Dear privilege-checking white people: please leave me out of your self-flagellation exercises.
The other day, I endured the absurdity of having The Problem with Apu, a documentary by Hari Kondabolu (who expanded on a shorter segment of his that aired in 2015 on Totally Biased), explained to me, a child of Indian immigrants, by two rather pale people.
Just in case I could have written this whitesplaining off as a fluke, the male of this pair in a separate conversation generously mansplained to me the social conditioning that trains women to submit, not cause a scene or in any way make men uncomfortable (yeah, I’m aware). This was in the context of the bad journalism on Aziz Ansari, and though this male and I both agreed that what happened to the woman was not sexual assault as she claimed, the fact that my friend saw some of his own past behavior reflected in Aziz’s actions was somehow evidence that Aziz alone was to blame for their rather terrible-sounding date. Not only that, but my not agreeing with that precise assignment of blame and instead thinking that both parties had acted poorly was tantamount to my saying that “sexual assault is not a big deal.”
Further, those misrepresented views on sexual assault combined with my views on the Apu controversy (that I understand and agree with why people are offended but I am not personally angry as a brown person) and safe spaces/trigger warnings (anti- and in certain cases think they infringe on free speech), and the fact I don’t find the United States to be “the most racist country in the world” are evidence that I am “unwoke.” Apparently, my thinking is more “in line with white males” according to the self-proclaimed “woke” white male who was enlightening a brown woman on how her thoughts are wrong. (Also, we’re pushing 40 — can we please not speak as the kids do? “Woke” is a fucking verb).
Identity politics plague both sides of the political spectrum, and this is purely anecdotal as most of my friends are far left of center: the number of times white liberals have sought to explain issues to me (thinking if they just repeat themselves and speak
slowly enough they’ll be able to get through to this dimwit) far outweighs the number of times that’s happened to me from the opposite side (granted, for some reason my more right of center friends tend to be religiously conservative Asian Americans with a non-sexual hard-on for “the children” as in “think of the,” so that comes with its own set of bizarre conversations). Respectful disagreement or mere good faith engagement does not appear to be in the toolkit of the crusading white liberal. Moreover, the tools deployed by my liberal friends are the very ones they rail against: social conditioning through shame, insults and other negative reinforcement.
I am a socially liberal anti-Trump feminist but my thoughtcrime is not agreeing to the degree that I should (e.g., I’m pro-choice and think that pro-life women should either not have been excluded from the Women’s Marches of January 2017 or that the marches should have billed themselves as something other than representing all women).
Having spoken to several other women of varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds (who have all undergone the same social conditioning as every other woman, including consuming depictions in pop culture from a young age of males being the pursuers of women as prizes) specifically about the Aziz story, the consensus was that his behavior was gross and that the woman had ample opportunity to use her words and/or remove herself, which each of us has had to do at least once in our lives when we have found ourselves in a similar uncomfortable situation or worse. This is not at all to say that assertion alone can prevent sexual assault, of course, but passivity never does.
However, the enlightened person knows that the correct response is that women are mere victims or victims-in-waiting of male sexual desire, with no agency or sexual desire of their own. To disagree is to live in a delusional fantasy land of female empowerment espoused by feminists of yesteryear.
Likewise, the correct response to the problem with Apu is that it is offensive and that I am personally offended as an Indian American. It is not OK to just agree with the offense; I must also be outraged about it as a sign of my own victimhood.
While I have not directly experienced the “Thank you, come again” bullying that other brown kids have, the depiction of Apu (leaving aside the very real issue of white Hank Azaria fashioning his fake Indian accent after the fake Indian accent of white Peter Sellers) is largely one of the “model minority“: he’s a hard-working productive member of society whose response to various abuses he endures at the hands of his customers is a forced smile and nary a complaint (I haven’t watched the show in years, so maybe that’s no longer the case).
As a brown woman, I can experience prejudice any time I step outside my home. In my office, a female consultant can work her ass off for two years on contract while a creepy white male IT consultant can get hired full-time after a mere 6 months of mediocre work and unprofessional behavior. My work is often invisible, I’m undervalued and underpaid; in addition I am often asked/commanded by male colleagues to make copies, type letters, fill out forms and obtain signatures, none of which is my actual job.
On top of that, I am subject to the model minority “Thank you, come again” stereotype where Asians, and Asian women in particular, are expected to be team players, work horses, meek and suffering any number of indignities silently.
Having insulted me to my face, my friend quickly grew frustrated when I had the gall to ask him to explain precisely why he found my views so backward when we broadly agreed on the social issues central to the progressive platform; I even went so far as to observe that it was probably not philosophically consistent for him to be lecturing a brown woman on racism and sexual assault. This was not the first time this particular person had deliberately and grossly misrepresented my views as a means to talk down to me to teach me the correct ones, perhaps as a form of atonement via condescension. Besides the fact that by his own admission I am socially conditioned to not upset men, presumably I should have groveled and thanked him for so helpfully pointing out my incorrect opinions, rather than pushing back against his misstatements and emphasizing the importance of thinking for oneself.
True story #1
In the early 1990s, my family was in the process of disembarking from an airplane and my mother was trying to stay close to me and my sister since we were still minors. A man must have felt she cut him off and told her, “Go back to your country.” Ma Rav spun around and retorted “This is my country,” then gave him a stern talking-to that embarrassed me at the time because she was causing a scene and drawing more attention to us. In retrospect, this episode provided a model of how to stand up for myself.
True story #2
My sister was a first year law student at Seton Hall in the fall of 2001. She had an Asian American professor teaching constitutional law a few weeks after the events of September 11, 2001 and class was covering Korematsu v. United States, which concerned Japanese internment camps during World War II. The professor asked the class if they could imagine what could have justified the government taking such discriminatory and unconstitutional action, which up until this class had been a rhetorical question. In this class, there were people who nodded. Clearly shaken at the turn this class had taken, which had never happened before, the professor asked why. A white woman raised her hand and volunteered to the Asian American professor and the rest of the classroom the explanation that “they don’t look like regular people.”
True story #3
My first job out of college was at a small insurance underwriting firm run by two older, bald white men. One night over after-work drinks, Bald White Man #1 asked me about my background, confusing the words “Hindu” and “Hindi,” which happens often. His business partner BWM #2 inexplicably started doing the “Walk Like An Egyptian” dance, which is wrong on so very many levels. The response from BWM #1? “You probably shouldn’t do that; it might be actionable.” I stiffly laughed it off, concerned what might happen to me if I made a big deal out of it.
True story #4
In 2010, a couple years after starting at my current company, I was adopted into a new group that was led by an eccentric and ultra-progressive Englishman who, for whatever reason, occasionally spoke in an Indian accent. Upon hearing it, I broke the news to him that while never really OK, it’s even worse to do when working directly with someone whose ancestors were colonized/colonised and oppressed by his and that he could probably get in trouble for it if anyone witnessed it. I was not angry or offended since I knew it was not meant maliciously, and I did not try to shame him in any way or call him racist. He never did the accent again and we remain great friends to this day (I also used this Tea & Consent video to clarify a few things to him a few years ago and he loved it).
True story #5
My neighbor and I were discussing her upcoming nuptials over drinks the other night and I mentioned a close friend I grew up with had made an appointment at Kleinfeld’s (of Say Yes to the Dress) with her mother as a lark but then ended up finding and buying her wedding dress there. My neighbor inquired about her economic background, and I assured her she and her family were no more flush than me and mine as we had grown up 5 minutes away from each other in suburban NJ. She then commented that Indians go all out for weddings before I corrected her assumption and clarified that my friend was a WASP (possible member of the DAR no less). Later that same evening, I was telling an anecdote about my mother and her best friend’s daughter, and my neighbor assumed I was talking about an arranged marriage before I clarified that my mom’s best friend was also a WASP born and raised in NJ. And then we moved on and had another drink.
All these episodes bear at least hallmarks of racism but are they all bad let alone equally bad? Over the years, I have encountered people assuming the guys I dated were Indian and fielded questions like, “Do you get weird looks when you’re together? Is your family OK with that?” the answers to which were “No, we’re in the NYC area” and “His family was weirder about it than mine but they are lovely people and we get along great.” I am concerned we’re entering or already in a time where people are afraid to ask questions for fear of being branded a bigot, which will ultimately serve to leave faulty assumptions uncorrected.
My father was born a few days before the United Kingdom announced its intent to grant India independence and a year before Gandhi’s assassination; it would be another two years before India officially became a republic, though fighting would continue for years near the arbitrarily drawn borders of northern India, Pakistan and what would become Bangladesh. The fallout from the UK leaving its former colonies, including religious violence between Hindus and Muslims that continues to this day, would form the backdrop of my parents’ youth. My father attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (now Chennai) and came to the United States for graduate school in the 1970s. While he was awaiting his green card at SUNY Stony Brook, my mother was finishing medical school in Hyderabad. My father flew back to India once he got his green card in April 1974, married my mother within a few days of meeting her, then returned to the US without her; she had to wait a few months for her visa to be processed before she could leave everyone and everything she had ever known to move to the opposite side of the Earth to start a new life with a complete stranger and few assets other than her medical degree.
My parents’ arrival was part of a wave of immigration that occurred after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson (whose wife was the namesake of my dog’s namesake). They settled first in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn before relocating to suburban New Jersey, where my sister and I grew up.
While enduring prejudice and other more typical American hardships, we still had certain advantages over others:
- What my parents lacked in social and actual capital, they made up for with intellectual capital and hard work (my dad used to paint houses on weekends near the Stony Brook campus).
- Relatedly, my parents were not saddled with the legacy of slavery and redlining in the US, and were desired in the US for their skills.
- My parents’ marriage was not patriarchal: my mother was earning more than my father initially, and while my mother still probably made more career sacrifices than my father and my father traveled a lot while we were growing up, it was and still is very much a relationship of equals. And my mother takes shit from NO ONE, not even her mother-in-law, which is probably why even if she didn’t like my mother, she respected her.
- Growing up, my parents were open with us about the various financial difficulties they inevitably went through: when one or both of them were out of work, we would have frank discussions about how we would be cutting back on “fun” spending until we could afford it again.
- By the time my sister and I attended college back to back, my parents were earning enough and had saved enough that neither of us took out any student loans (we both went to expensive private universities, Northwestern and NYU, respectively).
- My sister and I are both women born in the US rather than India, and we are not of African, indigenous or Hispanic descent.
This is not a conservative “bootstrap” argument, which often holds Asians up as evidence that privilege doesn’t exist because if we can do it, why can’t those shiftless other non-whites? The answer to that is patently obvious: structural racism pertaining to stereotypes of those particular groups.
My family and I have experienced racism any time we have traveled internationally with the exception of New Zealand (which is obviously not to say that it is free of racism, merely the nicest and least racist country we have visited). At the same time we also know we are more fortunate, or in the current parlance, more privileged than many others. But this awareness is not The Official Accepted Awareness®. It has been explained to me that it is not enough to recognize and acknowledge the existence and history of racism and sexism; we must also view everything through that lens. Personally, I find that boring and it’s the sole reason I stopped following Ta-Nehisi Coates despite thinking he’s a truly beautiful writer. I have also learned that finding Beyonce and TNC boring is racist, and that it is racist to acknowledge Bari Weiss’s good intentions while finding her expression of praise for immigrants and children of immigrants clumsy. We should always seek to assume the worst of people since the road to hell, etc.
I am bombarded by messaging that the right, Republicans, conservatives want to make this country worse for women, immigrants and their descendants (Iowa representative Steve King is a perfect example of such an asshat and while I believe he is an outlier, it would be fantastic if Iowans stopped electing him, thanks). Had I accepted my friends’ views as fact, that the country is irredeemably racist and sexist, it would have served to make them feel better that they were able to open the eyes of a poor, marginalized soul. However, they fail to follow this premise to its logical conclusion: if my life is fucked by virtue of my biology and phenotype no matter what I do, then I can never escape being a perpetual victim no matter how hard I try.
For all of us, growing up, we just want that co-sign. Going to people telling you you’re good enough. That co-sign being like: “Hey, come here. Sit here. You’re good enough. You’re valued.” But that’s not the American dream. It’s not asking for a co-sign. It’s doing what every generation did before you. You claim that shit on your own terms…This is new brown America. The dream is for you to take, so take that shit. Stop blaming other people. — Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
Constantly being told the deck is stacked against you, even in the name of social justice, breeds resentment and bitterness. So my family and I have been through some shit but on the spectrum of shit, it’s not that bad. Sure, some people have had an easier time of it and it’s fucked up that racism exists and that women are often viewed as less than. But we’re not passive; we get up every day and we deal. Resisting groupthink and asserting agency over my own life counters this exhausting and demoralizing atmosphere perpetuated by the left. It also seems to have an interesting side-effect of preventing my friends from assuaging their guilt over their own privilege. Frankly, their guilt over their past actions or the actions of people who look like them is not my fucking problem. The white savior trope exists for a reason, and it’s not just Hollywood perpetuating it. I am not a victim and I don’t need saving.
Kmele Foster and Matt Welch of The Fifth Column interviewed Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, both formerly of Evergreen State College, in a podcast that dropped a couple days ago. PC culture is discussed around 31:00; Ferguson as the inflection point for changing views on speech, particularly on campus. Then, at 35:30, Weinstein has this to say:
One of the things that happened at Evergreen and it mirrors something we’ve seen in a much larger sense…was that there was a concerted effort to force people who were marginal with respect to this intersectional revolution to declare fealty to it in order to make it more powerful… There was effectively an attack on white women, on men who were simply gay, and on Asians. All 3 of those groups were effectively given an ultimatum. They were told, “actually, you’re part of the problem, unless of course you want to come over here and help us with this revolution, in which case you’re going to become an ally,” which is a term that doesn’t mean what those of us who would look it up in a dictionary thinks it means; it’s actually a kind of subservience. So the point is, if you liked the idea that because you’re a woman, or you were gay or you were Asian that you were part of the group of people that faced white oppression, then you were in danger of losing that status and being grouped with white folks unless you demonstrated a willingness to exert force on behalf of this movement.