Existential angst is portrayed and experienced as individual suffering. In white-majority countries, white people tend to think of other whites as individuals with individual identities, but they tend to think of people of colour as a collective with a collective identity. Thus, white people from white-majority countries tend to think that people of colour cannot experience existential angst.
However, the problem is that people of colour think of ourselves as individuals with individual identities. (Or at least I do, and I assume that other people of colour do too until proven otherwise, because I consciously reject stereotypical assumptions of questionable origin, not because I actually have access to the minds of other people of colour.) Individuals of colour can experience existential angst, and in addition, our consciousness of ourselves as individuals regularly clashes with our consciousness of how society views us as a collective.
Blogger, regular Racialicious commenter, and occasional Racialicious guest-poster Atlasien apparently loved my post White people’s family roots are deeper than those of ethnic minorities, and connected it with white people’s implicit framing of existential angst as a uniquely white problem (Atlasien’s emphasis is bolded, my emphasis is highlighted in yellow):
I can think of another, more subtle effect. White people often talk about being cut off from their roots in the context of feeling a kind of existential angst that propels them into a desperate search for meaning. That’s quite understandable. Modern American life increasingly isolates people. Extended families are scattered all over. Family and community ties break apart. The problem is that people often don’t realize that these isolating social forces affect minorities just as much and even more. I think in a lot of movies and books and art, the angst of middle- and upper-class white people is cast in a really portentous, heroic, important light. Take that George Clooney movie Up in the Air, which I didn’t see, but I heard it was about an angsty white business traveler. Nobody makes big budget movies about angsty Mexican landscapers or angsty black postal workers or angsty Korean convenience store owners. When you get into more independent movies, you finally start to see portrayals of people of color addressing complicated psychological pain: Michael Kang’s “The Motel” is a great example. But usually, any minority in a lower-class job is stereotyped as hard-working but happy, or oppressed and sad and noble. Often, they help the angsty white character discover what’s really important in life. Because they are simple people and they have roots. Gah!
One movie that disgusts me is Lost In Translation (2003) and its associated white perspective and white privilege. A typical white liberal may assume that the problem with the film is that existential ennui is an alleged “white” problem, and that white existential angst is trivial to the harsher, material struggles of people of colour. This critique is partly true, in that if existential ennui is your only problem, you have it easy.
However, what disgusts me about Lost In Translation is that it centres on the lives of white people in a country where they are the minority, and it suggests that the social isolation that comes from being a minority is something that could only happen to white people.
This notion makes absolutely no sense, except to self-absorbed white people who are completely oblivious to their white privilege, to the point where being a minority in a non-white country only amplifies white navel-gazing, and leads to zero empathic recognition for the condition of people of colour in white-majority countries.
Additionally, depression is underdiagnosed among racial minorities in the United States, and U.S.-born Asian American women are more likely to attempt suicide than other Americans. The stereotype that racial minorities are always happy with our circumstances or motivated to survive—because we are ostensibly simple people ruled by only primitive compulsions—may contribute to racial discrepancies in diagnosing depression.
For example, white students who come back to Australia after finishing an exchange program in Japan complain about minor inconveniences there; that leaves me thinking, ‘You’re complaining about that?’ One such student told a Japanese lecturer to go watch Lost in Translation because it oh-so-perfectly describes what it’s like living in Japan as a foreigner, as though she had just endured the most difficult thing at the hands of these Japanese beings.
I heard about this. So I went and watched that movie, wondering what in the world the student meant. After watching it, my conclusion was: I don’t need to watch this movie to know how that feels — its portrayal of life as an outsider in a foreign country is the story of my life. And it’s a much milder version of the story of many migrant lives.
Obviously, life in a foreign country is hard and everyone deserves to be cared for. But it’s hard to sympathize when white residents of Japan frame it as, ‘Oh-my-gosh, the Japanese people are sooo [insert negative adjective], and oh-my-gosh, our struggles are oh-so-unique and difficult.’ It’s hard to sympathize when they have little understanding of how many more foreigners, migrants, and POCs in their own country go through it too, often in much harder circumstances. Tell me your experience and I’ll empathize, but don’t try to ‘educate’ me about it because I already know.
Also see fromthetropics’ comment on this post.
- Snowed In! And other stuff. by atlasien
- White people’s family roots are deeper than those of ethnic minorities. by Restructure!
- The danger of a single story by Chimamanda Adichie
- White people think that people of colour have more culture. by Restructure!
- “Chinese food” in the U.S. is not foreign, but foreignness is not “authenticity”. by Restructure!
Mountain photo: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons