A Very Important Issue, OR Something That Follows Me From Country to Country

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:

a) Twenty-seven

b) Yes

c) Green

d) Cultural misappropriation

Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

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.

- – - – -

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)

- Pitch Perfect and Its Far From Perfect Portrayal of Asian-American Women” (Racialicious)

“Open Thread: Google Imaging the Continents” (The Society Pages) - on fetishization

- “Harvard’s Voice Puts Its Foot in its Mouth” (Racialicious) - on stereotyping

- A highly relevant Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard prof. of Economics) quote

- “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

6 thoughts on “A Very Important Issue, OR Something That Follows Me From Country to Country

  1. Albertine, I wholeheartedly agree with the points you make in this. Especially this bit: ‘I have to be five times as bold to be given the same attention, otherwise I’ll be treated like wallpaper.’ This is absolutely true, and as a result I feel like I can basically only either be treated as a wallflower or criticised as obnoxiously loud. There’s no way I can win. It always bewilders me when someone I barely know is shocked if I make a feisty remark, as if it’s somehow SO out of character for me – and it’s like, what basis do you have for assuming anything about my personality? I find it ridiculous that I have to make an explicit effort to break out of the archetype of the quiet, subservient Asian girl when other people just have a fresh start.

    The ‘ni hao’ problem is of course a small one in the large scope of racial relations. But they’re also indicative of some fundamentally problematic attitudes that we overlook when we let a lot of small things slide (I’ve certainly given up on getting upset when some random vendor comes up and greets me in Japanese – a language that they apparently speak more than I do). Mostly, I’m frustrated with how racism against Asians is ‘tolerated’ because of the ‘model minority’ BS – as if our successes imply that society can’t possibly have been against us. That we couldn’t have had it ‘that bad.’

    Two small points (that I’m sure you’ve considered, and obviously you can’t write about every nuance of the problem in one post…but just ‘adding to the discussion’):

    1) While I do think being a minority can help you understand other minorities, racism is by no means a white-majority only problem – I’ve heard hurtful remarks from members of other minorities, and Asians aren’t guilt-free in this regard either. So I don’t know if privilege is the sole factor that leads us to treat people in such inconsiderate ways, but just a sheer laziness to go beyond the surface. And while the white majority obviously has the most potential to change attitudes on a macro-level (from simply a numbers-perspective) that doesn’t mean the rest of society is off the hook; being ‘oppressed’ is no excuse for being an asshole.

    2) I don’t know if I unequivocally agree that ‘yellow fever’ objectifies Asians in a, ‘they are all the same; I am happy with dating all of them’ type way. I mean, it can, and when ‘yellow fever’ is driven by a desire to find a docile Asian wife then it’s problematic. But I’d be wary of strictly conflating a physical preference with a corresponding attitude. It could also represent a genuine interest in Asian culture, and I’ve found that these are the people who actually bother to learn about the distinctions among Asians rather than viewing us as a uniform mass.

    That’s all for now, I think. Thanks for writing about this, and sorry for the long comment – if only I had the same zeal for writing my essays!

    • Kathy! (:

      Thanks for adding your two points — they are, of course, entirely valid. The trouble with any post about race issues is that it’s going to be limited — otherwise it could easily become a dissertation. There’s just so much THERE. So I’m glad you’ve added point number one. It’s something every single human being needs to think about, regardless of what group they belong to.

      And in regards to point number two: when I wrote that sentence, I wasn’t actually relating the two ideas, but rather listing things. But I completely see how it looks like I connected the thoughts. Just know that this wasn’t the case! I have a tendency to write lists like X and Y and Z in rapid-fire succession, and things don’t always perfectly relate to each other in said list.

      Also. You should write more! I miss reading your stuff~

      • Aw haha, I’m afraid I’m not as diligent of a blogger as you are – you’ll have to pick up the slack for both of us! :) I look forward to hearing about Brighton! What book brought you there? Brighton Rock?

  2. I would also like to add that it is not just race issues, but the overall ethnocentrism that humans hold. Although I am technically Caucasian, I am an Austrian citizen, so thus – naturally – I am the spawn of Hitler and Nazis. Naturally.
    So, much like you’ve had your share of rhyming baboons with their eyes pulled to the sides, I’ve had to likewise deal with such idiotic behavior. People raising their hand in the Nazi salute, pretending to speak German by saying the ugliest sounding set of gibberish their minds can muster. But, then I’ve also lived in Paris, France. That means I’ve had unscrupulous amounts of sex. Oh, but then I’ve also lived in Russia. Alcoholic. America. Ditzy and fake. See? Ethnocentrism.

    Do you, by chance, know what a Third Culture Kid is? I am among that group, as are you. Just look it up. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. :D.

    -Demosthenes

    [P.S] – Great book: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1857885252/84-20/

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