Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How White Are Asians & Latinos?

One of the things I've been hearing all semester long, given that I just finished a class about race, is how Asians, Latinos and Native Americans are often left out of the discussion of race in America. The response to that, which no one is willing to give but so many people think, is, "That's because you are generally not the target of racism, systematic nor otherwise." Race and racism are thought of as a black/white issue. Whites are the obvious oppressors and beneficiaries of privilege, and blacks are the obvious oppressed and losers of privilege. What about everyone else? Is it really true that no one else is privileged? Is it really true that everyone else is generally not the target of racism?

Apparently, even the discussions that focus on black/white race relations answer these questions, oftentimes without directly answering them and regardless of whether the speaker is black or white.

Juan F. Perea writing about white author/professor Andrew Hacker's book "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal" in his piece, "The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race":

The greatest danger in Hacker's vision is the implication that non-White groups other than Blacks are not really subject to racism. Hacker seems to adopt the deservedly criticized ethnicity theory, which posits that non-White immigrant ethnics are essentially Whites-in-waiting who will be permitted to assimilate and become White....Hacker writes that:
Members of all these "intermediary groups" have been allowed to put a visible distance between themselves and black Americans. Put most simply, none of the presumptions of inferiority associated with Africa and slavery are imposed on these other ethnicities.

Perea on black writer Toni Morrison's "On the Backs of Blacks":

[The struggles of immigrants] are persistently framed as struggles between recent arrivals and blacks. In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American.

The above quotes are actually why I hate the phrase "people of color." It implies many things that I don't find true. It implies that we're all in the same boat in the US, that some people of color aren't considered by whites better and/or more preferable than others, that some people of color don't consider themselves better and/or more preferable than others, that it's all of us against white people, that we work together, support each other and feel some kinship with each other, that we relate to each other and that we know what the other people of color experience. In other words, it implies this sameness and this unity that don't exist.

I would respond to any Asian or Latino in a similar way as I respond to white gays, because I think the dynamics and the struggles among our groups are very similar, i.e. what's going on between blacks and gays is like what has been going on between blacks and Asians and blacks and Latinos. But the major part of my response that I want emphasized is I have no clue what Asians and Latinos experience in the US. Their racism is not discussed precisely because no one knows it exists or considers what they do know to really be racism. It's like how people view "reverse racism" against white people, because Latinos, and particularly Asians, seem to be groups of people that, despite whatever racism they experience, can still make it in America and can still assimilate on some level...or so it seems to somebody like me, as well as to whites like Hacker...which I find incredibly fascinating for a white person to essentially say, "We white folks can accept Asians and Latinos, but we cannot accept blacks" and that by calling them intermediary groups, he demonstrates that there are, at least in some white people's minds, some minority groups that are better and/or more preferable than others. It does kind of add to the "what are you complaining about" thoughts that so many people have but won't admit.

It's always odd to me when an Asian or Latino does act as if we're unified, as if we understand each other or as if we share similar experiences in America. I always wonder if they can't see the different ways in which they are treated and/or accepted by whites vs blacks. The idea of Asians as the "model minority" is mentioned both in the post of Nopper's piece and in Perea's piece. In fact, many stereotypes I hear about Asians either sound positive or relatively harmless, i.e. being smart, hardworking, timid, lacking sexuality/sexual appeal. I can't think of a stereotype that I would consider flat-out negative. I guess I consider Asians similar to those child stars who flip out over being considered "cute" and "wholesome" as they age, not to diminish or fail to validate however Asians respond to their stereotypes. But I think the stereotypes of Asians are, for the most part, exactly why some white people are accepting towards them and why they perform better in the US than blacks do.

Blacks are almost the exact opposite of Asians, even though black men have stereotypes attached to them that attract whites. Black women have no such thing. And I really don't know/can't think of any stereotypes about other groups of people. So many Latinos I encounter look white and/or don't strongly identify with their ethnic background. Oftentimes when people speak about race, who assimilates and why in the US, they ignore skin color. But skin color matters, and the Latinos I know aren't really regarded or treated any differently than whites are.

The reason I'm writing this is not only because the issues the Virginia Tech shootings raise, as mentioned by Nopper and myself, but because I think this is an important discussion. So I'll be more frank here:

I have no idea what Asians and Latinos experience in the US. I don't know what kinds of discrimination they experience or how often they experience it. I don't feel as if things such as affirmative action are necessary for them, and I don't think that when affirmative action is taken away it is done with the intention to harm them--I think blacks are thought of as the charity cases in America, especially with respect to affirmative action, and so that is who these affirmative action opponents are aiming at while Latinos and some Asians are caught in the crossfire. After all, I was the one who, in my coming out group, everyone looked at as the whites and the Latino discussed the affirmative action ban in Michigan, and I was the one "comforted" by the white mother from PFLAG.

As a black person (i.e. below the "intermediary groups"), it is rather difficult to be concerned with the issues of Asians and Latinos or to buy into a "people of color" mentality. When I attended the meetings for gay graduate students "of color," I said to myself, especially after how they treated LA Girl, "Why does everything have to be "of color"? Why can't there just be a gay black organization? After all, blacks aren't like Asians and Latinos, and they aren't like us. A lot of the time, we don't even like each other. We don't go through the same things, so why would we all feel comfortable talking to each other about these issues any more so than we do with whites?"

So when people say that Asians and Latinos are left out of racial discussions by me or by black authors, I quietly ask myself, "What do you expect?" As I've tried to explain to white gays who act incredulous that heterosexual blacks don't side with them and don't see homosexual issues the way they think blacks should given that blacks are an oppressed group, as care more about your group's issues than any other group's issues. White gays don't care about blacks, not even black gays...blacks don't care about Asians, and Asians don't care about Latinos. This is what makes coalition-building and cross-cultural understanding hard, if not impossible.

Furthermore, how can you discuss something you know nothing about? Why would you discuss something you know nothing about? And if you do discuss something you know nothing about, aren't you just going to make those same people angry, either for speaking for them or for completely getting it wrong? I can't speak for other people, and I prefer that they not speak for me. I will write my own stories, and you can write yours. That's why I started this blog.

Several of the things Nopper wrote about middle class Asians sounded incredibly as if she were writing about middle class blacks. And I asked myself why middle class Asians would feel anger and rage just like middle class blacks do, do they feel anger and rage just like middle class could that be? (And, incidentally, I would expect Americanized Asians to set it off before Asians in other countries simply because they become "white-washed," which, though that signals you've become civilized in white people's minds, it means the opposite to me, i.e. my idea about white males as the ones who shoot up schools and work places and run the nation into the ground).

For me, it's time to stop insisting other groups of people don't really go through anything. It's time to learn 1) if they go through anything, and 2) if so, what they go through. It's time to stop assuming what Hacker writes, i.e. Asians and Latinos are essentially white people, too, and to find out if that 1) is true, and 2) if it's not, could it someday be true. I don't think I will ever believe other minority groups are in the same boat as blacks, and the experience of black Americans will always matter more to me than even the experience of black Africans, let alone Asian Americans and Latino Americans. Even though the black race will always be my primary concern out of all the many identities in the world, it doesn't hurt to get a complete education about everybody else in the US, or else I'm no better than the blissfully naive white people (except for when they whine about what's taken from them) I really can't stand.