3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part III

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

As this is the last post in this series, I will end on an interpretation of the “urgency” to respond to the world, how we can tweak the concept of radical pedagogy, and finally discuss incentive and not condemnation as the basis of social change.

Progressive Concept #3: Social change requires a revolution that fundamentally changes social structures. Those seeking change have less power and access to resources, and therefore should give no quarter to avoid legitimizing the current status quo.

First, I think American culture has a implicit culture of competition rather than cooperation. Our democratic political system and  legal system are both adversarial: individuals represent their own ideas in the public sphere for contention, where achievement is defined by the ability to maintain one’s ideas and to convince others, not by achieving harmony. Deferring to others is not seen favourably. We have sayings like “give an inch and they’ll take a mile,” and we also attach shame to being a “sell-out.” These are commonly held cultural attitudes that both shape and are shaped by social processes.

More specifically, even when people from historically dominant groups may mean well, they are unable to step outside their own common sense to critique  themselves, and they also have less incentive to create change. For example, in the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, measures such as the Grandfather clause were set up to limit voting for newly emancipated Blacks; even recently, Voter ID laws disproportionately affected older Black voters. While Republicans have denied that this was their intent, the fact that they did not change this policy after criticism from multiple groups suggest that they at least implicitly or unconsciously protect their own interest. To mitigate this kind of problem, social change needs to arise from the people who best understand their needs, and need to work against the entrenched common sense of those in power. In addition, social structure and social rules have been created based on those common sense ideas, further naturalizing them. This means that separatism, which is self-determination apart from the interference of dominant groups, is a legitimate demand.

Groups who have been in power have more access to social and political resources, and thus they can enact sweeping, multi-sited  policies according to their common sense; an example is lobbyists who represent industries, which have more resources and networks with which they can push for favourable policies, whereas a non-English-speaking and less educated neighbourhood living near a toxic waste dump would not. Multi-sited policies are a key difference. Discriminatory voting laws, residential segregation,  employment discrimination, differential taxation and funding, high school tracking, and law-and-order policing are some of the different aspects of social life that cumulatively form a racist social structure in the US, which also accumulates over time. The left, especially Marxist-informed radicals, have argued that reform can only change these issues superficially and in isolation, and only revolution (fundamentally reorganizing social relations and hierarchies) would redistribute power and advance social justice.

If those in power have advantages, the oppressed have limited tools and avenues; thus, their action should be assessed with this in mind. This is the logic behind the left calling civil unrest “uprisings” or “rebellions,” whereas mainstream and conservative media calls them “riots.” Those who have instigated uprisings had few advocacy groups to represent their interests, were unlikely to have access to mass media, and also do not have the educational background and network to investigate or communicate the causes of their oppression, so they may resort to violence. Rather than fault them for this, uprisings and other forms of violence should be seen as a legitimate, if not ideal, expression of an overall social symptom.

Response #3: (since this is quite long, each point is linked to its respective section)

a) Sometimes the left advocates for separatism, yet denounces the right for being intractable and stuck in echo chambers

b) even as we allow that revolutionaries might not get it right when they are creating change, we are not forgiving or encouraging when the right and people in power fail to understand progressive perspectives

c) Radicals on the left advocate a complete overhaul of society by any means necessary, and this is sometimes reduced to disrupting the status quo without a corresponding emphasis on how to reconstruct our ideal world.

+Last bits on “urgency”, radical pedagogy, and incentives.

a) I should note that I support voluntary separatism in private life. In Part I I mentioned Black students at Scripps who asked for a room mate of colour in an ad, which lead to charges of reverse-racism. While I take issue with the singular focus on race, I do not categorically take issue with excluding certain people in the ad. To me, whom to bring into your home is part of your private life, should be allowed as long as there are no demonstrable wide-ranging or public effects (ie, Black students asking for a non-White roommate would not cause a housing shortage for White students). To a certain extent I also support separatism for Indigenous communities because there is material resources at stake with quite a different view on how to manage the resources, which is unlikely to find compromise under the current world order that emphasizes automation and economic growth.

It is also true that many progressives were set on their path due to having endured discrimination. I am also not saying that the burden is always on the oppressed to understand their oppressors.  However, researchers, educators, journalists and other social critics in their professional careers should not isolate themselves from dissenting opinion, and should take on responsibility to understand all elements of society, including those who have oppressed others. This is especially the case for academics on the left whose research rests on the premise that prevailing social structures and discourses are faulty and that those outside the prevailing social discourses, ie them, can do better. If they have taken up the mantle of being a social critic or an academic, they should then not refuse to entertain ideas that might help advance society because it infringes on their personal comfort. If they cannot do this, they need not become social critics or academics.

In addition, exposure to the hurtful actions of the right does not equal exposure to the complexities of their position and ideology. As per Part I, one of the interventions of progressive thinkers is to deconstruct the universal subject. In doing so, many people who have been disenfranchised for not fitting into the universal mould have been somewhat redeemed. However, leftist separatism, taken too far, can replace the universal subject with the good liberal subject in a way that does not necessitate an understanding of why some people do not have access to liberal beliefs. I will give a few examples from my graduate student time that demonstrates how separatism and its simplification can induce backlash, and how seeking to understand can be constructive.

My first time TAing was for a Women’s Studies class, and after a few weeks other students started acting out. On November 11th, the professor discussed how celebrating veterans and soldiers (often male) ignores how female civilians can become collateral damage or the target of sexual assault, and a student interrupted the lecture to ask for a moment of silence for the troops.  Students who weren’t enrolled in my classes started dropping in. Other TAs reported that students didn’t read course materials yet argued with them in class. The year after, a classmate told me that one of the TAs had started her term by telling both her classes that she hated men. I recalled that once during lunch she had also told me that she refused to read novels written by men. Her students got a negative impression of women’s studies from her statements, and acted out indirectly or behaved in a confrontational manner. This TA was not in general an unpleasant or unintelligent person, and seemed to have truly believed that her actions were feminist, yet her oversimplification of men and the oversimplification of appropriate attitude towards gender inequality turned students against Women’s Studies.

On the other hand, one of the most positive experiences I had was seeing a professor encouraged a fellow student, who is White, to stop thinking about her family merely as perpetrators. The student comes from a family whose male members have enlisted in the military for generations, and are firm believers of traditional masculinity and straightness, the American right to power, and a firm division between good and evil. However, the professor said that working-class White men are easily targeted by sociocultural discourses such as masculine pride and white supremacy. At the same time that these narratives are harmful and her family members have perpetrated harm, it is also possible to see that they have been targeted by these narratives, which cannot be reduced to individual actors.

These 2 contrasting ways of characterizing the right also emerged after the election. From observing people in my department, on the one hand there have been professors and graduate students who stated that Trump’s victory cannot be rationalized, that economic arguments are not an excuse for supporting Trump, and characterized Trump supporters as a simply taking pleasure in being racist and misogynist. To me, this attitude is exactly the same as White attitudes during the Watts and Rodney King uprisings, which characterized Blacks as having no economic excuse to riot, and it’s just that Blacks are simply more predisposed to violence. It disturbs me that academics, who are professional thinkers, can be blind to the fact that they lodged themselves in the same position as those that they critique on the other side of the political spectrum. Thankfully, on the other hand, there are grad students who have said that they see a greater need to go back to their White working class families on holidays for dialogue, and professors teaching ethnic and gender studies who have revised their syllabi to include readings on how inequality involves and impacts Whites and men.

b) When enacting change, the disenfranchised and those in power do differ in their ability to enact policy. However, while at the group level access to social resources is vastly different, on an individual level access to conceptual resources may not be that different.

To me, common sense and values for the average person does not come from either book learning or from access to social and political resources. These sources can expand possible perspectives, but these impersonally learned perspectives are not substantiated without long-term exposure involving personal relationships. Ie, abstract and impersonal stakes such as social well-being, or the pursuit of knowledge, are not as good motivators as a personal connection that you might lose if you can’t come to an understanding.  The most fundamental shifts in my thinking have come from having built a social circle among societies with very different values. I would say that the size and internal variation of this personal and most immediate social circle is probably roughly the same for most people in North America, regardless of identity categories, especially when young – ie a wealthy young White person is not likely to have more friends and family, or friends and family with a greater range of values, than a poor young Black person. And thus, people with privilege are not better primed to understand kinds of common sense that are not their own, even if they have more opportunities to learn about differences in an abstract way.

In other words, I believe that no one can really help the way they think and see the world, privilege doesn’t make much of a difference, and any changes made to one’s thinking would take concerted effort. Expecting otherwise, it seems to me, contradicts the point made about subjectivity and objectivity in Part I. If those on the left insist that people who have been in power have not succeeded in being universal and objective, then they are just as subjectively positioned as anyone else; if they are as subjectively positioned as anyone else, there’s no reason they would be better primed to change their subjective positions. This may sound patronizing, but what the left can do is lower our expectations of the centre and the right (while not categorically denouncing them, as per the (a) section).

Thus, when the centre and the right haven’t grasped or enacted what we think is right, our response should not be condemnation. Many of my friends are international students who do not understand race relations in the US, and have had negative experiences with American people of colour who cannot understand their positionality. A friend from Asia related an experience in an MFA filmmaking program where another Asian classmate casually commented that she would not like to live in a neighbourhood with high crime rates, such as X Black neighbourhood. Another Black film student overheard and refused to come to class, petitioned student services who in turn mandated  extra readings and lectures on cultural sensitivity for the international students, and used her racism as the topic of her MFA project that was later showcased to the whole class. The international students, my friend included, felt singled out and punished for being ignorant of something they had no opportunity to learn about, and certainly did not feel more motivated to learn about US race relations afterwards.

Similarly, another case is the film Selma, about MLK’s organization of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The film depicts Lyndon B Johnson as being obstructionist, which caused a great deal of controversy, as historically LBJ seemed to have done the best that he could (though I’m not a Historian and can’t attest to the details).The controversy was framed in terms of historical accuracy vs artistic license, where the director defended their choice to have characters in diverse political positions for a good story. To me, the issue with Selma is better framed in terms of encouragement vs condemnation. Especially since Selma was a widely-released film in 2014, its depiction of various parties involved in Civil Rights can serve as examples of how to overcome new forms of racism in the 21st century. This includes allies in the 1960s setting an example for potential non-Black allies in the present. Discounting LBJ’s efforts and accomplishments seem to be counterproductive for gaining new allies, since one interpretation of the filmmakers’ decisions would be that White people’s efforts would be unrecognized or even falsified by Black activists, so why bother?

A rejoinder to what I point out above might be that achieving social justice for the disenfranchised is more important than protecting the feelings of the privileged, which is something I hear radicals say often. While I don’t disagree with this in an objective sense, subjective experiences are immediate and real to the individuals who have them. Especially for people who did not grow up with a liberal arts education that reinforces for them a sense of objective equity, what is left is their feelings, and it seems an oversight for the left not to factor that in. The behaviour of Trump’s voter base shows that there is a cost to steamrolling over someone’s feelings in an attempt to achieve justice. Moreover, the example I gave of international students bewildered by American race relations point to a danger of leftists becoming imperialist without knowing it. Saving face is an important concept to people from Asia, and I don’t think achieving social justice for the US should bear the cost of so casually steamrolling over other cultures’ sense of appropriate behaviour.

To wrap up points a) and b): by virtue of sheer logic, isolation works both ways – if the right is isolated from the ideas of the left, then the left is also isolated from the right. This isolation can only be breached from both sides trying to establish a dialogue. An acquaintance once joked about how radicals and missionaries respond differently to people who are unconvinced: leftists say “you’re a horrible person,” whereas missionaries say “it’s fine, I’m sure you will find your own path to God.” This is true – missionaries derive from their beliefs a capacity to be patient with nonbelievers, whereas those on the left often write off those on the right as lost causes. I’m not religious myself, however I think it’s a shame that religion has a bad rap for those on the left – at the same that that we are attentive to abuses perpetuated in the name of religion, we can learn a lot from them regarding how to practice and disseminate what we believe in.

c) a) and b) addressed how those on the left may simplify and condemn those on the right, and this last section will address how internally on the left, radicals often adopt a purist position that invalidates work being done by liberals and the centre. In this politics of purity, change is conceptualized as effective only if it it comes out of tearing down the status quo, and not working within the system. Part of this does come from the fact that inequality necessitates fundamental changes, as I have discussed in the first half of this post. However, a politics of purity fosters a mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and this can relegate radicals and their visions to the fringe because they cannot reach others who want change (As I come from an academic setting, most of the examples I give are observed from fellow academics who identify as radical).

First, among radicals, agency and complicity are often diametrically opposed. That is, someone who goes along with the status quo (complicit) has been brainwashed into doing so and are not exercising their agency, and only standing against the status quo is proof of agency. This is an overly simplistic view of choice and leaves out the possibility that someone could have used their agency and chosen to be complicit, or that someone who stands against the status quo had been coerced into doing so. This creates a scenario where radicals become pressured to disagree because this more easily demonstrates that they can exercise agency, rather than reflect on what they are disagreeing with.  An instance from a PhD class reflected this. We read an academic book called X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent, which argues that the “X” signatures made by Native leaders on unfavourable treaty documents in the past should not be seen simply as a sign that they gave up, but that they exercised agency in assenting to certain forms of colonialism. Almost everyone in the class criticized the book for being an apologist for colonialism and capitalism. In doing so, they implicitly communicated that the only those who have stood against capitalism and colonialism are worth studying. In addition, in a class setting they seemed to have been trying to show their critical thinking abilities and leftist tendencies by criticizing the book rather than reflect on its argument.

The emphasis on disagreement can lead to a progressive politics that is increasingly negatively articulated. Recently I saw an article in the New York Times asking the same question: “A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump. But What Will It Stand For?” One section goes as follows: “A call to resist is different from a call to ‘organize’ or — to borrow a word from the long-ago Age of Obama — to ‘dream.’ Those words conjure visions of better worlds. Resistance names what you don’t want and leaves the vision thing for another, less urgent situation.” The article also ends by saying that “But the mere act of refusal often turns out to have its own momentum. As people learn that they can indeed say ‘no,’ they may begin to find new ways toward saying ‘yes.'” While this is hopeful, I believe it further strengthens the negative articulation of politics, and it is also a little naïve to think that criticism of the status quo has a direct throughline to enacting change. It is definitely urgent for Middle Easterners excluded by Executive Order 13769, refugees and otherwise, but I do not think that Trump is such an urgent matter for most of the US such that we only have time to say “no.” In fact, I think those most urgently affected by the travel ban are preoccupied with surviving day to day or visiting immigration lawyers, not taking the time to demonstrate just so they can say “no.” In other words, being critical of the status quo is the beginning to change; criticism and disagreement is a necessary, but not in of itself sufficient, condition for social change.

Second, I’d like to address radicals aiming to fundamentally change society. While this is a noble goal, i) it discourages social engagement that is currently possible while not offering any paths to the ideal, and ii) lead to radicals accusing liberals of pandering to the system when they try to work within it, which can alienate potential allies. An example of this attitude is a blog post on Occupy Wall Street by Judith Butler, one of the most influential thinkers on the left, especially with regards to how gender is a socially constructed concept. In this post, Butler responds to criticisms against Occupy that they did not make a coherent list of demands. She argues that a list of demands does not explain how these demands are related to one another, and “We cannot fix the one form of inequality without understanding the broader trends of inequality we are seeking to overcome.” She also responds to criticisms against Occupy that demands should be realistic, saying that a demand that the government is willing to fulfill usually means that it would not be a demand that fundamentally challenges government. In addition, “to appeal to that authority to satisfy the demand would be one way of attributing legitimacy to that authority” – that is, at the same time as disagreeing with the government on policies, appealing to the government to change policies still implicitly agrees with the government that they should be in control.

While all of this is true, and while I appreciate that much critical theory and cultural studies do point out assumptions we hold, often I (and my undergrads) are left with a question, “So what should we do?” Last September, when TAing a general education course that included a book with a similar position to the blog post regarding Occupy, a student asked in frustration, “Does this mean we shouldn’t vote?” A rejoinder has been that it is not the job of the liberal arts and critical theory to prescribe, but challenge us to think differently. While this is also true, I believe that these disciplines that challenges us to think different operate at a level that is disconnected from Business, Management, Accounting, Policy, International Relations, Economics, Law, and a whole host of other disciplines (not even counting the Sciences and trade jobs) that focus on things to be done. Without some gesture to possible actions based on leftist critiques, the demands to act in mainstream disciplines and to earn a living in those jobs might overwhelm any critical thinking in the abstract. In addition, critical theory can choose to position itself against these disciplines to critique them, but in doing so, it may fail to speak at all to their adherents.

This leads me to an issue with the radical left condemning politically neutral humanities and social science disciplines. It’s understandable to be critical of professional disciplines like Business Administration, however it makes less sense to be categorically critical of a research field like Political Science. As I talked about at the end of Part I, social science disciplines are suspect because they rely on implicit assumptions which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists would reject. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

It also conflates what a discipline tends not to do with what it cannot do. It is true that Political Science might get funding from the establishment, or that International Relations are located in a country which seeks to use IR training for is own advantage in world politics. However, this does not mean that those disciplines are inherently uncritical; if we can historicize the reasons that they developed to be such, we can change the discipline. An example of a discipline which has changed is History, which had almost entirely been about monarchs, wars, and territory, but increasingly taking into account the histories of topics such as immigration, women’s movements, and cultural practices such as theatre-going. A discipline also has recourse to multiple methods which can offset one another’s weaknesses, for example using oral history along with census statistics.

What it comes down to for me is a different definition and approach to “urgency.” To me, urgency is not about demonstrating on the streets to express disagreement with the status quo. It is about being able to proactively engage the system as it is, because the consequences of not engaging can be immediate and severe. I’d hate to think, for example, that teaching radical theory to undergrads meant that we had dissuaded some of them from voting in the last election.

I also disagree with radical thinkers who suggest that having short-term goals with a focus on results undermines our ability to imagine long-term ideals (see, for example, the first comment to the post regarding Occupy). To me, this position does not give thinkers on the left enough credit to simultaneously hold short-term goals and long-term visions, or to implement short-term goals with an awareness that they might be provisional, and also to think of how to pre-empt ways provisional goals might be co-opted. Finally, incremental goals should also not be conflated with isolated goals, which the post on Occupy addresses. It is true that we cannot take one aspect of social life, ie policing, or education, or employment discrimination, and hope to solve all inequality, which impinges on many different spheres of life. A more realistic model that still can lead to the abstract ideal would be incremental changes in each sphere of life, with dialogue between the spheres to evaluate the synergy of changes over time.

Engaging the world with a sense of urgency is different from wanting an overnight revolution.   First, there is the matter of material infrastructure for a new way of life. Second, people and their mentality are like an infrastructure that needs to be built up so they can fit into a new way of life. I think this is what revolutionaries on the left forget. People on the left have spent a great deal of time thinking about and acting on their ideal world, that they have already mentally primed themselves to be part of it. They cannot imagine the mindset of someone who has not, for whom the new ideal world necessitates a longer transition period.

I think that many people can be negatively affected by change, even if it is a change for the better, because it requires effort to break old patterns and attachments and to learn new skills and ways of being. It is probably only the people already very committed to change who are willing to wade through the mundane realities of setting up a new infrastructure. People who don’t care strongly either way, which are most people, may oppose change just to keep the pattern they are used to. Instead of characterizing this tendency as reactionary, I think it is more generous for the left to recognize it as human – that most people want familiarity and want what they know and do to be valued. From a subjective perspective, I think it may be just as hard to ask people on the right to change their world view and way of life as asking an inner city worker to learn new professional skills when those jobs move offshore. It might take generational turnover for attitudes to shift. So, even as we engage with world with urgency for specific concrete problems, we should also be patient and acknowledge the deep time of social change. Reform is not opposed to revolution; I would say that revolution only occurs superficially without a longer history of reform.

Building the material infrastructure of a new society requires a new mental and affective infrastructure, which brings me to pedagogy.  I think academics and other thinkers should do theoretical research that has no immediate application, even if staving off social disintegration is urgent. However, pedagogy may not take the same approach as research. Academics on the left have espoused a concept called “radical pedagogy,” which is that education should help build students’ political awareness and advance social change, rather than just giving them technical knowledge. While I fully endorse this as a goal, radical pedagogy should not simply comprise of telling students about radical positions. In Part II I mentioned professors who took grades off if students did not use specific terminology, such as “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants. To me, this is a lazy way of exercising radical pedagogy, as it punishes people for the beliefs that they had been previously taught. To truly succeed, radical pedagogy (or any education for that matter) should begin from the positionality of the learner and build upon what they know, rather than invalidate it. Understandably this is difficult, since due to inequality and segregation, upcoming privileged generations have very little on which a leftist educator can build upon. However, I think that because we are in the role of educators (and older and more experienced people), the task of finding how to work with very little falls on us. Since Trump’s election, there has been a growing blacklist of university professors who are accused of disseminating leftist propaganda and brainwashing students. This is alarming, however at the same time I also think that professors should not be shielded from public critique just because they are part of an institution, and I also hope that the silver lining would be that it enables educators on the left to revise their pedagogy.

To wrap up this series of posts, I’d like to bring in Part II’s point about paying attention to resources rather than attitudes, into the points here about understanding, encouragement, and being realistic.

Stokely Carmichael, a prominent thinker of the Black Power Movement, was disillusioned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach that tried to instigate social change by gaining sympathy for Black suffering. Carmichael notably said, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Given Trump’s election, I would amend this to, “In order for nonviolence to work, our potential allies must have an incentive. We have not given them enough.” While I do think the Black Power Movement’s recourse to violent resistance is  justified in their historical context, I also don’t think that a minority in the US can cause enough disincentive to really outweigh the US’s promised incentives, or outweigh the desire on the part of the privileged for things to stay the same.

Part of this may be needing centrists who are committed centrists, rather than people who don’t care enough to be on the far left or the far right. I traveled to Australia for a conference recently and read on the in-flight magazine about Waleed Aly, who got an Australian of the Year Award for being nuanced and understanding when approaching Australia’s equally divisive political scene. I doubt someone like Aly would win an award in an American cultural context, due to a legitimization of what he calls “the cycle of outrage.” I think the issues covered earlier regarding a negative articulation of politics, and a general American culture of adversarial democracy and justice, has made extremism and and expression of outrage the most valid expression of dedication, when there is really no inherent correlation between the two. I mentioned earlier that the left choose to disregard the feelings of the right at our peril. If we do, we fuel backlash and and contribute to a cycle of outrage.

In the carrot and stick analogy, the criticism and negative articulation of politics that I see on the left is like the left attempting to beat the right with a small stick. What I am advocating for is a shift to thinking about social change motivated by carrots for as many segments of society as possible. This involves acknowledging the right as human, with both shortcomings that we need to work with rather than demonize, and with potentials that we can play into. It involves understanding their positionality so we can imagine a future that takes in account their benefit, and pitch it convincingly. Instead of seeing the right, centre, and even liberals as opponents, we need to see them as potential allies; even when they oppose us, we can see them as a source of critique through which we can refine our visions for a better society that is productive and inclusive.


3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part II

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

Progressive Concept #2: Power is the ultimate axis along which people differ, however, it is an abstraction that can only reproduce itself through discourse.

Discourse is how we constitute and communicate knowledge, and then act upon that knowledge. In other words, following from Part I’s concept that absolute objectivity does not exist, knowledge is never neutral, and it usually created by those in power to serve their own power. For example, during the election, detractors of Hillary Clinton have either described her as shrill, which confirmed that her gender identity made her a weak candidate, or they described her as hawkish, which meant that she was denying her gender identity, which made her a badly-adjusted candidate. Thus, this kind of criticisms she faced were based on a discourse about appropriate gender behaviour, and not necessarily her merit, and was leveled against her by people who saw her as a challenge to their preferred status quo.

Discourses generate prototypes and stereotypes that guide further action. Research and theories about discourses (most recently stemming from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault) have instigated something called “the cultural turn,” where scholars, and the broader public, have come to believe that culture is the realm where people have been indoctrinated with biases, and these biases in turn perpetuate inequality (or the opposite, that culture can give society news ways of thinking that can fix inequality). The most significant carrier of meaning in our culture is language, and so closely aligned with the cultural turn was “the linguistic turn,” which called attention to how language has the power to perpetuate or dissuade action. The idea behind the linguistic turn is that language does not transparently represent reality like we think it does, because language is more or less arbitrary symbols that we create to refer to what we decide is important out in the world. The story that Arctic peoples have a hundred words for “snow” may or may not be accurate, but they definitely have more words than English; it matters to their livelihood that they distinguish different kinds of snow through language and we don’t, even though in “reality” we get as much different kinds of snow as they do. Having more words for snow also means that Arctic peoples will more likely notice the differences between subtypes of snow, whereas we won’t. Thus, what snow “really” is depends on whose speaking and their language. This position can be summed up with the phrase “words have power.”

On the academic front, the discipline of Cultural Studies is where scholars can research and teach about how culture and language has developed to privilege certain kinds of common sense over others. Combined, the linguistic turn and the cultural turn help us by point out the constructedness of concepts, ideological motivations of people who have lead us to believe in those concepts, and how to imagine better alternatives. Criticism of Trump, for example, has called out his rhetoric as being misogynist and racist as part of this academic/cultural trend.

Response #2: Despite attention to power, in the US class is subordinated as a dimension with which to critique inequality. I believe that 3 broad tendencies have contributed to this:

a) the suppression of Marxian critique despite being in a society of advanced capitalism

b) the obviousness of race and gender as markers of difference in the US

c) theories of discourse and language have been reduced to political correctness

I would not say that Marx is entirely correct, however the essence of the definition of class is socioeconomic status, whereas neither race nor gender are defined essentially by socioeconomic status. In other words, in an alternate time / place, poor people will still be poor, but poverty may not be aligned with markers of biological difference. Obviously, whether one has power or not does not depend entirely on one’s socioeconomic status. For example, historically a woman who has high socioeconomic status based on her relationship to privileged male family members would still be unable to vote on legislations or shape public discourse if women were categorically denied the vote, especially on issues pertaining to gender. However, the current US is a country of advanced capitalism (especially in the post-New Deal era) defined by individual labour and commodification, and thus the extent of one’s abilities to sell one’s labour and buy life necessities in a large part determines how one lives life.

In the US, critiques based on this has come largely in the form of advocacy for more public spending on the part of the government, however prominent civic groups have not coalesced around class but ethnicity and gender, such as the NAACP and Planned Parenthood. Academic departments reflect this; we have departments such as Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies where class is taken into account, but not Class Studies or Marxian Studies. The organization that is meant to address class is labour unions. However the US has transitioned out of an economy based on large-scaled industry into an economy based on the service industry (which actually need people on the ground and thus cannot be outsourced) and professional labour.  Thus, this means that there are less and less work places where there are enough employees for collective bargaining. With small businesses, workers can legally unionize but are much less likely to due to the low number of employees. With subcontracting, workers don’t count as employees. Apparently some agricultural and service industry workers cannot unionize either (Though I am not a labour historian or economist by training, what info I got from here). The bias in public discourse around gender and race that leaves out class may discourage working-class and poor people to organize.

In very broad strokes, I think the lack of a developed class-based critique is due to a chain of eras: the US not being a feudal system with a large wealth gap among its “free citizens,” the Roaring 20s and “fighting the good fight” in WWII creating a good economy and national cohesion, and subsequently the Cold War and anti-Communism. In addition, the Civil Rights movement was focused on rights on the civic level for people who had been denied them based on factors other than class, which was primarily race. It was not a revolution that fundamentally dealt with inequality generated by capitalism, much less global capitalism (though from starting to read scholarship on the Black Panther Party, it seems like they tried).

An example of how Civil Rights-era critiques can miss the mark in current times was when Black students at Scripps College posted an ad asking for a roommate who is a person of colour. I take no issue with the students wanting safe spaces with race as a factor, or even that the students specified this directly on a public posting (more in Part III), but I take issue with the fact that they only specified race as the determining factor for feeling safe. American colleges attract an increasing number of students from Asia, who are broadly defined “people of colour” (and know themselves to be such), however with absolutely no correlation between their race and their political commitments. I live in a Black neighbourhood in LA where I am the only person of Asian descent, though I had temporary Chinese neighbours who moved away because they felt unsafe. One international student from China even called our neighbours “gorillas.” The Black-White paradigm has indeed been salient for the US, however continued migration from Asia in the past forty years has been a part of new global capitalism, leaving Civil Rights-era ideas of where social change comes from narrow and inadequate .*

In addition, I believe that the linguistic and cultural turn, combined with the weight we have collectively given to race and gender, has become a cut-and-dried tool to call out inequality that does not require us to actually look at material factors. Thus, it is easy for liberals to denounce Trump and Trump supporters on their rhetoric, while not explaining in detail why his economic plan is unsound, or explaining what economic factors might have driven his supporters to adopt racist and misogynist language.  Even advocacy for cultural issues that have a significant monetary dimension usually gets couched in a cultural justification first, and material effects second, if at all. An example is the LA Times article where the creator of #OscarsSoWhite was interviewed about diversity in Hollywood. Among her answers, there were multiple mentions of needing to highlight the achievement of people of colour, or that their stories need to be heard; twice she mentions profit motives in the industry as the reason for discrimination; however, nowhere does she talk about how more diverse filmmakers and actors would mean more people of colour getting professional jobs in a massive industry.

This is also a factor in the backlash against political correctness. While I don’t disagree with the spirit of political correctness, it is a mass application of the linguistic turn in a very reductive way. This is especially the case when people understand political correctness as being the change of a few isolated words, such as not calling Natives “Indians,” or asking people to stop saying “hey guys” when talking to women. Most people who follow political correctness do not have much of an awareness how the language they wish to use would address actual material inequality, or fail to explain it in a way that convinces people who do not agree. Some professors I have worked with ask that undergrads to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” and instead use “undocumented immigrant,” which is a way of getting students to stop treating law as though it was naturally-occuring. While this justification makes sense, a teaching strategy that does not make sense to me is taking off marks for writing “illegal immigrant,” which professors have done or have threatened to do. To me, this is in part an undeserved attention to one linguistic term at the expense of other means of demonstrating critical thinking, and in part the uncompromising attitude demonstrated by radicals, which I will discuss in Part III.

Finally, notice that most of not all of the politically incorrect words that we have sought to change are about race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability, and almost none are about class; in daily discourse, there is no such thing as an obvious, single-word expression or even a phrase that signals a class-based offense (though “redneck” comes close). This means that disenfranchisement based on class is harder to detect, and unfortunately liberals often avoid doing that work and stick to pointing out linguistic or cultural offenses instead.

In an academic setting, unfortunately the superficial application of the cultural turn is also exacerbated by these scholars negatively judging other social science disciplines. For people in Cultural Studies or Literature, Political Science and Economics have been seen as less suited to social change or even suspect – less successful because their priorities are not conceptual, and suspect because they rely on a structure that, like language, has implicit rules which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists (and libertarians) would reject; Economics positively appraises allocating work to decrease opportunity costs and increase specialization to boost overall productivity, rather than question who gains from productivity. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

* A further note about the relationship between race and class:

I don’t mean class in terms of any specific ideology or its application such as Marxism or Maoism, and I don’t mean race in terms of the 5 categories offered on the US census. By “race” I mean any constructed definition of a group of humans with unique characteristics linked to their biology. By “class” I mean someone’s economic position relative to their society’s economic range, that comprises their income, inherited wealth, properties and other assets, and how much these things are worth.

I don’t believe that someone’s class is more important than their race when it comes to personal experience, especially not in the US (a historically-grounded and clear essay from Cornel West is helpful to elucidate this). In West’s essay, he points out that one failing of Marxism is that it is too focused on modern industrialized capitalism and the class divisions it generates, and cannot explain pre-modern kinds of racism. This is true. However, class in a Marxian sense is different from economics in a general sense. While I do not believe that the resulting class divisions coming out of industrial capitalism is more important than race for a given individual, I also do not believe that large-scaled demonization of another group based on biology can occur without an economic (or some other resource-based) motivation. The enslavement of Africans did occur before modern capitalism, but they provided cheap labour so that plantation owners could turn a higher profit; thus, while it is not necessarily class in the Marxian sense, there is still a clearly definable economic motive (see Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism).

I do not dispute West’s and other cultural studies scholars’ point that relations of power are ideological as well as material (Stuart Hall gives a great integration of this). I also do think that because racially-based ideological justifications for economic domination have happened for so long that they have taken on a life of their own. Thus, even when there are no longer discernible competition over resources, racism still continues. While I don’t dispute radical ethnic studies scholars about how we got here, to me, solving the problems we have comes down to 2 things – 1) whether you think it is easier to change people’s minds or change socio-economic organization, and 2) whether we are focusing on undoing the wrongs of the past, or preventing new wrongs from taking shape in our present.

For me, I believe that it is difficult to change people’s tendencies to band into a group and to demonize other groups based on simplistic reasoning, though we can try to improve on this point. It is more effective if we change structural and economic factors so no group can hold enough power in a way that their demonization of others carry weight, and the potential for economic gain would not be so great that dehumanizing someone else might be worth it. As for the second point, ethnic and gender studies scholars and activists have a very difficult job in working against the discourses that have collected through time. What may have started as economic motives have turned into self-justifying discursive biases, such that in the US, race has determined whether one can participate in civil society or live in certain neighbourhoods. However, this does not mean that all forms of inequality are driven by the same discourses as before. Following from the above post, economic motives now have more subtle means of fulfilling themselves than a recourse to racism. With global capitalism, nationality and class become determining factors on a world scale, even if race is still a determining factor in the US. Even as we attend to how wrongs in the past have happened, it is important to recognize when and where they might have changed.

My discussion about how defining inequality by race is inadequate is also relevant for the debate about whether Black people can be racist or reverse-racist. An explanation of the assertion that Blacks cannot be racist would be helpful: this position says that because Blacks have been on the bottom of the racial hierarchy designed to disenfranchise them, what seems to be reverse-racism is just to mitigate previous racism. This position relies on a metaphor of a numeric scale, where equality means all groups sit at 0, and racism is any racial group trying to rise above 0 by pushing those below 0. This has happened, as Whites have risen in wealth and status over history due to the exploitation of Blacks. Contemporary Blacks, who I think are predominantly still metaphorically below zero, can use means such as affirmative action to get to 0, and insodoing can pull some Whites down to 0. However, until Blacks rise above 0 and push Whites below that, reverse-racism has not occured. This position also takes an overall structural view of racism not as individual acts of discrimination, but an overall social effect of one race rising above another race. Thus, it is not addressing whether individual Blacks can be discriminatory.

I largely agree with this view of racism and fully endorse affirmative action and other efforts at equalizing opportunity. However, while I don’t think Blacks can be racist, I also think that Blacks can be nativist, homophobic, and religiously bigoted. As someone who is not American myself but in American Studies and Ethnic Studies, what I found surprising was how American Black Americans are, especially those who have been in the US for generations and have not lived anywhere else (so not immigrants from the Caribbean, like in Canada). Two of my neighbours, for instance, are older Black Christians who are very nice to me but told me that they believe Mexicans are engaged in a silent but hostile takeover. I think race is a factor that needs to be addressed, however it should not eclipse the real ways that Black Americans can speak from the position of Americans, Christians, and cis-gender and straight people. However, I also think that this is a conversation to be had internal to Black communities rather than have outsiders who don’t understand their positions swooping in to accuse them of wrongdoing.

“I love diversity. Can I have your phone number?”: Interracial illegibility, legibility, and culturism

On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the men above on their respectability.

On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the men above on their respectability.

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.

Fanpower, Nationalism, and the Success and Controversy of Hetalia: Axis Powers;

Or, alternatively titled, “Unbearable Cuteness in Front of the Swastika”

(read right to left. from the wonderful people at http://aph.starry-sky.com/_credits.html)

About a month ago, I started watching Hetalia: Axis Powers on Funimation’s Youtube channel. I heard about this a couple of years ago, but the idea of a story featuring the personifications of different countries in WWII was so bizarre that I didn’t pick it up. I did this time because I feel like I finally have the conceptual tools to deal with something like this, and also because I wanted to procrastinate on writing my thesis. If you visit my entry on my rant blog, 27, 000, 000, you can see a long conversation I’ve had with various persons regarding how I have struggled with this series.


The series was initially a webcomic by Hidekazu Himaruya, a Japanese student studying design in New York. The only other webcomic series that has become as popular that I can think of is Megatokyo, and even so I don’t think they are on the same scale. Most cultural productions have an intended audience; this audience is limited by language if not geography, and culture, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity. Note that this does not mean that a story must include main characters with specific gender and age to appeal to that gender and age, as many adults enjoy Harry Potter and so forth. However, this often helps (though regarding gender, I once read a writer saying that while girls would read novels with male main characters, most boys don’t want to read novels with girl main characters). If we analyze Hetalia with the audience categories above, what would we get? (if you want to skip this seemingly inane list, go

Language: Originally for Japanese-literate audiences, because I assume that as a student in NY, if Himaruya wanted to create a comic in English, he should have had the English skills to make one. Also, the focus of the main storyline is on the Axis powers, which included Japan, and most people in the West would probably think twice about creating a story from the perspective of the Axis. But now English-speaking fans have translated almost everything. Even his blog is translated. There are Spanish Livejournal communities, so language is not necessarily a barrier in this as long as fans and companies are willing to translate it.

Geography: As it’s a webcomic, technically it has no geographical intentions other than those limited by language and culture.

Age: Likely late teen to young adult, 15-30 years old. The author himself is in this age bracket, and the format of his initial publication suggests that aside from creating a personal passtime, he had been creating this series for people who access webcomics. Who are in general not, say, 70 years old.

Gender: This is harder. On the wonderful website TVtropes, which accepts contributions from fans regarding the themes of any/all narrative production, the page on Hetalia notes that many people are surprised that the author is male, because of “all the Ho Yay.” As yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, Hetalia, which exhibits a lot of homoeroticism, seems to enjoy a largely female audience. I would think that males who are interested in WWII would go watch BBC documentaries and Band of Brothers instead. However, I cannot conclude that this is what Himaruya intended.

Sexuality: Again, since most yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, I would think that despite the homoeroticism, many of the fans are straight. Or, to put it in more academic terms, although the series features homoeroticism, it doesn’t try to offer any theory or criticism regarding homosexuals in real life; homosexuality isn’t its main topic. Most yaoi and yuri and so forth are along the same lines in that they don’t make sexuality their objective, and do not represent the LGBTQ community. This is not to say that homosexuals don’t enjoy yaoi and yuri and so forth. I remember my gay 40 year old highschool counsellor quite enjoying the series Fake.

Ethnicity/Culture: Putting these into the same category because even now I don’t quite know how to demarcate race/ethnicity/culture. Leaving aside language, I mean “culture” as whether the society accepts this kind of thing as a legitimate passtime. For example, 40 years ago North American culture would not have received this well at all, given the focus in Axis powers and the homoeroticism. The intended audience for Hetalia are probably those living in a liberal humanist culture, ie a culture that seeks to advance human interests (whether personal or those of human communities), not overly devoted to religion, believes in human individuality and freedom and artistic freedom. This is a very broad definition of “culture,” and maybe it’s better to use the word “zeitgeist.” I mean that most people in industrialized societies think this way.

So far, Hetalia doesn’t sound so special: there are many other titles which are targeted at young Japanese-speaking, straight, and liberal humanist females.

When culture overlaps with nation, what is outside the intended audience is the number of national cultures which are represented in Hetalia. This seems obvious, but this also means that it increases the number of national cultures which have a stake in what the series is saying. The popularity of Hetalia rests on the number of nations it represents (someone at the Hetalia LJ writes there are around 50 so far) but also what nation means. Recently, a lot of academic talk has been on things like the “death of nation,” as people increasingly move around more, things like the European Union are appearing, and the corporations become multinational to the point where it’s hard to locate anything particularly “American” about Coca-Cola. However, there are also academics that point that that this perspective is a very Western-centric one, as many nations have only recently won status as a nation through very hard work and a lot of bloodshed, and probably don’t like to see the whole idea of a nation dismissed.

It’s very convenient that I am writing this at the end of the Fifa World Cup (the result of which I am sure many Hetalia fans are happy about). Even if the Western world is feeling the benefits of globalization (being able to read Hetalia even though I don’t understand Japanese, for example), when it comes down to it people are still very nationalistic. Nation is still bound up with culture, and hence defines human beings even if they are able to move to other places in the world and access the culture of other places. Globalization hasn’t gone on long enough for nation not to matter.

What makes Hetalia popular is that as long as you are within one of the 50 personified countries and even marginally engaged in its culture, there is a feeling that somehow the series has you in mind. With this vast representation, the other parameters of age and gender and language do not decide the number of fans as much. Added to the lightness of the series (which I will return to in the “Controversy” section), the series offers engagement with an aspect of what defines you, and makes you laugh. Even if some of the audience isn’t there for the nations, the nations are good-looking young people.

The fact that these nations are human characters also makes this different from engagement with BBC documentaries. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, because statistics can’t deliver the emotional impact of what things mean, and ideas like “nationhood” are often too abstract. A writer once said that in war, the average soldiers almost never fights for their “nation,” but for people they know in that nation. Hetalia compounds national and human feeling together. Knowing that 27, 000, 000 Russians died in WWII doesn’t quite give the impact as seeing the personification of Russia lament over this (this bit about Russia isn’t in the series but a fanwork).

More importantly, it is the premise of Hetalia that makes it possible for infinite fan participation. I believe that what makes a work open to participation is its lack of closure. Most novels, for instance, try to tell a story like the story is the most important thing that happens to its characters, and the story has a clear conclusion where the characters emerge from still alive (or not), but will never face anything like this again. The story is emphatically “over.” However, with Hetalia, the story focuses on WWII with many many side stories exploring history before that and since then, even current events as they occur. The short comic strip form does not give the same message as a novel or graphic novel; there is no sense that each comic strip tells the most important story its characters will face. This encourages the audience to think up other scenarios than to think that the story is “over.” Even if your nation isn’t one of the 50 in the series, you could imagine what your country would be like, and produce fanwork based on this. It is also impossible for Himaruya himself to exhaust all of the history regarding the 50 nation-characters he has created. Recently, someone on the Hetalia LJ posted a video with some viewers found “confusing,” because he/she used many dates, juxtaposed with fanart, that the official series has not addressed. But that is creative fanwork. And events are ongoing, eg the World Cup, which has generated thousands of fanfictions and fanarts in English audiences alone, and the recent bizarre case in which Russian spies in America used Canadian identities.


This series is light. It’s moe, according to Anime News Network, which means the audience response is likely one of feeling some kind of love for most of the characters. Most of the countries’ leaders do not get too much spotlight, and the series does not equate the country with the dominant political party/person. For example, Funimation introduces Germany’s leader as “hard to manage.” This is obviously a reference to Hitler, who hasn’t made an appearance in the webcomic or manga, that I know of (correct me if I’m wrong). In other words, the character of Germany doesn’t espouse Nazi values, rather more stereotypical “German values” like productivity.

In addition, the series sometimes privileges likable characters over historical accuracy. The character of Poland talks in something like a valleygirl accent and repeatedly ignores Lithuania’s attempts to warn him of Russia’s intention to invade with Germany, rather concentrating on buying ponies and painting his house pink, which really has no historical equivalent. As with Poland’s accent, sometimes the characters’ characters don’t correspond to their reference countries. There are also many light-hearted stereotypes, such as China ending all of his sentences in “-aru,” which is apparently the stereotype Japan holds of how Chinese people talk in general. And of course, Italy, who is totally useless in a cute way, with no tendencies towards Mussolini’s brand of fascism or anything.

If nationalism can make people embrace the series for its positive portrayals of audience home countries, then nationalism added to the light-hearted stereotypes also makes people reject it. South Korea censored the anime completely due to what it considers an offensive portrayal of Korea in the webcomic and manga. For those who haven’t read these, Korea is a somewhat strident, though cheerful young man who seems a bit self-centred, and who likes to claim that he’s the eldest of the Asian nations and that he invented everything. Fans in the West have generally been thinking that Korea couldn’t take a joke, and that the series pokes fun at every country anyway. Personally, I had the thought that we haven’t heard of Poland denouncing the series yet, and the character of Poland could be seen as just as offensive.

But Japan didn’t try to invade Poland. Going back to the intended audience – Hetalia is a Japanese production, even if many fans all around the world have created fanworks accompanying it. In WWII, Japan (the real life country) went on its quest to unify Asia, or rather, its invasion and brutality towards the rest of Asia, and from what I know, a lot of citizens supported this effort (at least in the early stages). Say that Korea has a chip on its shoulder, but it wasn’t so long ago that its status as a nation was almost revoked. I also read on the excellent webcomic Secret Asian Man that Korea was spelled “Corea” until Japan changed it in WWII because they did not want Korea speaking before them at international assemblies, then rostered alphabetically, and this spelling stays. And with Japan’s refusal to apologize for war crimes and even censoring its role in WWII from textbooks, it’s easy to think that Hetalia comes out of the same destructive machine. So the censorship of Hetalia in Korea is understandable, even if it is unfortunate. Along the same lines, the character of China has a Hello Kitty knockoff doll called Shinatty-chan, though in Chinese fandom “Shinatty-chan” is called “Gitty,” as “Shina” is a really offensive term the Japanese called the Chinese in WWII. The equivalent in the US would be personifications of different races in America, with the African American character carrying around a toy called Nigger. Although Taiwan has licenced the anime, I’m just waiting for the Chinese government to pounce on Hetalia, though I hope it won’t come to that.


Accept for the moment that nations (both people and governments) are justified in feeling unhappy with stereotypes in Hetalia. What can they do about it? One solution is censorship, which South Korea is trying (and I’m very very glad that Himaruya didn’t take the series on a suicide run by creating a North Korea). However, there are different types of censorship. There is censorship of sexuality and violence, which most people feel somewhat justified about, and censorship ofconcepts, which people don’t feel justified about. The former kind of censorship judges that people will one day be able to access concepts behind sex and violence once their cognitive skills can handle it, whereas the second kind judges people as never being able to handle it.

Although I feel that Korea is justified in wanting to censor Hetalia, I believe that actually censoring it shows its lack of confidence in its national citizens. First, it is assuming that people will draw a strong link between Korea the character and Korea the real life nation – after all, if people don’t, then it is no danger. While this seems like an obvious intention of the work itself, it is not true. Most audience members would be trained in the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even if it is historical fiction. Fan works with mature content sometimes urge its audience to try and see the characters as people rather than as countries. Canadians may find the doujinshi about Canada being lovesick towards America entertaining without wishing Canada to cozy up to the US politically.

Second, censorship assumes that the audience receives the work and it ends there, that there is no way to voice contradictions without editing the original. As I mentioned in the “Success” portion, the fanworks now outnumber the official work by the thousandfold, filling in gaps that Himaruya would not approach due to the sheer size of his topic. Because the audience in different nations see themselves represented, often they take it as a welcome challenge to create their own stories about their country. South Korea censoring the series means that while the rest of the world sees the annoying Korea character, less Koreans would be able to do something about it. A better solution would probably be to let the series run and sponsor fans who want to create and publish their own Korean Hetalia doujinshi.

** August 2010 edit **
Having read more about the controversy the series created in South Korea, there is a bit more to add. Apparently the national assembly met together and rejected Hetalia based on, among other things, a piece of fanart showing Korea grope Japan (This is probably a worse provocation than featuring an annoying Korea character by himself. I guess the people in the national assembly thought that this piece of fanart originated in Japan, or if they didn’t know it was fanart, thought it was a part of the Japanese official work. Since there are still gloomy sentiments towards Japan, this fanart at once implies what Japan thinks about Korea AND refuses to acknowledge Korea’s anger towards Japan by making him GROPE Japan). In some ways this buttresses what I have been saying so far about the power of fanworks, especially with regards to Hetalia.

The community members who think that South Korea is misjudging the situation argue that their rejection of the official series was based on fanart, which are not the same thing. This is true, but increasingly it is difficult to say what is authoritative and bounded piece of work. This what happens in postmodernity – information flows are so convenient compared to past centuries that a lot of popular culture is people reworking what other people have created; think of all the celebrities and fictional characters satirized on The Simpsons, and The Office featuring a wedding based on a Youtube video of a wedding. I am not disagreeing with the community, but the controversy over Hetalia proves that the line between the official and the fanwork is increasingly blurred. Apparently CCTV (main new network in China) broadcast a piece of Hetalia fanart about China and Russia when talking about about citizen responses to the joint Russia-China space program, without knowing the context of the fanart at all. This really amused fans, but on the other hand, the person who drew the picture of Korea groping Japan probably regrets it now.
** end edit**

Last Caveat(s)

Also, there is something in the fan communities called a “kink meme.” Someone submits a request for a character pairing with some sort of condition, often sexual, and someone else fulfills this request with fanart or fanfiction. While most of this is light-hearted enjoyment, some of the requests can get pretty disturbing. I have extolled fanpower as a positive force, but here may be evidence against fans taking up a series too much. Some posters’ arguments in favour of kink memes are that it’s not real life; enjoying a story about rape does not mean that someone condones rape. Having said that people can tell the difference between the nation-characters and the nations themselves, I cannot be a hypocrite now and say that when it comes to kink memes, people cannot tell the difference, however uncomfortable those requests make me.

People who objected to this sort of kink meme seem to be worried about spreading “Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia” in general. At its foundations, this problem relates to the nature of enjoyment, and the fear that enjoying a story about rape will make that enjoyment bleed to cover everything in the story, going so far as to make rape itself enjoyable. Psychological studies have shown emotional carryover to be true, such as this article here. But I’m not sure emotions and preferences are the same thing, just like love and hatred are not really emotions. Finally coming to the picture at the start of this entry, I believe the majority of readers would appreciate Italy being cute without also thinking that the swastika is cute. In fact, what I love about this page in the comic is the utter disjunction between Italy being cute and the swastika. I get to write 3000+ words on it, after all.

Alternatively, the argument could be that preferences are built upon exposure if not on carryover, and this is the argument used by anti-videogame censors who believe that excessive exposure to acting violent will create massacres like the Columbine shooting. But this sort of worry leads to things like the No Fly List, which hits its targets but also a lot of false positives.

Speaking of liberal humanism, many fans espouse the philosophy of “if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t try to stop someone from writing it.” This position has faith in individual discretion, which is valid. However, going away from Hetalia for a moment, this philosophy sounds too much like it’s condoning shutting one’s eyes to things one doesn’t like instead of doing something about it. Going back to the series, I believe that if people find something objectionable, they SHOULD say something about it. But also keep in mind that the result might not go your way.

Another thing that some fans have argued is that filling a rape kink meme does not necessarily mean the fill is automatically pornography; it depends on how it is written. This is true, but then again, a kink meme has its purposes in being pornographical, and most people do not want to to read fills for lofty reflections. Rationally, I understand that I should have more faith in the fan community, and I have mostly argued in the fans’ favour. I am confident that people who read a rape scene between Germany and Poland and enjoy it as characters do not want a repeat of it as a historical incident. As a poster said on the fandomsecrets blog on June 4, 2009 at 10:08pm, “I don’t mean to sound nosy but I always find Hetalia fans incredibly sensitive towards other people and their country’s histories.” For very disturbing kink meme, there is probably also a fanfiction that handles the same nation-characters and historical incidents in a very sympathetic manner.

However, if someone has not met any Koreans and reads Hetalia and none of the fanworks, and takes it literally, it is possible that the person will form a stereotype of Koreans as being sort of annoying and self-centred. Taking Hetalia literally probably won’t happen very often, but it is possible. I believe in artistic responsibility; there should be some sort of reference to or documentation of non-fiction resources in both official works and fanwork. Translators of the webcomic and manga have very nicely provided links to articles that Himaruya have used and even say they have no idea what he meant because they couldn’t find any sources on what he was saying, but I wish fanworks would also give footnotes to the effect of “real life was actually something like this, and I changed it because….” As I said in the edit, fanworks can now have as much impact as official works. While no fan should condone self-censorship, this means that potentially nothing you do is only for yourself, and fans should take up equal responsibility to actual authors and artists.


Regarding the last caveats, I am still not certain that the position I am taking is the “right” one, or even if there is a right one. I dread the day in the far future, when countries closer to the equator are fighting countries north of them due to global warming, where a terrorist quotes Hetalia during his or her trial. Hetalia touches many people and elicits very strong reactions – this makes it a powerful work if nothing else and worth participating in on all levels, whether you watch the anime casually or suddenly get the urge to submit a paper on it to an academic conference.

I think I’m going to make myself some pasta now.

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.