All posts by Zach Price

About Zach Price

Religious Studies major; Black Belt in Isshin Ryu; student of Shen Lung Kung Fu; Avid Guitar, Banjo, and tin whistle enthusiast; Episcopalian; professional choral singer; gamer; Whovian; etc. etc. etc. and so forth and so on. https://monksandnones.wordpress.com/

Dressing Up Religious Identity the American Way

The versatility of clothing makes it a preferred means for constructing and negotiating identities; not only individual identities (just think of a teenager’s anxieties when choosing clothes!), but also collective ones.                                                                          -Jean-François Bayart

So I saw this article on Patheos.com a couple of days ago titled “Why Do Hindus Wear Turbans [Google Questions Answered]”. Ambaa “the White Hindu” points out that there seems to be quite the confusion on the cultural identification of those who wear turbans.   According to research from Stanford University, 70% of Americans ‘misidentify’ turban wearers as “Muslim (48%), Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto.”   However, this seems quite problematic.  Some Muslims actually do wear turbans and many people around the world wear turbans for all sorts of reasons not necessarily having to do with religious affiliation.

My issue lies in the religious identification vis-a-vis religious garb.  Despite all the good intentions of Ambaa or a similar article from the Huffington Post defending Sikhs from discrimination, they are actually just as much participating in the same system of essentializing an entire group by a peice of clothing.  The turban becomes the identifier for religion, the central and usually only important part of a groups identity, whether it be the turban identifying Muslimness by some or indentifying Sikhness by others.  Religion becomes the entire identity of the other.  I’ll try not to get into the irony of the Orientalism of “the White Hindu” (yes Orientalism despite her defending against Orientalism) who has self identified as a white woman of European descent and is “appropriating Indian culture” for her own (I don’t think she is appropriating Indian culture since, but see how I seamlessly make race rather than religion the means of identification of an entire group).  Perhaps religion as the primary indicator of indentity is a proverbial wink identifying us as Americans rather than saying something about the ‘other’.

This of course is only a problem if we think people are more than their clothing or their religion.  If that is the case, did you correctly identify the religion of the person wearing the turban in the photo at the top? If you guessed Christian you are right!

While all of these elements point to the Hindu religious tradition, we were not Hindus. There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style.  This is why I use the term “Hindu inspired” rather than “Hindu” to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements.

I think I will channel my inner Russell T. McCutcheon when I say “show me a category and I will show you someone making the category.”  The block quote above comes from the book Transcendental in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements in America by Lola Williamson.  This book is great for laying out the evolution and belief systems of these things called HIMMs that Lola names–the evolution of differences in groups, ethic systems, focuses on the experiential, focus on the guru figures, etc.  My critique of the book comes from the underlying tone behind her categories.  There seems to be an assumption of an authentic Hindu religion that Americans have access and appropriated to make a less authentic American version and within those American versions there are some that are more authentic than others.

I think we can also learn a lot about Lola Williamson from this book.  For instance from page 11 I learned that Lola believes that Americans are “culturally indoctrinate into the Judeo Christian worldview.”  Without getting into how problematic a term like “Judeo-Christian worldview” is, does this mean that Jews and Christians have been indoctrinating innocent HIMM children in America?

I found it particularly interesting that I learn on page 179 that Lola uses William James as her theoretical framework for experience with experience being a large focus of her data.  That was rather disappointing since it was right after a discussion that experience is shaped by the language that is taught–that is to say belief leads to experience rather than the other way around.

Interfaith or America How To?

I found this article about a married couple, consisting of a Baptist minister and a Hindu monk, who wrote a book called Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.  According to this article 27 percent of Americans are married to or live with a partner of a different religious faith.

Amazon describes the book as a story of a “East-meets-West partnership.”  While the couple’s individual identities seem to be wrapped up in their religious identity I do not see this as the East meeting the West but as two Americans and the success of eHarmony.  Hindu does not equal East as Baptist does not equal West.  (People are Baptist and Hindu in many places all over the world).  I will go further and say there is no East or West.  There are just two parts of the ‘American’ imagination of itself and of the other.

Stereotypically the Dalai Lama

When we think of the stereotypical Buddhist we no longer think of the members of the Buddhist Churches of America who were forced by the American government into internment camps during World War II.  Nor do we conjure up images of the white American officer Henry Olcott who was the first president of the Theosophical Society. Personally I prefer to imagine Richard Gere or  John Cleese as the stereotypical Buddhist (whatever that means).

Now instead we immediately think of the Dalai Lama. A week ago the Dalai Lama visited Emory University in an event boldly called The Visit 2013.   In comes the inevitable Huffpo blog written by Peter M. Wallace (a white male Episcopal seminarian for anyone who thinks authorship matters).  Wallace tells us about his experience from The Visit 2013. ( I can’t help but find this title humorous) Wallace, as an Episcopal seminarian, stereotypically outlines the “essential Buddhist concepts of awareness, discernment, and compassion,” because of course Buddhism is about peace and compassion. (I’m being a bit facetious here and don’t worry I’m Episcopalian so I am allowed to make essentializing blanket statements about them).

He also speaks of the Dalai Lama’s message as somehow not religious, but “universal” to appeal to “the cultural reality of the growing number of people identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious.'”  If you want a good read on the problems with the None category check this article.  I find this “secular” universal truth that somehow “transcends our concepts of religion” interesting.  This quite well illustrates the stereotypical American Orientalism experience of Asian religions as a sort of great ancient wisdom of the East.

Racial or Religious Humor as Means of Negotiation

So if you missed the “joke” that Rick Warren posted on Facebook and the proceeding backlash then you can catch up on all of it here.  Basically Rick Warren, a famous mega-church pastor, posted an image of a Red Guard from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and made a joke about how his coworkers are like that on Mondays.   Other pastors were upset that a religious leader like Warren would use a joke making light of the horrific acts committed during the Cultural Revolution.

Instead of trying to determine the appropriateness or humor of the joke , I would like to understand the kind of work that joke and the actions taken by Warren and others are doing.  In other words: how is this joke functioning among these groups.

I imagine that if this joke were made by a pastor say fifty years ago it probably would not have had the same reaction to it.  White evangelicals were firmly in power in American culture and remember that it would have been shortly after the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) containing an infamous scene of the most stereotypical stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

Fast-foward to today.  A number of Asian-Americans were offended and Rick Warren after one attempt of justifying his joke eventually apologized.  So what changed?

I would argue that at least one function of humor might be negotiation between various groups.  Fifty years ago the joke would have served to reinforce white male protestant dominance.  The joke would negotiate the group by showing who is in the group (those that think it was funny) and who is at the top of that particular social structure.  Today, by the reactions and Warren’s apology I would argue that same power structure was renegotiated.  Since the joke is not funny, the white male protestant is no longer the complete dominant within American Christianity or at least who is in and who is out has been expanded.  This seems to be congruent with the growing numbers of Asian (and Hispanic) members within American churches.

So maybe this joke isn’t just saying whether or not the Cultural Revolution is funny. Maybe it is saying  who is or isn’t in the group. lol?

Miss ‘Merica and the Navy Yard Shooter: Race and Religion in American Identity

Did you see the social media responses to the Miss America pageant winner? If not check out Buzz Feed.  I can not say that I have ever really been interested in keeping up with pageants.  I am more of a Doctor Who reruns on Netflix kinda guy.

Nina Davuluri an Indian-American was born in Syracuse, New York.  Across social media some have misdentified her as Muslim (according to Wikipedia her parents are Hindu), an Arab, and a member of Al-Qaeda.  I think it is all too easy to just dismiss these claims as racist and does not accomplish much in the process.

I will make the claim that race is not a thing–there is only understandings of race.  That is race is an arbitrary contingent category that is constantly being constructed and negotiated between various groups for all sorts of interests.

It is arbitrary because race could be based on many different things. Is it skin color–how white do you have to be to be considered white and how black do you have to be to be considered black?  It could just as well have been hair color, eye color, height, weight, arbitrary geographical distinctions, whether or not you are lucky enough to be a Whovian, etc.

It is contingent based on particular interests that are being negotiated and your understanding of the world around you. I could gather by the reactions about Miss Kansas vis-a-vis Miss New York/America that some might feel that their perceived imagined (imagined in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities) America and its values as somehow being under attack.  It also probably has a great deal to do with living in a post-9/11 world, thus constructing new views on race.

But we have to be careful not to further reify these categories even when defending Davuluri, afterall there is just as much at stake calling her Indian-American or just American. (Remember race is not a thing, but a category we employ)

When something as traumatic as 9/11 or more recently the Navy Yard Shooting happens, it is a very human response to deal with this trauma by setting the perpetrators into a category of “other” as opposed to “like myself.”  We might say “Hitler was crazy” and “Osama Bin Laden was evil,” rather than “a normal rational human being like myself has the capacity to horrendous violence.”  Perhaps the latter is what we should do and then people will not see it necessary to think of pageant winners as somehow an attack on America.

The category of religion seems to work in similar fashion.  Buddhism did not cause Aaron Alexis to go on a mass murder spree, and yet his religion came up in the media.   Buddhism is neither inherently violent nor peaceful (See this article for a good argument), but claiming one of the other illustrates our own constructions and further reifies Buddhism with agency to act in ways it cannot. (Buddhism cannot speak to you or pick up a rock for instance).  The same goes for race. Perhaps instead of marking Nina Davuluri as Arab/Muslim or Indian-American we should identify what is at stake in claiming one or the other.  But what do I know? I am just a Scottish/German/Filipino/Episcopalian/Whovian/Southern-American.

Yoga and the Politics of Classification

I have been doing martial arts since I was five years old.  I currently am a student in Shen Lung Kung Fu.  As a student of Shen Lung Kung Fu you read such texts as the Dao de Ching, Confucius, and the Art of War.  Many people would consider at least some of these a religious texts; however, you do not have to be Confucian or a Daoist.  In fact most are not, though some have adapted principles or ideas they found and have adapted them to their own particular belief system (whether religious or not).

This is one reason I found the court case over whether or not schools could have yoga rather interesting.  I have no stake in whether or not yoga is particularly religious or not.  When I think “lotus position” I think “eh that sounds painful”, but I suppose someone might just as easily think “religion”.

I once had a nice conversation over a cigarette with William Arnal, head of the department of Religious Studies at the University of Regina.  He told me “anything someone claims to be religion is up for grabs”.  If I take that seriously than anything could or could not be religious depending on who you ask.

The question then becomes, “What is at stake in calling something religious?”  In court cases like the one involving yoga, what is at stake is people’s religious or cultural identities and very real legal ramifications.  Beyond legalities people’s identity is at stake.  I bet I could find someone who is a practitioner of yoga and considers it religious just as much as I could find the opposite.  Is it not part of the opponents religious views as Christians  that yoga is religious?  Maybe I can see Jesus in yoga.  Maybe the fact that the opponents see it as religious says more about their identity than the identity of the kids in the yoga classes.

So if anything could be religious or non-religious depending on who you ask, then do concepts such as separation of church and state become meaningless?  Perhaps, but how that concept is applied at least reinforces my own particular politics.