A rather surprising year so far. I have never been popular or socially adept, especially not where romance is concerned, and therefore I’m always surprised when someone (especially someone operating in the range of sanity*) finds me attractive and want to pursue a relationship. Recently I’ve been even more surprised that African American men can find me attractive. This seems like a weird thing to be surprised about, and I suppose it is, but the questions I have to ask myself now are why am I surprised and what did I expect? Do my personal background (as opposed to my ethnic /cultural background) justify my surprise? I’ve thought of myself as fairly open-minded and un-racist, but does my surprise mean that I do hold certain limited and limiting stereotypes of race and ethnicity? If so, is it too late to change these ideas and how?
In this post I am trying to be as honest as I can about race and racism, and there might be some content readers might find offensive. Also, it is going to be more personal than my other posts, and I put it here instead of in the journal blog (ideogrammatica) because my experiences recently might say something about wider social issues. But this is not going to be me at my analytical best, so please skip this if you don’t like tortured ranting.
(A note on terminology: This is still an academic post, dammit! I will being using both “Black” and “African American.” For example, Chinese people have stereotypes of Black people without really caring about whether they’re African Americans or not, and in that context I’ll be using “Black.”And if I want to highlight physical appearance. If I want to foreground something socio-cultural specific to North America, I’ll be using “African American.” That includes Canada too. Sorry. I tried to use “Asian North American” in my MA thesis and in the end it just irritated the word count. And I tend to capitalize words like Black and White if using them for race and ethnicity to highlight that it’s a loaded word and not just a colour.)
I. Where’s an Asian girl gonna find a place to stay? Chinese attitudes towards Black people
To frontload identity categories, I am a Chinese-Canadian woman in my mind-twenties doing a PhD in University of Southern California, LA. I live close to Leitmert Park and Crenshaw in LA, which is an area with a predominantly African American population. I would like to live in a neighbourhood of Asians but that would only be for the food, and I’m close enough to Koreantown so I can take care of that easily. And there’s really nothing about living with White people that appeals to me – they’re everywhere already, so why bother?
Before I moved here, I was warned not to because it wasn’t safe, but it didn’t seem any more dangerous than any other part around South Central LA, and I wanted to within biking distance to campus. The previous family I stayed with briefly before I moved here lived in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood, and when they have other Chinese students asking about safety they usually say “Mexicans aren’t unruly at all. They’re very family-oriented,” implying that they’re culturally close to Asians (My dad would chip in “and they’re afraid they’d be deported”). Anyway, while I didn’t actively seek out an African American neighbourhood, it doesn’t bother me either. Basically what race my neighbours are don’t factor at all into where I decide to live. (But for living in the same house, I’d rather live with Chinese people, and I’m renting from Chinese people now even though they don’t live here. Chinese renters tend not to ask for references and credit checks, which makes my life a lot easier. Plus I do things like boil a smelly vat of Chinese herbal medicine every other day, shower at night as opposed to in the morning, and other life habits that are hard to explain to people who don’t know about them.)
My parents have not been happy about where I live, because they’d rather I live with Chinese people or White people, and I had to send them photos of my street to prove that I didn’t live in a ghetto. In our graduate seminars on ethnicity, I think we read someone as saying that blaming Asians for being racist exacerbate the problem of ethnic division and plays into White supremacy. I understand that Asian Americans who have live in North America for generations alongside other ethnic groups may not be racist, but I’ve always agreed that at least post-1965 Chinese immigrants, and Chinese people in China, are quite racist and it would be a poor decision to turn a blind eye to this. When I was teaching English in China, another native Chinese English teacher said she went on an exchange to a country in Africa and liked it there better than in China, and the way she was explaining it was “You’d think Black people are dirty, but they’re really not. The dorms were really clean with only 3 or 4 people sharing them, not like us cramming 8 students into tiny rooms.” While she herself is probably not racist, the way she talks implies that she understands most of Chinese people as being racist.
My neighbours in this duplex are a couple of Chinese-Canadians. Now, in terms of ethnic consciousness, my neighbours are quite interesting, but about one of their friends first. Their friend is what you might call an FOB, a Chinese student who just came to America. I’ve met him twice and each time he complains about how unsafe he feels in the neighbourhood and how disturbed he is whensomeone on the street asked him for change. Once he arrived before my neighbours were home, and he refused to wait in the car because he felt like he was in danger, and wanted to wait in my side of the house. I let him but wasn’t impressed. Anyways, about the neighbours. I assumed that because they live here they aren’t racist towards Black people, and when I saw them interact with our neighbours I didn’t detect any racism either. However, when speaking to me in Chinese they often make pejorative remarks about Black people, for example calling our neighbours “老黑” (lao hei, lit. “old black,” after linguistic formula in Chinese of “Old + X(usually a last name)” as a casual way to refer to adult male friends). Once, the electricity went out in the neighbourhood while they went grocery shopping, and came back and reported to me that “all the Black people are walking around the streets like gorillas.” I sort of don’t know what to make of my neighbours. Their speech is racist but their actions are not, which is probably better than their speech being not racist and their actions being racist. I’ve decided that they aren’t racist, just very very politically incorrect.
When I just came to LA, I was involved as a witness in a police incident where a White young man who had some kind of paranoid psychological disorder (he looked like he was homeless) called the police on a Black commuter (he was pretty young and looked like a college student) in the subway station, which I wrote about here. What I first saw was the White man harassing the Black man, and I left to take a bus assuming they could handle it, but after the bus didn’t arrive I went down to the subway again, and by this time the Black man was handcuffed and sitting in a corner. This being LA and me being in Ethnic Studies, I stuck around to give testimony. Anyways, I’ve tended to think of myself as being not racist and politically correct at the same time, but recent events have made me wonder.
II. Is illegibity racism or just ignorance? Especially in Romance
I wasn’t going to write about interracial issues at all if not for recent events. One is that a few weeks ago, an African American classmate wanted to date me (more on this later). Over the weekend I went to get a haircut, and the first barber shop I stopped at refused to do it because they said they didn’t know how to cut hair like mine. Then, today a man started talking to me in lineup of the checkout in what I thought was an overly intimate way. “I love diversity,” he proclaimed, and I said I did too, hence I’m not living in Monterey Park (where post-1965 Chinese immigrants gather). I don’t remember what he said in between, but he tried to lean in close and speak in my ear, and touched my arm, and all sorts of things that a reserved Chinese Canadian like myself thought a breach of my personal space. He then proceeded to ask for my phone number (after “Would you like to communicate?”), which I didn’t want to give him. His excuse was pretty good though – I already said I was sort of new to the neighbourhood, and he offered a chance for me to learn about the neighbourhood. I actually DO want to communicate with him but I don’t want to “communicate” with him. In the end I partially caved and gave him my email, which I hope would make any communication between us of a strictly ethnographic nature. He asked me to wait for him while he was checking out his groceries after me, which I declined, and left.
(Oh, and in between him trying to pick me up, a middle-aged woman in line saw bok choy in my groceries and asked me how to cook them, so I was trying to have two intercultural conversations at once, trying to convince one correspondent that I was a cultural insider for Chinese cooking and trying to convince the other that I wasn’t interested in him, and trying to pay for my groceries and use the supermarket member’s card. It was a very good exercise in mental multitasking.)
When I first moved here, another Black man on the Subway showed me how to stand my bike so it wouldn’t roll around, and also proceeded to ask for my number. Men on the street would call me “Mama,” which I STILL don’t understand, either linguistically or otherwise. As I mentioned in my last post, I haven’t spent a great deal of time around Black people, and hence I don’t understand African American culture very well. I left China when I was 7 years old and went to Galway, Ireland for 2 years, and the whole city probably had only 1 Black person. I know that there were only about 3 Chinese families at that time. The only time I had extensive contact with Black people was for the first year I moved to Canada, where I went to an inner city elementary school in Ottawa. But my parents quickly moved into the suburbs, which was pretty White. I went to high school in Vancouver in a school that was composed of 50% East Asians, 30% South Asians, and 19% White, and 1% Black or Latino, and I lived in a South Asian neighbourhood. In undergrad, I went to the University of Toronto but in the Scarborough campus, which was also filled with East, Southeast and South Asians, and students with Middle Eastern backgrounds. More Black students, but still not many, and being an English major and hanging out with the Anime Club didn’t put me in touch with many Black students either. I can tell you how a Muslim man might wear his turban and beard differently from a Sikh man, but I don’t know the difference between various kinds of hiphop music. This lack of awareness of African American culture is exacerbated by my parents being Chinese “intelligentsia,” meaning oftentimes they subscribe to European high culture (classical music, ballet, oil painting, Victorian novels etc) as the ideal. My parents are divorced, and my mother only dates White men.
I’d like to think that my limited experience with Black people hasn’t made me racist, but just that African Americans people and I aren’t mutually legible; we just don’t overlap culturally or fall on each other’s radars. When the first barber shop I stopped by refused to cut my hair, I didn’t think it was discrimination and I wasn’t offended. For me it made sense that he wouldn’t cut my hair, and I thought it was hilarious. I did find another barber, though after I got home from the second barber I found, my housemate proclaimed “They cut your hair like a Black person!” – Which they did (hard to describe…sort of helmet-like and really short at the back, something Chinese barbers have been refusing to do), but weirdly enough the barber also cut my bangs really straight, probably as a last-ditch effort to Asianize my hair. We joked that it was a mixed-race haircut. Also, the first time I went out with my classmate, we ran into an African American man whose car ran out of gas and needed someone to help him get his car from the street into the parking lot. I thought that it would be impolite to stand by while they pushed, so I also helped. Interestingly, after the car was in the lot, the owner clasped my classmate’s hand and said, “Thanks, brother,” but didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. I wasn’t offended from being ignored, but just thought that the guy didn’t know how to thank an Asian girl in this kind of situation and defaulted to saying nothing.
And so I do not understand why African American men would find me attractive. If Western culture (including Black people living in the West) has an idea of Asian women’s attractiveness, I doubt my appearance and comportment are aligned with it. From what I understand, it’s mostly Lotus Blossom or Dragon Lady, in other words either a demure, pretty/cute, and childlike Asian girl or a exotic Asian femme fatale. On the other hand, I usually have very short hair, and wear jeans and sneakers and leather jackets, and get mistaken for a man on a regular basis. I do this to upset stereotypes of Asian women, and also in defiance of a bunch of narrow-minded boys in high school who thought I was transsexual and wanted to beat me up for it. Basically, with this getup and my reserved attitude in front of people I don’t know well, I don’t see how any man would find me attractive, period. Maybe if they were slightly gay.
The classmate who wanted to go out with me explained that perhaps African American women tend to be more masculine, so me being more masculine than other Asian women actually makes me more legible for African American men. I suppose in a stereotypical sense, African American women tend to be tougher and more outspoken than Asian women are (I don’t think this true though), and if those are “masculine” qualities, I guess African American women are more masculine. However in terms of stereotype, I would think that African American women are more hypersexualized than Asian women. (Actually I never understood why there’s a stereotype of Asian women as hypersexualized. Maybe it’s my post-1965 Chinese consciousness, but I always thought that if there’s a stereotype of Asian sexuality, Asians of both genders ought to be desexualized. Maybe it’s the Chinese Communist education thinking.) But anyway, what I’m still puzzled about is that while African American women can be seen as more masculine and I am legible in this framework, African American women are also seen as sexualized, where I am not legible at all. As I said, my dress and deportment get me mistaken for a man a lot. I am taller than the stereotype of Asian women, and this might be too much information, but I’m rather flat-chested, and even if I have wide hips compared to most Asian women, they’re evidently not wide enough to prevent people from thinking I’m a man. Basically, I don’t present myself as being sexualized in any way, so I can’t see how African American men would find me attractive just based on me being masculine. And the people who have hit on me are emphatically not gay either.
An interesting response from my classmate is that he has a different set of standards for the attractiveness of Black women and Asian women, but they also work across each other; he said something like a Black woman who is small and skinny and an Asian woman who is curvy would also register as interesting to him. I think he’s in a good place in terms of interracial legibility, but I’m still confused about what’s been happening around me, and there are two possibilities that I can think of. Apart from my classmate, who’s very culturally aware and also very aware of Asia, other African American men who hit on me either see past my masculine deportment and still map stereotypes of Asian women onto me, or they just don’t think about any ethnic stereotypes and find me attractive anyway. Somehow I have difficulty believing the latter, because I’m just not very attractive; I’m small-featured and plain, and frankly for the past few years I’ve had terrible skin and look like a zombie sometimes. Do let me know if you think there are other possibilities besides the two.
III. Back to theoretical stuff and angsting about status of my soul
I mentioned that I didn’t think I was racist, just that I don’t understand. But I am beginning to wonder about this. A question: if the guy who tried to pick me up at the supermarket wasn’t Black, would I still be as offended? I think I would still be offended. After all, my discomfort with invading what I think of as my personal space and being pushy about “communication” is not a discomfort that he was Black, but it’s a set of behaviour that I don’t find appealing. There have been Black people I find attractive, as opposed to my mother, who, when I told her that someone likes me who is Black, sort of freaked out and then said something like “Maybe some Black people can be attractive too.”
But this is where it gets sticky with race/ethnicity/culture. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, ever since the post on commercials featuring multicultural consumers. I can analyse my attitude as: I am not racist as long as the person in question behaves a certain way. This seems to be fine, however what counts as “proper behaviour” is often prescribed by White people, and the argument that X racialized group is “uncivillized” has been just as destructive, if not more destructive, than arguments that X group looks different. Another issue is the level of intimacy. I have asked a friend about this, and her response is that if you can work or be friends with people of other ethnicities, but you don’t necessarily want to pursue a romantic relationship with them, this doesn’t count as racist because people naturally want to find a partner who is culturally similar.
I think cultural similarity is very very important for compatibility in the long run, but I also think that friends and co-workers are usually in contexts where there are certain social prescriptions against certain social behaviours, and hence cultural differences aren’t as readily apparent. And also, I do believe that certain ethnicities (along with gender and class etc) have certain cultural attributes (at this point in time, given cultural formation through history) that makes them behave a certain way, even if there is no inherent differences between races that are tied to their biology. For example, I just got a new housemate, who moved away after her old landlady refused to turn down her TV, causing my new housemate a lot of difficulties sleeping. Since she left without fulfilling the term of the lease, the landlady understandably was upset. However the landlady yelled at her and harassed her constantly. I never met her but I once called her an “bitter old White woman” as a joke, and my housemate corrected me and said she was Black, and “If she was White, she wouldn’t have gotten into my face like that. She’d sue my pants off in court.” (My housemate is definitely not racist – she’s an activist on behalf of ethnic minorities and is doing her PhD on interethnic solidarity). Anyways, racism is always racism about behaviour, like the “uncivillized” argument, so if we discriminate based on behaviour and culture, to me that’s practically the same as discriminating based on race, just couching it in a slightly politically correct manner. It might be even worse, because then there is pressure to ethnic minorities with different cultural behaviours to change to be a yuppie or hipster or something like that.
In my post on multiculturalism in commercials, I said this was “culturist.” All races are fine now, but you all need to behave in a certain way. This is problematic, for example the argument in France that Muslim women should not wear head coverings because they have to conform to Western feminist notions of what it means to be “free.” I understand this culturist expectation is wrong, however in finding a romantic partner, I don’t think I can get over it. I am not someone who can date on attraction alone – I have to take into account compatibility with culture and values. And certain behaviours I just find unattractive, for example when men are too hypermasculine or crude, or when they try to touch me in a cashier line up. I don’t necessarily think that refinement is necessary (Maybe it is? childhood upbringing with classical music and oil painting and Victorian novels etc…), but a certain degree of restraint and respectability seems important. And I have a feeling that respectability, probably tied to upwards mobility, is more important to certain ethnicities than others, so that if I choose a romantic partner with respectability as a parameter I will be discriminating based on race/ethnicity by association.
Maybe I just have to resign myself to being “culturist.” But I think in a certain way I might also be racist. After studying psychology in undergrad and taking methods courses in how to get around people’s cognitive defences, and reading about the implicit association test (IAT) for racism (good explanation here), I have devised one about race and culture, which is the images at the top (Of course, if this was a real psych test, the images would have to be controlled for size, quality, facial expression, camera angle, colours, etc, perhaps with other ethnicities, and we’d also need to figure out whether to give all of them to one person or only give them 1 to rule against the possibility they’d catch on to what the test was measuring. All this nit-picking deception is the reason I ultimately didn’t go into psychology). My hypothesis is that the average response from Asians and White people would rate the Black businessman at a lower rating of respectability than the Asian one, and the Asian rapper as more respectable than the Black one. Unfortunately, I think that if I were given this test out of the blue, I would also give a similar response. What such test results imply is that people feel that the bar for respectability is higher for a Black person, that they need to work harder to get to the same rating. While this response shows that people do not believe that respectability is a biological fact but it can be changed, somehow Black people still start “lower” and it’s almost the same as saying they are somehow inherently less respectable than people of other ethnicities.
This kind of test is also applicable to attractiveness. My mother conceded that “Maybe some Black people can be attractive too,” but this doesn’t mean a lot. There isn’t a pan-racial and objective scale of attractiveness, but I have a feeling that if there was one, a White man at an attractiveness of 5 would register as attractive to my mother whereas a Black man would only register as attractive if his rating was 10. As for what I would answer to a survey like this, I have no idea. I think I still find other East Asians more attractive than any other race.
So, what to do about being a racist/culturist? I think increased exposure works for racism, because chances are the experiences one encounters will be much better than the negative stereotype one holds. I’ve noticed exposure working for me. When I first went to Toronto for undergrad, and also when I got to LA after spending 2 years in China (with a stopover in Vancouver), I was afraid that I was racist because I always seemed to be more alert if I saw Black people. But I think I was just visually not used to Black people, because this went away after a week or so. Similarly, when I first got back to Vancouver from China, looking at White people scared me (even though proportionally there weren’t that many White people in Vancouver to begin with…). This also went away, but I think it took less time for me to readjust my visual schemas for White people than for Black people, perhaps because White people are everywhere in the media and many of my colleagues in China were White.
I’m not sure increased exposure works for culture or behaviours that one doesn’t like. Rationally I understand that certain behaviours do not reflect the morality of the person in question, but I still don’t want someone to get touchy-feely at the checkout. People behaving what I consider to be crudely makes me revolted, even if I understand that they are good people. For example, I find many of my peers use swear words a lot more than I do and do it quite casually. I know that it doesn’t mean they are bad people, but talking to someone who says the F word a lot still makes me uncomfortable. In this case, increased exposure would just make me more revolted. Increased positive exposure to people of other races can cancel out negative stereotypes because new cognitive schemas replace the stereotypes and co-exist with racialized appearance, but you can’t get “good” behaviour to co-exist with “bad” behaviour and still have the former replace the latter. Something needs to happen to change cultural and behavioural expectations, and I have a feeling this can’t be changed very easily because it depends on how people are brought up. For example, Chinese men like to spit a lot in public, and my grandfather also did this until my mother talked him out of it. He’s a very careful and respectable otherwise, having worked as a middle school principal and a journalist and written vast treatise on the origins of Chinese medicine, but in a Chinese upbringing for his time, being very educated and proper didn’t conflict with spitting on sidewalks, whereas for me those things would be mutually exclusive.
Do let me know how to get over being a culturist.
*There was a guy in high school who had some social dysfunction issues (not sure what he had, but he had difficulty completing his sentences and tended to stalk and frighten people), and then there was a guy in university who’s slightly antisocial, in that he had no understanding of social norms.