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."


  1. This is something I have spent some time thinking about, too, and something I don't have any easy answers to. One thing I've wondered about is, as you allude to, what the "default" is for our culture (for this comment, let's merge U.S./U.K. cultures, as they are both historically WASP dominated). I noticed that when I read a book, if there are no cues to the contrary, I assume that a given character is male and white. Since I'm FEMALE, I assume the male assumption is due to masculinity being the cultural norm in my society. However, since I am also WHITE, I have long wondered whether I assume whiteness because of the culture's influence or because it's what I, personally, identify with. I haven't gotten a clear answer the few times I've asked others this, but my assumption is that the cultural defaults hold for people in minority ethnic groups as well as for minority gender groups.

    I remember well reading Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. It's a great read - and it's interesting in that every major character in it is BLACK, but their ethnicity is never mentioned. I think the only time ethnicity is mentioned at all is to point out when someone is WHITE. This neatly turns the tables on the norm - in most books, as in society, people are described by how they deviate from the cultural norm. A couple of interesting experiments: read newspaper reports and see how, and when, people are described - and when they aren't; and consider also the "mirror test" - stand in front of a mirror and describe yourself in basic terms. The mirror test provides a shortcut to determining cultural marginalization: a self-described Black lesbian woman is going to be a lot less empowered (generally and culturally speaking)than someone who describes himself as "a man" or "a person". The more adjectives one appends, the more marginalized one tends to be - because what's being described is the ways in which one deviates from the norm.

    I've also noticed that when I get to know people, I don't think of them as anymore. I don't think that's inherently racist; I think it's a result of that aspect of the person ceasing to be a defining characteristic in the relationship - the loss of stereotype as a gauge - as well as the inclusion of the person in one's own "in-group" - as you mention. I think that the phenomenon is most useful when we can turn it around to investigate what the assumptions we have about everyone else in the same sub-cultural group actually are, and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. The effect may be - and probably is - minimal, but it's also almost entirely subconscious, and that's why it's important to pay attention to it.

    This is a little rambly since I have a fussy baby on my back, but I wanted to toss my thoughts out there; I appreciate your having taken the time to think about this, since I think it's important as well as fascinating, and your having had the courage to talk about it so openly. Thanks!

  2. Oh, dur... teach me to use carets in text. It thought I was trying to use HTML.

    The first sentence in the third paragraph should read "...I don't think of them as [insert subcultural descriptor here] anymore.