Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Squat-Squat is my Watermelon

If there's one thing about electroman, it's this: he is a giant ball of morals, principles and scruples. Every action he commits himself to is well-thought out, perhaps overly thought-out, and each decision deliberate. Every activity you and I might take for granted is the product of several hours of careful consideration in electroman's mind -- he does nothing without imagining (and occasionally disregarding) the consequences. He is the new Age activist, entirely cerebral and stuffed full of facts and figures, determined to live his life as unbound by and in opposition to social stigma and stereotyping as humanly possible. Now here's the dilemma: electroman loves watermelon. I know a couple of you are just itching to joke on him about this, but this is serious, and I would seriously recommend against pulling out the easy humour, because I bring this up to illustrate a real point -- the very privilege of never having to consider yourself a representative of your community when performing even the most mundane of tasks. Electroman would never buy a watermelon in public. In the six years that we've been going out, he has privately pined over watermelon, salivating over the memories when his father and he would drive to a road-side vendor and buy a watermelon to take home and share between the two of them on a hot Virginia afternoon. But in northern NY state, where African-Americans are still a sight to be noticed, an oddity amongst a sea of white faces, electroman explained to me his discomfort at fulfilling the watermelon-lovin'-black-man for the Caucasian masses. Sure, no one would say anything, but everyone would be noticing. It got me thinking again about privilege. How easy it must be to live your life never having to assume the role of representative for your community. For members of the majority, the oppressor, or the privileged, true right-wing American free choice and individuality is a dream fulfilled -- what you do is truly your decision and only you will be held accountable for it. Yet, for the racial, sexual, economic minority in this country, each of our action, even the most mundane of minutiae, carries with it the weight of community representation. How often has a person looked at me and subconsciously judged me for my fulfilling or abandonment of their social stereotypes? How often have I been loathe to flaunt my pride in my Chinese heritage or my rare hyper-feminine habits for fear of falling into those gender and racial roles I usually try so hard to combat? Even an act so unassuming as buying a watermelon becomes, for electroman, suspect. There is a discussion going on right now in The Sexism of Father's Day about gender roles and the choice one has to fall into society's premade gender categorizations, but at some point, beyond the idea of choice (which other commentors have done a great job arguing both sides of) is the question of if one chooses to fulfill a stereotype, even with that individual choice, should that person assume any responsibility for perpetuating that stereotype and thereby unconsciously or even unwillingly allowing a divided and unequal society to continue? If electroman buys a watermelon in public, sure he's satisfying a basic hunger for watermelon in the face of long-standing racial humour surrounding that stereotype, but he is also giving the people around him more reason to believe that stereotype. They say every stereotype bears a grain of truth -- but minorities must recognize the harm in allowing that grain to grow. Electroman's dilemma also highlighted to me the vast differences in the way African Americans and Asian Americans are treated in the U.S. Now, I'm a firm believer in not comparing racial experiences in the hopes of creating a "victimization hierarchy" because I don't think you can put a price-tag on suffering, but certainly one cannot help but notice the differences. I live my life fearful of fulfilling stereotypes, but the stereotypes I try not to fulfill are ones which are more subtle, more ingrained, and in many cases harder to escape -- the perpetual foreigner stereotype, the lotus blossom stereotype, the model minority stereotype: these are all stereotypes which are both less blatant and require a more significant change in my personality rather than my actions. Electroman, on the other hand, worries through several specific and mundane actions essentially robbed from him by the prevailing racial attitudes and tolerance for racialized caricaturing: he cannot buy a watermelon without being suspect, cannot cut his hair without having his 'ethnic hair' become a topic of conversation, cannot wear certain clothes without becoming a threat to middle-aged women in elevators everywhere. Electroman's watermelon have few counterparts in my life -- although I did think of one thing I refuse to do in public lest I become fodder for more stereotyping. I refuse to do the Asian squat in public (not like I'm doing it ad infinitum at home...). Besides the fact that my Americanized legs can't sustain the squat for longer than a few minutes, I refuse to look like the savage, poverty-stricken, uncivilized Third World monkey that the squat evokes in First World minds. Sure it's a cultural phenom back East, but the watermelon also tastes pretty damn good. Neither of those reasons is justification enough for being the person everyone thinks my skin colour makes me. Maybe it's all just in my head and no one really cares if I'm on my feet, on my ass, or even on my knees, but the very fact I think about this, indeed am in many ways fearful of it, is, to me, the indication of the privilege I and other minorities don't even know we lack.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was lovely. Thank you.

6/22/2005 09:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

What a thoughtful article, Jenn. You've really made me think about how priviledged I am indeed (no sarcasm meant) to not have to worry about any of this. I have never heard any jokes about African-Americans and watermelons, nor about Chinese and the 'squat', but that doesn't make them any less real to others who HAVE heard them. What it does make me is sad that people have to go to this extent - depriving themselves of something they truly love because of fear. Fear of perpetuating stereotypes that shouldn't be there in the first place.

The only thing that has come close was being told to shut up and not talk by my husband when I first met his parents, then his grandparents, because of my 'Canadian' way of speaking. So what if I use 'awesome' and 'mall' a lot. That's the way I talk. I refuse to let what other people think of me and how I talk, act, dress or anything other thing I choose to do, affect my life like that. But, as you so aptly put it, I have the priviledge because of my (mostly) white background.

Sometimes I do wish that I had been told about my heritage before, for several reasons. Sure it would have opened me up to more ridicule and racism than I have been exposed to, but at the same time, it would have given me more of a perspective to see things how you both do. Instead, I missed out on a vital part of me, that sometimes I wonder if I will ever regain, and in the process missed out on life lessons as well.

In school, we were taught a book called "Black Like Me" where a white man spent a year (I think it was, or maybe as little as a month) as a black man (by way of taking some kind of skin pigment altering pills) in the South. It really opened my eyes to the fact that no matter how ANYONE likes to claim that racism is dead and buried ANYWHERE, it still exists. He didn't have the typical black features, but solely based on the dark colour of his skin, he was shunned, abused, ridiculed and worse. A sad testimony of the human race. It's the same with any other racial stereotype and so-called identification.

Honest to God, I do wish that these sorts of things never existed. It is so unfair that anyone has to go thru this, but again, it's so easy for me to say this. Me, who has never had to face racial prejudice like my mother and aunts did. I tell ya, the First Nations community I lived in was more accepting of me merely because I had some Native blood in me than anyone would have been had I been raised Metis or whatever. What does that tell ya?

6/22/2005 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

The sad truth about modern stereotypes is that they can never be escaped. Watermelon eating is an extreme case, but I recognize that in every possible circumstance, the likelihood that I can escape an element of African American male typecasting is practically nil.

Rugged individualism, the type promoted by conservative pundits and politicians throughout America, emerges as an unrealized ideal, regardless of circumstance or individuality. But you know all of that already. Excellent post, Jenn.

6/23/2005 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most minorites, whether they be racial or otherwise usually do NOTHING to shake off the stereotypes and prove otherwise. That's why they remain.

But go ahead, keep blaming white,staight America for all your troubles, past or present.

6/25/2005 09:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is racism from minorities somehow acceptable? Try being a skinny white kid in a predominately black neighborhood. Yes yes it's true, not all of us whites were born with a silver spoons up our ass.

I can't ever recall such racism and hatred as I experienced there.

I guess because my skin is white I am somehow in debt to blacks for them being slaves in the past? Oh yeah I get it now.

6/25/2005 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

Anonymous, stupid flaming only makes you appear foolish. But I guess you know that already.

Grow up.

6/25/2005 02:58:00 PM  

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