Hello, it’s been a while. Today, I want to talk a little about some of the experiences I’ve recently had with what may be covert racism and also my own reckoning with my biases.
We all know about how instances of hate crimes towards Asian-Americans spiked during COVID and it’s not hard to figure out why. Whether it was because the heightened strain of losing a job or the fear of getting sick, or an excuse for racists who now felt justified in their attacks, I suspect that both are major contributors.
However, this means that while the pandemic has worsened violent and public displays of prejudice, this prejudice is still very much alive in mainstream American society.
I had a recent experience where I was assigned a project in my Human Geography class and the goal was to analyze some of the ways that “Western” society differed from “Eastern” society. The project was more detailed than that but that was the gist. This was an introductory course so I didn’t really expect much from it so I wasn’t really surprised by the scope of this project.
However, throughout the two week period where we prepared our presentations, the professor kept mentioning the “individualistic West” vs “collectivist East” as a possible avenue that we could base our project on. At first, I didn’t think much about it because I’ve heard it before and while it is superficially true, it’s not one of the worst things I’ve heard and it didn’t seem like the professor mean that much by it. But as he kept mentioning, I got increasingly annoyed.
Of course, now, classes are over and we’re in final season now and I didn’t bring it up with him at all but this is another of those instances when something felt racist but I couldn’t say if it really was.
So, what does it really mean when people bring up the “individualistic vs collectivist” comparision? And more importantly, what are they implying that they might not even be aware of?
One thing to keep in mind is the inherent power difference in America between races. This is the basis of white privilege and is seen in how institutions treat people of different races (systemic racism). I won’t talk about how white privilege doesn’t afford all white people the same leg-up in life due to differences in class, education, gender, etc. since that should be common knowledge and common sense. But back to main point: this means that whenever someone (white or not) with authority or influence suggests that there is something different about a person or a group of people, this automatically “others” them.
Another thing to keep in mind is the pervasive ethnocentric views that most Americans hold. It is not necessarily the individual’s fault because our media and school systems condition us to be that way but as grown adults, we should be able to take a step back and take a critical look. This ethnocentrism combined with the othering of the group makes for racist alphabet soup which says:
While I doubt my professor meant all that when he kept emphasizing this difference, it is the result. Ignorance does not excuse the outcome. Almost everyone has some form of this bias. After all, we are accustomed to the experiences and cultures we grew up around and therefore, we view them as the norm and if a foreign culture were to do something differently or even go against your culture’s norms, then most would see it as wrong. However, there’s a difference between that initial conditioned response and then the secondary conscious response where a decent person will stop and say, “Not everyone lives the way I do. Just like how I wouldn’t like to be judged by a stranger who doesn’t know anything about me, I shouldn’t judge others either.”
To address this notion of collectivist vs individualist cultures, it is only a cultural goal. It doesn’t really mean that that how people are living. As a Chinese person, knowing that there are billionaires in China doesn’t seem very collectivist at all (China being one of the supposedly collectivist countries). Collectivist might mean choosing to still wait for an open bathroom stall when the handicap one is unoccupied or giving up your seat to an old or pregnant person. It’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean people are docile or obedient or lack the strength of character or personality that a lot of Americans associate with individualism. This ties back into the stereotypes of Asians as obedient, meek, submissive.
Hell, even Asian people fall into these stereotypes. How many times have I heard, “I don’t date Asian men,” from my Asian female acquaintances? It’s always “It’s just my preference” and not, “I believe in the harmful stereotypes that are upholding systems of oppression and othering in America against Asian-Americans.” When you ask why they have a preference, it’s either the “penis small” joke or “nerd, geek, glasses, unmanly” angle. Sometimes I hear these things and can’t help but be pained by it all. Why are we not all supporting others like us and instead adopting the biases and prejudice of others seeking to discredit and undermine us?
At the same time, I can see why they might have grown to hold these views. I grew up in the suburbs of major cities for the most part of my life and have often been one of the few Asians in a sea of white. When you’re covertly shamed and singled out for being different, your need to fit in, especially as a child, can make someone reject their identity. Without a strong connection to their heritage, the only thing in common an Asian-American child has with the culture and heritage of their predecessors may only be in their physical appearance. They effectively assimilated but still don’t completely belong because race in America is judged based on appearance. This thought and process saddens me a great deal.
There are real consequences when this sentiment has been conditioned into someone their entire life and they never gain the awareness to step back and realise that . Some of those people will continue and go on to become radicalised be the overt racists you see stabbing Asian grandmothers on the street, yelling racial slurs at schoolchildren and corporate managers deciding on who to promote.
What a lot of people ask me when I bring up a lot of these little microexpressions and microaggressions is how they can be sure to not commit any of them at all. I think that that mindset is stressful and counterproductive. It also doesn’t help that the skeptics and some people in power, when faced with any hint of criticism towards potentially racist past actions respond with, “Everything is so politically correct nowadays. As a white person, anything I say can be racist. I can’t even talk anymore.”
That is an extreme position to take. If you say something and someone of that race brings up that they might be uncomfortable, then stop. It’s simple. Moreover, due to social pressures, many POC won’t actually speak up if something makes them uncomfortable; in fact, for most POC who don’t specifically look for information and study this, they might be as unaware as those making the jokes and assumptions at our expense. Therefore, it is not only imperative that a true ally be able to take criticism without being defensive and objectively evaluate the criticism but also to actively seek out resources and learn about the people they interact with. It’s kind of the same with any normal relationship; it’s an act of love to want to learn about the other person.
Recently, I have come to a startling realisation that I may not be as open-minded as I thought I was. This was kickstarted by D’Angelo’s video on Blair White:
To give a very brief rundown, he talks about how Blair White, a prominent trans YouTuber who talks about trans topic on her channel, uses our biases and subconscious sense of disgust or disdain towards those who clearly don’t “fit” as how we culturally view how a man or a woman should be to attack those people and spread misinformation about them, confident that her viewers wouldn’t fact-check her. She also has a disturbing history of putting herself as an authority or an ambassador for the trans community and basically saying that she, as a trans woman who fits the cultural expectation of a woman, is one of the normal trans people and everyone else who doesn’t transition or perform gender the same way are the weird trans people. In other words, she a Pick Me trans person who tries to lift herself up by bashing others.
The crux of whole thing though, is that people believe her because she looks “normal” and speaks fairly articulately and therefore someone to be trusted on these matters. Watching this video was a shock to me too because I had also fallen in this trap many times before. I wasn’t totally aware of all my biases and prejudice and was inclined to believe Blair and didn’t think much about it afterwards.
While I was aware that these biases existed and could see it in other people when they expressed them, I had missed it in myself. I wasn’t holding myself accountable. The world is complex and there’s also more to learn and experiences to be had and people to meet. It makes no sense to give up and complain about how everything is politically correct, because then you stop learning and growing as a person and your actions and words may continue to harm others. We would all like to believe that we’re good people but that is a constant work-in-progress. Being “good” isn’t an achievement or a one-time thing, it’s a constant state of being.
This is where it ties back to what that professor was implying and pushing for. It may not really be his intention because it sounded like he was just fielding a lot of questions on what our project should be on and he just picked an easy topic but he should have done better. As an adult and especially as a person who has influence over how others think, he should have taken the time to look at himself and his biases and read up on these issues and try to understand the nuances of the history and dynamics of race in America.
There’s one last thing I want to mention. It’s that since race is a social construct, it manifests differently in different cultures. Race as a concept is fluid and highly susceptible to cultural change. Italians and the Irish weren’t originally considered white when they first immigrated to America. In America, children with parents of different races, especially when one of the parents are white, are considered under the “one drop” rule. The “blood” of a minority race in you makes you one of the minority race. There are exceptions if someone is “white-passing” but just looking at some famous people like Zendaya or Obama, it’s their blackness that people see.
In Central and South America where the separation of races are more blurred, and not as recently enforced (think Jim Crow), proximity to whiteness is still sought after but it is judged in “degrees” where a person can “dilute” their blackness or indigeneity. Of course, this is a broad statement across a huge geographic region with millions of people so there are many more nuances.
But the point I’m trying to get across is that in addition to being aware of race relations in America (if you live here), keep in mind that it’s different elsewhere so don’t try to push what you understand about race in America (or wherever you live) onto people from other places.
Well, that’s all I had to say today. Lemme know your thoughts in the comments.
I’ll talk to y’all next time!