One thing I carried away from this past election cycle was that in certain parts of the country, people refer to their ancestry as “American.” This juicy tidbit about American demographics was gleaned from Nate Silver‘s highly influential blog, where he wrote:
Recently, the Census Bureau has begin to ask for an ethnic classification in addition to a racial one (e.g. “Cuban”, “Lithuanian”). However, about seven percent of Americans decline to check any of the boxes that the Census Bureau provides, and instead write in that they are simply “American”. As you can see, this practice tends to be highly concentrated in certain parts of the country, especially the Appalachian/Highlands region:
To be perfectly blunt, this variable seems to serve as a pretty good proxy for folks that a lot of us elitists would usually describe as “rednecks”. And for whatever reason, these “American” voters do not like Barack Obama. That is why he’s getting killed in the polls in Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, where there are high concentrations of them.
So what does this have to do with Buddhism? Nothing.
One day I visited with Ben Moore, a fellow “Dharma Brat” (child of American Buddhist parents).
So what then does it mean to be an American Buddhist?
Let’s make things clear. As a whole I have no gripes about the piece, but I was pained by this one definition. Those five parenthetical words are sad, disappointing and offensive all at once. When Lewis says that Dharma brats are the children of “American” Buddhists, he’s implicitly saying that all those Asian American Buddhists who aren’t Dharma brats are children of people who aren’t American Buddhists. (Sorry, Mom!)
After all, from my understanding, Dharma brats are more appropriately defined as the children of Buddhists who are American, but aren’t Asian. (Or the children of converts, but that distinction merits another post.) Now for some reason, Lewis prefers to use “American” in place of “American but not Asian.” Maybe he feels that Asian Americans really aren’t American. Or maybe he feels that Asian American Buddhists simply aren’t American Buddhists. Or worse yet, maybe he just doesn’t care and pretends that Asian American Buddhists don’t exist.
Or maybe he identifies with Appalachia and considers “American” an ethnicity.
And this is no bitty slip-o’-the-tongue that I’ve jumped all over. Lewis uses the same words in this interview:
First of all, I was born into an American Buddhist family—they call us “Dharma Brats.”
If you’re not convinced, just check out Lewis’ words from fourteen years ago:
The young journalist who waited for her at the cafe was similar to Emily in many ways: he was 20 years old, a college student in Boston, an aspiring writer, and another “dharma brat,” raised in an American family devoted to the practice of an Eastern religion.
It is simply astounding that in all his years, it has never occurred to Mr. Lewis — be it through personal reflection or friendly intervention — that this usage of “American” might be viewed at best as infelicitous and at worst as racist! After all, in every one of these contexts, Lewis’ use of “American” is to the incontrovertible exclusion of Asian Americans. Cries over the (mis)use of Zen seem quaint in comparison.
Let me reframe the credentials of Asian American Buddhists. We are Buddhist because that’s what we call ourselves, because that’s how we practice, because that’s the religion we choose to follow and identify with. We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie. And our Buddhism is American Buddhism because no matter how superficially similar our local practice may seem to the way that Buddhism is practiced in Asia, we have had to significantly adapt and alter our traditions to fit our American community and context here in North America.
We brought Buddhism to America, and yet somehow we’ve become discretionary denizens of the American Buddhist community. In our own community. The truth is that in the face of all the Asian American temples and congregations, it’s the white people who have more money, power and influence over the way that America views the Buddhist community. And it’s people like Waylon Lewis who, on the record with ostensibly innocent intentions, refer to American Buddhists by pointing away from Asians.
Where do we draw the line between what counts as American and what doesn’t count as American, and at what point does race and ethnicity factor into the equation of what counts as American? We can extend these questions to American Buddhism, but can we answer them without using any racial or ethnic terms?
I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who notices these slights (and right now I’m psychically staring at all the effete white liberal Buddhists who use the term “American” Buddhism synonymously with “non-Asian” Buddhism). But that’s why I blog. Someone’s got to write about it.