Saturday, January 25, 2020

Inappropriate Appropriation

I'm not sure why this cheered me up, but it did.

It seems that Elizabeth Warren's campaign recently announced an "Interfaith Advisory Council" made up of religious leaders of various stripes, and almost immediately took it down.  Even the Wayback Machine can't seem to find the original tweet, but the press release yet lives.  It drew criticism and mockery because the list included fourteen Christian clergy, a rabbi, and a partridge in -- no, a Zen Buddhist teacher from North Carolina.

The thread I found on Twitter included a lot of boyish tittering because the Buddhist sensei is an apparently white American woman.

I don't know if that reply is accurate or just a snarky allusion to Warren's now-abandoned claim of Cherokee ancestry, but it doesn't matter, because Buddhism, like most religions, is not a race or even an ethnicity.  (Guess what, guys - Roman Catholics are not all, or even mostly, Roman!)  Buddhism isn't racially homogeneous even in Asia, and though it originally came to the United States with Asian immigrants in the 1800s, by the twentieth century Buddhist missionaries were coming here to bring enlightenment and salvation, yea, even to white people.  Before long they were ordaining clergy among the "natives."  (Just as Christian clergy in Asia are now usually Asian.)  The assumption that Buddhists aren't white is racist to the core.

This one too:

So, Matt, how about those Korean and Japanese Catholic bishops?  Are they "appropriating" Western culture?  (Of course not: they're just dupes of the imperialists!)  How about "Asian" Americans who speak English?  One person had the sense to point out: "I don't know who she is, but if she was legit ordained by a Zen master she has more right to wear those clothes than the average Japanese person."  This led to more discussion among people who don't know that "Christian name" used to, and sometimes still does refer to the new name converts adopted on baptism.

Or think of Malcolm Little, who first changed his surname to X when he joined the Nation of Islam, then adopted the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Adopting a new name for religious reasons is not exactly an obscure practice, even in the US.  Of course a atheist like Matt LP may not feel it important to know such superstitious drivel, but I think that an atheist who wants to comment on religion should be at least as knowledgeable as his targets - especially an atheist who claims that "Constructive criticism and knowledge is my forte. A better world is possible if we fight for it. #NotMeUs".  (Notice: not his aspiration, but his "forte.")  It would also be good not to be bluntly racist, but that's probably too much to ask of an American.

Yes, it is hilarious that Warren's campaign rolled out such a half-assed initiative.  One would think that a little more thought would have gone into a project by a well-funded, professional organization made up of educated people; I thought white liberals had tokenism down to a science.  Instead Warren got something like Pete Buttigieg's ill-starred attempt to inflate his support among African-Americans in North Carolina without bothering to consult the people whose names he, um, appropriated.  But then some of Warren's critics made equally big fools of themselves.

P.S. This was yesterday, but it fits:

As Jake and several commenters chortled, quite a few of those canonical Western artists were not straight.  (Many of the names named are 'known' to have been gay by gossip, not history, but never mind.)  Nor were the famous Eyetalians, at least, white by modern scientific-racist standards.  But aside from that, even as a canon-revisionist myself, it occurs to me that much of the attitude alluded to in that quotation is wrong-headed.  Yes, students should be exposed to and instructed about art from outside the Western traditions, and an introductory survey is one good place to do it.  But would they criticize, say, a class on Japanese art history for being overwhelmingly Japanese, let alone male?  As the Feminist Press found when they assembled textbooks on writing by women outside the West, they encountered not just resistance but outright denial that Chinese, Indian, or East Asian women had ever written anything.  And I don't think it was only because the indigenous academics involved had often been trained in the West.  A lot of culturally-sensitive discourse turns out to be as knee-jerk uninformed and blinkered as the traditions it opposes.