Friday, February 15, 2008

The "Raced" Individual: Oxymoron?

So, my research continues--for some reason, I've been focusing more on Asians than other races & ethnicities...maybe because there's such a wealth of information online that they, themselves, provide. In those findings, I've been consistently noting, what I think is, a huge difference between many Asians and many blacks, and I've touched on it a bit before indirectly when writing about how nobody in the US is considered "American" except whites.

That difference is the strong desire to be seen as an individual first rather than as a race first.

Now, this is certainly not to say that most blacks don't want this. I get the sense that we just accept more than Asians do that it's not a possibility. I also think that Asians come to live under the illusion, when they surround themselves with whites who genuinely seem to like and accept them, that they are finally being seen as an individual and not in racial terms. And because of those experiences, they wonder why blacks harp on race or why blacks won't work harder to achieve what they, as Asians, believe they've achieved, the assumptions being that the efforts work just the same for blacks as for Asians...and, of course, that the efforts work. Again, this is not to say most Asians fall into this category or way of thinking or that most blacks don't. You will find a mix.

I have to say, though, that I don't personally know any blacks who don't put race first. I have come across blacks online who don't seem to do this, i.e. many black gay bloggers. And then there are blacks, of course, in my environment who seem to want to fit in just as much as I perceive the majority of Asians as wanting to do, particularly Asian females. But the blacks I know are very happy with being part of a black community they've carved out, identifying with these people, referring to them as family, talking about race and bringing up race with non-blacks they speak with. In a sense, a lot of black people's worlds revolve around race, even if they don't realize it.

As I mentioned in another post, my Asian friends and I tend not to talk about race. And the other day, I thought about how interesting it is that I have white friends whom every time I'm with them, not in drive-by situations such as seeing each other in the halls on the way to classes and speaking for just a couple minutes, we eventually discuss race. And they're willing participants in the discussion. You're talking about a group that tends not to be "raced" to the extent that minorities are, i.e. have no reason to think or discuss race because they rarely are forced to have the feeling that their race matters. And's easier to discuss race with them than with another group of people that is always "raced," i.e. Asians.

I love to talk about race. I don't think anything is wrong with discussing it, noticing it, pointing out differences, identifying with it, etc. In a way, I love being "raced." But maybe this is one of the reasons I don't really have as many close Asian friends anymore as I used to. I've realized that many Asians approach race in a completely different fashion than black people do, and many perceive blacks as having a victim mentality or complaining just for discussing race. Many are tired of hearing about race; let's just get beyond it. Let's work harder to be accepted. Or let's work harder to be seen as individuals. It's such an unrealistic, confusing viewpoint to me, as a black person, but it's hard to explain that, especially when the person you're trying to find words to explain that to is completely tired of these very kinds of conversations.

For blacks who don't particularly care to be seen as individuals, or who like that in theory but feel we're always seen as black first to others...that's what I relate to. I don't fight to change it, even as a mixed black person, because I don't see anything wrong with that, in and of itself. I think the ways race is used in society are problematic, but race itself isn't. I think race is great. Yes, you read that right. And I think race is great because it allows people to be individuals. Yes, you read that right, too. I think race allows people to be different in ways that are good. That's why I love being mixed. It's not about feeling better than other blacks; it's about "this is how I'm different" or at least one of the ways in which I'm different. And blacks get to say that, because so many blacks find themselves in environments where the majority of people are white. Same for Asians and Latinos. White people are the ones who, in my mind, get the burden of not standing out at all.

And I think a lot of white people actually do look at race that way, at least sometimes. You can tell by comments they make sometimes, comments that are oftentimes taken as offensive by minorities (for example, on one of Carmen's video pods, someone brought up how people will comment "I wish I were mixed" in response to their telling someone their racial mix). And I can see that. But I think what a white person's intention is oftentimes is to get across that there is nothing much special about being white. Of course, there is--socioeconomically, at least. But physically and culturally, in some people's eyes, as well as some other ways...some whites feel like they have nothing to offer.

And not to be racist, but I agree with that. In some ways, whites just don't have anything special to bring to the table. I think that some people spend too much time not seeing what's great about being a racial or ethnic minority, putting being white on a pedestal just because it's the mainstream or it's power. I know it seems like I complain about blacks and whites, or even Asians and Latinos when talking about issues such as immigration. But when it all comes down to it, I love that we have various races and ethnicities in America and that we focus on race. I think this is why I don't understand some of the Asian attitudes, i.e. the inner turmoil of bridging being Asian with being American, wanting to be seen as American and an individual, etc.

And up until now, I've been talking about what makes a group special, but I think that the group being special, in turn, makes every individual from that group interesting and special. Whites are a dime a dozen. How many white kids can you meet who all seem to like similar things, things that are associated with being a typical white person--or, as whites describe it--a typical 20-something? This is not to say all whites in their 20s are alike, just that since there are so many whites everywhere sometimes it will sure seem that way because you'll encounter more whites who have a lot in common, a lot of similarities in addition to more whites who differ from one another. In addition to that, you turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, go to school, go to work and there they are. They're inescapable.

On the other side, how many Asian kids can you meet who truly make you think all Asian kids are essentially the same? And by this, I mean from really taking time out to get to know various Asians, not just observing from a far or applying stereotypes. One kid will be a Korean American who is in touch with aspects of her identity from Korea, visits Korea. Another will be Filipino in essentially name only, couldn't tell you a thing about Filipino culture, has an American style of dress, hair, etc. Another is an exchange student from Thailand, has an accent. You know, I always thought that "diversity" arguments when it comes to college were bs, i.e. people from different races don't learn much of anything from each other. They just come to school and segregate. But I realized it's not totally true. I've been thinking about all the interesting things my Korean/Spanish college roommate exposed me to, things that I wouldn't have learned or appreciated otherwise and certainly wouldn't have if she'd been 100% assimilated into the white American culture, was never seen/identified as a racial being and never thought of herself as a racial being.

For me, the best memories of all the universities I've attended have been race-related. Being among the first good black friends a white female from a nearly all-white area had. Getting to know and having conversations with whites who have shown me that not all whites are completely naive about race in the US. Although I didn't like it, trying Indian and Korean food because of friends and roommates from those backgrounds. Learning more about the caste system in India. Being exposed to Korean music and Bollywood films. Becoming aware that blacks aren't the only people who can be racially mixed or who experience discrimination. A desire to learn an Asian language or two.

These are some of the good things that can come from being "raced." To me, we should take the good with the bad rather than trying to abandon these identities. Honestly, now that graduation is nearly upon me, I feel that one of the last things you go to school for is to get an academic education; it's all the outside stuff that teaches you what's important. There will come a day when I can't tell you what "in rem jurisdiction" is. Heck, who am I kidding--that day is essentially upon us. But I will always have some k-pop on the mp3 player or whatever new musical technology comes through. At this point in my life, there is very little I can learn from whites about being white. That has been shoved down my throat against my will for nearly 27 years. But the rest of us are kept so alienated from each other and so in the dark about each other. White people no longer interest me, and black people no longer interest me since I know what it is to be black. You interest me, as an Asian or Latino or Native American. What's so bad about that?

To me, you don't have to ditch race to be seen as an individual. I think every person's race--even a white person--is always kept in mind in interacting. I love my white friends, but they are always to me my "white friends." That never goes away, and it has absolutely no negative connotation attached to it for me. I'll never be seen as a writer first or an activist first, and that's fine with me. It doesn't mean I'm not an individual and am never seen as one. It's just that race is a part of my individuality, a part of how I differ from other people. To people who know me or know of me, I'm not always indistinguishable from other blacks or other mixed kids. And you know what? Really, are whites you don't know always indistinguishable from other whites? As an Asian, can you really tell me that you never see a black person and think of them in racial terms first and foremost, even when they're your friend? Okay then, why would you ever think people completely look beyond race with you?

My friends have several adjectives for me aside from "black" or "mixed," as do I for them. All my friends tend to be intelligent, outgoing, interesting. Some are cute, some are attractive, some are hot. Some are like family. Some are creative, talented. Who cares that I notice what's most visually obvious about them every time I see them or every time I think about them? Sometimes, their race is incorporated in a positive way. For example, when I think about my good-looking friends, I think about what makes them good-looking, i.e. physical features. For some, some of their most appealing physical features are thought to be associated more with certain races than others. Now, is that really all that bad?

I joke to myself about how if you ask an Asian person about their ethnic background, some will get upset; ask a black person, and they'll gladly start naming off each and every ethnicity they know of...some blacks even make up stuff. I think that, despite the crap we go through for being black, we still appreciate being black and appreciate how we're different. And we don't want it to change, and we don't ever want the "culture" to die, even if refusals to assimilate cost us a better position in society. Deep down, I think the majority of us know but haven't articulated that the trade-off is worth it. But that's the thing when you compare people who came to the US for completely different reasons. If you came here to have a better life, then that's what matters more to you and you'll do whatever is necessary to get it. What people don't understand about blacks when they compare us to Asians or put our way of thinking/living down is, aside from modern-day immigrants, that's not why we're here. We didn't come here to get what whites have; we're here so that whites can have what they have.

So, if you don't think like us, fine, but make an effort to see and understand the differences in approach before you insult them. I've seen people basically refer to blacks as being people who "demand to be given the world" or feel entitled, essentially--not in these words, but that's the implication--while Asians work hard to achieve. Again, you've got to understand the difference in history. I do believe blacks have an entitlement argument, but that doesn't stop me from doing the work. Will I work twice as hard or three times as hard as whites? No. That's part of my entitlement mentality. Working harder is, to me, tantamount to accepting inequality when there are ways you can be just as successful just the same way as whites despite discrimination, i.e. starting your own business rather than working in white-owned ones trying to "prove" yourself when others don't have to and still reaching glass ceilings.

In other words, I will work hard but I won't play things the white way, and I think more and more blacks--particularly black women--are starting to catch on to this kind of thinking, as well. Other cultures, having a somewhat different history with this nation and a different cultural philosophy, are more okay with playing things white people's way in order to succeed or fit in. And these are differences that are worth exploring and discussing. But, again, it's hard to have a discussion with people who want to forget racial differences.

I have realized that if I am going to work in civil rights and not be one of those black leaders who only thinks/talks about blacks, this will be one of my biggest challenges...