reappropriate

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Teach Me, Baby, One More Time

Electroman always tells me I'm the more generous of the two of us. I'm more objective, more rational, more willing to forgive friends of ours for being offensive, insulting, insensitive and sometimes even downright racist. On his less generous days, he says I'm more of a White apologist than he is. He's probably right, on both counts. As an Asian American, very few people are aware of my community's history, cultures and issues. Even fewer get them right. I believe in debate and dialogue and that education in history and culture is crucial in understanding and accepting a community. So, if the subject comes up, I enjoy informing people about the history of my people and our outlook on politics and current events. Hell, I think Asian American Heritage Month is nothing but bursting potential -- a chance to bring APIA issues centerstage. But there's always that ongoing, nagging struggle with the other side of the coin: at what point does a willingness to spread the teaching love about my culture become an adoption of the "racial educator" role? A long time ago, Kappy and I got into a disagreement over the term "Oriental". See, "Oriental" is offensive to the APIA community for many reasons: for one, it is a violation of our right to self-determination and self-identification, and for another that "Oriental" was (and still is) a 'polite' euphemism for "chink", just like "homosexual" has become what one says in polite company when one wants to talk about "fags". It's got that veil of PC-ness to it, but the veil is meagre at best because of the way the term has been used to sugar-coat hate speech and bigoted legislation. During this discussion, Kappy cautioned me against getting upset, saying that his demographic shuts off when minorities like us get upset. His demographic, he said, responds to calm, educated explanations as to why the term is offensive, but not irrational displays of anger. While the discussion was eventually swept under the rug, what Kappy said stuck with me, and I was reminded of the exchange again, today, when having a very similar discussion over at YW. See, while I love the spread of knowledge, I have a problem with me being the educator. Okay, I love educating (after all, this is what I want to do with my life), but I think the mindset that the mainstream has towards minorities that leads to the characterization of minorities as educators is not only patronizing but just as racially offensive as whatever the actual insult might have been. In a society in which the (sexual, racial, economic) mainstream has always had problems with the idea of allowing minorities to define themselves for themselves, forcing the minority into the role of "oppression expert" is just another in a long litany of stereotypes. Being the racial educator still makes me the "Asian girl" in the room, still existing solely for the pleasure of the White mainstream, now only as tutor rather than labourer or court jester. By playing the teacher and quelling our own visceral reactions, we're in essence saying that any emotional reaction we might have towards the offensive viewpoint is less important than the ongoing struggle towards majority enlightenment. Also, I don't really think education works. On a purely practical level, my experience has been that Kappy is wrong -- or at least not totally right. It might seem like reacting emotionally to a perceived racial slight may be unintellectual, but I feel that by remaining calm and aloof, it's far too easy for the mainstream to ignore you, no matter how rational and fact-based you're being. Majority privilege includes the inaccessibility of minority hurts -- the white mainstream simply has no frame of reference for how a minority feels when they are dehumanized because of their race -- and so without a visceral display of exactly what something like a slur feels like, it's far too easy for the mainstream to dismiss what you have to say. My feeling is that, even if the offender has no idea why what they just said was offensive, long after they forget the why (if you ever bother to explain it), they'll remember, at least, that they did. But those are all chickens next to the gigantic elephant in the room, which is this: becoming the racial educator treads the dangerous line between that and becoming an apologist. Taking it upon yourself to teach the unenlightened masses more often than not unintentionally perpetuates the idea that you are some sort of expert on racial awareness. Had the minority not been there, the logic goes, the White man would never have known that words like "Oriental" are offensive, that it is only by the race educator's actions that the White man discovered his own unconscious ignorance. But rather than pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we must realize that by propagating such a mindset, we are in essence excusing ignorance. We are sending the message that we alone can teach racial awareness, that without us, there was no way for the mainstream to have "known better". The responsibility and subsequent blame is not on the White person for saying something offensive, but on, us, the minority for not having taught them sooner. By assuming the role of teacher, we say that it's acceptable for the mainstream to never have learned until our entrance, and it's our fault for not having been more accomodating to mainstream needs. Bottom line, it doesn't matter what your educational, racial, or class background is, racial offense is racial offensive regardless of intention. A White person having never encountered a person of colour before might explain a person's ignorance, but it doesn't justify it. We live in the post-Civil Rights Movement era -- why is it so difficult to hold the offender accountable for their offense? Is it really so difficult to place the blame squarely where it belongs and understand that if you unintentionally offend someone, it's better to learn to take it appropriately than to redirect the blame elsewhere? If they really wanted to know, why must I teach them? Whatever happened to cracking open a good book? This isn't to say that there 's no place for presenting one's issues, culture and history to the mainstream. God knows, America could use more awareness of APIAs. But, as minorities, aware of how our history has long been ignored by mainstream culture, we have to be careful not to excuse the ignorance of the majority. There's never an excuse for being dumb, especially when other people end up getting hurt.

6 Comments:

Blogger James said...

Great post, Jenn. Too many college-educated racial minorities tend to detach themselves from their emotion when beset with peer-to-peer racism; it's never positive to hide one's vitriol after a racial slight.

Pain is a great motivator, and I'd rather have any antagonist I face feel pain after doing me wrong than endure a lecture they'll never remember.

Further, we dehumanize ourselves when we pretend as racial minorities that we have the ability to teach others to refrain from racism. It's not possible.

When someone steals from you, or murders a family member, our criminal justice system deals with the defendant through procedures designed to both pursue justice and respect individual rights. No, we have far from a perfect system, but it does provide a mechanism against vigilantism, or justice as vengeance.

Becoming a 'race educator' is vigilantism. The victimized can no more teach the antagonist than the debtor educate the creditor, or the slave instruct the master. To be the recipient of a racial slight is to be dehumanized: victimized in such a way that no response can adequately repay the antagonist's hate. When someone steals from you or murders a family member, no amount of penance can repay your hurt and loss; similarly, the idea that a victim of racism can 'teach' the bigot anything makes no sense. Victims are too invested and involved to pursue justice in any sense; 'teaching' here is just another thought police attempt at race vengeance from powerless people. No wonder it leaves me cold.

7/13/2005 06:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you reconcile the right to self-identification with a refusal to inform people of said self-identification? It isn't as if racial or other minority group terminology or cultural practice is taught in a "style book" in mainstream pop culture. eg. 99% of white Americans would fail to understand why it would be impolite to say to a Sikh man, you would look better without a beard. 99% of white heterosexual Americans would have no clue that a transgender woman takes offense at being called a transvestite. If you are curious about people who are different from yourself, and have the opportunity to read non-mainstream information, you run across the current etiquette for interacting with minorities. But until you meet a Sikh man, or a transwoman, it may not occur to you to find out the info.

As much as it might annoy you, if the offending person seems salvageable, of good will but clueless, it might be worthwhile telling offender you are pissed at the comment and why.

Oriental? who calls a living person an Oriental? The word connotes rugs, antiques, and art. Orientalist to me is either a western linguist studying multiple related languages and literatures (the equivalent of the guy in the English department who knows Old English, Old Norse, Gothic, and teaches Beowulf), or the one who studies rugs, antiques, art.

Clueless white from the bland midwest

7/13/2005 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Anonymous, I would say that the minority in question, offended at a racial slight from a offending person - "salvageable, of good will but clueless" - should express any and all natural emotions derived from such an encounter. The education of the offending person is not my concern as an African American man.

When one takes the time to explain both anger and insult, one may run the risk of racial programming. I have no problem expressing my anger when beset with another's prejudice. None. And that's enough for me.

My problem is the idea that in today's global village (rather, today's global marketplace), anyone remains clueless about interpersonal etiquette. Ignorance of the law does not make one above the law.

If a person doesn't realize that it's bad to call an Asian person 'oriental' or a Black person 'colored', in today's America, than may whatever deity they believe in assist them, because I can not and won't try. It is a waste of time and energy, especially because I can never be sure of the offender's education level, even if that mattered.

It is too easy to feign sheltered suburban myopia when racial minorities enter a room. If I have to explain to my White male co-worker that Nelly's use of racial epithets in his songs does not excuse my co-worker's parroting of those epithets when singing along with his I-pod, then the important focus - my reasonable anger over the N-word during lunch - becomes obscured. Teach-ins only assist the mainstream become 'better people', and that's not my job.

It's rather basic: if a person doesn't know how to interact with others, the person will be hurt by others in this life. No one has to teach any of us etiquette in order to avoid pain. Being clueless isn't a "get out of being a bigot for free" card.

7/13/2005 09:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me, our parents, our teachers, our schoolmates, our neighbors, our workmates teach us etiquette all the time. If we don't have a lot of contact with a particular minority, we don't learn minority specific etiquette. We don't learn it all from books. And - gasp - what we do learn from books is - horrors - taught by the minority writers of the books.

But I am afraid that my berating Nelly for using the N word is going to be taken as racist, and a lot of other whites simply don't get why trash talk is ok within a minority, when the same word ought to elicit in whites a blush appropriate to the crudest swearword. No-one is going to convince me that African-Americans using the N word are trying to reclaim it as a positive word. I never hear "N pride" as a slogan.

Many whites, including myself, are insecure about preferred style: "black" vs. "African-American", since we hear both being used by the individuals described.

I used the examples of a Sikh and a transwoman because these are likely to be unfamiliar to most people and also not presented much in the popular media/culture. If the Sikh doesn't want employers (eg US Armed forces) to demand he gets a shave to adhere to standard grooming code expected for the organisation, he better be willing to explain that haircutting is against his religion and demands to do so are offensive to him. If he doesn't speak up for himself, I wouldn't blame the Army for penalizing him for insubordination.

As for trans issues, I attended a session at a local synagogue where - gasp - transpeople panelists were teaching us ignorant ones about preferred terminology, etc. Very useful.

After 9/11, local Muslims were teaching about "what is Islam" in various progressive venues.

I understand perfectly well that you, personally, may not be in the mood to point out an offense all the time, and explain why it is offensive (if it isn't obvious, like the use of the N word). You may just want to yell at the offender, and that person can take that in whatever manner. If the offending person is clueless but of good will, that person may not perceive the offense and figure that you have a headache or are touchy over a girlfriend problem and deserves sympathy, or are just a garden variety grouch and therefore should be ignored. If the offending person meant to be offensive, that person will be glad he made you mad.

If there is to be any change in offensive behavior, SOMEONE should bother to explain etiquette some of the time, if the offender or bystander is just clueless and not malicious.

Clueless, again.

7/14/2005 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"If we don't have a lot of contact with a particular minority, we don't learn minority specific etiquette." - Anonymous

So racial minorities must find the time to teach all the good gentle White folk who don't know any better, just because they are racial minorities who wish to be treated like equal citizens? That doesn't make any sense. I shouldn't have to perform as your great Negrologist because you may be clueless about Black culture. I'm not tenured, nor am I getting paid.

"But I am afraid that my berating Nelly for using the N word is going to be taken as racist, and a lot of other whites simply don't get why trash talk is ok within a minority, when the same word ought to elicit in whites a blush appropriate to the crudest swearword. No-one is going to convince me that African-Americans using the N word are trying to reclaim it as a positive word. I never hear "N pride" as a slogan.

Many whites, including myself, are insecure about preferred style: "black" vs. "African-American", since we hear both being used by the individuals described.


White confusion over insider vs. outsider language is not my problem. White insecurity over interpersonal interaction with African Americans is not my problem. Anonymous, you're acting like Whites need special manuals filled with jargon-laden techno-babble to tolerate Black people, Negroes for Dummies or something. Well, maybe Michael Eric Dyson's available to write that epic text for you, because as a random brother, I cannot.

Further, I think your point about 'preferred style' illuminates a useful point: too often (probably because Whites really don't know any better) the mainstream chalks up racial minority vitriol over whatever to superficial issues of etiquette and style. If the Sikh man volunteers for the US military, he has chosen to abide by their regulations. But if Goldwin Sachs hires him because of his wonderful resume, they've asked for his presence, and should be able to deal with it, including his religious obligations. People can take Yom Kippur off; what's the difference?

7/15/2005 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

"As for trans issues, I attended a session at a local synagogue where - gasp - transpeople panelists were teaching us ignorant ones about preferred terminology, etc. Very useful.

After 9/11, local Muslims were teaching about "what is Islam" in various progressive venues.
" - Anonymous

Different groups deal with general prejudice against their group in different ways. I'm not surprised that members of the transgendered and Muslim communities embrace teach-in tactics to assault the oppression they face. Still, I would argue that people dealing with sexual/ gender oppression or religious oppression are different than those dealing with racial oppression. My melanin doesn't wash off for anyone. The passing narratives scream opportunity for the most devout Muslim and the most committed transgendered person. Give a Black man a decent haircut, a Brooks Brothers suit, an Ivy League education, a mild mannered, Clark Kent attitude and a winning smile, and he's still the marauding Mandingo to his White coworkers, Nat Turner in processed homespun. He's still frightening to White people and others. So let's not compare and contrast various racial and non-racial minority groups and expect everyone to act like the transgendered.

"I understand perfectly well that you, personally, may not be in the mood to point out an offense all the time, and explain why it is offensive (if it isn't obvious, like the use of the N word)." - Anonymous

This proves my point! Why is it obvious that public use of the 'n-word' is wrong? Because over decades Black people got angry about it. It is the fear of personal violence that keeps the 'n-word' America's favorite taboo epithet. I say favorite because 70% of people who buy rap records (where mostly Black rappers demean themselves and their communities by using that word religiously) are White suburbanites in my 18-25 demographic. It's not hard to say that White people, forced to refrain from using the 'n-word' in public situations where they fear Black people will kick their asses, listen to rap to engage in the guilty pleasure of politically incorrect speech.

Offense is not obvious, and doesn't have to be. If I feel racially slighted, I need not explain my anger to a White person in order to give my anger credibility. I'm angry. That's enough. Further, my refusal to explain does not make me a grouch, or in a bad mood, because I didn't start the conflict. Take for example the co-worker who parrots Tupac during lunch, or loves quoting Quentin Tarentino films where racial epithets are tossed about like candy. If I'm offended by his rhetoric, my goal is to end the offensive rhetoric, not give sensitivity training. Period.

"If there is to be any change in offensive behavior, SOMEONE should bother to explain etiquette some of the time, if the offender or bystander is just clueless and not malicious." - Anonymous

No. This places the entire weight of alleviating racism on the victims of racism. The motivations of the offender are not important, because they can never be determined. Given circumstance, it doesn't really matter if the store owner who refuses to wait on a Black person is a Klan member or just unsure how to approach Black people, both types are equally guilty of the same offense - refusing me service. The same malice has been applied; should I give the clueless one a pass because they are so damned unsure? No. It's 2005. Racial minorities have defended this country in every war, every time they've been asked to serve. Why should their descendants have to meekly explain to other Americans why they deserve the equal treatment of equal citizenship, today?

White people can just live with the knowledge that sometimes they will be wrong, and someone won't be nice about it. Just like everyone else.

7/15/2005 09:39:00 AM  

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