It occurs to me that the only people who actually call it Chinese New Year are people who are helpfully trying to distinguish it from the Gregorian new year. Also, multiple Asian cultures celebrate this new year. So really, calling it "Chinese New Year" is a verbal tic that I deploy that actually implies a number of problematic things: A) Sinocentricism-- All Asians are Chinese or Chinese Asians are the most prominent Asians who celebrate this holiday, this day is for them. Which kind of sucks for any other Asian culture that celebrates Lunar New Year. B) Nativism and white supremacy -- the Gregorian new year is the "real" new year and this is some cultural anomaly. C) I am a Taiwanese person saying I'm celebrating Chinese New Year which means I am also inadvertently reinforcing a Chinese political identity on Taiwanese practices, in a way that say, a Vietnamese person celebrating Tet would not.
A friend of mine got a corporate email earlier this week that read:
"The office is celebrating Chinese New Year this Friday! Wear clothing that represents Chinese culture or wear festive colors like gold and red!"
He works in a very conservative office where he is one of the only Asian Americans. He is regularly asked where he came from, complimented for his English, etc. He is worried people will dress up in awkward culturally appropriated or otherwise orientalized clothing. When he shared this email on Facebook some people were sympathetic but another Asian American friend wrote something along these lines:
They are not saying the think they are superior to you because of your race so this email isn't racist. This is supposed to be a celebration but you are acting like it is a put down. We're creating a culture where no one feels safe to say anything about another person's background for fear of being accused of being offensive--maybe they are just curious and maybe we should take the time out to nurture their interest and inform them instead of assuming the worst. Our mouths are just itching to scream "racist" at every awkwardly-phrased comment on race and we shouldn't need to be. These are opportunities to educate, not perpetuate hatred.
I think if this were me eight years ago I probably would have felt much the same way as this person. I'm not that person anymore, though. I have a lot of feelings and things I want to say about this email. (Mostly from the perspective of someone who has been paid to train people on corporate cultural competence with Asian Americans, but clouded by my own personal experiences.)
I guess to begin with, not all acts that create a racially demeaning environment need to spring from the loins of hatred. It is possible to celebrate something and honor people in a demeaning way. This is most commonly seen when the people/cultures who are being celebrated have no say in how they will be celebrated.
My friend may be one of very few people in his office who celebrate Lunar New Year. Yet, he was not asked how he would want (or if he would want) his coworkers to engage in this celebration with him.
For many Asian American people, Lunar New Year has intense personal, cultural, and religious meaning. It may be the only holiday directly related to an Asian American person's ethnic identity that they still continue to celebrate. (I sure has hell no longer celebrate other holidays like the QingMing Festival or Kuan Yin's day or Ghost Festival or even Lantern Festival which is a part of New Year.) For many Asian American people, Lunar New Year is a bigger deal than Christmas; it is definitely a bigger deal than the "real" new year.
For many, a "Chinese New Year celebration" at work may be seen as a pleasure or even acknowledgment, but for others who wish they could be home celebrating with loved ones it is a reminder that they are kicking it at the office with people who don't attach any significant personal meaning to the holiday. Kicking it with people who view the holiday as a great day to wear red and gold the same way you would to a Trojan game.
I think if his colleagues were to ask my friend what Lunar New Year meant for him, he would not say it was a day to wear red to the office or wear "clothing that represents Chinese culture." This is a holiday that his ancestors have been celebrating for thousands of years. If he truly had a say on how he would celebrate this holiday, I doubt he'd want to be in the office at all. These are all things his office could have found out if they had bothered to ask him.
Taking office racial and hierarchical power dynamics into account, too, imagine if my friend had sent out the following email instead:
"Hi everyone, your coworker here. As you may know, next weekend is the Lunar New Year, an important holiday for many Asian Americans. Some of our new year traditions include trying to make as much noise as possible to ward off evil spirits, eating vegetarian, and wearing red. I'd like to invite you to celebrate with me!
I strongly suspect that most of his coworkers would be like, "Whoa, good for you buddy, but I'm not Asian so I don't get why you're asking me to do all of these things, that's kind of presumptuous." I suspect this reaction would be more socially acceptable than his reaction to the real office email.
Another relavant thing to note, because it is a microaggression, is the "otherizing" of "Chinese" clothing. These clothes are not regulation businesswear. The request that these clothes be worn on this racial/ethnic holiday moves these "ethnic"clothes from "clothing that is completely normal in an Asian person's culture (that an Asian person would be given crap for wearing to work or experience xenophobia for wearing on the street in the US)" to "costume to be worn on a special day to work."
(It also kind of speaks to the obtuseness of the email...Chinese American people who celebrate Lunar New Year don't take it as an opportunity to wear "Chinese" clothes to work, though they might wear their Chinese faces to work. A brand new set of clothing is usually how it works, if you're lucky and can afford it.)
Lastly, I don't think "our mouths are just itching to scream "racist" at every awkwardly-phrased comment" In fact, I think it is quite the opposite for people of color.
The reality is that it is much easier to admonish someone for speaking out about something they felt was racially uncomfortable, then it is for people to "scream racist." The reality is that willingness to even explore--much less confront--racism comes at great risk for individuals, including individuals like my friend who work in--let's face it--unfriendly, racially invalidating environments.
As evinced in the response my friend got, his expression of "worry" and "dread" (his words) could be and was automatically be taken and reconstrued as "screaming" and "perpetuating hatred (his friend's interpretation). In effect, she admonished him for expressing his discomfort about his employer's racial insensitivity because he did not take the "opportunity to educate."
This approach is what in fact "breeds a culture where nobody feels safe to say anything." It is obvious that my friend's employer had no compunctions about sending out this email. It is instead my friend who must weigh his words because even on Facebook, they can be misconstrued as "screaming", an uncooperative unwillingness to educate, and perpetuating a culture of hate.
I think what I really mean is, if this guy's office really gave a crap about "Chinese" new year they would follow the following traditions:
- Paid holiday, or heck, the traditional two weeks off work
- Generous new year's bonus from employer
- Thank employees for great work they've done this year and invite them to lunch the following week