Today’s post comes from Ann Gleig. Ann is a scholar of religion at the University of Central Florida, and the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). You can read an earlier post by Ann, together with Amy Langenberg, here.) This time Ann reflects on her experiences as a Buddhist scholar on the receiving end of white rage.
Steve: “Scary, postmodern virus infects North American Buddhism.”
Me: “Thanks for showing us what PoC Buddhists have to deal with every day in their sanghas, Steve.”
Steve: “Keep playing the victim.”
Me: “I notice your Twitter profile says “Zen Beginner,” maybe you could learn something from the Zen teachers in this book, who have been practicing for decades. Stretch that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Steve!”
Steve: deletes thread and blocks me.
The preceding was a short exchange I had with Steve, a stranger, on Twitter, after I tweeted about the publication of George Yancy and Emily McRae’s 2019 edited collection Buddhism and Whiteness. The book contained essays by Buddhist scholars and scholar-practitioners examining both how whiteness operates in Buddhist practice and academic communities, and what resources Buddhist thought and practice offer for challenging whiteness. While this was the first academic collection to attend to whiteness in Buddhism, Buddhists of Color have been confronting whiteness in American Buddhism for over two and a half decades. The landmark 2000 compilation Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in our Buddhist Communities, for instance, shared that for many years the white Euro-American sangha has been resistant to efforts by People of Color to raise awareness of racism in Buddhist communities.
Twenty years later, the same white resistance is all too visible in Steve’s Twitter tantrum about Buddhism and Whiteness, a response which, ironically, performs the very thing he was denying existed. Drawing on similar responses, I want to make visible a specific expression of whiteness—what African American historian Carol Anderson has identified as “white rage”—directed at scholars of and scholarship on religion and racial justice.
The Many Faces of White Buddhist Rage
In 2016, Carol Anderson published White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, a searing history of white anger, resentment, and backlash against Black political and social progress. In his review of White Rage, Jesse McCarthy explains the book’s origins and intention:
In August 2014, as the headlines from Ferguson focused on the eruption of black rage, Anderson, a professor of African-American studies at Emory University, wrote a dissenting op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that the events were better understood as white backlash at a moment of black progress, a social and political pattern that she reminded readers was as old as the nation itself. Her essay became the kernel for this book, which expands and illustrates her thesis. “I set out to make white rage visible,” Anderson writes in her introduction, “to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements over the past 150 years.
In their recent book, The Religion of White Rage: Religious Fervor, White Workers, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress, scholars Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray and Lori Latrice Martin extend Anderson’s work on white rage to religion. Anderson’s reframing of the narrative from Black anger to white rage also resonates with what I was finding in my research on racial justice in American Buddhism. Many Buddhists of Color have reported that white Buddhists often oppose racial justice efforts on the charges that they are motivated by anger and therefore not legitimately Buddhist. I had encountered the same objection directly tracking white Buddhist backlash to racial justice.
What has been left out of this conversation, however, is a reflection on white Buddhist rage—the white Buddhist backlash against racial justice gains in their communities. White Buddhist rage has many faces: innocence, denial, condescension, ridicule, resentment, and hatred. A glance at any comment thread under articles on Buddhism, racial justice and whiteness will show one or more of these different expressions. American Studies professor and Buddhist practitioner Funie Hsu received so much white Buddhist rage because of her article on the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists that Lion’s Roar magazine subsequently commissioned Ajahn Amaro, a white Theravadin monastic, to write in support of her work.
My own research has also been on the receiving end of white rage. One commentator under “Buddhists and Racial Justice: A History,” claimed “White privilege is racial profiling…Buddhists should know better than to pick sides and use racist terminology,” before presenting statistics on “black on black crime. Another declared “You cannot be ‘white’ and ‘Buddhist’ and ‘privileged’…and if you are it will not last it will be taken off of you and given to a more ‘deserving’ black or poc ‘Buddhist’ person…or ‘teacher’ as they call them.” After Hebah Farrag and I published an article on the spirituality of Black Lives Matter.—which included the influence of BLM on racial justice work in Buddhism—we both received several hate email. One of these called Black Lives Matter “a cult, evil and out to destroy Western Civilization,” and advised us to “Open your eyes and get real jobs.”
Similar, after publishing a more general piece on white privilege and redlining I received several emails, through both my work and social media accounts, ranging from condescending to aggressive. One white male shared that he has searched my “Rate Your Professor” evaluations and could see I was an excellent professor but obviously needed to read more conservative explanations of wealth and health racial disparities. Another reported that he had discovered I was British and come to the (erroneous) conclusion that I must have grown up very privileged and was now trying to divide Americans. A third was more direct, declaring: “You should be fired for your recent article. You are a disgrace to UCF.”
Responding to White Rage
My encounters with white [Buddhist] rage have significantly shaped my scholarly trajectory, pushing me from documenting and contextualizing racial justice work in American Buddhism to explicitly advocating for it. In a recent publication charting the reactionary right-wing Buddhist backlash to racial justice, co-written with Brenna Artinger, for instance, we make transparent our anti-racist research commitment and align ourselves with what Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2006) calls “the ethics of witnessing” in which ethnography is undertaken with an intentional commitment to vulnerable populations. In addition to cataloguing the right-wing backlash to racial justice, I have also directly confronted it. On social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, I have used a variety of strategies to challenge whiteness in Buddhism: educated dialogue, confrontation, humor, or simply ignoring and blocking.
One example came after I published a short personal reflection on thinking about Covid from an engaged Buddhist perspective for Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar. Here I emphasize how Covid death rates and treatment have highlighted racial disparities in health care between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Americans. One online response to the piece on Lion’s Roar Facebook page was particularly hostile. Susan began sharply with a complete dismissal of the piece as “sheer nonsense” and a personal attack dubbing me a “left leaning would be academic,” and questioning whether I was a real Buddhist. I started an educated dialogue with Susan, offering some canonical resources, as well as historical context on engaged Buddhism to contextualize racial justice work. Each response, however, merely elicited a new line of attack, suggesting that her aversion was rooted more in resentment than reason.
Another strategy I have employed is to ignore but make visible and to creatively subvert some of the hostility directed towards me. When Ade, an administrator of the Facebook group Contemporary Buddhism posted a diatribe against me and my piece, claiming that I was attempting “to “pervert the dharma by means of identity politics,” I decided not to directly engage. Quite frankly supporting comments such as, “I’m so speeciaaal that I have to have my own river of suffering,” “People bleating utter nonsense about things they obviously know fuck all about,” and “you can’t polish a turd,” left me with little confidence that education was possible. Instead, I screenshot his post and re-tweeted under the title of ANN GLEIG, DHARMA PERVERT. After Ade continued to write sneering posts of other female engaged Buddhists who were advocating against white supremacy, I simply blocked him.
The Threat of White Rage
Confronting white rage has a cost. I myself know two female scholars who are weary of engaging with public scholarship on Buddhism and racial justice, because of either actual or anticipated aggressive responses. One of these received hate mail threatening a “cyber-attack” after she had given a talk on whiteness and Buddhism. Scholars working on whiteness and racial justice are often forced to make difficult decisions between their personal/professional safety and well-being and having their work be available in the public sphere. After disturbing tweets from self-identified alt-right Buddhists, Brenna Grace Artinger and I had to request the registration list be carefully monitored and no recording be made of recent lectures we have given on our research on reactionary right-wing backlashes to racial justice. Reflecting on the misogynist attacks she received, Audrey Truschke powerfully reminds us that minority scholars –female, non-binary, scholars of color, junior, and contingent—are particularly vulnerable.
In addition to the interpersonal threat, scholars working with critical race theory in the United States are increasingly facing institutional and legal vulnerabilities. Following the gains of the Black Lives Matter Movement, after the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, classical liberals, Christian evangelicals and Republicans caricatured and launched a full-on attack on critical race theory. This culminated in Trump passing an Executive Order banning diversity training, which had immediate impacts in higher education. Despite Biden reversing the order, many Republicans continue to push related legislation. In response to a university book panel on Finley, Gray and Martin’s The Religion of White Rage, a legislator from Louisiana raised public concerns and has proposed a bill that could make it illegal for schools to teach about structural racism.
In my own state of Florida, Republicans are pushing a bill that threatens academics under weaponized concerns for “free speech” and to supposedly guarantee intellectual diversity.
Naming White Rage in Religious Studies Scholarship
Despite the threat of confronting white rage, I remain committed to do so for three main reasons:
First, scholars of color, particularly Black scholars, routinely face intense vitriolic hatred and threats of violence for their work on religion and racial justice. George Yancy, the co-editor of Buddhism and Whiteness, analyzed the white racist vitriol including death threats he received after his stunning editorial Dear White America. African American scholar Anthea Butler catalogued some of the hate mail she received after writing her powerful essay “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God.” White scholars simply must step up and carry some of the affective burden of naming the operations of whiteness in religion and philosophy.
Second, a growing number of Buddhist Studies scholars are recognizing and seeking to confront Buddhist Studies’ ongoing legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. As Tibetan Buddhist scholar Constance Kassor concisely puts it: Buddhist Studies Has A Whiteness Problem. I consider work on racial justice in contemporary Buddhism as one way to confront and correct this legacy.
Third, my ethnographic scholarship—and the academic recognition it has brought me—has been largely dependent on the generosity of Buddhists of Color who have given me their time and trust. Confronting and contextualizing white Buddhist rage through anti-racist scholarship is one way I have been able to reciprocate. Academic work can have a real impact for practitioners undertaking anti-racist work in Buddhist communities.
While confronting white rage in religious scholarship is crucial, placing the burden on individual scholars, particularly scholars of color, is insufficient. Confronting whiteness in religious studies must be done collectively with not just symbolic but also material means of support from academic bodies and institutions.
 May 29, 2019.
 Jesse McCarthy, “Why Are Whites So Angry?” New York Times, June 24, 2016.