Sunday, August 30, 2009

Colourblind's Problematics: A Response to Keisha

A while back on my post "Colourblind", I got a very interesting comment:

1) What do you think defines a chinese or any other race? If one was American-Chinese but disconnected from Chinese culture, does that make the person more chinese, less chinese or not chinese at all? How does such a person identify himself?

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Labeling, stereotyping and then racism.

We need to start appreciating the differences at the individual level not by accepting human constructs of what is "chinese".
Now, I appreciate where Keisha is coming from here. Like many others, I resisted the idea of labelling, because the whole thing about race is that it divvies up people.

In my archives, there is a series called "Quintessentially Chinese?" in which I ask her question: what defines a Chinese person?

As for the question of whether an Asian-American is more or less Asian than an Asian sourcelander (thanks, oyceter for the term!), that is really up to the individuals themselves, don't you think?

While I understand where this position comes from - labels are bad because it leads to Other-ing people - the response is complex:

Firstly, doing this falls into the very dangerous trap of dictating for others what they can or cannot call themselves. If I wanted to disavow the term Chinese, I could. But I don't really want to. There are a great many other people out there in the world who don't really want to disavow their race. "How does such a person identify themself?" The only true answer can lie within the individual. Each of us deal with the different facets of our heritages differently, and each facet of our heritage interacts with other segments of our lives differently too.

For example, in Malaysia, the arts are not necessary. I've heard "what is this story for?" many times, as if writing needs a point. It is as if, if I do not write for a specific (money-making) purpose, it is a frivolous activity - even detrimental. Think of all that energy I spent doing this that could have been channelled into something more constructive!

Not only that, but if a person can't define themselves by race, then what is the alternative? Forcing another identity on them which they may not agree with? We know how this works in place like America and such: "learn how to be [nationality] and fit into this culture, or get out".

Secondly, race is more than just how we define ourselves, as Tariq Kamal and I discussed. To borrow his fine words, it is also about the community which welcomes us, about where we can find some aspects of ourselves to be completely at home in. It's about finding our brothers and sisters in a sea of strangers. Some of us don't use race as identifiers of commonality; I use geekdom and ideology to find people I can truly grok. This doesn't take away or invalidate the fact that some people do.

Sure, identifying differences between individuals. Great. But part of these differences are racial factors. What if I want other people to acknowledge my Chinese-ness? These concepts definitely are human constructs, but that does not make them any less real. The fact that Chinese-ness is a construct does not make it any less real that I am a Chinese; it does not invalidate my choice (or anyone's choice) to call myself by the name of the racial group I identify with; it does not make the Chinese community or the Chinese diaspora at large any less real.

Thirdly, what is this crux of the problem? Defining ourselves is not a problem. Acknowledgement of our culture, how it factors into our selves, how it affects our lives, how it interacts with other things that shape us - these are not bad things per se. How can it be a bad thing? How does it hurt other people? If I ask the question of myself, "what do I mean when I say I am a Malaysian-Chinese?" who exactly am I hurting? No one.

The crux of the problem is not the labels themselves - it is how these labels are used, and when they are used for the purposes of Other-ing. The crux of the problem is when one group assumes superiority over another. It happens on an individual level, it can happen on a group level.

But this can happen with anything else besides race - and it has. Religion has caused wars, the oppression of women, the justification of colonization and imperialism. Yet Malaysiana race-deniers aren't calling for religion to be done away with. We are leery of the Sharia court but we don't call for its abolition - mostly because the majority of Malaysians are Muslim, but also because religion gives meaning to many people, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, what-have-you.

Nationhood has also caused wars. The right to sovereignity, the belief that one group is better than another or so different that seceding is the only way to go about being peaceful (Canada and Quebec, for example, or even the American Civil War) and of course, politicking between countries - Singapore vs. Malaysia. Malaysia vs. Indonesia. We do not abuse our Indonesian neighbours on the basis of race - they are essentially the same racial stock as Malays. We abuse them because they are from another, so-inferred inferior country.

So yes, race is a human construct. But then, religion is also a human construct. Nationhood is also a human construct. Gender is also a human construct.

I am not about to tell a religious person that religion leads to stereotyping and religious persecution. If stereotyping and religious persecution happens, the fault does not lie within the human construction of religion, it lies within how religion is used. Whether or not religion affects me, and it does on some level, I cannot deny that religion is important to many people, and it's arrogant of me to assume that we should do away with it because the belief in God causes some effects I personally do not like.

I am not about to tell someone that calling themselves by their nationality is a worthless idea - that being American is merely a construct, or being Malaysian is a label, and should be done away with because this whole tussling over nationality has caused a lot of people grief. A nation is a block of land with barriers set by men. (And yes, men.)

Sure, the gender binary? It stinks. The labels "man" and "woman" are horribly abused, because we place value on one and denigrate the other. (Still. If you think otherwise, you're not paying enough attention.) But guess what, some of us love calling ourselves women. Some of us women are trans. OK, so the gender binary sucks, but naming ourselves the gender we want to identify with is good and comforting for us. It works for us. I personally have no beef with people trying to do away with the gender binary, and in fact, I think it's freaking awesome to ensure children grow up de-learning gender norms. But being a woman is a facet of my identity that gives me comfort.

Individuals do not stand alone. Even the marginalized seek each other out, forming groups.

Being individuals is very important in our quest for diversity. But moving from a deeply communal society to a deeply individualistic one, I find more and more, we need to find a balance between the two. An individual cannot live without a community (survive, sure, but surviving and thriving are two different things, and I'm not willing to settle for basic needs), and a community is nothing without the individuals that make it up.

So what if it takes whole dictionaries, whole encyclopedias to explain ourselves? That's what makes us human - that is truly what is most common about our common humanity: our differences, in every form, shape, and level.

Our differentiators are testament to this. It's not perfect. But the solution shouldn't be to efface them. Diversity is awesome and a true reflection of what humanity is capable of. We need to work through our differences. group level or individual level. I'd say that's what civilization is all about but that's historically false.

So I'll say, yes, we need to start appreciating differences insofar as it does not lead us to patronize, condescend, scorn, or Other. Yes, we need to start appreciating differences, all types of differences, instead of fearing them.

But we'll have to disagree on that human constructs need to be done away with. Because I could argue that all facets of being human are human constructs. And what then?

We cannot resolve our difference by denying these group differences. We cannot make peace between races without discussing how our cultures clash and figuring out, together, how to reconcile them. We need to confront our prejudices and ask, "why do I think this way? How can we un-learn these thought patterns which create schisms between our groups?"

I know that the way people go about it, we're so aware of our differences, it drives us batty that everyone's so goddamn different, omg why can't those people be more like us and play by our rules of what people should really be like. The alternative shouldn't be to go the other way and say "but we're all the same! We have so much in common, omg why can't you see we're just like each other!" when we're, well, clearly not.

Labelling doesn't have to end up with stereotyping and racism. Why can't I label myself, and celebrate the differences between myself and others, while still acknowledging individual differences?

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