our meditation practice. This allows us to uncover how we have internalized the current logic of racialized America. There are many practices for doing this. We can take up inquiry and drop questions like “When did I first learn I was white?” into our meditation. Queries such as this shake up our involuntary identification with whiteness by beginning to illuminate some of the details of how we are conditioned, often against others. Taking up the koan tradition and sitting with phrases like “I am white” or “I am not white” or “white supremacy” often rattles deeply held beliefs and emotions about who we believe we are. Finally, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to taking unwavering responsibility for our thoughts in everyday life is critical. When we notice our minds assuming anything about anyone based on race, we can stop doing whatever we are doing, note that the thought has occurred, and allow the realization that our mind is conditioned racially to fully sink in before moving on. It is important to keep in mind that taking responsibility here looks like upright resolve, not self-condemnation.

This work is best supported by dharma teachers who have worked with race as a practice frame and by groups of peer practitioners who identify or are identified as white. Dialoguing with other white practitioners who are willing to lovingly hold each other accountable to staying the course is critical if we are to clarify our conditioning; it also allows white practitioners to feel supported in what at first may be a profoundly disconcerting endeavor. This process sharpens our perception, strengthens our integrity, deepens our humility, and breaks our hearts open so we can more skillfully and fearlessly love everyone, including ourselves.

A few clarifications can make this process easier and more effective. First, it’s important to clarify what we mean by race. There are at least two understandings that typically merge in our current usage of the word. One way we interpret race is as a people with a shared heritage, culture, ethnicity, and embodiment. This older meaning has more in common with the way we sometimes use “people” or “nation,” as in “a great, historic race.” Though there are certainly opportunities to unpack grasping and further our liberation through this frame, we need not disavow any heritage or disparage ourselves or others because we come from this or that race of people. As long as we do not set one people violently against another, we can embrace who we are and all others as historic and conditioned embodiments of Mother Earth’s brilliant array.

The second expression of race was birthed of a need to justify colonialism. Scientific racism later legitimized what was initially a political and economic requirement, thus enabling the continued oppression and murder of those colonized; race became the rationale for imposing a hierarchy of domination over the world’s peoples. This conceptual frame polarized humanity into black and white, with white being superior to everyone else, and ushered in the current ideological era of white supremacy.

In many cases, this concept of race has wiped out the prior framing rooted in heritage and ethnicity. For example, the rich array of European peoples that not so long ago populated America has largely been reduced to a single wash of whiteness with diminishing relationship to the languages and customs that once knitted them into distinct communities. As Buddhist practitioners, it is imperative that we divest from the violence of current racial frames without destroying the beauty of difference, allowing each person to sit upright in their full and vibrant expression.

Those who insist on naming white supremacy are rarely claiming that any particular white person celebrates it the way a member of the Ku Klux Klan would; rather, they are pointing out that we, along with most Americans, have internalized this ideology and need to uproot it.

It helps to understand that our minds are private, not personal. As with all of our habits of thought, we have inherited and internalized a logic of white supremacy that came before us. We did not create it, but it is ours to replicate if we are not awake. Though not our fault, it is our responsibility. We may feel guilt, remorse, embarrassment, shame, or revulsion throughout this exploration; however, we must not make the mistake of grounding these feelings in an eternal I or mine, much less any infinite mea culpa that will only quash our efforts. If we take up this path as fault or personal defect, we will all be stuck in a mud of self-hatred, serving no one.

To study whiteness is to forget whiteness.

What does it mean to forget whiteness while studying whiteness? This can be easily misconstrued. It does not mean that whiteness disappears but rather that we begin to see the conditioned and dependent nature of our racial identity through study. We do not, however, reach a point where race is no longer relevant or we can stop paying attention to whiteness because we are somehow beyond it.

As practitioners of the dharma, as long as race exists as an aspect of being and society, we are obliged to examine it. This happens step-by-step as we study this particular conditioning through the illumination of habits of thought, behavior, relationship, and personal and societal histories, and through witnessing the pain and stories of others who hold differently racialized positions. Forgetting the self is a process of clarifying our conditioning—the roots of our karma—rather than any delusion that we are no longer conditioned. This process is the never-ending commitment of the bodhisattva.

To forget whiteness is to be illuminated by the myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind, as well as the bodies and minds of others, drop away.

These statements are not to say that suddenly we have a post-awakening reality where actual bodies and minds are not relevant, where their specific expressions are somehow annihilated. There can be a strong impulse to want enlightenment to be some all-consuming, one-shot missile with an infinite blast radius, not the slow and vulnerable embodiment of insight and discernment intimately expressed through ongoing cultivation and effort. The notion of all-powerful enlightenment allows us to maintain a sense of invulnerable superiority toward life and all others in it rather than remaining humbly in the trenches of our limited humanity.

In the Soto Zen tradition, which takes the bodhisattva vow as its foundation, our understanding is that even after awakening to the true nature of self, we must remain with the intimate safekeeping of bodies and minds, caring for all the ways we suffer and calling out all the causes and conditions of that suffering. Maintaining aloofness from this fully embodied undertaking would be nothing more than spiritual supremacy.

Here, to forget the self means relaxing the grasp of whiteness. As we do so, we come to see how we are involved in creating bodies and minds that are racialized, separate, and oppressed, and we realize how we are invested in that separation. We see the suffering, the grasping of identity and privilege that causes that suffering, the release that ends it, and the path to that release. When this inheritance is witnessed, we begin to disengage from the karma of oppression. Slowly we are freed from previously unconscious thoughts; others are spared our unconscious actions. We come to realize that resisting being intimate with race leaves us dependent on white supremacy’s projections of bodies and minds. No longer resisting intimacy with race begins to wake us up to this dependency, freeing our humanness. Our devotion to intimacy exposes violence and proves love as liberation to be the truest embodiment of race in our world.

When this happens, the very direction of the mind’s flow shifts. Instead of unconsciously superimposing inherited, racialized notions onto people, our minds open to a fuller breadth of humanity. No longer attempting to conquer life with our karma, what we are in each moment emerges as the myriad things, the myriad beings, the myriad things of any one being.

Allowing one’s being to arise as the whole of unimpeded difference is liberation; abstracting a whole to impede difference is supremacy. Though racialized conditioning will certainly still arise with liberation, the mind is less inclined to grasp that conditioning as the foundation of reality. Early on, liberation might appear as if “bodies and minds drop away,” but deeper intimacy with liberation reveals bodies and minds being freed into wholeness—a totality that includes the one, felt as love, and the many, felt as joy. It is from this wholeness that we are able to love ourselves completely while working diligently to end white supremacy. It is also from this wholeness that we understand that our privileged position demands the lack of someone else’s freedom. This ceases to be an inheritance we can tolerate, and we start living love’s urgency to end all that sustains this great harm.

But make no mistake—even if we no longer identify with or existentially depend upon whiteness, we cannot be released from this privileged and entitled societal position without an end to white supremacy for all. As long as we are identified as white, current societal biases and practices work in our favor and against the lives of people of color. In our deepening realization, it can become very difficult as we thoroughly feel the grief and sorrow of this setup while also seeing that we cannot quickly fix the problem. It becomes clear over time that our freedom from the spiritual blindness of white privilege is dependent on every last human’s liberation from ideological white supremacy.

The Buddha’s encouragement to investigate the neutral of experience—not just the positive and negative—is important here. White entitlement renders an entire realm of existence neutral to the privileged perceiver. We have a responsibility to cultivate a keen ear and eye for the neutral, which means we must educate ourselves in the ways mentioned above without giving in to defensiveness, judgment, or resistance. Again, we must listen, not as growing experts but as humble students of the dharma. By realizing the experience of others as our own, we come to see that the neutral experience of privilege is maintained only by excluding from our lives the pain of those oppressed. Only through inclusion are we made whole.

Taking on racial hierarchy will bring us face to face with rage and hatred of all kinds and involve risking social exile from white society. To do this, we must root ourselves deeply in our vows and practice. If our bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings does not also include liberation from ideologies whose raison d’être is the exploitation and domination of vast numbers of beings, what does it really mean?

The world transformation for which we chant, pray, bow, and meditate will only come to pass when we fully realize there is no living from love that does not include an urgency to end harm and ensure liberation for all. And there is no thorough liberation not dependent on fearlessly living from love. Thankfully, meditation allows us to take full responsibility for our minds, but it is the bodhisattva vow and our turning toward the liberation of all that allows us to take full responsibility for our hearts. When it comes to white supremacy and the harm it continues to cause all of us, we white Buddhists must give up the privilege of sitting this one out.

Greg Snyder

Greg Snyder

Greg Snyder is a Zen Buddhist priest and President of Brooklyn Zen Center.