Monday, August 1, 2011

Whiteness, Buddhism and Safe Spaces: Hands off our sitio y lengua!

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

"...white society desires Third World people to mimic the colonizers. Our land, our dignity, our rights absorbed by their omnipotent power everywhere we turn. To assuage their guilt , they want to co-opt us, make us like them. Assimilation is their best fantasy" - Emma PĂ©rez, from "Sexuality and Discourse"
Since my last post on Buddhism, appropriation and POC identity, quite a few things transpired in the blogosphere. While two white Buddhist bloggers decided to decry my 'anti-white racism' and my supposed irrational distaste for Richard Gere, several courageous and inspiring POC and ally Buddhists have written in solidarity, acknowledging the sociocultural and political (yes, political) realities of race, identity and Buddhism. While the comments and emails from POC whose experiences resonated with my writing have been invaluably heartening, I've had to wade through no small amount of bullfeces from folks in the Buddhist community who are virulently opposed to any form of discussion around privilege and identity. While I knew from the get-go that staking a politicized, Third-World womanist claim to Buddhist identity would incite some responses, I was unprepared for the veritable maelstrom that followed. In the wake of that maelstrom however, I've asked myself some questions about why cultural appropriation is such a hard topic to broach, about why I feel determined to broach it, and why as a POC I harbor such a visceral anger when Whiteness appropriates cultures of color. This post was the result.


Brilliant Chicana feminist, Emma Perez, uses the phrase "sitio y lengua" to discuss culture, appropriation and empowerment for women of color. Translated as 'space and language', sitio y lengua names the dilemma faced by POC in general and WOC in particular in white-supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchal culture. How do we survive the emotional and physical aftermath of colonization, and the present historical reality of institutionalized subjugation, and leave ourselves whole, happy, intact and fulfilled? This is where culture and cultural practice comes in, especially for diasporic and immigrant communities who make their home away from the 'home' nation. Cultural practice allows a safe space, a space where we need not justify ourselves, our bodies, our existence to Whiteness. A space where we can draw strength from tangibles and intangibles - food, prayer, music, clothes, language - and be reminded of the courage and resistance of our people. In the absence of physical sitio y lengua, POC draw on the intangibles to sustain ourselves: religious practice or spirituality, cultural values of community: we create mental sitio y lengua.
When cultural appropriation happens, and Whiteness declares itself entitled to our sitio y lengua, it's just another form of the continuing colonial process. Colonizer hegemony is never satisfied so long as POC have even a modicum of safe, sacred space. What Perez exquisitely terms "colonizer castration anxiety", means that Whiteness fears that its historical crimes will one day be perpetrated on itself. It fears that POC will wreak genocide and resource theft/ usurpation on white folks; because of its historical role in racism and colonialism, Whiteness is incapable of envisioning a different reality, one in which cultural plurality exists without a power hierarchy.
I realize that the reason I am so angered by cultural appropriation, is because it violates a last safe space that I, as a WOC, can claim. It takes away my sitio y lengua by insisting that Whiteness be a presence there. It diminishes our resistance to white supremacy by saying see, white people can practice POC cultural traditions just as well as, even better than, POC. Our cultural spaces are sacred sites of resistance and love, empowerment and healing: they are not a free-for-all for Whiteness to feel better about its historical guilt or pick up some sort of good-White-person street cred. As long as I have strength and breath left, I will continue to defend our sitio y lengua, and demand respect for the strength and beauty of our peoples' continued resistance.

"Brown is the soil
of an unlived land
whose dirt I scatter
wherever I go
How we darkeye each other across the room
is something you'll never know
You'll never know us

You don't know how to plant this soil
give it up this food is too hot for you
and you won't cut down this
or any
of these olive trees
still bearing fruit"
--Leah-Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
from "I am a contradiction to your definition"
**Note: my computer is old and clunky, and lacked the keystrokes for accents over
Perez's name. My apologies to any native Spanish speakers.

***Note: check out this excellent post on Whiteness if you're new to the terminology.