Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Samba, Pizza, and Cultural Appropriation

Where does she stow it?
Where Does She Stow It?, Helsinki, 2005

Some 25 years ago or thereabouts, I got into a heated disagreement with a very good friend of mine. He's American, and was in Finland as an exchange student. We were making pizza. I don't remember the exact point of disagreement, but it had something to do with the recipe. To my recollection, at some point he snapped something like "It's not like you invented it." That, naturally, awoke my pan-European patriotic spirit, and I rose to heroically defend the honor of the Italians.

We made up, eventually. He was the best man in my wedding, and I returned the favor a few years later. But it remains the worst dispute I've had with him. Over pizza.

Only it wasn't really over pizza. It was over cultural appropriation. He felt that I—or, rather, we Finns—had appropriated a tasty, crunchy slice of his culture, and I felt that he had done the same. For a somewhat broader value of "our," not being Italian. Finns do like to do covers of Italian hit songs, though. Many evergreen Finnhits are actually Italian. There's this one called Olen suomalainen (I'm a Finn) by Kari Tapio, which is actually a cover of L'Italiano by Toto Cutugno.

I digress. Sort of.

Cultural appropriation goes on all the time, and in all directions. In food. In music. In the way Japanese pop culture references end up in Internet memes. In the way Japanese like to have Christian-style weddings for the pomp and ceremony. And in Buddhism.

Most of the time this kind of cultural borrowing is pretty benign. People who identify with the culture being borrowed from may feel flattered or pleased or sometimes flabbergasted ("what have the Germans made of our sauna?") but rarely offended. That's because most cultural borrowing isn't offensive.

Sometimes it takes an ugly turn.

There's the Versailles royalty staging village feasts and playing at shepherds and shepherdesses in the carefully constructed fake countryside, even as the real shepherds and shepherdesses scrabble for a meager living. There are the white-toothed Negroes prancing merrily about and singin' how all God's chillun got rhythm in Marx Brothers movies. There are fake Gypsy musicians playing fake Gypsy music, while real police are beating up real Roma in squalid slums all over Europe.

These ugly turns involve power relations. A dominant culture appropriates from a subjugated or marginalized one, and throws in a healthy dose of condescension into the bargain. "There, we took the nice tradition you've been so kindly preserving for us, got rid of the distortions and misunderstandings, discovered its essence, and are now doing it right. Please, feel free to learn from us."

This sort of thing happens a quite a lot with Eastern religions brought to the West. That includes Buddhism. There's a shitstorm ongoing about it that I don't really want to wade into, largely because it's not my fight. We have our own racist assholes to worry about at the moment. I've left a few links at the bottom of the post in case you're not au courant and want to read up on it.

I just recently came across a book review about the way American Zennies have repurposed the mizuko kuyo ritual from Japanese Zen. In Japan, it's a ritual to help along the spirits of aborted or miscarried fetuses. It makes perfect sense in a context where you've internalized the existence of hungry ghosts (in the same sense that we've internalized the existence of other people). In a context that lacks that internalized belief, it becomes something else. It no longer means what it meant before.

I believe there is something in the Buddhadharma that transcends cultures and individuals, and speaks about something fundamental to what it is to be human, perhaps even what it is to be sentient. However, that something can only be expressed in terms of cultural artifacts. Words. Actions. Practices. Rituals. As it crosses cultural boundaries, the meanings of these vessels change. Some dharma gates close. Others eventually open. The mizuko kuyo dharma gate is closed to me, because I don't think of pretas existing in the same sense that you or I exist. And I don't think the American version -- repurposing it as a sort of group therapy -- necessarily captures whatever it is that mizuko kuyo is expressing.

This stuff is dynamite. It speaks to the most deeply felt, personal bits of a person there are. If we can kick of a rousing row over pizza, how could some really difficult shit not come up with cultural appropriation of Buddhist rituals, texts, robes, titles, architecture?

We cannot help but borrow and appropriate. But I don't think it's unreasonable to ask us to consider how the people being appropriated from feel about it. And, perhaps, listen to them if they work up the courage to speak up about it. Sit with their voices, as Nathan put it.

Further reading

  • Tassja's post about how she perceives the Western, overwhelmingly white appropriation of Buddhism
  • Nathan's post which, in my opinion, strikes the right note about it (read the others too, they're pretty good as well)
  • Praj├▒a's post about how she feels about it

1 comment:

  1. And when you least expect it, the Spanish inquisition! or, my/your/their religion my ass!

    It is a religion, not 'your/my/their religion'. Or culture or whatever. It is something shared among more than one person, and different people have different takes. As I mentioned, some people seem to forget that other people have the right to their take on this 'shared' thing, and have the right to just be different. Spanish inquisition...