The Dependent Origination of Whiteness


  • John B. Freese Temple University Press



The Buddhist teachings on dependent origination describe how the process of rebirth—also known as becoming—is caused by a deluded consciousness feeding on a person’s body and mind, as well as on external objects of craving and aversion. The process of racial formation that turns European American bodies into white people who feed off of the land, labor, and life force of people of color can be seen as an example of dependent origination. This article argues that whiteness is a deeply rooted existential experience in the bodies and minds of European Americans that serves as a firewall against perpetrator guilt and trauma; it also explains why the threat white people perceive in demographic shifts triggers an existential fear of annihilation. The Buddhist teachings in this article correspond with the concepts of racial formation and racial project articulated by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, and the concept of the possessive investment in whiteness articulated by George Lipsitz. The article then uses the Buddhist antiracist lens formed from these connections to analyze past and present white supremacist behavior in the United States, as well as past and present antiracist behavior in the United States, paying particular attention to Martin Luther King’s involvement in the Chicago Freedom Movement. Although not the primary focus of this article, connections are also made between the Buddhist elements of this analysis and clinical trauma therapy in order to ground this discussion in a secular, empirical, trauma-informed context.