September 6th, 2011


On who can be --ist and the need for a new lexicon

I was out with a group of friends a few days ago and a conversation about my really inexpensive (but apparently has problematic plumbing) apartment came up. The origin story for Casa Jedifreac.

The truth is, my apartment is brilliantly cheap for the area I live in. The narrative behind why that is is a bit more complicated than that. If you ask my boyfriend (who is white), he will say that it is because on the day we were negotiating the apartment, the landlord's wife and I both discovered we were Taiwanese, began speaking Taiwanese Mandarin, shut him completely out of the conversation, and came out of that with a low rent. Condense this narrative, and it says: I was cut a special deal because I am Taiwanese American, and it worked because my landlady is racist, and my rent would have been higher if I had been white.

In the brief conversations I have had with my landlady since, I have learned that she totally holds racist views against certain groups. For example, she told me that the apartment I was renting was lucky because the previous tenant, "although he was only Filipino" got a good job and a rich wife and moved out. (Which, seriously, what the frak!) She also rented to us differently because we were dating and not married, which is apparently not kosher under California landlord tenant law. Despite this, she and her husband rent to a huge diversity of tenants and I have never heard her say anything disparaging about white people, only other racial minorities.

At the pub last this topic came up, and a couple of my friends (who are white) chuffed about reverse racism ("Don't you know only white people can be racist!") and I started feeling really uncomfortable. I kind of just slunked back into my chair and listened. It's interesting because although the narrative that my boyfriend shopped is that we were able to get this sweet deal because I am Taiwanese American, I don't feel that is precisely the case. After all the landlady had no problem renting to the previous tenant who she clearly thought was from an inferior culture (it sounded like she really liked him, too.)

To be more accurate, I think that having the skill set to negotiate a lease in Mandarin Chinese (as well as references from two other tenants already living in the building!) was what gave me the edge when it came to the price point. Now, being Taiwanese American and having Taiwanese parents certainly helped me get access to learning the language early, and also gave me an edge on cultural fluency. But plenty of second generation Asian Americans have access to that, go to Chinese language schools on weekends, and by the time they reach adulthood cannot speak diddly squat.

Being Taiwanese American and a minority in this country and in this city, of course, has also exposed me to a unique set of systemic and institutional barriers, including racism. The effect has been really striking on my family. If you are a white kid growing up in the United States the chances of seeing your father, a grown man, rage and cry because some Irvine kids taunted him and called him a Jap and a Dirty Chink are substantially lower. Language barriers have also limited my parents from really pursuing jobs in mainstream corporate culture (though the bilingualism does come in handy in other ways.)

Maybe i am just rationalizing and this is truly an instance where my "race card" came in handy. What is fascinating to me, as someone who informally studies critical race studies, is that there is this misconception that people of color have this thing, a race card, and that they get to use it. But the reality is that everyone has a race card, that there is a skin color totem pole built into our history and even our modern society. Because of these disparities, it becomes more apparent when a person of color flashes their card than when a white person does. All the little ways that a person who is white can more smoothly navigate our society are not as noticeable, almost normal, but in reality, the most powerful, influential, and privileged race card is colored white.

I think I skillfully negotiated my lowered rent and I did it in a foreign language, and it took years to level up those points. But the narrative is that it was because of my race, not my abilities. If a white rental applicant had done the same, even if the landlord was racist and preferred white tenants, it would likely not be attributed to a card game. Likewise when an Asian American scores well on a math test or a black American kicks butt on the basketball court it is often often viewed as an inherent expectation based on stereotypes about innate racial ability rather than the result of effort or skill.

Then there is this whole "people of color can't be racist" critical race studies thing that ultimately stems from different lexicons. To generalize, there tends to be two different perspective on this whole "racism" deal.

One is the microcosm. This is how racism is defined colloquially. We're talking common usage. So when people ask "is President Obama is racist against white people?" they mean does he hold bigoted or prejudiced beliefs towards white people. Under this definition, people are "racists" and there is also usually a binary--you are racist or not racist. So, using the colloquial and common definition of racism as a view perpetrated by individuals, for example, my parents' reluctance to accept my white boyfriend would stem from racism.

This is the big communication lapse--the view from the academic ivory tower that racism is perpetuated systemically, not by individuals alone, and a focus on racist institutions, rather than prejudiced people. (The anti-racist scholar's definition of racism as prejudice+power.) When someone coming from this angle says "people of color can't be racist, only white people can be racist" from the perspective of the layperson this statement comes off as absolutely ignorant. Especially when misinterpreted.

What this concept is really trying to say is that given the "crabs in a bucket" situation that minorities find themselves in, there is no systemic benefit to minorities when we are prejudiced to one another or towards people who are in the majority. (It just perpetuates more racism or sexism etc. and buys into a system minorities cannot win.) So it would be more precise to say, rather than "people of color can't be racist" that "people of color cannot benefit from systemic racism."

Or at least this way, hopefully, this perspective wouldn't get laughed out of the room because of the colloquial definition of racism and people's willingness to be dismissive about racism.

Framing with a different example, it is like saying "women can't be sexist."(which is not a precise or persuasive argument.) If you want someone to understand this argument, you have to say, there is no way a woman can win at sexism, whether she is actively sexist or not. If you are woman and you are sexist towards other women, you are still only gaming for the second-best seat at the table and reinforcing inequality. If you are mean to other women because they are women, and you are a woman, you are still screwing over yourself. If a gay guy is bigoted towards gays, and say, passing legislation in political office that harms gays, he is not really benefitting over straight folks.

What I hope one day can come about is a shared lexicon and common definitions that cannot be as easily dodged or manipulated.

And yeah, I also wish the narrative about how I got this damn deal on this apartment wasn't so simplistic. Did I perhaps benefit from my ethnicity as much as my language skills or diplomacy skills? More so than say, a white tenant? But then if you think about it, being a white renter comes with it's advantages, too. You're considered racially neutral, with few negative stereotypes. And, because you can speak fluent English, you face far fewer language barriers than many renters of color. Would a white landlord selecting a white tenant when coincidentally both are fluent in English be seen as racial favoritism? Or does it happen enough that it has become mundane?

And this is what I really don't know how to express to my friends who are white. That my one alleged racially lucky break is comparative to what they can benefit from consistently. It's kind of like explaining to a male nerd that being a female nerd is not glamorous and all about constantly receiving fringe benefits and free World of Warcraft stuff.

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