Paint, Part 2

“IW began to spend time with them, and it started to see the patterns, on their wings and their bodies and their faces. It began to play, and to work, and to learn with them. In time, they became some—most—of IW’s closest friends; some of its patterns became theirs, and some of theirs became its.

“And one day, after laughing aloud and then crying and then laughing again, IW stretched its shoulders and said, ‘O, I am glad that I am one of you!’

“And the air turned cold.

“And IW looked from face to suddenly silent face of its friends, friends who were now stepping back, turning away. And soon all were out of the circle, except one of the closest friends, TH. And even TH was uncomfortable.

“And IW felt a shame ripple over its body, but it didn’t know why, and it turned to TH. ‘Help me,’ it said, ‘I don’t understand.’

“And TH looked on it with frustration and pain and bittersweet pity, and TH said, ‘IW, you are not one of us.’

“And IW felt frustration and pain and still didn’t understand the pity. And IW said, ‘But why? I am part of your group.’

“‘Yes, you are part of our group.’

“‘I am with you every day. I spend most of my free time with you.’

“‘Yes, you do.’

“‘I finally understand what it’s like to be Painted.’

“TH was silent for a long time, and although IW didn’t see it TH’s hands were clenched. At last it spoke. ‘IW, you do not understand what it is like to be Painted.’

“‘Why?’ IW asked, trying very hard not to get angry at TH.

“‘Because you always have the choice not to be.’”

And you also said “your group”, IW. Sheesh.

This NaCreSoMo really is one for sequels and follow-ups. This is a spin-off of yesterday’s Paint, and both pieces and the prose below were prompted by American Revolutionary from Monday.

My friend A (keeping with the letter theme today) provided some helpful (or perhaps “first aid”) links after some discussion on Monday’s post.1 Here are a few of them:

I want to explore a particular point that came up, starting with a comment from A:

As [you are] a white person, I would advise that you make sure what you think is leveling the playing field is not actually just contributing to erasure.

And my (rambling) reply:

Another quote from the movie has Boggs talking to white professors (?) about how “Negroes [sic] aren’t aspiring to be white. They’re aspiring to a middle-class version of themselves.” I liked having this spelled out explicitly; it’s both obvious to me to understand and difficult for me to internalize. Obvious, because it’s Diversity 101 (or Philosophy 101) to remember that every culture (and every individual) has a different value system, and difficult, because I only have my value system internalized. (There’s another blog post here about America’s dominant existing Western and capitalist value system making it very hard for other kinds of successes to live.)

You’re right that being white (or having any kind of privilege) makes it really easy to push for convergence on the current standard as “leveling the playing field”. And obviously that’s just erasure.

I really think Boggs’ patient explanation is a very interesting point that Past Me might have very easily missed, or mentally glossed over. It seems almost ridiculously arrogant to think that one group’s idea of success is what your group has now, that you are their ideal. At the same time, it’s very very easy to expect that one group’s idea of success is congruent with your group’s idea of success, because it’s the only idea you have. But the second expectation is all too close to the first.

I think the distinction Boggs explained is very very important, especially in a country like America “built on immigration”. What does it mean to “become American”? Hopefully not “speak English, eat hamburgers, replace all original culture with existing American culture”.

A also poked at a weak spot in not just Monday’s post, but also past posts on “Diversity2:

“We didn’t think of her as Chinese-American. She was just…Grace!” I must admit I still think of this as the end game. We’re nowhere near this, and it won’t happen in our lifetimes, which is why I need to get over it.

I’m wondering here why you think this is the end game? I don’t believe it is. The importance of ending racism (which you said will not happen in our lifetimes, which I will get to in a moment), does not come from seeing someone “despite” their race.

I admitted that I hadn’t really re-examined this idea recently, having formed it a long time ago. (It’s hardly an original one.) Reyes-Chow (link #2 up there) agrees with A on this. But today I came up with an actual reason, which also goes back to American history: once upon a time in America, Irish immigrants were a distinct group (largely because of Catholicism in a country dominated by Protestants, admittedly). Now they’re mostly “just” white. The same could be said of Jews, or of ethnic groups from eastern or southern Europe; though immigration is still restricted, they (we!) are mostly “just white” today, with all the privilege that entails.

In the closest branch of my family tree I am third-generation; I’m probably no more than fifth or sixth along all branches. But I’m about as American as…well, as anyone can be growing up in the SF Bay Area.3 And I have all the privilege that being white entails. Clearly it worked for my ethnic group.

I usually avoid using myself as an example, but then again that’s the only experience I have, the only experience I can ever have. And in this case that might be significant. So on both a social scale and an individual scale, this is probably a good part of why my mind likes this “de-emphasis” of race as “the end game”.

It’s certainly different for different people, though—and for different groups. I don’t usually have a compelling reason to think about my ethnicity on an everyday basis, or ask others to do the same—which is a privilege, particularly given the events of the 20th century. That’s just not something that’s true in general.

This bears more thought, more discussion, and continued re-examination.

  1. I essentially summoned A for comments with a tag. ↩︎

  2. Gosh the original post in that series makes me wince now. Glad I’m finally grokking more of it. ↩︎

  3. Though it’s more than likely that I know someone whose family has “been here longer” than mine. And given where we live, they’re probably not white. ↩︎