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Racism and Buddhism

In last Friday’s post, I discussed genetics a bit. During the article, I mentioned, “whether you are tall or short, black or white, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, is a matter of genetics…” which I intended as a simple statement of fact, and never imagined that anyone would take offense to that. Yet, the following comment came in:


I appreciate your common sense approach to the nature-nurture debate. The slideshow of the Temple of the Tigers is fascinating. However, one important point regarding your statement, “Obviously whether you are tall or short, black or white, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, is a matter of genetics. No one has any control over that stuff.” The terms “black” and “white” are racial categories applied by human beings to other human beings. It is well known at this point that the concept “race” is a social construct. The PBS series, “Race: The Power of An Illusion” goes into depth on the complexities of the concept of ‘race’ there is information online available. Whether as a human being you are considered ‘black’ or ‘white’ is, actually, not a matter of genetics, but is a socially constructed categorization. Not too long ago in the United States, both Irish and Italian peoples were not considered to be white, for instance.

My Response:

First, I have not seen the PBS series he describes, so I may be missing his point entirely. Also, I will admit that I chose to use the term “black” rather than the preferred (in America, anyway) “African-American” because there is a large international readership here, and the term really doesn’t work well in an international context.

But anyway, I see no problem with the way I used the term in this context; I could have said light-skinned or dark-skinned person, but I think it’s clearer as I said it. Everyone knows what I meant, and there was no judgment or racism in the way I meant it or, I believe, in the way I said it.

But now we get to the topic at hand. You say that “race is a social construct.” OK, I agree. There are some very dark-skinned people and some very light-skinned people, and a whole spectrum of shades in-between. Where the lines are drawn are vague, and much of our self-identities are caught up in where we (and others) position ourselves in that range. In the way we treat each other, it is completely a social issue.

But yet, anyone with eyes can see a difference.

Buddhists are realists. If you take a so-called “White” person and stand them next to a so-called “Black” person, there is an obvious physical difference. Saying otherwise is political correctness taken to the point of absurdity. Anything else is like saying blue eyes and brown eyes are the same. No, they aren’t. They work the same; they function identically; yet there is a difference.

Internally, spiritually, or in all the ways that matter to a Buddhist, they are the same. To deny the physical difference, just seems like denying the truth. We should embrace the differences, and accept them, even enjoy them; to deny them is just wrong-thinking.

16 comments to Racism and Buddhism

  • I usually have a take on the ‘race’ issue simply because, in the ‘Western’ context, it is obviously an ‘ethical’ question.

    I agree with the social construct point, but most things, if not all things, are socially constructed. But many things are hegemonically ‘constucted’, and ‘race’ is often one of those things.

    In Europe, the term ‘Caucasion’ does not sound right , where we believe it has NAZI ovetones. Italians and the Mediterreanean World were viewed as European; but not ‘White’. Conversly,to many British people, the term European is reserved for dark haired people who have olive skin. Skip a generation or two, ‘Darkies’ were Africans and ‘Indians’, including Buddha and ‘his’ people. Irish, frankly, were merely subject to abuse, and not even given a racial category.

    Its a shame that today only the ‘African’ diaspora are clearly racialised. Buddhists must not forget who the Buddha was, where he resided, and not forget the relationship of the ‘non-white’ Buddha to the ‘non-white’ world. In concluding, what colour would the Buddha be under contemporary Ameircan racial classifications?

  • David

    Hi Brian

    I work for an organisation riddled with political correctness and I cant agree with you more. We should value difference, embrace it and celebrate it. We should not ignore it or pretend it isn’t there for in doing so we fool no one but ourselves and anyone too scared to tell it how it is, I am reminded of the emperor’s new clothes. Keep up the good work.


  • One from email:

    My goodness. Isn’t the internet an interesting place? You can offend
    virtually anyone by saying virtually anything.

    An interesting debate, to be sure but I will tell you as a mixed race parent
    with mixed race children – also auntie for children of all races and in the
    process of adopting a black child – using the terms black and white provide
    a handle – social construct or not. It is important that the black children
    in our family have the ability to identify with people who look as they do –
    it’s part of their human experience. So we seek that out. If the word
    “black” isn’t used, we would have difficulty locating groups.

    And if you really think about it, blue eyed and brown eyed are also “social
    constructs” or perhaps, they are human constructs and since that is the
    experience we are having, those are the terms we use while on this planet.
    Being Irish or Italian, black or Asian, white or Mexican – these are terms
    that help us connect with our larger family.

    We have a lot of human constructs – and, if we choose, they can help us to
    build community.

    A friend once told me that all the drama in our lives is a direct result of
    taking things personally and making assumptions. This applies to taking
    offense as well.

    I appreciate the community you’re providing and for your generosity of


  • And another from email:

    I like when you talk about Buddhism. It’s when you talk about other things that you seem to be on thin ice. Your reader, earlier, who referred you to the PBS show, did not accuse you of being racist. You should watch the show, perhaps, before responding defensively. But more importantly, you don’t necessarily have something to teach on every topic.

  • My response to the previous comment:

    I know the original poster wasn’t calling me a racist, but I felt that his even touching on the subject seemed to suggest it. Either way, the topic came up, and I think it’s a worthy topic for discussion.

    As far as me not having something to teach on every topic, there I think you’re wrong. For someone who takes Buddhism and teachings of Buddha seriously, EVERYTHING must be seen through that lens. If my articles on masturbation, pet food, and cannibal horror films didn’t demonstrate that, I’m not sure looking at racism will do the trick either. Buddhism isn’t something that we do on Sundays before noon, it’s an integral part of us that colors everything. Anything and everything is fair game, even moreso if it’s a topic others choose to ignore. At least that’s the way it works for me.

    I will admit that I don’t think I have anything to TEACH on racism, it’s definitely not something I’m all that close to. But I have an opinion on the subject just like everyone else, and my opinions are tinted with Buddhist ideals and concepts. If it gets you thinking critically about the way you think, whether you agree with me or not, then I’ve done my job.

  • The three basic body types mesomorphs,ectomorphs,& endomomorphs are known among fitness, health,& medical specialists. We all acquire our genes from our parents.Those are facts. However, When I was much younger,& unsure of my own capabilities,and merely experienceing youthful anxieties,if stranger(s) pointed to me and said anything like,”That tall thin white girl.”I would’ve felt uncomfortable. Now I’m older,& possibly a little more confident with even the little “Acomplishments”I do,so feel better about myself,so it wouldn’t matter what others say about my height or caucasianality,now!

  • P.S.,The above statement above from another member reminded me about something,My family is also multicultural,Vietnamese,Japanese,Scot-Irish,and we have taught our children to be proud of whom they are,and learn as much as they can about each culture.

  • Mat

    From a Buddhist perspective I feel the apporach we are asked to take is to see that experience is made up of the five aggregates. And so as the first email comment indicated, even “blue eyed” is a social construct – or you could say, a construct of the mind. Since in pure awareness there is only seeing. Anything beyond this sense perception is a layer added by the mind that compounds these five basic sense inputs into concepts. In the model of dependant origination the feeling tone (Vedana) of experience is either pleasant / unpleasant / neutral – and it is at this point we have a choice about how to act.

    To me the teachings seem to direct us towards coming into closer contact with the immediacy of our experience as it occurs moment to moment. And so while it is of course important to ensure that we use language that doesn’t cause harm or offence to another, we also do not want to feed the fire of delusion and slip into the world of views (mine right – yours wrong), claim and counter claim as there is no end to this. The response to Brian’s comments on genetics does seem to have gone this way. If you are offended, you could try not being offended…

    I think that given the context of the original comments by Brian and the subject matter of this blog they could easily have been read as a simple sentence making a relatively minor point – even if it irked you a little. Whenever I am offended I try my best look at my own mind to understand the cause of the suffering I experience. Now i’m not suggesting the author of the comment Brian received didn’t examine their own mind first, and the point they made about race being a social construct is a perfectly valid one but the fact remains that there is difference, and the tendency of the mind is to classify and compare. So it seems that it’s this process of the mind adding to experience that we need to understand in order to be free from suffering. As far as my understanding and experience goes, we can then let the mind do its thing and be far more present with our immediate experience – using the mind when its useful, and not being carried along by it when its not.

    Blessings to you all.


  • Age simpson

    Skin, hair, eyes, etc are a phenotypic expression of ones genetics. How we define from there is social. Does not change ones karma to be labeled through social constructs or phenotypic expression. You are and always will be the sum of the intent of your actions.

  • Mike

    The question “Is there a difference between a black person and a white person” might be one that is best answered with “Mu”.

  • The “color” of a person, as I do see it, is little more than the cover to a book. From it you can presume of their ansestors’ place of origin, for the past few centuries, at least; but, as I see it, we’re all just about the same. Color of ones exterior does not prove them any more, or less, of a human being.
    Black, white, or any mixture of colors between, if cut, we bleed. Are the tears I cry not moist enough? Rather than uniting with blades of disagreement, wouldn’t we all be better if we’d each extend an open hand of acceptance rather than a clenched one, aiming to harm?
    Maybe Tranquility is a bit much to hope for? Still, erasing all styles of segregationagreeing to disagree, it seems the most peaceful route to uniting us as a whole planet, rather than different nations, states, cities.

  • RK Henderson

    Years ago I wrote a column that touched on the issue of “race” and how it’s a bogus concept, from a scientific point of view. To quote that article, in part:

    “When I was a college freshman, my Intro to Anthropology instructor casually mentioned that race is total fiction. We students angrily rejected this contention. Anyone could see we had Africans, Asians, and Caucasians right there in the room. The professor responded by demanding empirical evidence. We spent the rest of the class gathering data, attempting to sort ourselves into races. Sure enough, we failed to place even two of us in a scientifically-definable subgroup

    “There’s a better case for Santa Claus,” my professor grinned.


    “The (racial) model appears sound on the surface, but science insists paradigms be demonstrable at an elemental level. While exceptions to any paradigm inevitably crop up, if it is valid, there aren’t many. Yet the (racial) approach engenders more exception than conformity. To be sure, human (appearance) varies in place and time. Widely separated populations differ immensely. It’s placing the dividers that topples the paradigm. Locating exactly where (“Black Africans”) stop and (“South Asians”) begin in time and place is impossible. In between are a good dozen other (“races”), or versions of one or both. And the frontiers between those populations aren’t clear, either.”

    So race has a certain subjective validity in informal, relatively unimportant contexts. A policeman describes a suspect as a “white female” because we all get a picture of what she looks like, in general, from that expression. But when we get attached the concept that physical appearance determines anything else about us (intelligence, sensitivity, education, sense of humour, personality), we become dangerous people.

    In the context of Western Buddhism, I think it’s perfectly right (and about time) that we strongly question the lily-white complexion of virtually all of our sanghas. Hell, you don’t even see many Asians in the Zen sanghas I’ve known! That ain’t right. But as we use these terms, let’s all keep in mind that the concept of race is fundamentally crap.

  • candy

    isn’t skin color genetic as well??

    my great x4 grandfather on my mother’s side was black but you’d never know it looking at me…

    oh Age Simpson addressed that much more articulately. 🙂

  • Cecily

    It is important in both discussions of race and in Buddhism to use words are precisely and skillful as possible. I want to point technical mistakes made in your statement. First of all, there should be a distinct between skin color and groups of people. The pigment of your skin is genetic but racial group are a social construct and harmful. In your article you said Black and white as opposed to Black skin and white skin. This small error is confusing because in a social context Black refers to a group of people often of African descent. If you are stating there is a genetic difference between so called European descent people and so called African descent people you are incorrect. Now even though I am assuming you meant there is a difference between dark skinned pigment and light skinned I can not be sure. Even in your response you seem confused by what your own meaning is. You said you could have used the term ” African- American” Here there it seems that you don’t understand the distinct between pigment and people of African heritage. If this was not a international article would you have wrote that genes determine whether you are African-American or Caucasian? As as skin color is concerned no one is White or Black. Even your argument that people appeared difference in that way is false. Relatively speaking some people appear darker than other but no one is black or white. Those are inaccurate words that don’t refer to genetic difference but social constructed difference. They have no bearing on genes or how people really appear. Even in Buddhist philosophy there would be understanding that a person’s complexion is a mixture of different colors.And if you had a white person and a black person standing next to each other in Tibetan Buddhism there would be no inherent difference and the questions would be asked Can a person be a color? and how is my conceptual mind making distinctions about these people.

  • Josh

    I would just like to say that I think this person has taken the wrong angle and I am in complete agreement with you. You need to look at the situation realistically, not politically. I have also quoted your last paragraph for a project I am doing about racism in Buddhism if you don’t mind. I don’t know whether it is a quote or original, but wise words!
    English student

  • Bubbasattva

    Ethnicity is a social construct. Race is a biological reality. I find it sad that so many who claim to be enlightened have willingly pulled the veil of ignorance, manufactured by The Power Elite, over their own eyes to blind them to the truth of reality. You all expound that same meme, the same artificially created politically correct tripe that is leading the world to ruin. I’m afraid that none here understand what the Kali-Yuga really means. If you think the elimination of racism is somehow pushing the human race to “evolve” then you are all hopelessly deluded. More astute minds can see decadence and degeneracy for what it really is and not put some pretty label on it as a balm to soothe ignorance based on emotions and not facts, reality or truth…