Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's Talk About Feet

Anyone who keeps up on Tibetan or Buddhist news probably saw the news about Keds, (or, as we later found out, selling "Tibetan Buddhist Shoes." It was reported on the popular Tibetan news site, Phayul as well as the very popular Buddhist magazine Tricycle's blog site[Editor's Note: Tricycle has changed it's blog site and the comments are no longer visible].

The shoes featured Tibetan flags, mantras, the face of HH Dalai Lama, and even a Thangka of a Buddha, among other designs.

The Tibetan community, and world Buddhist community as a whole, was deeply offended.

Fortunately, Keds acted quickly, not only removing the offending shoes, but also issuing an apology and explaining how the error had occurred. Apparently, although Keds accepts responsibility for their lack of oversight on this issue, the offense had been committed by a partner site, which allows customers to custom design and sell shoes. Keds, however, admirably immediately contacted the site, the shoes were removed, and accepted responsibility for their role and immediately started taking steps to prevent future problems.

What does that have to do with this blog? I'm getting to it, I promise. But first I want to look at why this is so offensive.

In most Asian cultures (and I'm not talking east Asian, I'm talking all of Asia) as well as cultures with a strong Asian influence (for example, many European Muslim countries) the feet are considered dirty. Stepping over things, pointing with the feet, or placing respected objects on or under the feet is a huge no-no.

This can be a bit confusing from a western standpoint, since we don't have that association. I think almost every westerner working with Tibetans (myself included) has nudged someone with their foot, pointed with a foot, stepped over a book, stepped over a sleeping child, or stepped over food during a picnic--something like that--and been greeted with looks of absolute offense and horror. This is one that we all learn the hard way. But while the food/child/book rules are a bit harder to grasp, the religion one is pretty obvious.

Does anyone remember the fiasco a few years back when Nike made a shoe with a design that looked like the Arabic word "Allah" and there were massive protests by Muslims? Or the international threats to boycott the film "Hollywood Buddha" because the poster featured a man sitting on a Buddha head?

In short, people should know by now that putting religious images on a shoe might be offensive, and you probably ought to check with a religious authority before doing so.

So and shoe designer? That was dumb. Straightforward dumb.

And I'm sure some people thought it was "honoring" Tibetan culture, and to those people, I'd like to direct you to this post from the blog Native Appropriations. Different context, but I think it's one of the best explanations of why you should be careful when wearing another culture's sacred symbols for fashion.

But this blog isn't about the general ignorance of the public towards Tibet and Tibetan culture. In fact, I originally argued that this was not a valid topic for a post.

That is until I saw the comments on the tricycle blog.

I want to break this down as best I can. I don't know 100% which bloggers are Tibetans and which aren't, but I'm going to assume that Tibetan name and Tibetan linguistic writing patterns imply Tibetan. And I'm not going to include my own comment, which I left because I was so pissed when I saw these.

Because this is Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, I think we can safely assume that all commenter consider themselves to be Buddhist.

Number of comments (minus my own): 27
Number of Tibetan commenters: 7
Number of Non-Tibetan commenters: 9

The Tibetan writers unanimously found the designs terribly offensive.

Of the non Tibetan writers: Two neutral, Two found the designs inappropriate, and the remaining five all thought that everyone should lighten up and shouldn't be offended.

Those remaining five defended the designs by pointing to "transcendence" clinging to "things" and "symbols," "Impermanence" how the "True Buddha is not an image" or how this should be used as a lesson in non-attachment.

Others just said that they thought it was funny or wanted a pair.

So apparently, cultural offenses are anti-Buddhist, because they are clinging to symbols. However, I doubt that one of these writers would walk into a temple wearing a shirt that says "F*ck you" on it, because I'm pretty sure they would recognize that as culturally offensive. And I'm even more sure that they wouldn't spray paint obscenities and upside down crosses on a catholic church in order to make a point about the inherent fallacy of symbols.

Why? Well, they would claim being respectful of others' cultures and beliefs, but then--wait--why aren't we being respectful of Tibetan culture and belief?

The real reason? I'm 99% sure it's because this isn't offensive to White Western culture.

So if it's offensive to westerners, we shouldn't do it. But if its horribly offensive to Tibetans? Well, come on. Just lighten up! It's funny. Anyway, you shouldn't be so attached to symbols. After all, there is no true holiness!

These are people who consider themselves Buddhist, take teachings from Tibetan lamas, should know better, DO know better, but don't care.


  1. This post makes me regret saying how funny/cool I thought these shoes are.

    That being said, if the shoes are marketed to a Western audience, one could understand how/why the mistake was made...why check with Tibetan religious figures when selling shoes to hipster Westerners?

    This just underlies the need to have widespread education on religions in the West, and the response of the Westerners is why this will never happen - secularization may indeed be killing respect for all religions, and not just those of the West.

  2. Well done. I learned this about middle eastern countries when I was belly dancing, and was careful then to make certain I didn't make moves that showed the audience the bottoms of my feet. Later, it was reinforced in Thailand. I somehow did not associate it with Tibet per se, but it makes sense.

    I would have to respectfully disagree with Joseph's point about secularization, however. I count among my acquaintances several adamant believers in faiths as diverse as Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, Methodism and even Atheism who are each just as stubborn as the next when it comes to learning the traditions of another religion, especially one they consider "beneath" their own. They do not wish to learn, nor do they wish it taught in public. Ever.

    Perhaps secularization is merely a symptom of a larger problem that could be better described as "religious egoism" or zealotry on the part of the Western mainstream. It leaves those who do not wish to follow the mainstream so hungry, they grasp at whatever sounds soothing and end up buying shoes rather than learning how to find real faith, and more likely than not, they step on toes.

  3. Lurkitty, my focus was more about the stereotype of Europeans as becoming, as a whole, less religious...which I thought was ridiculous, until I began to think about it and compare it with my own experiences - I can't speak as to how Europeans were 100 years ago, but certainly I have met statistically more who were less/not religious than I have people from the United States who were less/not religious.

    It may also depend on the generation - people born in Generation B can turn out to be significantly different from those of Generation A. I have met many more "close minded" people above the age of 30 than I have 30 and below. I think that these young people (16-30) tend accept religious diversity as a part of life - in America, it has become almost as taboo to insult another religion as it is to make a racist comment. Of course, this is all my opinion, but I think Keds quick and speedy response goes to show this new and growing trend of religious tolerance/acceptance, which I imagine may become more and more pronounced with future generations, despite the most adamant efforts of extremists.

  4. Interesting observations, Joseph. I think there is a big issue, thought, which is I think that a lot of people of our generation think we shouldn't talk about race. And that doesn't actually help anything.

    I think our younger generation is in some ways a lot more race conscious, but we definitely have a long way to go. The phenomenon of the hipster headdress (linked to in this post) is a pretty perfect example. There are still a lot of racist behaviors that our generation considers OK.

    I do hope that we're moving in the right direction, and I think its definitely important to talk about the issue.

    BTW, in your first comment here, actually I was really happy to see the beginning about it. This blog isn't about knowing 100% what is appropriate or not, we all make mistakes, it's about learning it. There's nothing wrong with thinking the shoes are cool because we don't know the cultural implications, but once we learn the context, we have to understand why it's offensive. So I was really happy to see your comment there.

    I just want to emphasize that this was a pretty hard learning curve for me. I didn't learn about the shoe thing from a blog. I learned about the foot thing from an extremely offended Tibetan friend yelling at me. *embarrassed*


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