Monday, January 31, 2011

White people are the center of the universe

I've been reading up on race issues, like I said I was going to. I've been working really hard to comprehend the concepts that I, as a white person in a white society in a world where white people enjoy the most power, haven't had to think about for most of my life. And I've run up against a little problem.

People who talk about racial issues cast it as The Most Important Social Issue One Can Experience. All other aspects of personhood are secondary. This attitude is pretty much ubiquitous, as far as I can tell. You never seem to read an account that goes, "At this point in my life I went to college, and had a bunch of college experiences, and here's some racism I encountered." It's always, "Racism was here in my life, and there, and at some point I also went to college."

And the white people who perpetrate the racism are simply accepted out of hand. As if it's a given that the white person is normal and the nonwhite person is exceptional by default.

I'm talking about minor incidents of racism, not WTF incidents like what happened to Kelley Williams Bolar. Things like casually insensitive comments and everyday stereotyping.

Things like a mom telling her friend, "Jimmy has some good friends at school, and a few of them are black." (Yay! Hey, some kids are black! It's some kind of phenomenon.)

Things like a family friend remarking, "Your son hardly even looks Chinese! His eyes are so round." (Yeah, and guess what - his hair is brown, and he speaks English almost exclusively, and he's 100% Han Chinese.)

Things like, "I'm going to work on my (transracially adopted) daughter's self-esteem, because I don't want her to feel too much like she's different."

Because the child is a nonwhite member of a predominantly white family, in a predominantly white society, and since white people are normal, nonwhite people are different.

Their teachers and classmates will reinforce this message, because they believe it too. Because the kids' parents believe it, and the teachers' colleagues and neighbors believe it. If you want to go where white people do not totally rule everything, you can go to little enclaves of ethnicity that exist here and there. Chinatown for Asians, African-American neighborhoods for blacks, Latin ghettos for Latinos. If your child is an ethnicity other than those big ones... um... good luck. Maybe there's a club you can join. But you'd better do something, or else your child will feel like a lone ethnic minority in a sea of normal white people.

I don't disagree that joining a club or going to Chinatown is a good thing to do. I'm totally in favor of making the extra effort, and I'm getting ready to do the same myself. (It can be hard... my son is still small and although he travels well, he still has limits appropriate to his age. And while I'm good at making small talk with strangers, I can't exactly make intimate long-term friendships with random local Chinese people at will. But I will do something... I dunno, something.)

But the attitude with which most white people avail their kids of the kids' racial culture of birth, seems a bit Anglocentric, if you know what I mean. They don't want the kids to feel too small, too left out. The cultural pride seems a bit forced at times. As if the greatest desire in any child's heart is - of course! - to be white.

Because being white is normal, as every white person knows, and therefore as any person who lives among white people knows, and it's everyone's desire to be normal.

It's just... weird. And icky. Well, I find it icky. Here I was, a sheltered white girl going out into the big wide multicolored world, just to find... that everyone wants to be like me. Or at least that's a common assumption. They just want to go to college and have a career and live in peace, like a white person does, and raise their children in a welcoming environment, except that the people they aspire to be like don't want to tarnish the 'normalness' of whiteness by including nonwhites in it. So the nonwhites can be successful, can be middle class, can send their kids to affluent schools as long as the kids behave (because they might not behave, you know, and that would be a problem) but they can't actually BE normal.

Because then the whole system would fall apart. What kind of normal would nonwhites aspire to, if not the white normal?

We use "But they're culturally assimilated" to defend the presence of ethnic groups, like the Puerto Ricans for instance. "They don't even have accents anymore. They live in the suburbs and act just like us."

What kind of a defense is that?! I've even said it myself once or twice. But now that I think about it, I think it's an awful thing to say!

I have even said to certain people, "Don't worry, my son will be growing up completely American." How horrible of me! Tell me, what's wrong with growing up Chinese? Not that he will - we'd have to move to China for that. But what's conceptually wrong with it? What's so abnormal about being Chinese?

There are 1.3 billion Chinese, compared to 300 million Americans. 67% of the world population is Asian, compared to less than 24% white. Who's normal now? And as far as human races go, we share 98.5% of our DNA with chimpanzees, 90%-ish with squid, and a whopping 70% with oak trees. Oak trees!

And we share the elements that our cells are made of with the entire universe. That stuff floating around in space and burning up in stars... that's what we're made of.

It's a whole great big world out there. Any normal person should have the opportunity to learn about it and study it and make something out of it. Not just white normal people. All normal people. I do think that studying and preserving cultures is important. I think social/ethnic/individual identity is important, and interdependent. I think giving our kids a boost is crucial, especially when parents and kids don't share the same race. But I think we're doing our kids, and our neighbors, and ourselves, a grave disservice if we buy into the idea that white culture is some sort of epitome, and other cultures are novelties or onuses that it takes effort to learn to be proud of. Even when everyone you know thinks like that. Not everyone in the world thinks like that, after all. Some people could care less about white culture, and prefer to cast their own culture as normal.

Sometimes it doesn't seem like anyone values their own culture more than our culture, though, with Western pop culture leaking into the remotest corners of he world and English becoming the standard business language pretty much everywhere. And for those people who do believe their own culture is superior, we privately believe they are provincial and ignorant. And probably poor.

When you think of Chinese culture, you think of poor people, don't you?

Even though you know there's a rapidly growing middle class in China. All the newfound prosperity and technology in Asia doesn't define Asia. As long as there are poor people, lots and lots of poor people, the poor people will continue to define the culture.

And that's what my son will learn from the world. I don't know how I'm going to teach him differently... but I'm guessing it will start with me conditioning myself to think differently.


  1. "When you think of Chinese culture, you think of poor people, don't you?"

    Yes. I'm attempting to beat out this Western mindset.

  2. Embarrassingly, I myself (as a Taiwanese American) was shocked when my Chinese friend told me his long distance girlfriend didn't want to move to the US from China to be with him. "But why wouldn't she want to come here for a better life?" I thought.

    He explained that China is doing better economically and she has a good life there. I'm so used to the stories of Chinese women trying to marry US citizens in order to come here, at first I thought that was why she was dating him.

    They have since broken up, but I have learned my lesson.

  3. I just wanted to tell you, I love this post.

    I want to frame it in my bedroom as a reminder of the white privilege I am in being adopted, but then I'd feel funny about it.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. Thanks for the post. Food for thought.

    Btw: actually there are 3.9 billion people living in Asia, which makes about 57% of the world population.

  5. love this post! I totally agree about how easy it is for us white people (living in white-dominated countries) to just see white as NORMAL. And yeah, that doesn't lead to good attitudes. Linking, if I may!