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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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Yeah, right - re: the part of a racial majority! I don't speak much Chinese when, like, um, 99.9999999999% of the rest of my race here does, so I get really OH SHIT moments when I go out and people talk to me in super fast/fluent Chinese - especially when they see my uniform. xD'' I get called out a lot on the way I speak English, &c &c.

I remember reading that article, it was one of the first I did flip through! I think a huge source of my ? there was in part practicality versus privilege versus government involvement.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race. -- I can understand why some of this is privilege, but it also seems a matter of demographics, and how racially minded the "person in charge" is!

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. -- this one I think is very reliant on governance, and their policy, and how racist or racially aware a government is. Down here, sometimes foreigners are given priority over all Singaporeans, while at other times all 4 races are so evenly represented it's hilariously obvious that something is being fixed!


So again, it broils down to me as something - like a lot of other things in life - that a person's got to be aware about, read widely about, be openly involved and make links back and forth across more than just race about. :D I'll probably never be able to write an article like that, because I'd digress all over the place since I can't think or operate on a formulaic method or list -- there's so many places that are grey, and so many places that flip around when you change the nationality of the author or the place the article's going to be read. \o It's an amazingly huge, diverse and important subject - so I wrote this one post about it, and I don't think I'll be able to write another, because then I'd probably never be able to stop without being unfair to someone or something. 8D

24 and 7 might just be more true here than they are there. 7 really is much less variable. Minorities that live in the US, and have lived there for generations, are not learning about people who "look like them" when they learn about history, etc. Hopefully it will change, and we'll hear other narratives, but the Founding Fathers, all our presidents.. . it's a pretty powerful image that we're gonna have a hard time getting away from.

24 isn't true all the time, but it's true in many, many situations here. I work for the government, and the workplace demographics - especially at my previous government job - were pretty mixed compared to many places, but the higher up you got, the less black people there were, same for other minorities. I'm privileged in that I don't have to think, if I have to speak to someone in a position of authority, that they might be prejudiced against me because of the color of my skin - whether they are or not!

I guess this is out of "privilege as ignorance" thing and into "privilege as unearned benefit" thing.

Slightly off-topic, but another example of my white privilege operating in the workplace - my curly-haired, jewish, female boss with glasses hired a curly-hair jewish woman with glasses - me - and no one said anything about it. But people do talk about how the minority head of another unit tends to hire minority women. My boss and I are privileged - lucky that people aren't questioning her decisions and my suitability for the job. (Of course, I'm awesome at my job!)

*nods* You're right on all counts - I've been qualifying things in the other direction, but there really is a line there where some things really just are unfair. Afterwards I guess it becomes whether it's a product of demographics turned into unearned benefit turned into abused benefit - and our responsibility to try to keep it to the first and be aware of the second and not do the third. \o

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