Sunday, April 22, 2012

Segregated Sanghas: How Spirituality Is Connected to White Privilege

If you step into a meditation class in The United States, the chances are the room will be filled with mostly middle-upper class white folk.  Often however, the spiritual practice that is being taught has originated in a location with very few white people. This is obviously not because Caucasians and/or Americans of European decent are the only ones interested in meditation or Buddhism.  In order to strengthen our spiritual communities, it behooves us to contemplate the state of our sangha as well as the state of our mind.
            First, let us consider how Buddhism came to America.  From the beginning, Buddhist communities were affected and changed by racism. The first Buddhist temples in the U.S. were Chinese temples built in San Francisco in the second half of the 19th Century. These temples were seen as suspect by the dominant white community. These prejudices were based on ignorance and racial stereotypes. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as well as the 1924 Immigration Act greatly curtailed emigration from Asian countries and therefore the growth of Buddhism in the United States. Furthermore, in an effort to be more accepted as U.S. Citizens many Asian Americans converted to Christianity. This is especially true of Japanese Americans during World War II.
            Buddhism began to have a mainstream appeal in the U.S. during the 60s as beat poets and hippies began to practice the Dharma.  While many young people of color were working hard towards civil rights in the 60s, many young white people were on a more personal, spiritual quest.  For some it was a passing phase or just another consciousness-bending experiment but others took it very seriously.  Some of these more ardent practitioners decided to go to countries like Japan, Thailand, and Tibet to learn about Buddhism in the countries from which it came.  Of these sojourners, most were men and most were white. These were the people that could afford the privilege of traveling to another country for an extended amount of time. Some of these men returned to the U.S. and began to spread the Dharma via a mass media system that was dominated by white people. In doing so, they became iconic spiritual leaders. It is important to note that this is not a critique of their intention or sincerity. Nor does it take away from how hard these practitioners have worked.  However, understanding the social conditions in which Buddhism and meditation have become popularized in the United States will help us understand its lack of diversity.
 Even though your accommodations at foreign monasteries may be minimalist and free, it still takes money to get there and back. Racism and poverty have been inextricably linked in the United States. A white person is simply more likely to be able to afford such a journey. Furthermore, a white person may feel safer traveling, even to a non-white country. In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh notes that part of white privilege is being able to travel alone or with a person of one’s own race without expecting embarrassment or hostility.  In this day and age of terrorism and racial profiling, travel can be more difficult for people of color. Each year, many young US citizens travel around the world. Many of them feel it is their right to do so. Many white spiritual seekers carry with them this same sense of entitlement. While there is nothing innately wrong with their desires, it highlights an example of a privilege that should be available to anyone, not just those with privilege. It is likely that white practitioners have to work diligently to carve out the time and money to make these opportunities happen. This does not mitigate the fact that a person of color would likely have to work harder for the same opportunities.
            Another privilege that whiteness brings is the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in social justice or anti-racist work. For people of color, the choice is one of self-preservation and survival. The consequence to this is that white people have the privilege to be more focused (energetically, financially, and socially) on themselves and issues of personal significance, issues such as spiritual growth. White people are more likely to have more time off and more money to devote to their practice.
            Money is another difficult issue for postmodern American Buddhists. In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka the culture is oriented towards supporting spiritual practitioners. People of all sectors of society contribute greatly to the proliferation and maintenance of Buddhism, similar to the way Christianity is supported in the U.S.  Without that social or cultural support, Buddhist meditation centers that are not tied financially or socially to Buddhist countries struggle to exist. However, the United States is a capitalist country and the market place has helped Buddhism flourish. Self-help books are among the most widely read and best selling in the country. Buddhism, especially so-called Vipassana meditation has, as it has assimilated to the western-conditioned mind, embraced and integrated both western psychology and economics.  Any Barnes and Nobles will have a Buddhism or Self-Help section with books by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Susan Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hahn, Suzuki Roshi and of course The Dalai Lama. The first of these three authors are arguably the leaders of mainstream American Buddhism. Besides being best selling authors, all three have founded the countries leading retreat centers. Despite the fact that the traditions in which they practice come out of  India, Burma and Thailand, all three are of European decent, all three are white. All three lead several retreats per year that cost hundreds of dollars per participant. More often than not, it is white folks who can afford such retreats.  It is through their books and retreats that many U.S. citizens discover Buddhism. It is through their work that the infrastructure of what is arguably the most popular form of Buddhist meditation in this country was created.  This poses a conundrum for these Buddhist leaders, a modern-day economic koan if you will. How does Buddhism survive in a market-based society without excluding those against whom the market discriminates [read: without excluding poor people and people of color]?
            To their credit, most major U.S. Buddhist traditions, schools, and retreat centers have some sort of diversity program. Some offer scholarships to people of color. A few meditation centers now offer retreats and classes that are exclusively for people of color. This segregated solution is no doubt important. Meditation requires, above all, a place in which one feels safe and respected. These groups offer people of color that safety as well as an opportunity to talk about issues specific to non-white practitioners. After all, if meditation brings to the surface our deepest wounds, who can argue against a space for people of color to heal from the wounds of racism?
            However, this solution does not address why such groups may be necessary in the first place, or why Buddhist teachers, monks, and authors in the United States are disproportionately white.  For this we look again at the institutional and systematic underpinnings of racism. The leaders of many Buddhist retreats are authors. It has always been more difficult for people of color to publish books, especially if they are not related to racism or social justice. White privilege comes in the form of white networks. Most authors get published in the same way many people get jobs: through personal networking. White people are simply more likely to network with other white people. Spiritual networks are not so different from any social network. People tend towards people like themselves. Christians practice with other Christians and Muslims with Muslims, etc. There are black churches in the south and white churches in the suburbs. So, Buddhism has a similar though less acknowledged segregation. These white networks offer not just book deals, but job positions at retreat centers as well. It is rare to go to a lay Buddhist retreat and see a person of color on staff.
            The irony is that even though there are many, many Asian-American families still quietly practicing Buddhism, and even though a white person may still be a novelty in a Thai monastery, it is this white face that is now the face of Buddhism in the United States.  Often when the term “American Buddhism” is spoken, it is not referring to the generations of Asian Americans who have been practicing Buddhism in the United States. While one cannot argue that spirituality is reserved for white people, it seems clear that skin color affords one more opportunity for spiritual development.  Combined with institutional and systematic discrimination within the media and market systems, people of color seem to have less access to Buddhism classes or retreats or may simply feel emotionally unsafe in such white-dominated spaces.  Just like in any spiritual endeavor, there is no singular easy solution to fighting racism. However, in upcoming articles I hope to explore these themes in greater detail as well as discuss how white people on the path can be spiritual and social allies for people of color on the path. 

            Christopher Bowers is an MFT intern and writer. He hosts a social blog about white privilege at and another blog of his own creative fiction and non-fiction writing at Feel free to contact him at