Racism and Culturism

What prompted this entry is that a Chinese friend of mine just started dating, and her new boyfriend is black. This might also be a good time to ponder critical race studies, seeing as Michael Jackson just passed away.

In response to this, my mother said that if I were to date someone who was black, then she would feel uncomfortable for the rest of her life. And my friend has decided that she will not let her family know of this. She comes from a very traditional Asian family, ie family unity and cultural values are very important. This friend herself is generally a shy and demure person, but since I know of some odd streaks, the fact that he is dating a black man isn’t very surprising. Although she did qualify in an email, “He’s not like those people you see in rap videos.”

I have experienced something similar. About a year ago, a fellow university club member seemed to have taken an interest in me, and I avoided his interest. He is not black but from the Middle East/India area. At the time, I wrestled with the reason that I did not take an interest in him; I was troubled by the thought that I might be racist despite living as if I am not. And I have taken enough Psychology courses to know that there is much about a person that is eclipsed even from oneself. I recall a study that staged a black person facing difficulties, and found that white participants would help this black person but only if they could not attribute their not helping to something else – eg, that someone else was helping, or that they were running late, etc.

I thought that perhaps I may also have been using reasons such as his age (he was younger than me by 3 years) as excuses for racism. One thing this led me to consider was the difference between racism and what I want to call “culturism.” This fellow club member did look like “a person in a rap video” (although I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he aligned himself with that subculture). I think it was this element, and not necessarily his race, which I was uncomfortable with. My friend had implied the same thing in her email, that if this man she is dating looked like someone in a rap video, maybe she would not have been interested. Also, I have observed cross-racial couples and found that, for example, if a Caucasian male was dating an Asian female, the Asian female is often not culturally Asian.

This is in line with something I have noticed in popular media. Unless the commercial or television series is directed at a specific subculture, media for mainstream audience show many races but do not show many cultures. Take the Bell Christmas 2008 commercial for an example: the African American female dancing is dressed in a way that reflects, I believe, mainstream “white” fashion; the same can be said of the Asian female taking the photo. This is on par with something I once read about black actresses in Hollywood being the least “black” on the appearance spectrum, and magazines making black actresses, such as Halle Berry, appear paler than they are.

Where I am going with this is that, for those of my generation who have grown up in North America, we are not very racist. However, culture and race do have significant overlaps, and whether we are now “culturist” is something else. I think most people who believe themselves to be racially unbiased and even some who acknowledge their racial bias would agree that racism is harmful, but what about cultural preferences? I think many would say that choosing someone from one’s own culture for friends or romantic partners is no different from choosing someone with similar interests, which the majority of people would see as acceptable if not a relationship requisite. However, I believe that discrimination (in the neutral sense of the word) based on appearances of a different culture or subculture may hinder individuals from finding that the Other may not be so different. Once, while I was waiting at a local train station, I was surprised to see that a young African American man, dressed in a fur-lined hoodie, wearing golden necklaces, rings, earrings, and baggy jeans, was hunched over and wholly engrossed in a volume of Inuyasha.

My mother dates Caucasian men because she claims that Chinese men are “too complicated.” To a certain degree she is operating on cultural incompatibility, because although she holds many Chinese values, she has been out of China for many years now and has always been engaged with Western media, literature, and culture. I myself can’t see myself dating someone who has just left China, because I have not engaged with and grown with Chinese culture. Sometimes, though, members of our Immigrant Generation 1.5 (or is it 0.5?) find ourselves in a cultural limbo. Our language and culture are a mix of both the nations and cultures that we have left and those that we live in now. I find this extremely useful for certain projects like my about-to-start graduate degree in English and Cultural Studies, but it also creates navigational complications that cannot be reduced to labels such as being a “banana.” For now, I say good for my friend for dating a black man, but we still need to consider whether we can just overcome the racism hurdle and say that our social responsibility has been fulfilled.

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4 thoughts on “Racism and Culturism

  1. Pingback: Is Battlestar Galactica Post-Racial (or is that not even the problem)? « Radical Compounds

  2. Pingback: “I love diversity. Can I have your phone number?”: Interracial illegibility, legibility, and culturism | Radical Compounds

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