Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sensitivity

Done with finals and other academic obligations for the quarter. I still have a lot to do--internship applications, putting together an information packet for my project team--but it'll go by much faster now that I can devote my time to it. Also looking forward to writing and reading more, because I've definitely been missing that.

Monday evening, I had a conversation about sensitivity in conversations that got kind of heated, because it spun off into a discussion of discourse on race. I certainly got way more aggressive than the situation merited, but I think that's worth examining rather than dismissing.

Sensitivity has two main meanings, which are related but distinct. (At least it had two in the situation.) One is awareness of things that other people may not notice. The other is the capacity to get hurt by these things that may not seem serious to other people. In conversations, the first kind of sensitivity is seen as valuable, while the second typically is not--as if having an emotional response to something hinders the conversation and is something to be dealt with on your own time.

I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about that. On the one hand, some conversations are not about feelings, and expressing feelings does not add to the conversation. I don't believe in censorship on principle, so I would not--on principle--shut down someone who was saying 1) something to which another person would have an adverse reaction or 2) someone having an adverse emotional reaction. At the same time, people are responsible for the effect their words have on others and making a deliberately inflammatory comment that is known to cause a reaction, when the same idea could be expressed more moderately and in a way that does not disrupt the conversation's progress, is a choice.

What about the person having the adverse emotional reaction? How much of the burden of civil conversation lies on them? This is another question I have a tough time with. I know I get too aggressive sometimes, and that also turns conversations that could be more open into confrontations. But when the topic is about race and I'm talking to white friends, why should I be expected to maintain the same level of emotional equanimity, when the topic is far more personal for me? Racism isn't theoretical.

I try not to be the "oversensitive minority kid," meaning I try not to rely too much on pathos when talking about race. I can construct arguments about the ills of racism that go beyond "it hurts that I'll always be seen as foreign in my country of birth because I'm not white."

Also, what is this "over"sensitivity if not a symptom of the first, more acceptable, more "valid" kind of sensitivity? When a problem affects you more directly, you will be more aware of how it plays out in more situations, including those where it doesn't seem to be an issue for other people. Usually. I internalized a whole lot of racism as a kid and consequently ignored a lot of cases of subtle racism that I now see as real issues. Being more aware of them has led to a stronger emotional reaction to them.

I don't think that people should be penalized for having an emotional reaction to injustice, or even for expressing that reaction. Certainly people are responsible for the consequences of their words and actions. But what of provocation? My aggression is problematic, but it stemmed from frustration caused by white people being flippant about racism, acting as if my anger at racist deeds I have seen hinders me from contributing logically to a discussion about racism.

In hindsight, being the only minority in a conversation discussing a conversation that happened "in-house" with white people probably wasn't a winning situation. There are conversations I will never have with a white person about race; perhaps it's an unfair double standard that everything that a white person would say to another white person should be fit for my ears as well.

I'm wondering now when I've been on the other side of the issue--recently, that is, because I know I was often insensitive in high school. What are topics that get other people more personally than they get me? Class/SES; experiences of racism that are not through the East Asian lens; family, particularly people planning to have them in the future; experience of being female/feminine-identifying; experiences of overt homophobia/transphobia/etc.; religion; culture shock; education. Basically, in what ways am I privileged? There's a whole lot of ways.

The use of the word "privileged" is often mocked. To be clear, what it means to me is the ability to choose whether or not to think about or otherwise engage with a topic. I don't have the option not to think about race, but I do have the option not to think about how differing levels of familial support and economic capability affect access to education and opportunities. That means, I suppose, that it's my responsibility to become more sensitive (definition 1) to these topics, and to respond with compassion rather than impatience when people who are affected by the topic appear sensitive (definition 2) to their discussion.

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