“Everyone’s a little bit racist…”
I recently read A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, on account of a friend’s essay-length blog post that placed it as a necessary piece for understanding the situation of the woman author. It is a great book, an essay told in light, accessible, and enjoyable narrative prose. It’s presented as both opinion and truth, and identifies the trap of writing against rather than about, instead of falling into it. It’s generated all sorts of thoughts, and stirred up a particular older one once more.
All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are “sides,” and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot. As people mature they cease to believe in sides or in Headmasters or in highly ornamental pots.
Or do they? (Excerpt from Chapter 6 of A Room of One’s Own.)
I’m going to discuss this in terms of race, not sex, since that’s where my original ideas lay and it’s easier to talk about right now. Perhaps I’ll talk about gender in a later post.
When I was in elementary school, there was no concept of race. Very little of ethnicity. Plenty of culture—parents aides would give presentations on their culture’s New Year (lunar or solar), teach how to make all kinds of food in Cooking, and even answer questions about *gasp* religion. But no divisions by “white people”, “asians” (or “east asians”), “Indian”. It happened sometimes that a particular group of friends was all of one ethnicity, but there was never a sense that others were kept out of that, or that it was even the main bond that drew people together. Perhaps your elementary school was like that too.
I went to a K-8 alternative school, so it wasn’t until high school that this world changed. And how it changed. Although it didn’t hit me right away, high schoolers wielded their ethnicity—not just their culture—as an integral part of their identity. “He’s Chinese.” “I have to, I’m Korean.” “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it.” Jokes, casual references to stereotypes I guess I knew about but never internalized. To this day racial jokes are unsettling, no matter what the joke or who’s telling it.
Some people grouped by language in high school, putting a not-insurmountable-but-difficult barrier between fluent speakers and nonspeakers or learners. Classes end up filtered somewhat by macro-ethnicity, by no cause of the high school itself. (Honors classes at CHS tended to be more Asian, east and south, and “regular” classes were more Mexican, Latino, and black, with whites and “Middle-Easterners” spread across the middle. I speak from my statistical impression-memories; of course it may have shifted even by now.) Few groups formed explicitly on the basis of ethnicity, but always it was part of someone’s sense of self. I couldn’t see why.
That’s the background. Fast-forward to last year’s “racebending” debacle; for those who didn’t hear about it, the good guys in The Last Airbender (the movie) were all white, with a casting call looking for Caucasion actors more than other races, and the bad guys were of darker complexion. Active discrimination is still alive, even if in such a passive form. It’s also been institutionalized, however, meaning that people’s expectations, and their expectations of others’ collective expectations, are well set-in and slow to change.
That’s no excuse, of course. But there was also a recent conversation in our family about the movie 21. Apart from being very dramaticized, there was apparently much controversy over the characters being mostly white, even though the real-life people they were based on were mostly Asian. But, from Wikipedia:
Jeff Ma, who was the real-life inspiration for the character Ben Campbell and served as a consultant on the film, was accused of being a “race traitor” on several blogs for not insisting that his character be Asian American. In response, Ma said, “I’m not sure they understand how little control I had in the movie-making process; I didn’t get to cast it.”  Ma said that the controversy was “overblown” and that the important aspect is that a talented actor would portray him. 
That last bit’s the part I think is more important; there’s another part where he said he would be mad if they got some random Korean actor to play the character just because he’s Asian. It’s true that the collective Asian-American image does not get the benefit of this movie. But from the perspective of the story, there’s no particular reason to pick any particular race.
This is where Woolf’s words are important again: Remember not to take sides! By doing so you only lower yourself into that competitive, destructive working against, instead of something productive. Yes, there were more considerations than that which would have biased the studio towards white actors, and still do today. But is there anything inherently wrong with Jim Sturgess (he’s not American, either!) playing a character based on Jeff Ma? In this story?
Stereotypes suck. Unfortunately, when people unite, they are creating Sides. The best they can do, then, is change the stereotype; they can’t possibly get rid of it, because they will have inadvertantly created a new overall impression of themselves. The worst part is that any one collection of people forming a group actually causes everyone around to find “their” people and do the same. Think about immigrants to New York or San Francisco; they find people who speak their language or share their culture—fine—but they may never leave.
Maybe that’s okay. But it’s part of why we have stereotypes. And forming ethnicity-based organizations against ethnic stereotypes is thus a lot less effective than it should be. Conversely, because people have their own ethnicity as part of their identity, they are less likely to help work against another ethnicity’s stereotypes, meaning it’s very hard to redraw or erase the lines.
The APATH “We are unique” event last year gave me a good sardonic laugh. “Asian / Pacific Islander” is such a broad range of cultures, languages, and ethnicities that such an event seems to be defied by the organization itself. It’s partially because in the views of Americans (including, most likely, many of the club’s members), the people of East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific islands are more culturally, linguistically, and ethnically linked than people from other such groups. And this has a basis in scientific fact as well. Unfortunately, it means the club is a lot less powerful than it wishes to be.
Contrast it with the Gay-Straight Alliance, which from the start was established to cross the boundary between homosexual and heterosexual. Sure, such groups might still be thought of as “gay organizations”, but at least they’re trying. Organizations uniting people within pre-existing boundaries only reinforce those boundaries.
I came across a UC Berkeley “NewsCenter” article, “Mixed emotions: The multiracial student experience at UC Berkeley”, while writing this post. My reactions are mixed as well. If anything, these stories demonstrate that these boundaries are reasonably stupid and arbitrary (if you’re from the UK, it makes a difference if you’re British or Scottish, but not if you’re Norman or Saxon). Yet these students, like everyone else on the planet, still feel a need to belong. I’m just not sure it makes sense to try to join the group you share .05% more DNA with, rather than the group with which you can share culture. (I’m all for cross-culture experience—I’m part of Theatre Rice, and have a moderately deep interest in East Asian cultures, Japan in particular—but should I join a group because I’m 1/8th whatever-American and have thus “inherited” it?)
So, here then, is my thesis, and my dream. If we are to be truly race-blind, that means we—everyone—stop thinking of ethnicity as a defining part of our identity, much less the defining part of our identity. Culture, sure—we should celebrate and share that. But our first thought upon meeting someone shouldn’t be “oh, she’s Latin-American”. I realize we have nothing more to go on, but we didn’t do it when we were kids. Why do we have to do it as adults?
Imagine a world where affirmative action is based on income rather than race, because it would never cross anyone’s mind to choose one person over the other on the basis of ethnicity. Because ethnicity just isn’t a criterion on which to differentiate people (the original meaning of “discriminate”). Imagine a world where it’s not only okay for a British man to play a French man, but for a Taiwanese woman to play a Korean woman, or even for a man from Barbados to play a white American, or vice versa, because they can best express the character. Imagine a world where no one asks “what are you?” because the answer would be “human”.
…Of course it’s impossible, even for me who still doesn’t think well in terms of race. People believe in ethnicity, in groups, in Us Against Them. Our whole society is still too close to the history of it—or the story of it, cause it’s here in present as well. The human need to belong, plus the tendency to form generalizations, plus the desire to feel superior all conspired to put us where we…were, not too long ago. I’d like to believe we’ve begun pulling back a little, back towards where ethnicity is not identity.
The victory is of course not when the heroes are East Asian and the villains are white (except perhaps for historical stories). But it’s also not when there sits a statistically representative ethnicity mix of heroes and villains. The victory is this: when, say, an all-white cast of heroes and a Middle-Eastern cast of villains is picked for The Second-to-Last Airbender, because in this case, they really are the best actors (available and wanting) to play the roles. And nobody has any objections.
P.S. I tried very hard not to mention the fact that I am ethnically Jewish. I use that as a shield sometimes, both to others and to myself, for otherwise I would be part of the Great White Evil—this way I am also one of the oppressed. But that is Sides and Us Against Them again, and not fair to my white non-oppressed and non-oppresser friends. To claim that I am Jewish when I have only a few vestiges of Jewish culture in me feels absurd. But I am ethnically Jewish, and my family has felt the effects of that firsthand…in the Holocaust. And that part of me will never go away either.
The world must not forget or trivialize genocide. But I do not claim victimhood as my heritage. </PS>