Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Gray Areas

I had a lot of good conversations over the weekend/early part of the week, and I want to lay down some of the ideas we were talking about. Not trying to form an ideology just yet: this is gathering the pieces.

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Topic: gray areas of identity, in particular 1) ambiguous identity and 2) being privileged and non-privileged at the same time.

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1) Ambiguous Identity

For people of mixed race background, which race, if any, forms their "primary" identification, and how does that depend on how society reacts to them? A few of my friends who are mixed black and white say that at home, they act "more mixed" and at school "more black." From what I gather, this is because being mixed black and perceived as black has shaped their experience more than any whiteness.

For people of nonwhite background adopted into white families, who are "culturally white" but have different blood, comes the question of how much they belong to the group that people perceive them as.

For me, where this comes in is being Asian-American. Why does that description give a more accurate (not just more precise) image of me than if I said simply "American"? Why does it still not bring to mind an accurate image of someone who is, for example, South Asian or Southeast Asian?*

Something that particularly struck me over vacation was that when people (mostly white) spoke Mandarin to our group, assuming that we didn't understand English, all the parents (Chinese expats) were thrilled and all the children (first-generation Asian-Americans) cringed. My sister put it this way: our parents are secure in their nationality and ethnicity lining up in a predictable way. Hearing Mandarin is for them a recognition of their Chinese-ness (in nationality as well as ethnicity). For us, however, our "American-ness" is being constantly questioned, so hearing Mandarin from someone who thinks we don't speak English is a reinforcement of the message "you don't look like an American, you don't belong."

And the thing is, that I don't think I can claim to be "as (traditionally) American" as most of my white friends. I am distant from my Chinese roots but I am also not a part of many American traditions. There was a post I said I would write over the summer that I have not yet written, which is to be entitled "Zheng Heritage." To give away the punchline: Zheng He, the famous explorer, is the same Chinese Muslim minority group as my mom. I was ridiculously, dizzyingly happy to find this out, because as a first-gen kid of Asian extraction, especially one who internalized a lot of racism growing up, I don't have a strong sense of history, of being connected to something that extends into the past. Now, suddenly, there is a name in a history book that has something to do with me. That's pretty amazing.

*Just as white is the default for everybody, East Asian is the default for Asian. This is not a footnote, this is a segue into the next section.

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2) Privileged && Non-Privileged

There are many axes on which this works, but as some examples:

Sexuality: I'm ace and can hide in plain sight. A lesbian friend commented that there may be more lesbian representation on TV, but it is also often done in an objectifying way. (I don't watch TV and can't comment, but this sounds plausible.)

Race: Asian. That word probably suggests primarily East Asian imagery--dragons, kimonos, tea ceremonies, the Great Wall of China, etc. But what about South and Southeast Asia? The concept of "model minority" is bs on its own and because it glosses over the problems of health, education, etc. that are more prevalent in Asian communities that are less visible. The concept of "model minority" also showcases how being East Asian is simultaneously privileged and non-privileged. Yeah, I may get stereotyped, perceived as a robot, etc., but people are also going to look at me, see an Asian girl (sadly), and assume no criminal intent.

Gender: One of my frosh said that in his hypermasculine Hispanic community, being a non-hypermasculine guy was pretty bad but that it still got better treatment than being female. For me, being transmasculine* means that distancing myself from feminine things doesn't cost me much. Growing up the messages about girls not being fit for STEM flew straight over my head, and it was relatively easy to blend in as "one of the guys" (being Chinese also probably helped with this). But I still don't have male privilege, and I still don't know if I'm going to be out in my professional life, because singular they might be the word of the year but I still see the closet as a safety hatch.

*I'm not sure if I'm using this word right, because my trajectory is from female-identifying to nonbinary, but I don't know where on the spectrum I land.

Ability: The fact that this has never really been on my radar says a lot about the privilege I have. I haven't given it that much thought before, but I don't want to leave it off the list because I need to.

The question of conduct here is: if you are someone whose demographics simultaneously give and deny you privilege, how do you behave so as to be a good ally to people who are denied more privileges along that same axis?

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