Monday, June 7, 2010

Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes...?

I was speaking with a friend a while ago and we got on the topic of race and tribe-association.

(I should probably explain "tribe-association." When I get to know someone well enough to call them a friend, they become part of my mental tribe, because when I called them "my people" some outsiders got offended that I was trying to "own" my friends. Anyway...)

The friend in question is Asian-American. From comments she has made, I think she is Taiwanese and white as far as her ethnic recipe goes, but I'm not 100% on that, mainly because I don't think that it's that crucial to either of us for our friendship. She's ethnically Taiwanese, as she has just clarified for me. She grew up on the East Coast of the US and I asked her when she got to know people, do they change ethnicity in her head?

Even that's not wholly accurate. It's not so much that I look at my friends that are black or native or whatnot and they "turn white" in my head, but that they become that most horrible of cliches... I stop seeing their "race." They become more "like me" and I'm not sure how that works with the ethnicity aspect. I wish someone that has explored the psychology of this could adequately explain it for me.

So I asked my friend when she gets to know people, do they somehow become more like her, and whether that becoming more like her means that they are identified as slightly Asian to her in her head. I was told that those people generally are seen of as more white to her, rather than more Asian, even though she self-identifies as an Asian-American.
I've asked her to read this post and let me know if I was talking out of my ass. Apparently, I was a bit. Here's what she has to say:

I don't think that people change race, exactly, when I get to know them more? But I'm pretty sure I don't see them as more Asian, either.I think perhaps because I meet a lot more non-Asian people than Asian people, it doesn't really ever go away, the "not-Asian" bit... but at the same time, I don't think it's very important most of the time.

Does anyone know what this is, psychologically? I'm assuming that it's something that helps us to identify friend as "same" and "safe" and stranger as "other" and "possible threat." Is it as simple as a psychological evolutionary protection mechanism?

Does this mean that the dominant culture (or ethnicity) becomes the "same" benchmark?

Was 'Avenue Q' right, we're all a little bit racist, and it's just ingrained in our psyches?

And is this a bad thing? Is it good? Or is it just what it is, a development of our brains used to protect an individual?

Or, do I just get to ask these questions as a result of my white privilege?

The more I talk with people about this, the more I realize that race/ethnicity/culture issues are insanely complicated. Every seeming answer leads to four more questions. So far, I've discovered that sometimes people in the non-dominant demographic have expectations of people that are from a similar background as they are, but not always, because of the expectation of commonality.

They intertwine with class, geography, education, religion, and a myriad of other things that I can't even seem to grasp.

I'm actually starting to question how it is that I could have married a British man when I'm American. It seems like our main point of commonality is that we both speak English, but even that is different dialectically.

I suppose it only proves the need to get to know people individually and determine the personality compatibility based on that interaction rather than a perception based on a cultural stereotype. Or, as George Carlin said, "I'd like to get to know you so I can find something to really hate about you."