Black Coolness is higher-status than Asian Dorkiness.

''Power to the people. Black power to black people. Yellow power to yellow people.''The Racialicious post, Talking About The Things We Do To Each Other, is an important intra-POC conversation about tensions between black people and (East) Asian people (or rather between non-Asian black people and non-black Asian people). This is an incredibly complex topic, and I will have to respond to this issue through multiple posts.

Firstly, however, I must strongly disagree with Thea Lim’s characterization of East Asians:

I had a long convo with my friend L about this last week, where he said that East Asian students always gravitate towards white students, whereas African American students will usually stick together. The more we talked about it, the more I realised that he thought East Asian students do that because they aspire to whiteness, and because they can – economic privilege or light skin privilege allows them to do so. I was surprised to realise that he didn’t get it – East Asian students gravitate towards white students as a means of protection from the particular kind of racism that East Asians experience; where they are always made to feel as if they are from somewhere else.

Not only does this not apply to me as a (non-black) Chinese Canadian, but this whole situation does not apply to the schools I attended growing up. Perhaps it is a class difference and/or regional demographic difference, but the situation that Thea describes would be impossible at the public schools I attended.

From Kindergarten to my last year of high school, white people were the minority, and most of these white people were immigrants themselves or had immigrant parents. White people and whiteness were best represented by our teachers, as well as the curriculum and the media. It was impossible for me to identify with whiteness, because I did not have the institutional power I associated with whiteness, and it was the institution of whiteness that oppressed me.

In primary school, the black kids were at the top of the food chain. Blackness was cool, while yellowness and brownness were associated with ridiculousness and comic relief. Blackness was the hip hop we listened to, while yellowness and brownness were those FOBs who embarrassed us with their thick accents and pants-waists pulled high like Steve Urkel (except Asian, which was worse). For children in public school, high status is conferred by coolness over dorkiness, and by the power of the media’s racial stereotypes, black people were by default high status and Asians were by default low status.

Because of this, I didn’t really identify as “Chinese”, which I internalized as being equivalent to ching-chong chinaman with slit eyes and buck teeth. Because I didn’t identify with ching-chong chinaman (= Chinese) or white people (= the grown-ups we were always trying to subvert), I thought of myself as a black person trapped in a yellow person’s body for some ignorant time during my childhood. (Still, once, when I was in high school, an East Asian person asked if I was part-black, probably because of the way that I dressed. I thought that his apparent thought process was absurd and I expressed this, but inside, I was secretly happy.)

As a child, I was taught that racism was something that only black people suffered. When we learned stories of black people being racially oppressed, on top of the literal reading, I interpreted them as analogies for my own racial oppression, like a young trans girl who understands The Little Mermaid to be a story about Ariel transitioning into the body she truly belonged:

This sort of read of pop culture is a staple for members of marginalized communities who see ourselves so rarely at the center of mainstream art that we read our own experiences into those stories.

In this sense, I identified with black people. When black people voiced their experiences of being racially stereotyped and Othered, I saw analogies to my own experiences, which I didn’t understand back then to be racism, since I thought racism was only a black problem (instead of a white problem).

At the same time, I believed I was uniquely unlucky and cursed with unique problem, which was that who I was inside—a person—did not match with the body I was born into—a chink. A FOB-lookalike. I was not like those people. I just resembled them superficially.

Although I preferred blackness to yellowness, I was still inundated with implicit curricular and media messages of white supremacy, which I resisted by supporting the bits of black resistance sprinkled throughout the curricula and media. After all, according to the black-versus-white binary, the only way to resist whiteness is through blackness.

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10 Responses to “Black Coolness is higher-status than Asian Dorkiness.”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    *hugs* thankyou for putting this in writing. I’m an Australian who was born and raised Indian, and this post rings perfectly true.

  2. Thea Says:

    Hi Restructure!,

    Just for the record wanted to agree with you that the whole “East Asians hide from other East Asians” is not a blanket effect.

    And that’s not how I characterised it in the post you linked to. Rather I was speaking about L’s perception. For some context L is a professor of lit at an American university, and this is what he sees. And I think (as I state in the quote you posted) that his perception is very much coloured by beliefs he has about how Asians operate in the world versus how black folks do.

    Many East Asians (esp in neighbourhoods that are not majority white, or in contexts that are not majority white or far from the prestigious spaces of universities) do not gravitate towards white folks, but towards each other and other people of colour. I would definitely include myself in that group. In addition I couldn’t even begin to try and apply the “black people together, Asian people apart” dynamic to my own experience – I grew up in Singapore which has an entirely separate racial dynamic. I also attended a few schools in Toronto that had mostly white students, some East Asian students and (honestly) one or two black students, and there many of the East Asian girls really stuck together.

    However I think (and I assume you are not saying that this never happens) that East Asians stepping away from each other does happen enough that it made me think about how to theorise it in terms that would make sense to L, or to nonAsian POCs who suggested it was proof that Asians are “not really POC.”

    As I said in response to you on the comment thread to the OP:

    “I also don’t identify strongly with the East Asian American experience as it is generalised, as much as I see a lot of parallels b/w my experience and it. So even being asked to explain “why do all the Asian kids avoid each other” was a bit annoying to me, probably for many reasons that you can imagine as someone who doesn’t fit into this stereotype.”

  3. Restructure! Says:

    Thea,

    In the OP, you also wrote:

    Not sure if you meant “you” as in “one” or “Thea,” but when I talk about East Asians, I’m not talking about myself. I don’t identify with the East Asian American narrative really, or even the hapa narrative; it’s not one I can take on.

    but I thought that it was because you grew up partly in Singapore and because you are “half-white” and can pass as white. (I recall you saying before that you used to identify as white, and started identifying as a POC only later in life?)

    It looked like you were not challenging L’s perception. Although Latoya and L are the ones actively stating these perceptions, it looked like you were condoning them, since as an Asian and Racialicious editor, people will think that what you say represents Asian Americans in general.

    I am not attacking you as a person, because I know you don’t personally identify with the East Asian American narrative you describe, but I strongly disagree with your characterization of East Asian students.

  4. Restructure! Says:

    Just to clarify, I strongly disagree with your characterization not because I think it doesn’t sometimes happens in white-majority and upper-class schools, but for “danger of a single story” reasons. The characterization really didn’t have any subtlety or qualifications, and most people will interpret it as “what East Asians do”.

  5. Thea Says:

    Hi Restructure!,

    I agree with you very much about the “danger of a single story” thing.

    I don’t identify with the Asian American/hapa narrative for a lot of reasons [probably too many to list here :)] And whenever I say “I don’t identify” I have to be careful to say that I’m not saying I think it is a poor identity or anything like that, it’s just not mine. I think most of all because it is in response to a North American experience, and in many ways I don’t feel very North American – it’s more that than the white mama, though obviously they intersect.

    As Latoya mentioned, a lot in the convo was very much taken out of context (it really was an enormous thing, with both her and I working through our frustrations with our readers and also each other). It was based in our troubles over the Tiger Woods post, where at first Latoya had said, go ahead and post that, and then as the conversation around that post really fell into disaster, she changed her mind and starting saying she agreed with people who were criticising me. So that conversation was really about us trying to understand where the other was coming from, and trying to speak to what we both felt were misperceptions about our group on the part of the other. (Which was to begin with uncomfortable for me because I am not sure I can speak for Asian America.) So instead of saying “well, East Asians don’t even really do that anyway” I was more trying to deepen understandings of why East Asians who do “gravitate towards whiteness” might do so. Recognising that even if it is behaviour that I find saddening, folks might have real reasons based in real pain for doing so.

    I do see how it could be read as me saying “this is true, and this is why it happens” – which I still stick by, but I agree, definitely, that there are also many other narratives and behaviours of Asians in mixed spaces; and that another problem with L’s perception is that it is reductive & stereotyping. I think I was just a bit disappointed that you didn’t pick up on the caveats about how bits and pieces are out of context.

    I do really appreciate hearing your story about your own experience and why you resist that stereotype about East Asians…as a non-normative Chinese/Asian Canadian (if there is such a thing as a normative one!) I am always glad when someone tries to widen the frame. And when someone else tries to keep me on track :)

  6. Restructure! Says:

    I think I was just a bit disappointed that you didn’t pick up on the caveats about how bits and pieces are out of context.

    No, I did pick it up, but I don’t think most people (e.g., non-Asians) would understand in which ways it is out of context. They may think that it is out of context in one specific way, and think that everything else is in context.

  7. HL Says:

    I grew up on a U.S base in Japan so I guess my experiences are probably a novelty. Allow me to generalize a little.
    It seemed that only the “FOB” Asians ( usually Japanese/Korean kid with a mother married to American) gravitated towards white people. Those were usually the ones to get picked on by a couple of the black/white bullys.
    The Asian Americans mostly hung out with other Asian Americans but were mostly into urban culture(white-asian mixes generally started out on alternative rock but pretty much all divided their taste between hip hop and rock as they got older) to the extent that their parents would allow it. Blacks mostly with blacks; whites with whites. But there really wasn’t any tension between the groups. Probably since there were a lot of half-asians(white-chinese, white-korean, black-korean, white-filipino*, black-filipino*, white-thai, black-thai) running around. It was through this group that all the groups that pretty much stuck to themselves got to know everybody else. Pretty much everybody was into ‘urban’ styles. So basically, the segregation wasn’t set in stone. It was almost meaningless. ‘Cool’ black kids would hang out with ‘dorky’ Asian Americans all the time, though they might not play football/basketball together as the Asians tended to shy away from those. Probably more a size thing than anything else. The half-Asians didn’t shy from any sport.

    I went back to the states during high school and was a bit shocked at the segregation in Cali. And there were definitely tensions there. It was sickening. It seemed the only reason the Asians in Cali would even let me get close enough to talk was because I just came from Japan and I was half Asian. The other half was black, which is where the tension came from. The Asians there weren’t ‘dorks’. They were into the rave culture(which the white people at that school weren’t in to) but still did well in school. It seemed the tension wasn’t from any perceived dorkiness but from the fact that there were just more bullies amongst the black kids. I went back to my base in Japan a year later though, and I was shocked(got used to the states) at how less segregated the kids had become. The parents were still asswipes, but all the kids were too busy partying together to give a shyt. Asian Americans were playing clarinet at band practice and getting drunk listening to Usher and Lil Jon on the weekends… I cite that cause it goes contrary to some people’s conception of band geeks. …end wall of text.

    *Filipino being lumped in with Asians….I still don’t know if it’s ok for Filipinos to be considered Asian or Pacific Islander since everyone I’ve seen with something to say about it has had some agenda about it. Not important either way…

  8. urbia Says:

    As a Chinese-Canadian, I didn’t gravitate towards whiteness either growing up. My friends were a mixed bag of people from all races. I was raised to be colour-blind, a result, possibly, from my parents taking Canadian propaganda at face value, and later I came to the realisation what probably caused this. Both parents had public service jobs when I was growing up. They enjoyed relative job security and had little exposure to the corporate cultures in the private sector. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t racism in the public sector (my father’s job was threatened by a white male ‘rival’ because they applied for the same promotion), but I’d imagine less.

    But going back on topic, I was raised to be colour-blind toward my peers, although I did have some idea at a young age that institutional racism existed. I just didn’t have the word or term for it at the time. It was just something I noticed when I’d have consistently great grades from Grades 1 to 2, then suddenly bad grades at 3rd grade, then suddenly good grades again at 4th grade. This third grade teacher would never be happy no matter how hard I worked, always seemed to be in a negative mood around me, and kept calling on the same white hands in class.

    It was obvious again in high school when a teacher’s opinion of me would change according to her own subjective whims over something I had little control over. It came to my knowledge that some white teachers even had the audacity to school my parents how to raise me. So there was this constant sense of this intrusive white hand from the outside world reaching into my home where it had no business being.

    Nevertheless, the experience was very unpleasant and I didn’t have the anti-racist vocabulary to talk about it at the time. It was also something I wasn’t sure how to talk about to my white friends, and when I did, it always came with the suspicion that they might not believe me. Some teachers had a ‘front’ that they showed toward some students and only revealed their racist side behind closed doors.

    As I became more and more aware of institutional racism, I naturally found myself drawn toward young people of colour. The racism from authority figures, and much less so from my actual same-aged peers, was what led me to do this. In a way, this experience growing up was what ultimately primed me for the life-altering experience of being investigated and having the authorities, once again, dip into my life where they didn’t belong. I wasn’t sure how to put this really bizarre, intrusive, and threatening feeling into words when I discovered it at my mostly-white workplace, and I wasn’t sure how to discuss it with candor amongst my friends. Furthermore, I was suspicious and careful about mentioning it at first because I was conscious of the possibility some people might twist the investigation around for their own ends, and when it came to words against words, in my experience, the white word had more weight to it. Eventually, I figured I couldn’t limit myself geographically and reached out through the Internet. Participating in the blogosphere is empowering.

    Long story short, I ended up gravitating toward people of colour due to institutional racism. It was a long journey from having been raised colour-blind, and I think it was a naturally-occuring survival skill.

  9. May Says:

    Hi all, quite interesting post.
    Briefly: I am a white girl with 1 European and 1 American parent, I grew up in East Asia. My experience reflects that of HL who grew up in Japan: no issues of differentiation of coolness/dorkiness along race lines in the school. Most kids had some form of mixed background.
    My question is about the rationale behind this debate on self-identification, and about developing existential angst about our own identity. In the future, it is likely that an increasing number of kids will be biracial, identify with several experiences, have multiple nationalities. And my hope is that they won’t systematically develop existential angst over self-identification issues (although ‘who am i?’ is always an interesting conversation).
    Personally, I sometimes wonder about the extent to which I am “Asianized” but I don’t feel the need to dwell on or formulate (and therefore, define and limit) my identity as in “Do I identify more with a Thai person or with a French person?”… in a way, this question seems kind of futile and what is the point of answering it? Could the reason why I don’t develop existential angst over self-identification/my multiple identities is because I’m white?? What do you think?

  10. May Says:

    PS: sorry if my post seems a bit off-topic… I don’t mean for the conversation to become ‘about white people’. But simply to put the idea out there that maybe we are not all equal before ‘identity angst’.


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