White Privilege and the Mindfulness Movement by Edwin Ng & Ron Purser

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BACKGROUND

In July this year, we started emailing about a discussion Ron witnessed on Facebook, about a review of David Gelles’s book Mindful Work by Carol Horton. Edwin responded: “I found it difficult to work through the comments. Some of them say things like ‘not all corporate mindfulness advocates….’ It reminds me of reactions like: ‘Not all white people…’, ‘Not all men…’, or ‘You can’t paint all white people/men with the same brushstroke…’ ”

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Edwin’s response was partly prompted by debates surrounding #BlackLivesMatter which have circulated beyond the American context, and partly by the fact that he has had to constantly negotiate the tensions that reverberate through his experience as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert in a white-dominant society. His remarks sparked an enthusiastic discussion about the intersections between white privilege and contemporary mindfulness.

To evoke that infernal question that Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?”, we share here our personal reflections on white privilege and the mindfulness movement. Interspersing our thoughts are segments of the conversation between Angela Davis and Jon Kabat-Zinn at the fundraiser event for East Bay Meditation Center held on January 15, 2015, along with quotes from the article ‘White Fragility’ by the Whiteness Studies scholar, Robin DiAngelo. In showcasing their views as the “interlocutors” for our personal reflections, we hope to invite collective inquiry on this question:

To what extent are the habits of white privilege unacknowledged or under-interrogated in debates about contemporary mindfulness?

Edwin: I often joke that I can pass for a non-white “white” person. Having lived in Melbourne for almost fourteen years as a migrant of “ethnic” minority status, I have developed a personal and professional interest in the challenges of “whiteness.” Even though I do not directly inherit the white privilege of Anglo-Australians, my academic profession affords me considerable cultural cachet, thus allowing me to move within social circles and institutional environments that may not be accessible to other minorities. As I once remarked to a conference audience comprising Christians of Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, and refugee backgrounds: “I’m quite skilled at playing white.”

My critical consciousness about white privilege did not emerge without discomfort and regret. For the first twenty-two years of my life in Singapore, I was part of the ethnic Chinese majority. There was little impetus for me to interrogate how my social positioning and the affordances that came with it—affordances I did not choose but was born into—were predicated on systemic inequality and discrimination. Until I confronted white privilege in Australia, it was difficult for me to gain critical perspective on how my “Chinese privilege” in Singapore was consolidated via cultural norms and structural conditions, habitual thinking and behavior, that erase and marginalize the experiences of others.

[Whiteness Studies scholars] use Whiteness to signify a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination…

Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone).

Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels.

These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.

Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it.” (DiAngelo 2011: 56)

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Ron: Edwin’s observation spurred me to read Robin DiAngelo’s article “White Fragility.” As I started thinking more about the socialized subjectivity of white privilege, I could see striking parallels in the discursive spaces of the contemporary mindfulness movement. When confronted with engaged Buddhist criticisms, mindfulness advocates seem to lack the psychosocial stamina to extend intellectual hospitality to views that question the limitations of neoliberal, individualized mindfulness programs. A range of defensive responses are typical—sidestepping, deflection and hostility—which closely resemble the same sort of countermoves that whites engage in when faced with even a minimal degree of racial stress. Any challenge to invested interests of individualized mindfulness programs seems to be received as a disruption of the status quo, a threat to the ideological equilibrium of the movement.

When I watched the video of Angela Davis and Jon Kabat-Zinn, what immediately stood out for me was how Kabat-Zinn’s rhetoric exposed the “whiteness” of the mindfulness movement. The discourse of universalism was particularly apparent, a form of rhetoric that positions white people as standing outside of culture, and as the universal model of humans.

Kabat-Zinn: When these streams of social justice and activism come together with what I would call “dharma wisdom,” in a universal framework—so that it really is for everybody not just for “-isms” of one sort or another, or “-ists”, you know […] no offense meant, but we need something that speaks to all humanity […]

I see mindfulness as kinds of transformative practices that are capable of moving the bell curve of the entire society towards a new way of understanding of what it means to be human […]

What I am talking about, just to be clear about it, is the liberative power of the Dharma, in its most universal expression, coming out of Buddhism, but let’s keep in mind that the Buddha was not a Buddhist […]

Davis: I am also asking you about who “we” are, because I find it difficult to say “our” actions

Kabat-Zinn: Yea (laughing)… I get that and that may be my white privilege? I don’t know?

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Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality […]

The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience […]

In this position, Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people, and a universal reference point is assumed. White people are just people. Within this construction, whites can represent humanity, while people of color, who are never just people but always most particularly black people, Asian people, etc., can only represent their own racialized experiences […]

The discourse of universalism […] declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same).” (DiAngelo 2011: 59)

Edwin: I’m wary and weary of the assertion: “the Buddha was not a Buddhist.” Historians of Buddhist modernism like David McMahan and Donald Lopez Jr. have shown that the classificatory label of “Buddhism” was a construction of Westerncentric discourse, by which the customs of colonized peoples in Asia were often (mis)appropriated, (mis)judged and denigrated. Yet, this classificatory label also provided the colonized peoples with a framework to counter Western hubris by reviving their inherited Buddhism to reclaim cultural and sovereign legitimacy. Secular advocates of mindfulness ostensibly recognize the historical-ideological constructedness of “Buddhism,” when they assert that “the Buddha was not a Buddhist.” Fair enough. But their historical-ideological awareness strikes me as selective and limited, if not disingenuous, immodest, and ungrateful.

The fact is that mindfulness entered Western modernity by way of the colonial legacy of “Buddhism.” Saying that “the Buddha was not a Buddhist” allows one to capitalize on the aura of authenticity that surrounds Dharma teachings. But it also easily effaces the longstanding relations of domination and exploitation that allow one to receive the gift of the Dharma in the first place, a gift inherited from generations upon generations of non-Western, non-white others who have dutifully maintained the teachings for millennia.

I cannot help but notice the parallels with the historical-ideological construction of “race.” There is no objective biological referent for the label “race.” But the historical fact is that “race” has been used to perpetuate symbolic and actual violence. Yet, “race” has also become the means by which oppressed or marginalized peoples seek justice and reclaim legitimacy for their experience. The universalizing assertion that “people are not any inherent ‘race’, we are all human beings” can thus be a form of whitewashing. An analogous danger confronts “the Buddha was not a Buddhist.” Who has the privilege to make this assertion without suffering consequences? Who suffers? Who risks being marginalized and excluded?

At the same time that whites are taught to see their interests and perspectives as universal, they are also taught to value the individual and to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group.

Individualism erases history and hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed and accumulated over generations to benefit whites today.

It allows whites to view themselves as unique and original, outside of socialization and unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture.” (DiAngelo 2011: 59)

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Whites who position themselves as liberal often opt to protect what they perceive as their moral reputations, rather than recognize or change their participation in systems of inequity and domination […]

Pointing out white advantage will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness and righteous indignation.

When confronted with a challenge to white racial codes, many white liberals use the speech of self-defense. This discourse enables defenders to protect their moral character against what they perceive as accusation and attack while deflecting any recognition of culpability or need of accountability.” (DiAngelo 2011: 64)

Ron: David Gelles, whose book (Mindful Work) Carol Horton reviewed, states: “We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” For Gelles, critical inquiry into the structural dynamics and inequities of capitalism are superfluous. By taking the excesses of capitalism as inevitable, Gelles effectively erases the history of institutions (such as slavery), hiding the realities of white privilege. Corporate mindfulness apologists ardently believe that structural and transformative change comes by working within the system, by accepting established institutional norms, by becoming allies with the powers that be, all in the hopes that a form of “trickle-down” mindfulness will spread and flourish. Because the ideology of individualism informs their theories of change, deep investments are made in training individuals in mindfulness, hoping that maybe one day in the far distant future it may lead to corporate culture change.

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This individualistic approach obscures the role of institutionalized systems of oppression, shifting the burden of change to the entrepreneurial self which falsely appears as the sole agent untouched by socio-historic conditioning. These advocates also pull the individualism card when called out on the ethical quandaries of corporate mindfulness; for them, it all depends on “good teachers” and the “good intentions” of the individual. Ethical behavior and stress are insourced to individuals; social structures and systems of power are simply viewed as a given. The dominant narrative in the discourse is that we are all unique individuals, so our complicity with systems of power, the intersections of race, class and gender are irrelevant.

When I question the limitations of individualized mindfulness programs in effecting structural, systemic change—whether on Facebook or at conferences—I have faced accusations that I am just “being negative” and that I should provide solutions. For example, Ted Meissner, a MBSR teacher who runs The Secular Buddhist podcast, taunted me on Facebook, “But are you going to do anything other than be a crank, or are you going to make material suggestions about making things better?” And Michael Chakalson, a leading corporate mindfulness consultant in the United Kingdom, stood up at the end of my presentation at the Bangor Mindfulness conference and demanded “Well, what is it you want us to do differently? What solutions do you have for us?”

Davis: But I want to press you on this question of structural transformation. I totally understand how it might be possible to encourage individual police officers to engage in mindful practices so that they might not be so quick to racially profile. But, I don’t know whether it’s possible to effect the kind of structural transformation that way.

Because if one looks at the institution of policing, and its histories, particularly it’s racist history in this country, there is so much that has to be addressed. And individuals are not always aware of the extent to which they embody their histories, they don’t understand, many of us don’t understand, the extent to which we inhabit and are inhabited by our histories […]

Kabat-Zinn: Totally agree. Let me ask you… if mindfulness can easily be coopted in that way or just kept at a level where it doesn’t really change the structural, sort of grid or lattice of our institutions because they are self-preserving. Then, what do you see as an effective alternative at this moment in time?

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In the spirit of mindfulness, we share this coming-together of the views on the topic of white privilege and mindfulness. Given the ongoing contestations surrounding #BlackLivesMatter, we trust that others would appreciate that to call out the exclusionary, evasive habits and oversights of “white privilege” is not a matter of making personal attacks on anyone. We also trust that others would recognize that “whiteness” is not merely a racial marker, but an invisibilized mode of social power. Above all, we trust that others would be circumspect about accusing those who challenge structural privilege of being unnecessarily negative in criticism, or expecting the marginalized and excluded to come up with solutions. In highlighting three habitual reactions of “white fragility”—ahistorical universalizing claims; selective appeals to individualism; and deflective, defensive indignation—we hope to invite consideration of how analogous habits might circumscribe debates about contemporary mindfulness.

If there are such analogous habits, they are irreducible to personal shortcomings but are rather the effects of historical forces of conditioning, which nobody can choose to do without since no one can choose the time and place and social circumstances in which one is born and raised. If mindfulness teaches us anything, it is the importance of redirecting our attention continuously to repeatedly question how forces of conditioning are shaping unacknowledged habitual reactive patterns. Inasmuch as this in an ongoing challenge that all parties invested in mindfulness confront, as an interim response to the charge that critics of mindfulness shy away from “solutions”, we’d like to ask: why shouldn’t the repeated questioning of unacknowledged conditionings—the work of staying with the discomfort of repeated questioning, without expectation of any immediate solution or attachment to determinate answers—why shouldn’t this be regarded as part of mindfulness training, as part of the ongoing task of developing “solutions”? Who or what is privileged or disadvantaged when this questioning is not allowed to remain open as a questioning? To this (endless) end, we pose this question for collective inquiry:

To what extent are the habits of white privilege unacknowledged or under-interrogated in debates about contemporary mindfulness?

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About the authors

A Buddhist practitioner since the early 1980s, Ron Purser has observed how contemporary mindfulness has grown in popularity. Having worked as a corporate management consultant for many years on attempts at systemic organizational and corporate culture change, along with his perspective of a professor of management, he was moved to write the article “Beyond McMindfulness,” which called into question the neoliberal assumptions and accommodationist orientation of the corporate mindfulness movement.

Edwin Ng describes himself as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert because, even though he was born and raised in Singapore where he was exposed to the Buddhist customs of his diasporic Chinese ancestral heritage, he only embraced Buddhism after he migrated to Australia and discovered Western translations of the teachings. His interest in the cultural translation of mindfulness is motivated by the lived tensions of straddling multiple cultural and intellectual traditions, and of attempting to cultivate mindfulness to support scholarship, pedagogy, and activism within and against an increasingly corporatized academic regime.

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