Non-ethnic

Everyone is ethnic. Let’s start there.

The Angry Asian Buddhist’s most recent post critiques another blogger’s use of the word “ethnic.” In many discourses about race and ethnicity, the use of the term is in juxtaposition to some “non-ethnic” category, though rarely is this made explicit. In this case, the blogger in question explicitly uses the term “non-ethnic.” There are two things to note here.

First, discursively there is no distinction to be made between “race” and “ethnicity.” Whereas the latter has come to the fore in the last few decades, in practice, it is used in the same way that race has been used in the past. Both terms are social constructs, arbitrarily defined categories with fuzzy, shifting, and permeable borders. Sometimes a distinction is made between race-as-biological marker and ethnicity-as-cultural marker; but this distinction is absurd the closer one looks. There is no biological basis to support racial categories. And, much more to the point, it is not the legitimacy of the categorization scheme that matters as much as how the scheme is deployed and enacted in the social and legal realms. It was not the legitimacy of the category that mattered when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ferguson; it was the state’s desire to control persons marked by racial categories that was on trial.

Ethnicity-as-culture is more insidious, and this brings me to my second point. It is insidious because it points toward something that is actually true while merely renaming the existing discourse of racial difference. What’s true is that one’s ethnicity is a marker of one’s cultural heritage, and to the extent that each of us has a cultural heritage, this point feels true. But this banal statement is not how the term is used in public discourse. Rather, it is used in much the same way as any racial category. This is clear when we look closely at ethnicity’s referent: culture. Whereas how to define culture may be subject of multiple ongoing academic and popular debates, for my purposes I’d like to provisionally agree that we we all know what culture looks like: culture is the sum total of modes of behavior, customs, dress and fashion, music and arts, architecture, and language itself. In other words, we define culture by the products of culture which is another way of saying that the category is probably useless. So, people being people, they reify the category by giving some fixedness to the category’s boundaries and defining the categories by their opposites. We know what X-ethnicity is because it is not Y-ethnicity. In this way, we haven’t replaced or deconstructed racial categories; we’ve just given them a different name.

When we speak of “Japanese culture” or even “youth culture” we speak of them as if they are fixed categories that exist somewhere outside of space and time. We make reference to the “Chinese way of doing things” as if this way is not a product of a specific time and place (i.e., a specific historical time and cultural location) but rather some “thing” that exists outside of time and space that can be the subject of analysis and critique. It is causative and explanatory and above critique precisely because it is fundamental to who persons are (i.e., Amy Chua’s latest drivel). In short, we use the word “ethnicity” in precisely the same way we used to use the word “race”; a fact of existence that is essential, a-historical, a-cultural when in fact the opposite is true.

There is no one on the planet who is able to stand “outside culture.” If this is true, and if ethnicity refers to one’s cultural heritage, then, logically, there is no one who is “non-ethnic.” This is not a problem. The problem is in how the terms are deployed discursively, to mark different persons in the social realm. Ethnic/racial discourses that label one group “ethnic” and presume that another is somehow “not ethnic” have the effect of turning the “non-ethnic” group into the normative standard against which the “ethnic” group is judged while remaining itself uncriticized. That is the problem.

One reason why it’s a problem is perhaps best illustrated by the term “baggage Buddhism” — or, rather, how this term has been applied in popular discourse. It is presumed that the “baggage” in question are cultural practices brought to America by Asian immigrants, and, as baggage, can be let go in favor of true or authentically “Buddhist” elements of the tradition. This perspective tends to diminish these cultural practices as unimportant and is, frankly, offensive to those who care deeply about them.

However, I am not going to speak to that. I am not going to speak to that because the last thing the world needs is another white guy telling other white guys why the non-white guys are justifiably angry. The non-white guys are capable of speaking for themselves and I should get the hell out of their way. What I should do is speak from my own perspective as a white guy.

When we employ the ethnic/non-ethnic dichotomy and assume that only “ethnic” people have “culture,” we (i.e., white people) let ourselves off the hook for also being cultural. For having our own cultural baggage. To put it simply, if everyone has an ethnicity and ethnicity is a marker of cultural heritage and everyone has a cultural heritage then it logically follows that everyone is located in a specific culture and therefore has cultural baggage. If we want to make the argument that cultural baggage is bad and some pure, authentic, a-cultural Buddhism is good, then we need to be attentive to and critical of all forms of cultural baggage, including and especially white cultural baggage. By assuming that there are people who are immune to cultural influences, we give ourselves the freedom to ignore our own cultural heritage thus perpetuating our own cultural baggage without critical inquiry.

Two final points. First, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “pure, authentic, a-cultural Buddhism.” All Buddhism is cultural. And that’s not a bad thing. Secondly, if we take whiteness seriously as an ethnicity (or at the very least a cultural marker like all other cultural markers), then it can be the subject of analysis in the same way other ethnicities have been for centuries. If we are honest about whiteness, its contours and boundaries, we can begin to dismantle the parts of this social construct that inadvertently perpetuate power systems that underly a significant part of our collective social suffering. And last time I checked, undoing social suffering was something many Buddhists claim to care about.

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