There are many ways to talk about Asians and non-Asians in Buddhism in the West, but perhaps one of the strangest approaches is by Barbara O’Brien. She has been using a particular terminology for a while, but it didn’t occur to me how strange her wording was until last week when she used the expression, “non-ethnic Asian westerners [sic].”
Who are the Asians who aren’t ethnic? This expression puzzled me because O’Brien routinely uses the term “ethnic Asian” to talk about people of Asian heritage, but I always imagined that “ethnic” was a redundant modifier. Whenever I read those words, I always smirk because “ethnic Asian” suggests that there are Asians who are “ethnic” and Asians who aren’t. I always assumed that O’Brien was using this term somewhat unnecessarily to emphasize “Asian” as an ethnicity, but now it suddenly looked meaningful. You could be an “ethnic” Asian or a “non-ethnic” Asian! Which one am I?
A moment later, I realized O’Brien probably had another meaning for the expression: Westerners of non-Asian heritage.
I have given people a lot of flak before about how they use the term “ethnic.” In particular, I would prefer people drop the term “ethnic Buddhist” or “ethnic Buddhism” much in the same way that Americans have stopped using the term “Orientals” to refer to Asians. But O’Brien’s usage is somewhat different.
It feels as though O’Brien is acutely aware of the minefield she’s stepping through when she writes about race. She tries to talk about “ethnicity” as a proxy for what is otherwise a conversation about race. The issue is that when you’re talking about “ethnic Asians” versus everyone else, you’re just using our bread-and-butter American racial categories under a different moniker.
If you’re going to write about race, then write about it. If you want to talk about the nuanced layers of ethnicity and culture in America, then bring on the nuance. But it doesn’t work when you try to pretend you’re talking about nuance, only to make broad racial statements. There are better ways that ethnic Europeans can write about race and heritage in the Buddhist community.