“Whiteness is a Sankhara”

Racial Justice as Buddhist Practice


  • Joy Brennan Kenyon College Author
  • Ann Gleig University of Central Florida Author




American Buddhism, Racial Justice, Whiteness, Yogācāra, Method and Theory in Buddhist Studies, Engaged Buddhism


While confronting whiteness is often seen as the work of progressive social justice, Buddhist practice and philosophy offers a rich framework for, and imperative to do, such work. Methodologically combining ethnographic and philosophical approaches, this paper aims to show both what contemporary Buddhists have done to alleviate the suffering caused by whiteness and what resources the tradition offers for extending such work. It begins by situating Buddhist approaches to “waking up from whiteness” within the larger movement for racial justice within American Buddhism. Next, it shows how the Yogācāra school of Buddhist philosophy provides helpful tools for practitioners in recognizing and being liberated from whiteness, which from the perspective of Yogācāra is a historically conditioned, socially embedded identity structure that has the power to shape our worlds of experience and that can and should be made an object of inquiry, understanding, and relinquishment. Finally, we reflect on the responsibility of Buddhist scholars in Buddhist racial justice work.

Author Biographies

  • Joy Brennan, Kenyon College

    Joy Brennan is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College. Her writing engages early Yogācāra source materials to think through questions of identity, suffering, transformative processes, and liberation in individual and social contexts. She is also a priest and teacher in the Soto Zen lineage. Brennan is grateful to the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Research Fellowships in Buddhist Studies, in tandem with the American Council of Learned Societies, which provided her the support necessary to research and write her part of this article.

  • Ann Gleig, University of Central Florida

    Ann Gleig is Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). She is currently working on a collaborative book project on sexual misconduct and abuse in transnational Buddhism with Amy Langenberg.