Points of Reference

 arunlikhati wrote on Twitter:

Liberation from Theism and Atheism http://bit.ly/bkWna8 · I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with this cultural baggage

This brought up some interesting thoughts about the cultural baggage that those of us from Caucasian as well as Christian origins carry. So many times the thought is expressed, “But we don’t have a culture.” If you speak a language, wear clothes, work, have a philosophy of any kind, participate with any human group, think-then you have a culture. There is no one on earth who doesn’t have a culture.

Then I encountered Richard’s deeply thought out post Oh, I get it – you think I’m white in which he said:

I believe there are two primary reasons why most people don’t think about the complexity of their identity. One is a matter of convenience and acquiescence; it is much easier to just simply act within the behavioral norms associated with our identity without thinking about them or being aware of them. I believe the other reason, however, is that to seriously consider the complexity of our identity scares the shit out of most people. And fear, it is important to be aware of, often leads to unskillful – even irrational – behavior

He then goes on to talk about an experience he had in Thailand when the familiar anchor of culture was cut away. He calls it the “We’re not in Kansas any more” moment. Those kinds of moments are incredibly instructive if we can delve into them rather than try to fortify our identities by ignoring whatever real situation we find ourselves in. I would even suggest sometimes seeking out such experiences occasionally can help us confront what we take for granted.

When we go to another country or even another area of our town or even to a different Buddhist temple or organization wherein we are not in the majority (I’m talking about white people here) what often happens is the urge to understand the situation of the other people there. It is something of a learning experience about “the other” . That’s not a bad thing by any means. We don’t usually though, examine our own behavior, thinking or reactions to the situation.  It is rather difficult to say I don’t have a clue about what’s going on here and I feel lost, alone, disjointed. We get a little defensive both with those feelings and sometimes with others around us. The urge is to insulate ourselves. I say this as someone who has observed this phenomenon in others for many years and as someone who has at times observed it in myself. Consider though that other people there may be having a similar response.

In a different situation that we are accustomed to it is “the tourist” that comes to the forefront of personality and behavior. One who seeks an “exotic” experience but only on my own terms of reference. It very much reminds me of the behavior of people on cruise vacations. Stopping at this or that port for a day and seeing the sights, picking up a few souvenirs and moving on. Back to the comfortable cabin, familiar food, music and television on familiar channels in a familiar language, amenities of a nature similar to those we’ve left behind. The ports of call become a bit of a side show both because there isn’t time to assimilate anything on any sort of meaningful level but also because we may not really see the need to do that.

And in such scenarios we are also often more concerned with what we have to gain there than what we have to give. Our self-presentation is conditioned not only by our personal cultural factors but by the insulation and bolstering of our “norms” by the presence of fellow travelers. Very few people travel alone. And travel itself is more conducive to grouping due to cost factors as well as security factors. The travel industry is even set up that way. (I don’t like paying the single supplement for things but actually I spend a lot less alone than when traveling with a competing consumer) Couples, families, groups are the experiential matrix from which we view the rest of the world when traveling. It seems to be a somewhat safe haven.

Culture is usually an unconscious part of identity when one is interacting within their own culture. There are certain things that are “norms” or taken for granted. These things are rarely if ever examined in any depth. In a mixed cultural setting, if someone is from the dominant culture, there is also little opportunity, and often little need,  for such examination in any depth. [The same could be said for class, gender, sexual orientation, ability]

But sometimes circumstances, by necessity, bring this into focus.

Some argue against this type of discussion or analysis, particularly as related to anything to do with Buddhism. The line generally relates to “identity politics” and its “insertion” into dialogues amongst Buddhists. But as Buddhists is not “identity” one of our core concerns? Is not “politics”, meaning the exercise of power and control and how we relate to the rest of the world relevant to our daily lives and our identity? And isn’t there a difference between “insertion” and acknowledging that there is an elephant in the room already?

Another argument relates to the practice of denial and imposition of that denial on others. There are those who would say, “We are now post-racial” as a means of shutting down the concerns of others who for numerous reasons may not feel that is the case currently. Such a dismissal is a dismissal of those concerns in favor of one’s own version of comfortable reality.

And then I want to include one other point that Waylon Lewis brought up on elephant journal in the post Is Boulder too “White”? (or Stuff White People Like-#7 Diversity). That is, to us white people there is quite a diversity to “white”.  I am personally “Nordic white” while the folks I stay with when visiting Canada are “Spanish white”.  There are others of my acquaintance who are “Slovakian white”, “Arabic white”, “German white”, “Turkish white” and “Jewish white”.

Well lets consider some other situations for a moment.

Do you think it’s any different for Asians? Do you think maybe Korean people get tired of being mistaken for Chinese people and vice versa? Do you think Cambodian and Laotian people consider themselves in a more particular way than “Southeast Asian” or just “Asian”?

Here in India the plethora of specifics around the concept of “Indian” is absolutely astounding in terms of complexity and diversity. There are castes, gotras, tribes, scheduled castes, dalits, Sikhs with various divisions, Muslims with various divisions, Anglo-Indians, Indians with Portuguese heritage (mostly around Goa), Jewish Indians, Dravidians, Punjabis, Garwhalis, Tamils, Sikkimese Buddhists, Ladakhis….and so on. Within each of these groups are further divisions, at times based on skin color. By example I know 2 Garwhalis of brahmin caste and relatively comparable gotras (caste division). One is just labeled brahmin and the other is dark brahmin. Yes caste is technically “illegal” in India but just read the Sunday newspaper matrimonial ads and it’s a rare one that states “caste no bar” to a match. Almost all of them are very specific regarding both caste and skin color (wheatish is the most common adjective) on offer for these marriages.

While many groups do not have such an intricate categorization scheme there are still divisions that are relevant to people themselves within their own cultural milieu. This is something that Waylon pointed out.

For another example is it any different for indigenous people? Do you think the Cree nation is the same as the Mi’kmaq nation or that either of those groups of people are the same as the Inuit people?

In his post on diversity Waylon makes the plea on behalf of white people:

So don’t lump us all in together.

however this is immediately after talking about Colorado’s comparative (with other states) lack of 

a more or less indigenous black population.

I am more than a little confused about that terminology. Did North America ever have an “indigenous black population”? By that is he referring to people of African origin or aboriginal people with dark skin? I don’t know but I think a lot of people just got lumped together.

I’m not out to pick on Waylon. He just happened to publish this particular piece as I was starting to write this blog post. Timeliness can be both a blessing and a curse sometimes.

A lot of white people complain about this particular situation. And often, as in the case of Waylon’s article, it relates much more to class issues than to racial issues.  The oft used “poor white” is equated with the daily discrimination that people of color face. These are quite different issues and considerably different scales of magnitude.

One of the biggest differences is…poor can change. I know that because my background was rather meager as well. When I was growing up my father drove a truck, supplemented the family’s income by participating in the army reserve and did farm work on his vacations during the fall and my mother stayed home and sometimes took in sewing to do from the neighbors. As soon as I was 12 I started working by babysitting, newspaper deliveries and any other odd jobs I could come up with. That wasn’t for pocket money. It was to buy clothes and necessities as my parents struggled to pay a mortgage. Had I been a Cree child, this was in Saskatchewan,  in the same circumstances it is unlikely that many of these little jobs would have come my way. White privilege starts young regardless of class.

Socio-economic indicators are not immediately identifiable and while there is definite classism in existence, the degree to which it is displayed is considerably less than the degree to which racism, either overt or systemic is expressed. Let’s go to an example.

Two white guys walk into a bank. They are both wearing jeans and t-shirts. No one at first glance can identify which has the big investment portfolio and which is cashing a welfare check. Both will initially receive the same type of greeting at the teller. What happens though when one of the guys is black?  Even if he is the one with the investment portfolio? Does he receive additional initial scrutiny from the security guard? Do other patrons “notice” him? Does he get “the gaze” from the staff?  The difference in treatment and atmosphere starts even before any verbal or economic social exchange has begun.

Now maybe I’m a little picky about this kind of thing. We can sit an compare degrees of discrimination and discomfort til the cows come home. But there are no winners in the oppression olympics.  

There is no one on the planet who doesn’t have a cultural identity. And there is no one who doesn’t act and feel from that point of reference.


Why I Am Writing This Post?

A lot of white folks never get the chance to have a “minority experience”. I want to outline a little bit of what that has been like for me, a white woman, living in India for nearly a decade. Nearly every day I am presented with the fact that I am white and that I am privileged because of that.  And I am also presented with the fact that I am in a very small minority and I am sometimes derided for that.  This experience has made me deeply confront these issues on a social and personal level. This is just the way circumstances present themselves.

The Minority Experience as a Privileged Individual

Despite some of the more unpleasant feelings and reactions that the minority experience brings up for me (isolation, misunderstanding, occasional hostility, stereotyped expectations)  in the Indian context there is still a marked deference to the colonial white privilege days.  So whatever you do don’t in any way feel sorry for my situation at all. I’ll give some reasons right off the bat.

I don’t have to live in India. I am free to leave whenever I like. I can live just about anywhere I want here without caste barriers. I can expect mostly hassle free interactions with authorities with a few exceptions.  I can also take refuge with other white expats if I so choose.  (These are all related to my white, Canadian citizenship (foreigner) and economic privileges)

What is written here is both about being in the minority and my sometimes culture shocked reaction.

What I find also evident in negative terms of minority treatment is being the subject of sexism both systemically and openly more often than in some other places. However this is minimized in my case due to other privileges. I do not experience this to the same degree as most Indian women. But I am not out to demonize Indian men either.  It was not so long ago that most Western countries also demonstrated much higher degrees of sexism and it is certainly not absent today by any means. Social change takes time, education, focus and effort among other things. Those things are happening here to some degree as well. Even in the past 10 years there have been marked changes locally. Women’s activist groups have sprung up, women are heading panchayat councils (local governing bodies), many more women are taking higher education and working after marriage. This has disgruntled some men (as it still does in the developed world!) but it seems to be unstoppable now so it’s only a question of time.

There are some days though I do hesitate to go outside. Not because of the weather nor that I haven’t done the laundry so don’t have something clean to wear. It is important to present yourself well here. Dirty and rumpled clothes will bring some negative encounters or even comments. Sometimes I don’t like the attention my presence brings at certain venues. If I know I am to be the only foreigner there I hesitate to attend. And I know at some of these venues the only reason I am being invited is because I am foreign. OK it makes me feel like a dancing bear to be exhibited. On the one hand it is an expression of esteem but then again it is a form of objectification. There are a lot of dilemmas like this. Every one of them has to be taken on it’s own merits. Considerations about who is involved, who gains or loses face, and what further results, in terms of further invitations or ostracization will ensue, not only for myself but for others,  if I attend or not. So much here depends on the social aspects of things. And there is a great deal of nuance involved in it. I fumble at it a lot.

Sometimes it is necessary to construct a shell in some social encounters.  Rude comments, staring or even the open questions about my presence in the neighborhood, town or the country are behaviors I’ve occasionally encountered. Questions are asked of me, by strangers that would never be asked to an Indian who is not known to the questioner. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain the lack of a husband and children. There’s no point getting upset about it. The answer to the question in that case has become “We got a divorce because I am not able to have children.” Not wholly true but partly. It was a choice on my part not any sort of medical condition. By giving this answer it cuts off any further questions and stops people from trying to introduce me to the eligible bachelors in their family. That happened a couple of times before I got my story down.

I also choose not to interact with many ex-pats. Aside from differing religions, most whites here are Christians, we also have very differing political views. Most are rather conservative and I am not. And I also do not choose to do so because many tend to whine a lot about their situation, which is about 500% better than any of their Indian neighbors, and this gets on my nerves. And I’ve been accused of “going native” on more than one occasion (it was supposed to be a joke in each case) which is incredibly insulting to me, my partner, my friends and the country and it’s people as a whole.

I am sometimes called Mem-sahib  by people who are older than me. This is a throwback to the British Raj colonialist times. This is not comfortable for me in terms of the baggage it carries. However rather than to try to change people’s life long habits I respond with a pranam or namaskar-ji or other respectful response, depending upon the situation, to try to level out the implied differences of respect. This has worked well so far in interactions so that no one is left feeling too elevated or denigrated.

I am often mistaken for a German when the subject comes up. I guess I look like a German type. So I do say I am Canadian. This sometimes leads to explanations as to the differences between Canadians and Americans. And these can go into detail.

In dealing with authorities, as I said it usually goes fairly smoothly but sometimes I can also expect some of those interactions to be fraudulent and a result of those authorities perceiving me as a monied person who should share my wealth with them. Sometimes this has caused problems for my friends here as well although some try to hide this from me. Instead of approaching me directly for the baksheesh they go to those around me. When I find out about it, and I usually do, I try to compensate the individuals for any losses they have incurred. Sometimes I have to do this indirectly by way of “gifting” something.

I realize too that the people who encounter me are as unsure as I am. They haven’t got the experience of participating in my culture nor my language. Efforts are made to the best of our abilities on either side. Sometimes it’s really like work.  And sometimes it does break down. But far more often there is some middle ground that can be reached which leaves everyone involved in the encounters with a pleasant afterglow. It has helped to start from a position of potential friendship. Considering people as potential friends opens up space for a meaningful encounter to take place. It doesn’t mean one isn’t occasionally wary of strangers or that others will necessarily reciprocate and it does leave one open to the potential possibility of being hurt. But that is a small possibility compared to the greater possibility of a mutually satisfying social exchange.

As I am writing this I realize how fragmentary it is. There is no way to convey the whole of the thing. Specific examples don’t explain it nor are there any generalizations that are useful. It comes down to the tones of a situation and the atmosphere of interactions and things like that which are so amorphous that they defy adequate description. So I’m just going to stop trying to describe it.

Over all on a personal level, it’s a real mixed bag of experiences and has forced me to really confront and process a lot of suppositions and “norms” that I either knew about only intellectually or was not fully conscious of. And that continues constantly.

There is a frequent feeling of not quite belonging, not quite fitting in, not quite “being” something. But it is not rejection. There is acceptance to a point. After all this time there is also a feeling of a place having been made for me. However it is through the definitions of others and not of my own choosing. The larger culture is determining the terms of my “being”. And I realize now that has always been true even in my own culture and it is true for everyone everywhere all the time. 

We are “not quite” who others define us to be. We are “not quite” who we define ourselves to be. We are “not quite” what is demanded/expected of us. We are “not quite” ourselves in most circumstances.

It all comes down to that “not quite”. It is only by conscious recognition and diligent effort that we move from the discomfort of the ill-fitting “not quite” to the relaxed fit of contentment and acceptance.

A Most Excellent Disclaimer

On the blog My Buddha is Pink, Richard Harrold wrote an excellent article entitled Land of institutionalized denial. In that article he presented the following paragraph:

I need another brief digression here, as I know some of my white male friends and readers will look upon that paragraph and think, “Oh fer chrissakes, here comes the white male bashing stuff again.” All I can say is get over it. This isn’t about you personally. Your knee-jerk response to take umbrage with such comments only reveals how this remains a major hindrance in your practice. To quote an Aerosmith song, “Talk with yourself and you’ll hear what you wanna know.”

Writing about minority issues seems to upset those who most identify with the categories to which their identity is most strongly tied, be that race, nation, sexual orientation, ability, religion or gender, and who may not recognize that identification. If one has not examined their identity ties as they function in a larger context and in significant detail, and most white people have not, in the case of race, because they have not been presented with circumstances that have demanded it, then there may be some discomfort that arises when reading on these subjects.

The choice about encountering such material is then a) don’t read it or b) examine that discomfort and find out where it is coming from within.

It is easy to state that another has written something we are uncomfortable with.  But to pinpoint the reasons why is a whole other ball game. Playing the blame game for our personal feelings is abdicating responsibility for those feelings. No one can “make” us feel anything. We generate our responses ourselves. It usually means we have taken personally something which is not personal at all. We have grasped it and are clinging to it with a vengeance. Our ego is wounded. Our pride and identity offended. Our comfort in our illusions of ourselves has been rattled. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing in the long run. 

We can choose to feel badly about a situation or not. We can choose to make the effort to harmonize our situation or not. We can choose to speak up about situations that cause ill-feeling and try to reach to the root level of those situations. Then maybe we won’t have to think about them any more. But until then, until everyone is fully conscious of the effects of cultures/systems/groups as defining and contributing factors in divisiveness, including in internal divisiveness, these issues will remain on the radar.

And if we choose to try to bury them, they will, like unthinking zombies keep reappearing in different and more dangerous guises. (Arizona etc.)


When we can share space this harmoniously perhaps we will really be “post-racial”.


4 comments on “Points of Reference

  1. This is minor, compared with the complexities of living long term in India as a non-Indian. But this may illustrate how difficult it is to make sense of one’s relationships when dealing with a social map/context in which one cannot easily fit or–be made to fit.

    I was close to my mother’s best friend and after my mother died, X invited me to consider her my mother.

    When I managed to stop crying, I gulped and said, ‘I already do.’

    But there is nothing in the English language for such a relationship.

    So by way of verbal short hand, I referred to this wonderful woman as my step mother. She was not my stepmother in the legal sense, but she most definately was, in the emotional sense.

    Calling her my ‘stepmother’ was not strictly or legally speaking, true but at the emotional level it was, and it spared me having to take one or two spoken or written paragraphs when describing this to persons I did not know well.

    All this was in the United States, and within my family.

    It becomes immeasurably more complex when, as Nella has described, one is living in a society where one’s presence cannot be easily fitted into that society’s catagories.

    And..on top of which, there is no one dominent culture or code of manners, in India–instead of which, there are thousands. And where one is a long term resident non-Indian vs those who visit more briefly.

    In his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta tells of how he and his wife, born in Bombay/Mumbai, found many unexpected complications when they returned and set up their home, after years of living in the US, and the many many layers of relationship and social networks they had to identify and collborate with–and, at times, appease–just to find and rent their first apartment and fix the electricity and plumbing. Tactful explanations had to be offered to their landlord when they changed some furnishings, so as not to wound the man’s feelings or ruin the relationship.

    Suketu and his wife knew they were infinitely well off compared with the very many persons who looked to them for help.

    He writes of himself and his wife, ‘We were a low pressure zone surrounded by a high pressure zone’–in relation to acquaintances and employees and poorer neighbors who looked to them for baksheesh and patronage–the only safety net traditionally available for centuries.

    And in 1949, arriving in India from his native Vienna, Leonard Fischer, who later took the name Agehananda Bharati, described arriving in Bombay, and how when he dressed in Indian khadi cotton clothes and spoke Hindi with a perfect native accent, he was taken to be a northern Indian national, and expected to wait in line for the movies. Yet the instant he spoke British English, that transformed him into a Memsahib and he was immediately deferred to.

    (Agehananda Bharati, The Ochre Robe)

  2. I think it was on a Kids in the Hall episode that I heard the best explanation of the difference between Canadians and Americans: Canadians are just like Americans, except without the guns.

    I really enjoyed this post. It got me thinking about many things. And one is the recognition that when I travel, I often ask myself, “could I live here?” Perhaps that experience in Thailand really broke down some barriers so that since, I am more likely to “immerse” myself into a location and visualize myself as a resident, whether it’s on the other side of the world, or in another U.S. city. For example, I’m not so sure I would like living in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur; they were nice places to visit. But Penang or Langkawi? I could easily see myself living in either of those locations. Taipei also; I spent a lot of time traveling through that city alone, unable to read Chinese. In Danshui I went down a back alley to see the morning hawker markets open. Sure, I played tourist I suppose, I took many photos. But I ambled also, I didn’t have an itinerary. I guess that’s why “tours” are so insulating; you never truly experience the moment because you’re stuck in the moment of the “tour,” always anticipating where you’re going next.

    I cannot escape who I am, but I don’t have to act the role of how others perceive who I am.

  3. Where do you get time to write these long posts?

    I sometimes resist being lumped in the category “westerner” – my ancestors were from English but I am and they were pinky-cream in colour with freckles of dark brown all over, who tan up OK in the sun. I’m certainly not “white” – no one is white, not even albinos. Neither am I a Westerner in that I was born 175 East of Greenwich and 39 South of the equator. I am a South-Easterner if anything. I suppose I have more cultural conditioning related to Britain and the USA than to China or Japan. But then I’m an immigrant to the UK and I’m never allowed to forget that, nor would I wish to. The UK is presently moving to limit non-EU immigration which includes me and my people. So they don’t identify Kiwis as “us” but as “them”. Racially I am entirely English as far back records go, which is more than many of my “English” friends can say! Culturally I am from the South Pacific.

    I’m constantly being pigeon-holed. I’ve never felt like a pigeon.

    BTW Caste is not illegal in India. Caste *discrimination* is illegal, but Gandhi ensued that caste remains an integral part of Indian culture. Dr Ambedkar has wanted to go further in outlawing caste entirely, but Gandhi prevented him by going on a hunger strike (i.e. threatening to kill himself). Gandhi was against discrimination, but could not see that discrimination (divide and conquer) is the essence of caste. Positive caste discrimination is extensive in India, but has yet to change the balance of Indian society very much partly because of the scope of negative discrimination. Also the usual word for caste is “jati” (birth). Gotra really only applies to Brahmins – it literally means “cow-enclosure”, and refers to some specific lineages of Brahmins (of which the Gautama gotra is one of the most celebrated – go figure!)

  4. Great article, NellaLou.

    “We generate our responses ourselves. It usually means we have taken personally something which is not personal at all. We have grasped it and are clinging to it with a vengeance. Our ego is wounded. Our pride and identity offended. Our comfort in our illusions of ourselves has been rattled. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing in the long run.”

    I agree with this and would add that yes, this can be powerfully liberating so long as we don’t respond by becoming “entrenched” or closed off. As an American abroad I sometimes did personalize people’s generalizations of “Americans” as violent, greedy, and ignorant… Often, the people I was talking to would kindly say something like, “but you’re not like that… no… how do you stand living amongst ‘those’ people?”

    Sigh. I joke with them, saying I’m from Montana and we’re much more like Canadians than other Americans :) Or I don’t and just try to change the subject… Or I get defensive.

    But luckily ‘those’ people who made a ‘them’ out of ‘me’ were generally quite kind. And it amounts to little compared with what others have to deal with.

    The question of Identity is a huge one, though. I know I’m an out-lier in some respects, but a good portion of my life has been about the exploration of identity, my own and the very concept itself. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but most people I know have been deeply conscious of identity, either through philosophy or through living in starkly contrasting cultural situations. Such people are, IMHO, infinitely more interesting, understanding, and wise than many around me in Montana, where identity is practically inherited and then left unquestioned.

    Keep up the consciousness-raising.

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