Religious Appropriation Depends on Whiteness Too

(Getty/ Andrii Lutsyk/ Ascent Xmedia)

MMost progressive liberals are aware of the dangers of borrowing from racially excluded communities. My students are no exception. They are quick to recognize and condemn forms of cultural appropriation when whites adopt styles from communities of color for financial gain or to increase their coolness quotient. Which all means that we are at a very important cultural moment of awareness of systemic racial injustice. We are prepared to view racist borrowing as likely to be ethically incriminating. And that’s good.

But few seem concerned or even notice when religious borrowing is doing harm. But on the contrary. Religious associations are not only common, but encouraged as a way to engage in religious practice without having to submit to religious institutions, hierarchies, and doctrines. It is a method of harnessing the spiritual benefits of religions without losing individual autonomy. What is spiritual but not religious if not the obligation to borrow religious practices while remaining an outsider to religious communities, a situation ripe for appropriation?

When concerns are raised, religious appropriations are defended by labeling them differently for their liberal motivations—politics, education, therapy—a tactic that hides the damage they can do to religious communities. In my last book steal my religion, I examine three instances of borrowing, all motivated by goals that we would consider “good” from a liberal perspective: demonstrating allies with a religious minority (wearing a headscarf in solidarity), something about a religious rite of passage through personal experience to experience (study abroad on the Camino de Santiago) and a therapeutic treatment based on a religious practice (practicing yoga). In any case, I found that these motivations were not enough to prevent poor results. Put simply, liberal intentions led to illiberal results.

Given how sensitive many of us are to racist forms of cultural appropriation, why do we have such a blind spot when it comes to forms of religious appropriation? I think one answer is that we don’t understand that race is also fundamental to religious appropriation. When the borrowings come from cultures connected to black communities, we know white supremacy is at play. But one thing surprised me during the research steal my religion was how central race was to understanding the ethics of religious borrowing. Whiteness motivated every instance of borrowing I looked at, and white supremacy in some form was one reason borrowing was harmful and hence properly called appropriation.

The first case study I address is the solidarity hijab — wearing an Islamic headscarf to signal opposition to gendered Islamophobia — like the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign launched after the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. This campaign encouraged non-Muslim women to wear a hijab to protest anti-Muslim violence, but many Muslims experienced this as a false form of white allies.

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Kayla Renée Wheeler, a scholar of Black Islam and Muslim fashion, described the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign’s solidarity hijab as deletion and hailed the campaign as a liberal virtue signal: “People are allowed to pat themselves on the back,” she said tweeted, “without actually doing anything useful. I think it’s harmful.” Layla Poulos, author and activist, noted how temporary the gesture is. “Remember,” she tweeted“Many of the non-Muslim women who wrap their hijabs around for a day of ‘solidarity’ will take them off and cuddle up to the same ideologies and men who make us unsafe.”

The Muslim women who spoke out loudest on social media against the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign were black. And that was no coincidence. Black Muslim women saw things differently because, amidst intersecting forms of oppression (Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy), they are used to being erased, symbolized, and exploited. For black Muslim scholars and activists, the solidarity hijab was not only a form of gendered Islamophobia but also of white supremacy.

Let’s look at my second case study: a Camino education program. The Camino de Santiago or ‘Way of St James’ is a popular pilgrimage route that runs through northern Spain where, according to legend, the bones of the Apostle James are buried. This trip is a Catholic pilgrimage, but Catholic pilgrims are in the minority. As part of an experiential study abroad program I led for Northeastern University from 2013-2017, I walked a leg of the Camino with college students five times. The goal of this study abroad program was to improve religious education, but I now recognize that the program reinforced a Christian-centric and whitewashed narrative of Spanish history.

Historically, the Iberian Peninsula, where the Camino is located, was home to a variety of religious traditions, including Celtic, Greek, and polytheistic practices. Christians did not receive a stronghold until the fifth-century Visigoth occupation, and that ended in 711, when the decline of the Visigoths allowed the Muslim Moors of North Africa to claim this area. Islamic rule over what is now known as Spain lasted for seven centuries. Many historians consider this period of Islamic rule to be the golden age of Spanish intellectual and artistic production, while the rest of Europe was mired in the Middle Ages.

However, there is another way to describe the period of Moorish rule in Spain: as the invasion and occupation of Iberia by foreign forces, which Christians fought more than 700 years to oust. And this is the narrative that is most common in Spain today.

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Now consider the role of the Camino in the context of these competing narratives of Spanish history. Suddenly the timing of the discovery of the tomb of St. James around 813 is significant. It provided a way for the Christian authorities to bring more Christians into the region while trying to overthrow Islamic rule.

But there is more. Legends circulated that St. James intervened in the growing tensions between Christians and Muslims by miraculously returning as the Matamoros, or Moor Slayer, a knight who helped defeat the Muslim Moors. There are still visual depictions of Matamoros throughout Spain, including in Santiago Cathedral, where he crushes the heads and bodies of Moors under the hooves of his white steed. This means that the Camino is not only a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle St James, but also to an Anglo-European medieval knight celebrated for murdering non-white North African Muslims in order to “bring” Spain back to its supposed Christian roots. But most pilgrims don’t know this version of the story or St. James and literally walk past the crime scene. So while the very existence of the Camino depends on a violent history of religious pluralism in which race plays a central role, its popularity today depends on the erasure of that history.

The role of whiteness in popularizing yoga—my third and final case study—is also clear. When yoga first arrived in the US at the turn of the 20th century, and physical postures were tied to devotional yogic beliefs, it was met with suspicion. This yoga was too Eastern, too foreign, and frankly too involved with bodies of color to become mainstream for white Americans. For yoga to go mainstream, it has been stripped of its devotional meaning and presented in spaces comfortable for whites.

For example, when my mother discovered yoga in the early 1970s, it didn’t come from an Indian guru but from Lilias Folan, a white woman in a leotard whose popular PBS show introduced yoga to a generation of white American women. Folan’s postures and simple meditation techniques seemed a bit exotic at the time, which was part of their appeal, but they were also packaged in a way that was accessible and convenient for my white Protestant mother.

Rumya Putcha, a South Asian performance studies scholar, tells a compelling story on her research blog: Namaste Nation, which illustrates the role of yoga in creating public white spaces. When Putcha lived in Texas, she was a member of a local yoga studio. Another member, a white female, used a pun, “namastay together” that offended Putcha as a Desi woman. But when she voiced her concerns, the white member chatted with the studio owner, and Putcha was asked to leave the studio. This illustrates what can happen when white privilege is triggered. The studio was happy to borrow from South Asian culture to make its members’ yoga experiences more “authentic,” but actual South Asian members would be disfellowshipped if they questioned that appropriation.

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If Americans are more sensitive to racial appropriation than religious appropriation because we assume that only the former is involved in white supremacy, then we overlook the extent to which the latter is also dependent on whiteness. I agree that there is something particularly egregious about whites embracing practices associated with non-white communities. But a black-and-white racial binary is not the only way whites are involved in creating exploitative conditions for appropriation.

Whiteness ideology manifests itself in various ways in forms of religious appropriation—when practices associated with colored bodies are adopted by white agents, when stories of racism are erased, and when forms of appropriation see white Americans as the proper interpreters of the “true.” “ Importance of practice. Whiteness is part of what makes religious appropriation possible and popular in the first place, and then perceived as morally neutral.

So the next time you see others borrowing, or being drawn to, a religious practice, consider applying the same scrutiny you would apply to cultural appropriation cases where the role of race seems more obvious. Religious minorities are racialized, white Protestantism is embedded in many of our laws and institutions, and race is a part of which historical narratives are nurtured and left behind. It is likely that the spiritual practice you engage in for well-being or self-realization has racial implications. Just because you can borrow something doesn’t always mean you should.

Liz Bucar is Professor of Religion, Dean’s Leadership Fellow, and Director of Sacred Writes at Northeastern University. An expert in comparative ethics of religion, Bucar is the author of four books and two edited collections, including Stealing my religion: Not just any cultural appropriation. Your public grant contains bylines in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Timesand Teen Vogueas well as several radio u Podcast Interviews.

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