White people do not understand PoC’s existential angst.

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.

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Feynman gets the wrong idea upon seeing a beautiful Japanese woman.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Would You Solve the Dirac Equation?, Feynman recounts his first stay at a Japanese hotel in the early 1950s:

I pushed open the doors and admired the lovely garden, and sat down at the table to do a little work.

I wasn’t there more than fifteen or twenty minutes when something caught my eye. I looked up, out towards the garden, and I saw, sitting at the entrance to the door, draped in the corner, a very beautiful young Japanese woman, in a most lovely outfit.

I had read a lot about the customs of Japan, and I had an idea of why she was sent to my room. I thought, “This might be very interesting!”

She knew a little English. “Would you rike to see the garden?” she asked.

I put on the shoes that went with the yukata I was wearing, and we went out into the garden. She took my arm and showed me everything.

It turned out that because she knew a little English, the hotel manager thought I would like her to show me the garden — that’s all it was. I was a bit disappointed, of course, but this was a meeting of cultures, and I knew it was easy to get the wrong idea.

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Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition.

Contemporary Western intellectuals embrace secularism as ‘modern’, and they often perceive Eastern and African cultures as ‘traditional’ cultures that are steeped in ancient religious practices.

Many Westerners even describe Japan, an arguably more technologically advanced nation, as an interesting blend of the very old with the very new. A white man told me that he visited Japan to meet the parents of his Japanese wife. He said that Japan’s technology makes Canada look like a developing country. However, he insisted that Japan’s culture is very ancient in addition to being futuristic, because ancient cultural beliefs and practices are still part of contemporary Japanese culture.

I found it odd that Western culture is rarely perceived as ancient, even though so many of our beliefs and practices can be traced back to ancient traditions. It is difficult to look at Western culture directly, when we are so accustomed to looking through Western cultural frameworks.

An example of an ancient Western cultural artifact is the Christian tradition of considering intention when judging the morality of an action. This Christian concept is institutionalized in our legal systems as mens rea. For a very recent example of factoring in intent, Clay Shirky claimed that the filtering out of LGBT books from Amazon.com was only a “perceived injustice” and an “injustice that didn’t actually occur” since the delisting was done unintentionally.*

The overemphasis on intent is so pervasive that the effects of an entity’s actions is now considered less important or even unimportant. Furthermore, a culture that trivializes the importance of effect encourages people in power to prioritize image management over correcting bad behaviour. If intent is more important than action and effect, then showing that you had good intentions absolves you from your bad behaviour and your responsibility to correct your behaviour.


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* For the record, I was unaware of the #amazonfail twitterstorm until I read Shirky’s article, as I had Internet troubles during that time. Although he makes a good point about people’s tendency to rationalize their actions, because I wasn’t involved, I have no emotional investment in maintaining that an injustice did occur.