18 posts tagged race
This is a guest post by Monica Tan, one of my all-time favourite people, favourite writers and one of my soon-to-be bridespeople. I hope you enjoy it as much as I - and my writing hero James Fallows - did.
The Chinese taxi driver had a big incredulous smile plastered over his face. “Where are you from?!” he asked, hardly containing his laughter. To any ordinary foreigner this is an ordinary question. But to a Chinese Australian in China, the question contains an unintended implication which stings, just a little.
“I’m Chinese,” I replied.
This made him laugh even more. “HAHAHAHAHA, no you are not! I mean you LOOK like one -”
“But I certainly don’t sound like one,” I finished for him, with a sigh.
It’s been a year and a half since I landed in China. Back then I didn’t have a lick of Chinese, any kind of Chinese. I couldn’t even say “I don’t understand,” so people would speak to me and I would open my mouth, but then say nothing. Just stare at them, open-mouthed and silent. The road from there to now – conversational Mandarin – has been a hard, brow-beating slog of masochistic proportions. And after all of that my white foreign friends will be applauded for the simplest of ni haos, while my Chinese will always be substandard.
For according to my appearance, it should be flawless.
There has only been one instance where I’ve managed to pass myself off as a Mainlander. Chongqing gave me my first taste of having Mandarin that, lo-and-behold, was better than a Chinese person’s. On my first night in the friendly town of Dazu I found a street corner with food stalls and in ordering up some of “what that guy is having,” soon discovered the waiters weren’t able to speak Mandarin, only speak their own dialect.
Luckily I’d picked a table with a young, local student who could also speak Mandarin, and his father, so they translated for me. The student had a cute, boyish face, and wore a black T-shirt with a stylish print. He told me his English name is ‘Smooth’. I laughed, and gently informed him that ‘smooth’ isn’t really a name. “I know. But it sounds good and it suits me,” he replied with a smile. Fair enough.
After chatting a while I asked him slyly, “where do you think I’m from?” He thought for a moment before offering, “Xinjiang?” I was floored! Xinjiang is a North-Western autonomous region of China, quite distinct from the rest of the country. The province has a strong Eastern European and Turkish influence, and the local ethnic group look almost white. So while it’s not exactly a compliment to my Mandarin I was amazed he had even assumed I was Mainland.
I knew I was about to blow his mind with the next sentence. “Actually,” I paused for effect, “I’m a foreigner. My ancestors are Chinese, but I was born and raised in Australia.”
His eyes widened, “No way!” His father also smiled in surprise. “You’re my first foreign friend!” he beamed. I pointed out that he’d said his English teacher was Australian, but he replied that didn’t count.
That evening I thought sure, I’d never pass as a Beijinger. Let’s face it, with that piratey-rrrrr, few Chinese can. But what about the provincial locals who can’t really speak Mandarin? Surely I can pass for one of them?
The next day I landed in the city of Chongqing, where I met up with my Chinese friend, 22 year old customer service assistant Xiao Hu. She took me to the city’s esplanade, which was buzzing with Friday night revelers. Even so late in the evening the heat was suffocating, with Xiao Hu commenting that Chongqing is the hottest place in China. “Wouldn’t that be a more Southern city like Guangzhou?” I asked, feeling uncomfortably beads of sweat slide down my back. She explained that Guangzhou had the sea breeze. In Chongqing the heat was trapped like an angry bee, seeming to rise from every surface. I looked down on the Yangtze River. At that time of the year the water was very low, revealing mangy patches of dirt.
We entered a packed elevator to leave the platform. I’d been talking to Xiao Hu in Chinese while everyone else was silent so my voice seemed extra loud. A moment later I heard an awed voice from behind me suddenly say, “foreigner.” The young woman had even said it in English, further rubbing salt in the wound. I turned around, exasperated, and said, “Yes! Foreigner.” All my joy from Dazu where I’d been taken for a Xinjiang person instantly evaporated.
And so it is with every Beijing taxi driver I come across. They never suspect my substandard Mandarin is because I’m from another province. They know that I’m a foreigner because I speak Mandarin like a foreigner. As one particularly hilarious driver once told me, even in Chinese I betray my banana-hood – white on the inside, yellow on the outside. (He went on to tell me that he’s a lemon: yellow on the outside, yellow on the inside, there are boiled eggs: yellow on the inside, white on the outside, and scrambled eggs: those with one Asian parent and one White parent.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, it’s so important to me to pass off as a Chinese person. No more guffawing from taxi drivers would be just one of many advantages.
I like looking like a Chinese person in China. When I’m traveling in the countryside I can go for days without seeing a single foreigner. One simply becomes accustomed to being surrounded by 1.3 billion Chinese people, with the sight of that shining, white skin with the curly hair or absurdly tall figure is somewhat of a shock. Even my white friends living in China – all of whom will report a degree of frustration at the staring they attract – say they also can’t help but double-look at the sight of a pale-skinned compatriot.
I like the fact that I don’t get gawked at and can quietly, and inconspicuously, go about my business. I like the fact that this country and culture is, in so many ways, so different to what I knew growing up. And yet the bridge between me and the Chinese is smaller than what it is for a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner. A white person can work on their Chinese all they like, peppering their flawless Chinese with all sorts of authentic local slang. They can live, eat and sleep like a Chinese person. But in the end when you’re living in a country that’s as ethnically homogenous as this, there will always be an unbridgeable gap.
My gap is not physical in nature. It is entirely abstract and one that can be filled in with time, experience and knowledge. Language is only the first step. There is culture too.
My last dinner in Chongqing with Xiao Hu was hot pot. Plates of meat and vegetables cooked in a delicious broth infused with shiny-red chillies, plump mushrooms and herbs. As we ate, Xiao Hu and I discussed some of the peculiarities of the Chinese language, and she asked me if I knew about the roundabout ways one must talk in Chinese.
“Let’s say you invite a Chinese person over to your house. Naturally you ask them if they’d like a drink. They’re going to say no, because they don’t want to trouble you.”
“Even if they want one?” I ask, with a smile.
“Right. So even if they say no, you should get them a drink. Tea preferably, otherwise water is fine.”
“But what if they really didn’t want one?”
“Then they won’t drink it.”
I laughed at this. Humility, self-depreciation, courtesy and saving face lay at the heart of Chinese manners, in a way that takes some high degree of getting used to. Particularly for Australians and Americans whose nations’ histories are short, and did away with their colonial past in order to create young, dynamic societies featuring first egalitarianism, honesty and efficiency. As a child growing up in Sydney my parents had done a poor job in educating their children about Chinese-style behaviour. Every time my brothers, sister and I were taken to their hometown in Malaysia on family holidays we’d spend the time feeling like elephants crashing through the Chinese crystal shop of manners. We couldn’t pick up on the subtle cues that they, having grown up in a Chinese community, were so well versed in. And my extended family couldn’t understand why we were so rude.
Only as an adult did I begin to get a handle on things, and have since learned to “fudge” it – but it never feels like second nature. It is a language I’ve learned, just like Mandarin, rather than something I was born with. So I am always fumbling around awkwardly, afraid I’m about to (or have already) taken a wrong step in a very crowded minefield.
Despite all my dining faux pas, grammatical errors on Weibo, and horrifyingly Australian accented Chinese, I can look back on this last year and a half and see I have improved in leaps and bounds and in that stepped closer into that thing called China. It is only a matter of time before my ‘fraudulent’ Chinese identity emerges into something close to authenticity. My ancestral links to this country will no longer seem absurd, but only natural.
China, that 5000-year-old-plus great dame, in which nearly one fifth of the world’s population lives, is, in many ways, as close as the rest of the world has to a parallel universe. Being ‘hua-ren’ means I have a rare opportunity: a foreigner with full access. And in this process of discovery I find myself changed. Not so much a transformation, as a new ambidexterity. I have not lost myself, but gained a new self.
The V&A is currently showing an amazing exhibition of contemporary South African photography, investigating race, gender, sexuality, street style, HIV/AIDS, post-Apartheid life and more through the eyes of some of the country’s leading photographers.
I had the privilege of seeing the show this afternoon under the tutelage and guidance of my friend Amy, who wrote the exhibition catalogue. And thus, needless to say, knows her stuff.
If you’re in London between now and July 17, I highly recommend checking it out.
Elsewhere: Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (Victoria and Albert Museum)
I’ve already drawn attention to Beppie’s post on intersectionality and privilege in last week’s “Best of the rest of the internet”, but I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about in more detail here.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “intersectionality” is a way of talking about power and privilege that recognises that these things operate on multiple axes. People aren’t just female, or Black, or Asian, or straight, or working class, or trans, or a parent, or prone to depression - everyone falls into a number of different categories that colours their experience of the world in specific ways. In the feminist context, it serves as a useful reminder that not all women have the same experiences, and calls into question the still dominant notion that the neutral “female” experience is one that is white, heterosexual and middle-class.
I’m also a fan in part because it just makes feminism a whole lot more interesting. Gender is not the only front on which the personal is thoroughly political, nor should it be the only one we talk about.
Beppie’s post is about “addressing the squishy bits”, those parts of our political engagement where we face up to our own assumptions and privileges (or lack thereof) and are forced to step outside our own comfort zones. She writes about identifying those times when we should speak up, and those times when we shouldn’t.
Part of the reason it’s so important for people who occupy particular privileged positions to just shut up sometimes is because it’s impossible to escape that privilege: because no matter how good one’s intentions are, that privilege is embedded in the structure of the language that we use, it’s embedded in seemingly innocuous cultural assumptions, and simply by speaking, if we occupy that privileged ground, we reinforce that privilege.
Her post reminded me of a workshop I went to at a conference recently, ironically on feminism and intersectionality. It was clearly a “squishy” topic for a lot of the people there, because much of the conversation was uncomfortable and stilted. What perhaps made me most uncomfortable though was that in this room of 20-25 women, only two were not white, and neither of them said anything throughout the entire session. I wondered if they found the situation as ironic as I did.
The internet feminist textbook would suggest that, as a middle-class white woman, this would have been a very good time to shut up. I didn’t, mostly because I feared that shutting up would make the conversation even more stitled than it already was. I also considered asking the two non-white women in the room what they thought, but I figured this too would be rude and presumptuous - what if they simply didn’t want to say anything?
And so the entire session played out in pretty much exactly the way intersectionalist feminists critique clueless white women. I don’t know how it could have played out any differently, though. Perhaps better moderation would have done the trick? In any case, it definitely qualified as a “squishy bit”.
Have others encountered similar situations? What would you have done if you’d been in that workshop?
Image: See, hear, speak no evil.
Or a little bit of both?
Something you may not know: as part of my last job, I was responsible for sourcing and lightly photoshopping images for publication. This could mean different things, depending on the image in question - cropping for size, creating composites of different celebrities, adding a question mark or an arrow to an image, and so on.
Regardless of the other work involved, every image would undergo two procedures before it was uploaded to the website: it would be sharpened for clarity, and we’d play around with the ‘curves’, making the image brighter or, yes, lighter.
On images of white people, this has the effect of creating that glowy, luminescent look you see in so many glamour or advertising shots of celebrities. It’s part of the reason they look prettier than the rest of us. On images of non-white people, as in the case of Gabourey Sidibe above, it has the unfortunate effect of making them look whiter.
In my case, I had enough social/political/media studies knowledge to keep this in mind when employing my rudimentary Photoshop skills on images people of colour. But the experience does make me look at these controversies, when they inevitably arise, a little differently to some of my feminist/media blogger counterparts.
One retouchers’ trick is to increase the most highlighted parts of a models skin to make it seem more dewy. It’s the same seen here with Naomi. Glowy highlights blown out.
The lighting of the ‘before’ shot in the blog post you sent me has a completely different style of lighting [to the lighting used on the Elle cover]. Classic beauty lighting often involves a silver lined umbrella and card and this technique is not necessarily the way to shoot dark skin.
Still, the Jezebel blog post used a very extreme example in the other direction. Here is [an unretouched shot] of Sidibe on the red carpet with different lighting again…
The fact is that skin reacts to all different types of lighting in all different ways.
It all starts with how the photographer shoots the subject. In this case, the image should have been darkened all over. Looking at the colour of Sidibe’s hair on the cover shot, it’s really really light.
In other words, it isn’t that white magazine editors hate black people, it’s that they erroneously employ photography and retouching strategies that work best on white people. It’s not unlike the issues Jezebel identified the week before with how Sidibe’s hair had been styled - seemingly by someone inexperienced in styling African American hair.
None of the this, of course, is to excuse the image. Racism that stems from the blind assumption that what works for white people will work for all people is still racism, even if its roots lie in ignorance rather than prejudice or disgust. And one of the first things I learnt as a student editor was that what people make of what you have to say is as important as what you intend to communicate: the systematic whitening of black models’ and celebrities’ skin has been discussed enough that it’s something any magazine editor, art director or retoucher should be aware of when designing a cover.
I don’t think covers like these stem from a perception that black skin is ugly - although they probably do stem from an assumption that white models, and white magazine buyers, are the unmarked default - but by this point, editors must be aware of what the consequences of their choices are likely to be.
What do you think?
And for me.
Too often Nice White People are far more interested in being perceived as non-racist than they are in actually working to do something that might address the structural inequities racist beliefs and assumptions are built from and reinforce.
I know because I’ve been that Nice White Person. I still have my moments of it.
The only way to stop being that Nice White Person — if you’re interested in actually stopping — is to start with acknowledging two things:
You harbour racist beliefs and assumptions. This, by itself, is not actually your fault and says nothing one way or another about you as a person except you live in a society filled with racist images and texts. It would be remarkable if you didn’t absorb at least some of what your environment has to teach you. (Distressingly, non-white people have to live in the same society and are exposed to the same racist images and texts and harbour many of those whiteness-imposed racist beliefs and assumptions.)
I’m not a big fan of cognitive theories of psychotherapy, dependent as they are upon reinforcing the idea that the patient is largely powerless to effect change in ou environment. Therefore the patient must change ouself such that ou environment is somehow no longer harmful or distressing. But there are some concepts useful in other contexts and a cognitive-dialectic model can help a person harbouring implicit assumptions and beliefs to counter them when they arise. It takes work and a willingness to do a lot of not-very-comfortable self-examination, but by keeping watch over yourself and asking ‘Is my reaction to this person / image / story racist? Is this based in fact or is it based in prejudice and racist myth’? It does work, though not quickly.
You, as a white person, benefit from white privilege and the denial of opportunity to non-white people. Again, this is not anything about you personally — yet. This is an artefact of a racist society and is unavoidable. If you want to work against racism you need to be aware of how privilege works: It does not mean you personally do bad things to non-white people and get stacks of cash for it. It means that (to get into sport metaphors) you had an enormous head start and a relatively smooth path to run. Non-white people start from farther back and face more obstacles and are denied opportunities you don’t even notice because to you they’re just how things are. (And not all white people have all these benefits — but nearly all lack a lot of the disadvantages nearly all non-white people face.)
For example, let’s say you’re a white person trying to get into university in the US. You may have played a sport in high school. You might have played a musical instrument. There are two years of art classes and three years of French classes on your high school transcript. You may have done volunteer work. In short, you’re a well-rounded student. Also, your mother attended one of the schools you’re applying to, making you a legacy application which gets you bonus points just about everywhere. Your parents aren’t wealthy but they own a home and have a big chunk of the mortgage paid off which gives them access to a home equity line of credit should they need it. But you may have been able to get access to some of the increasingly large pool of non-need-based financial aid many schools offer. Your parents probably know enough about how the school loans system works to get loans directly from the government that have lower interest rates and less onerous terms of payment.
If you were a non-white person you may not have been able to play a sport officially. You might have had to work after school at something that pays money or something that doesn’t like looking after younger siblings. With the rapidly increasing re-segregation of public schools and the eternal budget crises in school districts with large non-white and poor populations programmes like art and music and foreign language get cut. Classes are dedicated to teaching children to improving standardised test scores and little else. Buildings are eroding, books are in short supply, good teachers are rare. (I cannot tell you how many people we’ve run into who have told my wife she was the best teacher they ever had and how fucking heartbreaking that is: She taught first grade.) Your parents have rented their whole lives and have no equity to borrow against. You qualify for federal financial aid but the forms are deliberately confusing and difficult. Aid is weighted heavily towards loans and financial aid officers at the state school you can sort-of-but-not-really afford to go to have an agreement with Citibank to steer loan applicants their way.
Even if you get into college it will be harder for you. White students (and many white teachers) will assume you’re there because of affirmative action even though affirmative action has been dead for fifteen years. Many will feel no compunction telling you have everything so much easier because you are non-white. White students who went to nearly all-white schools will want to get to know you, will want to touch your skin your hair ask if you tan ask what it’s like to be non-white. They will write opinion pieces in the school paper about how hurt they were that one time they tried to go sit at The Black Table in one of the cafeterias and no one would talk with them. Credit card companies will lean on you hard to get and use their products assuring you you’ll be able to pay everything off no problem when you get out of school and get that great job. It’ll be hard to find a mentor amongst the faculty. You’ll have an advisor, but they’ll probably be white and they probably will not even notice the barriers created by institutional racism — especially not the ones in their own institution.
The white students you go to school with will have parties themed around the worst stereotypes of your culture. If you complain be prepared for race-based hate threats and violence. Spend every day knowing you will be expected to do twice the work to be though half as good as a white person. Go into every film, every TV show wondering if the person who looks like you is going to get killed first. If the person who looks like you is going to get any lines.
There’s more. There’s lots more. But you don’t need me to tell you. Non-white people have been writing about their experiences for a long time and their writings are widely available. Find them. Read them. And always, always understand that a person who is sharing their lived experience with you is giving you a gift. It’s their life. Sharing it with you puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position. It’s not a philosophical point about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree and it’s not a debate topic.
Try to not fuck up. When you do apologise. Understand what it is you are apologising for (and it’s not ‘I’m sorry if you were offended by my completely harmless words’). Work on becoming a person who can be trusted by people who have had their trust shattered every day of their lives.
Do it because you want to be that person. If you’re looking for external validation you’re going to be disappointed and probably flounce off eventually having not changed a damn thing.
Elsewhere: Rabbit Lord of the Undead