Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tibetan Studies Conference: Tibetans Not Welcome Here

Recently the blog Angry Tibetan Girl posted a guest rant about Symposiums on Tibet.  The article highlighted one of the many big issues in Tibetan academia (alright, let's be honest, any academia concentrating on a non-white area).  The heart of the article is really summarized in these paragraphs (although I encourage reading the whole thing):

Aren’t you tired of the double standard that comes with academics/intellectuals that are doing Tibet related stuff? I recently noticed a symposium on Tibet and realized only a few Tibetan names. Here’s the thing, for a Tibetan to be invited to these things, they need to
1. Have published several academic papers already
2. Weirdly, be of a certain age, and most likely, has to be a man.
For a westerner to be invited to these, only few things are required, they need to not be Tibetan, studying Tibet as a graduate school or working at a Tibet NGO
And yeah, that sounds about right.  Read the article, there isn't all that much I can add to it.  But I do want to try to expand based on my experience, and the experience of many of my friends, wandering through the labyrinth of academia.  This doesn't just happen at seminars.  Take a look at staff.  Of the Tibetan studies staff at the SOAS in London, out of ten, only one is Tibetan.  And he is a research associate.  At Columbia University, one of the few schools to have a modern Tibetan studies program, out of three, the only Tibetan is the Tibetan language instructor.  The director, as well as the lecturers on "Modern Tibetan history; Manchu Qing Empire frontiers; role of Tibetan Buddhism in Sino-Tibetan relations, Culture and politics; film and television in Inner Asia; nationality issues in China" are all non-Tibetans.  Where are the Tibetan lecturers on Modern Tibetan culture?  

Many academics make the excuse that, of course Tibetans would be biased! Well, if that's the case, let's remove every American from American history and American studies lectures, every European from European History and most philosophy lecture positions!  Do you see that happening? I certainly don't!  All I can think back to is what a professor said to me years ago, and which I posted about early on, this idea of knowing better than Tibetans, or being the "true" safeguards of Tibetan history.  

And it's sick.

But back to symposiums.  There are other issues at hand too: Tibetan studies symposiums often, in their structure, isolate or make it especially difficult for even the most qualified of Tibetan scholars to attend!  The best way to illustrate this is actually to look at two conferences that avoided some of those problems, because the measures they took help illustrate the institutionalized failure of academia to attempt to work with Tibetan scholars.  The two conferences I would like to look at are the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) 13th Seminar, hosted in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia in 2013, and the Third International Conference on Tibetan Language, hosted in New York, USA in 2012 (For short ICTL).  I was only able to attend one, but I heard back from many people who attended both.  

First of all, the IATS conference was located in Mongolia.  This served as a neutral location so Tibetans from India and from Tibet could attend.  It is also a less expensive location, which again serves to make it feasible to Tibetans on Chinese or Indian salaries.  Furthermore, the Mongolian government is very generous with visas.  In fact, the conference was largely, if not overwhelmingly, Tibetan and there should have been even more from Tibet! The biggest issue preventing scholars from Tibet from attending was none other than the Chinese government's refusal to issue passports or exit permits.  Apparently, some panels were missing half or more of their speakers, who last minute were denied exit from China.

ICTL was located in New York, much more expensive and far more difficult to get a Visa. I personally know one highly esteemed Tibetan writer who got all of his documents from the Chinese and was then denied a visa by the US consulate. To make matters worse, when he tried (through friends in America) to contact ICTL organizers to get an additional call or letter to support his claim that he was attending a conference, they were virtually impossible to reach.  I am sure this choice of location proved prohibitive to many.  

However, to ICTL's credit, they had spontaneous translation with radio headphones! All talks and the following question/answer sessions were simultaneously translated into English, Tibetan and Chinese.  As a result, no Tibetan scholars felt unwelcome due to language barriers. This is a huge issue in virtually every Tibetan studies conference, where speeches must be given in English or another European language, thereby prohibiting many of the most highly qualified Tibetan scholars from attending or speaking.  IATS, a far larger conference was also at a lower budget location. They did not have simultaneous radio translation, but speakers had the option to present in Tibetan, as well as English and a few other languages.  I was surprised that Chinese was not included, considering that many Tibetan scholars in Tibet learn to present in Chinese, in part to overcome dialectical barriers, and I feel this was a great failure on the part of IATS.  None the less, many panels were conducted in English and Tibetan and it was the responsibility of the non-Tibetan attendees to be sufficiently conversant in Tibetan.  There were several cases where Non-Tibetan attendees were asked to reiterate a point in Tibetan, and therefore had to re-state their conclusions in Tibetan!  During the opening speeches, translations were projected on a screen next to the speaker.

At both conferences, Tibetan scholars from Tibet, India, Nepal and residing across the world, were in attendance and formed a substantial portion, if not the majority of speakers.  A far cry from virtually every other symposium or conference!  What could possibly cause this difference? Well, both organizations have many Tibetans in decision making positions.  IATS even has a Tibetan scholar who was just elected as its president.

Is it this rare to have Tibetans as decision makers in Academia?  And as long as they aren't there, are conferences going to continue hosting the same few scholars in a sea of non-Tibetan faces?  Is this what academia is all about?

Of course it is.  It's about white scholars sitting in their offices telling everyone else that they know about the non-whites.  And until that changes, until academic colonialism is finished, until we stand up against it, there will not be a fair chance for Tibetans in scholarship.

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