Internal Affairs, Part 3

January 24th, 2011

This is the third part of this post. For the first and second parts, go here and here. Part Four will finish it off soon.

The internal/external discussion leads to a thought about the way we see groups of people. Within any group of people, there are variations. However, a common tendency is to present differences within a group as differences outside the group–to assume the external rather than internal. So suppose we’re looking at children playing. I think if we look for internal differences, we’ll say, “Lots of girls like playing with dolls, and some girls like playing with trucks.” It’s more common to imply that girls normally like dolls, that liking trucks is not an authentically “girl” thing to do. I’ve always been a little troubled by the word “tomboy”–as if the truck-playing girls aren’t really girls, but a kind of boy.

When we act as though there’s a divide that exists externally, we act as though some people have only conditional membership in a group. They’re men, but they aren’t “real men.” They’re artists, but they aren’t “true artists.” They’re Americans, but they aren’t “real Americans.”

More and more, this kind of divide bothers me. It can show up in subtle ways. When Gloria Steinem turned 40 years old, she had a famous response to an interviewer who commented, “You look good for 40”; she replied, “This is what 40 looks like.” Even if it’s presented as a compliment, I think there’s a need for an honest accounting of it. Especially when it’s meant to divide and disarm people, it stops us from accepting the range of possibilities, and accepting the authenticity of what we’re experiencing. This is what an American looks like. There’s no “real American” to judge against.

Occasionally, when I was in India, people would ask with puzzlement why I am Buddhist. They occasionally said, “I thought most Americans were Christian.”

I learned to reply with a joke: four American students are traveling through India on a train. As they enter the state of Punjab, they see a grey cow grazing alongside the tracks. One of them starts to take notes, and announces, “Today we learned that cows in Punjab are grey.”

The second student corrects him. “We can’t say that with any certainty. We learned that SOME cows in Punjab are grey.”

The third student clarifies. “No, all we can say with certainty is that there are cows in Punjab, and one of them is grey.”

The last student examines his notes. “Today I learned that there is at least one cow in Punjab. It is grey on at least one side.”

And so I hoped to clarify: since you met me, you know there is at least one Buddhist from America. One side of him is white.

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