IBARW: Racism in black and yellow
Guest-blogging there has been an education for me on a lot of levels. But something that came up there, and again here after yesterday's IBARW post, has been bugging me and now I want to chew on it a little. The topic is inter-group relationships between people of color -- specifically African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and whether Af-Ams have "black privilege" relative to As-Ams.
I have to be honest; when I was first accused of having black privilege, I laughed. It sounded like the kind of thing that typically gets tossed out in discussions of racism by white people who are feeling defensive. It seems to be popular these days to declare black people the true source of racism; if we would just stop talking about race and demanding special treatment then racism would go away. But the person who threw this at me was Asian, not white, and more importantly she was someone who'd earned my respect as a longtime anti-racism activist. So I started thinking about it. Then after yesterday's IBARW post it was pointed out to me that I'd carelessly tossed out a statement which implied that Asians are "wannabe whites". It wasn't intentional, but then -- the worst prejudice usually isn't intentional. It's usually the result of ingrained misconceptions and stereotypes that affect the way we think and behave towards others. So that got me thinking more: did I have some kind of prejudice towards Asians, and was that having an effect on my thinking?
On top of that, another incident occurred recently, which added to the wondering. I was down in Atlanta visiting an old friend. We went to a beauty supply store at a nice mall in a predominantly black middle-class area of Atlanta; my friend has a one-year-old and another baby on the way, so she wanted to buy a wig for those days when the kids would leave her too tired to bother with her hair. When she asked to try on several prospects, the clerk pointed to a sign we hadn't noticed, indicating that customers were allowed to try on only three wigs. My friend was incensed by this, and said so: "I'm coming here to spend money; I should be able to try on as many wigs as I like." The clerk, who I'd guess was Chinese to judge by his accent, curtly replied, "Three and no more. Store policy. You don't like it, go somewhere else." Naturally we did, finding another store that didn't have this policy, where my friend (after more than three try-ons) bought two wigs.
After we left the first store, my friend commented, "I hate it when these people come into our neighborhoods and treat us like dirt. They wouldn't even be able to come into this country if it wasn't for us."
I pointed out to her that the guy might've had some problems with thieves, or with people who didn't intend to buy anything coming in to waste his time. She said, "Well, he could just post a sign saying 'Management reserves the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason', and deal with those problems on a case-by-case basis." So then I pointed out that I live in New York now, in a neighborhood where most of the beauty supply stores are owned by Caribbean (black) Americans, and in my experience they can be just as obnoxious. My friend said, "Well, that's the same thing. They wouldn't be able to come here if not for us, either. And a lot of them think we (African-American non-immigrants) are shit on their shoes, too."
I've been thinking about this incident. I've also been thinking about the ways in which I've appropriated from some Asian cultures in my life -- my early anime-based fanfiction, for example, which I used to pepper with atrocious "fangirl Japanese" (to my deep and abiding shame). And I've been thinking about the messages I've gotten from my parents about Asians. Not much from my mother, who has very little exposure to Asians and still tends to lump them all in under "Japanese" whether they are or not. When I went to Japan a few years ago, she was afraid on my behalf: "They don't like us, you know." And when I told her after the trip that I hadn't had any trouble, she waved this off: "You weren't there long enough." From my father, I got more specific negative messages, like: "Watch out for Asian drivers. They can't see right with those eyes of theirs." I once pointed out to him that many east Africans also have epicanthic-fold eyes, and he said, "Yeah, and look how they drive." ::sigh::
As I consider these negative experiences and messages, I realize there was definitely a time when I did hold a number of prejudices towards Asians -- most of my early life, probably up 'til some point in college. Like most Americans I'd been raised to think in simple, dualistic terms: white people, and "everybody else". Although I intellectually counted Asian Americans among the latter, they were still more a "them" than an "us", very much an "other" in my head. And probably like most black Americans I've been raised to think of other races as competition rather than potential allies, largely because the color complex is deeply ingrained into our upbringing -- anyone lighter-skinned is more acceptable in white-dominated society, and therefore resented. Between that and the "model minority" stereotype that I kept hearing about -- this was before many universities began excluding Asians from the list of "minorities" covered by Affirmative Action -- I'll admit I'd begun to develop some resentment towards Asians, very much along the same lines as that of my friend: how dare they come over here, after my parents bled to open the door for them, and take the places we fought so hard to open for ourselves?
What changed my feelings on this was, frankly, learning more about my own past. I went through the immersion phase of racial identity development during college, which is probably when I first began voraciously reading about history, anthropology, all sorts of things that I hadn't been taught in primary and secondary school. In reading Afrocentric historians like Cheikh Anta Diop, I learned about a number of surprising linkages between Africa and Asia -- for example, there may have been trade between the two continents and Indonesia dating from the time of ancient Egypt (which could explain why so many east Africans have "those eyes") up until the rise of European colonialism. In American history, black slaves and freedmen often worked alongside Chinese laborers, and there was some intermarriage between the groups. There are even several hundred documented cases in which Asians (particularly Chinese Americans) were lynched, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as African Americans. I'd been raised under the shadow of the Michael Donald incident, which happened in my hometown during my childhood, but around almost the same time was the Vincent Chin incident, which I didn't hear about until college. Discovering this shared history of struggle -- and the history that African Americans have shared with Latin@ Americans, Native Americans, and just about every other racial/ethnic group on the planet -- revised my thinking about other PoC to a large degree. I can remember a sudden feeling, like a lightbulb going on in my head, that these were potential allies, not just incomprehensible others, and therefore I needed to learn more about them and start approaching them as such. It probably helps that around this time, the black students' organization (of which I was an officer) started dialoguing with other PoC student organizations on campus in response to some racist incidents that had occurred (by whites against blacks), and working together to present campus events. The Asian students' group sponsored our showing of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" after the Los Angeles riots, with a dialogue afterward. Remember the scene in that film, in which the Asian shopowner defends his store from angry black rioters by saying (paraphrase), "We're the same"? Another lightbulb moment for me.
Since then I've become a student of multiple histories, learning as much as I can about any cultures that interest me. I got into anime and manga sometime thereafter and jumped from there into trying to learn Japanese -- itself a lesson in culture -- and eventually visiting Japan. I got into Chinese film drama (hooked by "Raise the Red Lantern" and damn near anything starring Gong Li) and started learning more about the history of China -- in part because of that remembered connection with Africa, but also just out of general curiosity. Most recently, my cousin married a young man who was half-black and half-Korean, and as I get to know his Korean mother I find myself researching hanboks and staring glaze-eyed at the TV screen whenever I see tourist ads for Seoul. (But I'm poor, so that trip will have to wait a long while.)
All this said, back to the question of "black privilege."
I think it doesn't exist. Not in wider American society. I also think there's no "Asian privilege" or "Native American privilege" (no, not even those groups with casino success) or any other privilege held by groups which are identifiably not Caucasian. Too much of this society is configured to privilege whites at the expense of people of color, and any limited privilege people of color have gained through Affirmative Action etc. is nowhere near enough to counterbalance this, much less overwhelm it. That goes for Asian Americans too; they might be considered a "model minority", but this theoretical assignment of privilege is far too much of a double-edged blade. It means those Asian ethnicities and individuals who don't fit the stereotype don't get the attention or resources they need, and it means that all other groups feel free to resent them for their supposed success. So it doesn't matter that blacks get first billing during any discussion of people of color and race, or that Asians are considered smart and thrifty, or that everybody and their sister claims a Native American princess in their ancestry, or whatever -- there is no privilege in any of this. Just a few gold nuggets shining amid the whopping pile of horseshit that American society gives all of us and calls "opportunity". However much American society tries to stack people of color against each other along various axes -- skin color, hair texture, body shape, "good" and "bad" cultural practices, math skills, assimilation, whatever -- we're still all ranked against one key standard: white.
I do think there's a degree of privilege that African American non-immigrants experience versus those who've come here more recently -- or those who are perceived to have done so. It's the latter area that causes the biggest problem between blacks and Asians, I suspect. I'll refer back to my friend's comment. When she said "these people", I first assumed she meant Asians, but I now suspect that what she meant was recent immigrants. God knows I see that how dare they? attitude among black Americans all the time. There's a certain hurt underlying the anger, IMO -- a reaction to being disrespected by people who benefitted greatly from the predominantly black Civil Rights struggle and other efforts to fight racial discrimination (such as the largely Civil-Rights-related pressure that eventually led to the end of racist immigration practices). There's also the hurt that comes from seeing groups which are new to this country -- potential allies -- adopt the dominant racist paradigm. As we've seen over and over throughout history a la the Irish, new immigrant groups in this country generally realize that they need to sort themselves into the racial hierarchy here to get ahead. Those groups which have some hope of assimilation (due to visual similarity with white Americans) quickly distance themselves from the groups which can't; and even among the groups that are visibly different there seems to frequently arise an attitude of, "Well, at least we're not black." This is what lies behind my parents' cautions to me, because smart black parents do that -- teach their children to deal with the racist attitudes they may one day encounter in the world. My parents assumed that Asians would inevitably follow the pattern of other immigrant groups, and prepared me accordingly.
But of course, Asians aren't all immigrants. Here's where Af-Ams have unfortunately absorbed the racist dominant paradigm: we look at our fellow people of color and assume based on their appearance that they're new to this country. Sometimes that assumption is correct, and supported by other clues -- a noticeable accent, for example. But I've seen people like my mother make that assumption even in the absence of an accent. In this we're no different from a white American who worries about terrorism upon seeing someone who looks Arab, or who refuses to hire a Latina housekeeper for fear she'll rob the place... or who clutches her purse and crosses the street on seeing a black man. We've been in this country longer than most other PoC, and that means we've had longer to be contaminated by the toxins of racist thought.
So I probably do hold some lingering prejudices towards Asians, simply by virtue of being American. I'm sure some of them hold prejudices against me. I'm going to continue to try to recognize and fight mine; I hope they'll do the same. But more importantly I also hope that I, and we, and they, will continue to focus on the real culprit here, which is racism itself. We may all affected by racism differently, but the bottom line is: we're all affected by it. Only by recognizing that and dealing with it can we move on.