I was going to make a post about high tea (and scones and sandwiches and general seaside funtimes) at Brighton on the 20th, but then another, more important topic came up, so high tea will again have to wait.
This is a Very Important Issue.
More likely than not, this post will make someone uncomfortable. But if it does, that just means you’re privileged in ways you perhaps had never thought of before, and if that’s the case, there are things of which you should be more aware.
I rarely discuss or even disclose my race online. This is because the anonymous nature of the internet means that it is quite literally the only place on earth where I won’t be immediately branded as a stereotype by the people who see me, because duh, internet — no one sees you unless you want them to. But I’m going to give this unique freedom up for now because there is so much that needs to be said, and I can’t say it by hiding behind a racially nonspecific gray face of anonymity.
The other day I was on New Bond Street:
It intersects with Oxford Street and primarily features high-end boutiques (I saw Calvin Klein, Russell & Bromley, and Pronovias during my short walk down a portion of it). As of this past summer, it is also the new home of a popular American suburban-mall-turned-attempted-high-street retailer that, before this year, had no stores in the UK. I won’t name it. Though I think that’s enough information.
This retailer tries really, really hard. That is, its quality is roughly mid-range at best, but it aspires to a high-fashion image, filling its store with glitzy decorations, supermodel posters, mannequins in “couture” ensembles, etc. It holds itself to a ridiculously high standard considering what it’s actually marketing. So you’d think they’d have briefed their employees on high standards as well, but no — as I was walking in the front door of the New Bond Street location, the suited doorman threw a smirk and a “ni hao” at me.
Basically — I entered the store after a line of white customers, and each one of those ladies got a polite “hello” or “welcome” from the doorman. I, on the other hand, got a smug smile and a (mangled, mispronounced) Mandarin greeting from him. He could’ve just given me a generic hello as well. But he decided to go out of his way to highlight my ethnicity. Which, I might add, has nothing to do with the actual language I speak.
NBD, right? NB-fucking-D. This is something I’m used to. I’m East Asian and grew up in the United States, so of course I spent my public school years listening to my white classmates pull at the corners of their eyes and speak “Chinese” to me (which, in their minds, was just a series of unintelligible rhyming sounds). And of course I spent the first portion of my college years listening to white classmates discussing their “yellow fever,” and of course I’m sometimes told that all Asian girls are interchangeable. Of course.
But even given 20 years of having a front row seat to the long-running smash-hit ‘Hey Everyone, Let’s Make Fun of Asians All the Time, Because Race is Funny Shit’ (note: this is not a real stage show, for those of you with heads buried in the literal), this moment on New Bond Street made me pause.
Because this was a store, not a sidewalk. It was a goddamn place of retail. At a place of retail, customers walk in, hand over money, and get what they want. Supposedly. And because a customer is the money-holder, that store had better do everything in its power to make said customer get his or her money’s worth. That’s the idea. Pretty simple. And yet it failed in this case.
So what, right? Why is this offensive? All he did was make a little ~mistake~, right? Wrong. So wrong. Let me break down what this incident means:
1. Because of my ethnicity, I can, at first glance, be reduced to another person’s inaccurate idea of what I am, and it will take precedence over the truth – even before I have a chance to become a specific person with thoughts and history and opinions. The way I look — which should never, ever be taken as relevant to who I am — will always be treated as the most relevant thing about me.
2. Not even an atmosphere where courtesy is supposed to be standard can ensure that I will get a basic amount of respect.
3. No matter how good I am at English – which is really fucking good compared to most – I will invariably be treated as though I’m some kind of mute idiot. My personal achievements mean nothing.
4. It is so, so easy for someone belonging to the white majority to make an offhanded comment to someone belonging to a person of color and make him or her instantly feel dehumanized and like shit.
If all of this is incomprehensible and entirely unfamiliar to you, congratulations, you’re privileged. You’re privileged in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine. You’re privileged in ways that I will never in this lifetime get to experience, even if you and I are of the same intelligence, the same economic class, the same age, the same gender, the same country. I have to work five times as hard to be considered only just as good as you (and you will still be the preferred new hire for any given company, simply because you look more like the people in power than I do). I have to be five times as bold to be given the same attention, otherwise I’ll be treated like wallpaper. And when I do try to stand out, or when I do stand up for myself — either one — I get shocked reactions all around, because as it turns out, I wasn’t what was expected.
Check your privilege. Please, please, check your privilege. Think before you make references to race, because you are not in a position to know how the comment will make someone else feel. If you are privileged, there is no analogy to be made for you because there is no equivalent feeling to the feeling of racial discrimination on your end. Don’t you dare tell me “oh, one summer I worked at a Thai restaurant and I felt sooooo uncomfortable with all the Thai employees because they only spoke Thai” — because that is not the same thing. Not even close.
And for those of you who go through the same thing, day in and day out, know that I sympathize because this is my life, too, and know that there is nothing wrong with you. There is only something wrong with the people around you.
For bonus points, anyone who can guess why the Royal Pavilion at Brighton is offensive gets a virtual cookie. Hint: don’t just consider the external design; consider the decorations in the main hallway, as well as the fact that no one involved in the construction of this building had ever been to the countries whose cultures it is supposed to ~embody~. Let’s make it multiple choice:
d) Cultural misappropriation
If you answered d) cultural misappropriation, then you go, Glen Coco! You are now minimally educated!
It’s offensive because some British king and his architects and designers thought they could express Indian and Chinese culture without knowing what those things meant. It’s offensive because the official Royal Pavilion tour describes this as a positive achievement and even goes so far as to describe the tacky Chinese servant bobbleheads (yes, bobbleheads) as “welcoming,” when in reality they’re only perpetuating the popular western notion of the Chinese as servile and simpering.
Consider the image of 19th century gentlemen and ladies in fine, expensive clothing sipping fine, expensive wine, enjoying the faux-Mandarin decorations of the main gallery, surrounded by these bobbleheads reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and going on about how much they love ~Chinese culture.~ That’s what this palace was used for. And that’s offensive.
On the topic of cultural misappropriation, you could also look at this Tumblr post. The quoted post ends with “via inmilkwood.” Note the response underneath (beginning with “Wrong. This is so bad”). Also note that most of the 1,000+ reblogs and likes of this post were made because a non-Chinese speaking person thought, ‘oh heyyy, this is cute, ~Chinese is cute~’ and the fact that the Chinese is actually incorrect made no difference.
To sum up:
1. Life sucks for people of color in a myriad of incredibly invalidating ways.
2. Check your privilege.
3. Don’t culturally misappropriate things.
4. Generally, don’t be an asshole. Just don’t.
This has been a Public Service Announcement. Do with it what you will.
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Edited to add:
If you’d like to be a Decent Human Being and learn more about this and similar experiences, here’s some suggested reading:
- “Introduction to White Privilege and Race Problems in America” (STFUConservatives)
- “Classic ‘White Girl’ Microaggressions” (The Society Pages)
- “Distracted by Linsanity: Hidden Racism and the Model Minority Stereotype” (The Society Pages)
- “Open Thread: Google Imaging the Continents” (The Society Pages) - on fetishization
- “Harvard’s Voice Puts Its Foot in its Mouth” (Racialicious) - on stereotyping
- “Baby’s First Racial Slur: An Anecdote” (from a Tumblr blog)
- Asian American Issues (Reddit) - suggested by a friend
- “How the Rules of Racism Are Different for Asian Americans” (The Good Men Project) - suggested by a friend
- “Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation” (Claire Light)
- “Race, Subjectivity, & the Centrality of Whiteness” (The Society Pages) - related to appropriation
- “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (Peggy McIntosh) - suggested by a friend