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[identity crisis] On Race, or Privilege, Or Just Being Human
SPIKE smoking
karanguni wrote in bromatheon
A few musings on things; probably the first and last time I'm going to mention Racefail and other samesuch related issues. A feeler; it's really just my own personal mind-wandering.



I didn't see much of Racefail - I avoided it, actually, skimming only through posts by and from people on my flist. The general idea floated through: there was an anger and a dissatisfaction and a discomfort on so many fronts. I won't even think to try to understand or summarise it; I'm not sure anyone fully can. But there have been a few conversations I've had with people, and thoughts that I've percolated over reading a few things here and there --

1. East is East / West is West --

I know a couple of people on my flist who are (open-inverted-commas) "Asian", a grouping which I fail to even understand at the best of times, and dislike using in any situation. When I was 15, I think, I remember going to a school conference. The topic at hand was does South-East Asia really exist? We had a nice keynote speaker who discussed ASEAN and its colonial roots, talking about how SEA really was a construct more than an identity, and I always found that sensible, rather than revolutionary.

South-East Asia, my home-territory. What a messed up bundle of nations we are. :D Like any other bundle of nations, really - we share some common geography, a few seas and straits, a few religions, a few ethnic and racial mixes. Fanning out from my own country of Singapore, we have Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, so on. We brush up into China. ASEAN exists, but is relatively powerless. What do we have in common? A history of colonialism, maybe, at best - the Dutch landed Java and its regions, the British spread out over the Peninsula, the French were in Indochina. Sometimes there was juggling back and forth. Communism, democracy, tyranny, revolution. Racial riots. The creeping stains of Western wars.

Malaysia's less than 30 kilometres away from where I'm sitting right now, but I couldn't go to that country and feel anywhere even close to being at home. Singapore's racial distribution is predominantly Chinese, whereas Malaysia's mainly, uh, Malay. But that's not the only thing: in spite of sharing a history of politics, water disputes, colonial masters and a rough-and-tumble series of governments, we've grown in completely different ways. We speak differently, we act differently, we think differently.

I'm a Singaporean Chinese, lucky enough to have had good schooling and a happy home and a tonne of other privileges and entitlements that are so often brought up, and I don't even know what that means, or what I'm meant to be other than who I think I am --

It's always seemed funny, to me, that in my multinational country, I'm forced to always declare my ethnicity and/or race on all official forms. I'm Singaporean, god damn it. Does it matter, other than for some random statistical measure, what colour or background I come in? I grew up in a city of skyscrapers and tar roads. I speak English because that was what was taught to me in schools. My mind is a mishmash of housewife-tale Chinese lore and Enid Blyton and British English and American television programmes and I don't really know what Confucius said or why people in the West like to mention Confucian theory, or why my government brings up Asian Values (TM) as if they come pre-packaged and individually labelled.

I did know, growing up, that I didn't want to be racist. Nor did I want to be elitist, or fascist, or other kinds of -ists. Mainly I wanted to be good to people, which I found a very good virtue extolled to me from young by my parents: be good to others. Don't be proud. Be humble. And be hard working. Don't hurt other people.

That was pretty much how my brain started operating, and pretty much how I operated for a very long time (and mostly how I continue to operate).



The internet was probably the biggest eye-opener for me, and the best. You don't really think about what you are and where you grow up until you meet something completely antithetical to it, I guess, and that was what most of the internet was. I didn't hate homosexuality or anything when I first started writing - I didn't even know what it was, except that there were things on ff.net labelled "slash" - and one day I put a disclaimer on one of my fics saying that this is not slash - ick!, and the next thing I knew I was a 9 year old with a series of extremely angry and vulgar reviews in my inbox.

Within the context of recent discussions, I sit back and wonder, was that 9 year old me being... entitled? Acting... privileged? And I end up thinking, no, mostly it was ignorance - maybe it's all just linguistic theory, but the words "entitlement" and "privilege" when applied with a broad stroke ping my senses oddly.

Entitlement you don't know you've got shares space with ignorance. If there's failure going on, it's a failure to recognise - or maybe a failure to have lived, or been human enough. When people start using words like entitlement and privilege and failure around, there's an air of defensiveness/offensiveness, of abruptly born guilt and damage done intentionally, a martyrdom for someone's inability to be everyone and everything at the same time.



A key thing taught to me by older and better people is that I can't look after other people and their interests if I'm not good myself. I can't, by means of loathing myself and what I am composed of, produce joy in someone else. Joy is progressive, movement forward, a growth.


A year or two back, aged 17 and a lot more cautious about sex, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity and generalities, the concept of structure versus agency was brought up in class. Structure being the social phenomenon of something greater than an individual - a school, a race, a gender, a class, a bank, an flist - while agency was the individual, unique and capable of thought. And I thought to myself:

I'm an agent that shares a whole bunch of structures. Yeah, I'm Chinese. And Singaporean, and female, and this-or-that-age, and liberal and conservative and so on. But I don't inherit every part of those structures, and I don't have to. I can't possibly. I'm just one being, unable of comprehending 3000 years of Chinese history and how it distilled down to the four-word-sayings written down in my textbook, much less the abbreviated version of 60 years of frantic political scrambling set amidst a growing, planned city, much less a wealth of different viewpoints about what my gender/sex/thing is and was and should be and may be treated, much less what right or left means beyond the directions I take on a road.

Sometime during Racefail, I sat back and wondered, are there really things that are, honest to nature, part of a race? Do "Asians" really study more by nature? Are certain races more inclined towards certain occupations? It's the most common racist household feature around here, after all - this race is always _______, &c.

And then it came a bit full circle. I've got a few "Asian" friends on my flist, but does-SEA-really-exist: it all depends on where we're brought up, how we're brought up. I can't even pretend to comprehend how an American-born Chinese-or-equivalent person would view the world vis-a-vis how I would, and I really don't care how many chromosomal pairs we might share. Some structures supercede others, but it all depends on the self, doesn't it? If I choose to let my femaleness matter more to me than my race, or my sexual identity, or one of a trillion, quadrillion, googleplex of things that makes me - and everyone else - a human being.

I can't, won't try to count and enumerate and evaluate the ways in which I am privileged, entitled, prone to discriminate. I probably don't know about 99% of them. And if I sailed halfway across the world from where I am, those 99% of things would invert upon themselves, inverse and reverse and get reapplied to whole new different culture. All I can do is to be aware --- be not proud, be humble. Not just of who I am and what I have as a result of that, but of how those values and circumstances evolve depending on where I am.



A guy I'm working with, a very friendly Spanish dude who's currently located in Thailand, comes down here every once in a while for work. We commiserate over our editor and coffee. Recently, he leaned back in his chair and said, "I'm trying to understand more about Asia. About Singapore, really."

I asked, "Why are you in Thailand, then? So much of your work is here."

He shrugged. "People in Thailand are freer. They know how to enjoy life. You know here in Singapore, I've never even got close to a girl? I think I've never kissed a single woman here! Maybe once, at most. Why is that? Do they look at me and say, eew, I'm Spanish, and automatically disqualify me?"

And it went on, bantering back and forth. He's a good 20 years older than I am, jokes often that I'm just an eggchick, but he treats me like a grown adult and that's good enough for me. It gets earnest - I try to explain, stumbling because I hardly share most of the values myself, that women down here don't usually go for one-night stands, but then again some do, I mean --- we, we're a lot -- about family? We-- we want stability? Or some of us do???

Contrasting answers, until he leaned in and said, "Stability? But are you happy? It's like all of you - not just women - are like slaves. And coming from a Western country, I find that honestly, truly sad that you can't be who you want to be. Because of the patriarchy, it controls -- family is like a cage --"

If I tried to explain it it would've taken me a few dictionaries, a few travel adventures, and probably most of my sanity. I don't know how to describe to someone who has no conception, no 17 years of exposure to "Eastern" television and art and music and culture the same way I've received, via however horrible proxies, "Western" definitions, what an "Eastern" viewpoint is. There's an overarching, traditionalist structure there. But it dissipates, and everyone has different ideas of what is right, appropriate, good. But I know this much - it's a lot more common down here to not talk about rights.

Rights, I guess, equals entitlement, equals a demand for privilege. It's hard for me to think of a right to be free when I've grown up in a family and a society where my family members - and country members - have sacrificed everything they are (in "Western terms") for their family. Their time, all their income, every inch of their soul and being, in family. Their children are their assets, their stability is their bedrock. Whatever right one has to be something less than practical, to leave the family home, that right gets overwhelmed by other desires. Same as freedom. The desire to see parents happy, or the wish for a smooth life, even in exchange for doing what one loves.

I don't know. I'll never know. So much of it is ingrained, unspoken, territorial, subconscious, natural. I look at the world and accept it without trying to pick it apart, because how can I? How could I ever explain to my Spanish friend that I think that sometimes breaking my heart in exchange for not breaking my parents' is valid? That I would give up what I love for income? That I would avoid an argument against my values in favour of maintaining a relationship? And that those things complete me rather than break me, make me who I am instead of making me downtrodden, dis-entitled, discriminated, underprivileged? That it is, in some ways, something I give away in exchange for something I receive?



My brain ticks overtime sometimes, because there are always two parallel brands of logic running back and forth all over the tracks of the questions of race and sex and gender and everything. Part of it "Eastern", part of it "Western", swapping out "selfishness" in one case for "self-actualisation" in another, zig-zagging in and out and undefinable and unsimplifiable. How do you summarise God into a paper cup? Or how could you digitise a soul?

I'm not in favour from running from the responsibility of knowing where I stand, or what I'm lucky to have that others don't, or how I should try to equalise, re-negate. But at the same time, I don't think that the sands are ever still enough for me to know how and in which direction negation and equalisation can happen. We're all so different. We're all unique. We all choose and pick and balance our own equations based on the variables available to us, and that equilibrium within us that makes us truly happy is not -- not -- not ever reducible.

That's why we're human, and why we're gifted with the faculty of emotion, of love, of language and of an odd, burning desire to transcend. To reach out in the dark, out to something we don't know and are somewhat afraid of and can't understand, and to trace each other out - whether it's a loved one we've known all our lives or a stranger two seas away - to find and discover.

That's a responsibility I can understand. To be good to others. To not be afraid. To not be proud. To be humble. To be hard working. Above and beyond formulae, or rationality; and that's all I can ever hope to be, I think, but that's good enough a goal for me.

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*yawns* Sleepiness+

Thou shalt not write late at night? *g*

Yeah, I think it does come down to a lot of differences in perspective here -

1. re: not getting Asian, and then not getting how to get a Western person to understand Asian --

It's kind of nail on the head here, when you say you're confused over Asian identity having no meaning to me and then a seeming contradiction when I come back and say I don't know how to get a non-Asian to see Asian-ly -- I don't know. Part of me thinks quite strongly that the concept "Asian" is too wide, general, sweeping, nebulous, mainly because I think you can't just group a huge section of the world into "East" any more than you could group the rest of the world into "West".

Yet at the same time there are - like how I flail about describing a different world view to my friend - some identities shared by, semantic-terminology-fail-here, a sort of Asian structure that, i guess I was trying to say, agents in said structure share, leading to :


And it went on, bantering back and forth. He's a good 20 years older than I am, jokes often that I'm just an eggchick, but he treats me like a grown adult and that's good enough for me. It gets earnest - I try to explain, stumbling because I hardly share most of the values myself, that women down here don't usually go for one-night stands, but then again some do, I mean --- we, we're a lot -- about family? We-- we want stability? Or some of us do???


A mishmash of another point being:


Sometime during Racefail, I sat back and wondered, are there really things that are, honest to nature, part of a race? Do "Asians" really study more by nature? Are certain races more inclined towards certain occupations? It's the most common racist household feature around here, after all - this race is always _______, &c.



Which is just how I view things. \o Where does the line between being yourself and being very much culturally/racially influenced begin?



2.


I'm not sure about your linguistic issues. . . I think the primary manifestation of privilege is the ability to be ignorant. Maybe we're defining ignorance. . . differently? But I think most people who use the word "privilege" aren't expecting the privileged to have experienced life as the unprivileged, which is what it seems like you're saying? I. . . maybe it's not? I'm just. . . confused.


Bingo - I'm confused too, I guess! When you say "the primary manifestation of privilege is the ability to be ignorant", that's a lot of what my head can't wrap around - sometimes when I read things, especially things that have people getting really down on themselves for not-knowing-what-they-couldn't-know re: different privileges and entitlements, I feel like the ability to be ignorant ends up feeling like a wilful ignorance - a sort of, I've-been-privileged-such-that-I-never-tried-to-find-out-ways-in-which-I-am. It's just a vibe I get every now and then, and I am v. sure that the way in which people mean things is v. different from what eventually ends up in my percolator -- which all just kind of swirls down to, feelings of entitlement/privilege are complex because everyone defines those terms differently and has a different degree of severity when dealing with and using them.


*yawns* Just got up and v. sleepy, but maybe more sense will come later. I hope I managed to snag some of your confusion; I'm v. bad at getting technical over these things because it's something very base-layer to me, and I don't know how much of my own base-layer is universal. \o ♥

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

Where does the line between being yourself and being very much culturally/racially influenced begin?

Ahhhh, see, I kind of didn't really get that that was one of the things you were thinking about here. I totally see it now.

Re; your answer to #2 - I guess. . . it seems like you're feeling a lot of pressure to feel guilty about the privilege that you've experienced? Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but that's sort of what I'm getting out of this. Like, that you're seeing people feeling guilty about their privilege - and their "not knowing" and it doesn't quite feel right?

If that's a complete mischaracterization of what you're trying to express, then I'm sorry! But if it's not, this might be relevant (all my examples are about feminism) - I was reading a blog entry by a male feminist, and he was talking about blame and guilt and how he always sees men in feminist discussions, when they are sympathetic and willing to express the arguments, just wallowing in guilt and self-hatred. And the guy was like "I think it's unproductive, and it alienates men from being involved in the movement cos they just feel guilty all the time". And in the comments, a lot of women were like "NO. MEN SHOULD FEEL GUILTY." And man, I get my "aaaaaargh" moments (see today's entry, where, haha, I talk about people speaking about things they can't understand in an insensitive way) but you've gotta just get past it, because - feeling guilty doesn't help anyone!

Which might be the conclusion you come to in the entry, actually.

But I guess I do feel like there's a responsibility to at least try to be aware of one's privilege (slap me if I'm not doing so now - your racial privilege seems vaguely analogous to my own so I thought it wouldn't be wholly unproductive or out of line to share my thoughts on how I've coped with it) when it's possible.

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

Re #2: I spent a while during Racefail looking for reasons and questioning whether I was racist in ways I didn't see - because there were a few posts I'd read going around where people, no joke, seriously beat themselves up about it to a point where I thought it was !!!! and really damaging for no good effect. And yep, it didn't quite feel right. It's not as if people were going, "I WAS BORN WITH IT DON'T BLAME ME! 8D", it went right out to a "SORRY I WAS BORN OH GOD I AM SORRY".

*g* Your paragraph on male feminists gets the point perfectly. The two kind of polar-attitude camps, and the slightly WARG MILITANT FORWARD MARCH idea, those things get under my skin. It's a responsibility of everyone to try to be aware of who they are and what they are; privileges and identities just seem to change and morph all the time regardless of whether you're in a majority or a minority. The moment you're someone else, which I kinda think we always are, I think we have a due responsibility to not try and flatten people under a lens of the bigger structures they belong to, and to find out how much they draw from whatever pots of privilege/tradition/current affairs/etc and compose themselves. :D

Maybe this came up as going around a mental cul-de-sac for me after reading a lot of formulaic posts on How Not To Be Racist (not that they weren't good posts!) and How To Identify Privilege - all of which was extremely important, but also sometimes to my brain very tunnelled in. Like, um, when thinking about race and privilege you have to flip this switch or focus on that topic absolutely. Whereas I guess, looking at this entry and what I was trying to say, I think I look at it more as an integral, automatically-there part of being a human: that you look at what another person is like, and you balance the factors - only some of which are race and privilege and all the other things put up here - before you venture forth with what you say or do. :D \o

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

I guess, though, at the place where I am in feminism right now I'm definitely in more of a "you have to be aware of your privilege" place (but definitely not feel guilty about it). Although in America, because of our racial history, you often do have to be aware of racial privilege in order to do as you say - treat people like individuals. It's like the Avenue Q song says, "Everyone's a little bit racist". Cos if I'm not thinking about it, I will be making assumptions about someone based on their race, sadly, and it's only by exerting a mental effort that I can not do so. Until I get to know them, of course.

But yeah, as you say above, maybe it's a really localized thing, cos we have so much crazy race history.

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

*g* We have less of a crazy race history, but there's a lot of cross-cultural racism -- Chinese people of the elder generation, as an example, (my generation's usually been beaten/bashed/willingly led into thinking so much about racism that we don't even want to talk about; people get called out all the time if they do something stupid) seem somewhat fixated with being suspicious of members of the other races here in Singapore. Cross-racial marriages are getting common only in my generation.

Everyone knows that everyone's a little racist, I think - or maybe they should! *g* Maybe that's why I'm a bit *___* about it - a lot of what gets written and explicitly brought up are things I think are internal; to see a whole host of it at once was sort of like seeing articles on how to brush your teeth or how to be polite. \o

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

Ahh, yeah. Here it's like. . . it's talked about, but there's still a lot of people who think race problems don't exist. Or it used to be talked about but now people are like "look, obama, problem solved I'm not gonna think about it anymore." So we still need the articles. :(

(On the other hand, at least people are asserting that race is still a problem so other people can say "no it's not!" . . . I'd never even heard those arguments about women's issues until recently.)

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

It's always either/both uplifting and enlightening to read new things from new places that just add up, y'know? Sometimes you think, racism's a little bit more dead! And other times you feel, oh god it's back! And then more times there's the, help me cultural barrier impeding discussion! Or, I Want To Shoot All Linguistic Philosophy In The Head! But at the end of the day it's a few steps forwards, backwards, sideways, and being part of a nice, big, diverse place that we live in. \o I try not to dwell too much on the hurt; I'm all for learning and thinking and going on. :D

[edit-y edit] And thanks a huge bunch for discussing all of this with me, ♥ I mean, this post was all WHEE 2AM BRAINLESSNESS and then WHEE 6AM MORNING REPLIES and you were still hugely patient and considerate even and especially when putting across points I didn't quite get at first readthrough. :D :D

Edited at 2009-04-18 03:05 (UTC)

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

Or, I Want To Shoot All Linguistic Philosophy In The Head!

I think we've all been there. XD

Ahh, thank you for discussing it with me! And sorry for making sleepy early morning you get into it. XD And for expanding on things and everything. ^_^

Re: *yawns* Sleepiness+

Nah, it's all cool. ♥ I don't know why I was up that late/early myself! :D

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