Tag Archives: Huffington Post

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!

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.

Is Yoga Religious?

This is a hotly debated topic recently, and Zach Price has already covered it some here, but I stumbled upon an article on the Huffington Post that was just so interesting I felt I had to write about it. This article written by Mark Morford is pro-Yoga and very anti-Christianity. He argues that Yoga is not a violation of church and state while also claiming that it is religious. Now this may seem problematic, but he claims that Yoga practitioners connect with their inner divinity, not an external entity. I believe that he was trying to interpret the idea of separation of church and state as applying it only to organized religion. If you look at it from his perspective, then you realize that if he concedes that Yoga is religious then this is a problem for Yoga practitioners because they will be banned from schools and other government owned places, but if he doesn’t attribute some religiousness to it then Yoga is just another exercise, which is not what he wants either.

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?