Reposted from Medium (1/27/14), posted to this blog on 6/24/15.
A POC Profile
I’m a woman of color. (Brown, to be specific.) I’m technically a minority, though that’s a term that’s laughed off in the Bay Area, dominated as it is by Indian immigrants. I’ve been lucky to be born into a loving two-parent household with a stable income and a beautiful house in an increasingly expensive region. My childhood was pleasant, and within normal boundaries, I was given broad freedoms. I developed a cavalier sense of adventure that perhaps stemmed from annual trips to India and my dad’s frequent foreign jaunts, and I took advantage of my parents’ support through college to pool my savings into a free-wheeling trip around the world.
I am a woman of color, but I do not fit the socioeconomic profile of those generally discussed when debating the harms of white capitalist patriarchy on minorities.
So, apparently, my opinion is invalidated. Because so much of my upbringing falls into the vision of what a white family would experience, my peers view me as whitewashed. To be fair, what is considered “white culture” to a great deal influences my identity. I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, or crack beers at barbecues while meat marinates on the grill, but I do listen to the Lumineers and wear multicolored skinny jeans and support my local libraries and drive a Prius. These, I’ve heard, are stereotypically white things.
“White Culture” Is…?
It’s time, though, that the dialogue about what defines these “white” things changes. Instead of the (frankly insulting and condescending) assertion that those who subscribe to stereotypically white behavior are being “brainwashed” into white culture, can’t it be that white culture — as it’s being generated — is being diluted by the introduction of minorities who are more and more appropriating stylings that suit their changing personal tastes? The Lumineers, and other indie music, appeals to me because I can empathize with the lyrics and the beautiful simplicity of the songs (“It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all /’The opposite of love’s indifference.’” …Oh, partial credit to Elie Wiesel, another white “oppressor” [who, eh, just survived the Holocaust and won a Nobel Prize for being a badass human being, because, oh, not all white people are the same].)
But I blast Lauryn Hill when I’m feeling down, and Mos Def, Common, or the Roots when I’m feeling politically outraged, and whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want because I have an iPod and Spotify and the entire internet to download. My music might reflect my mood, but sometimes there’s no thought involved beyond what sounds good at that minute. While that might be racially influenced — if I were more Indian, would I prefer more “ethnic” sounds to the acoustic guitar? — I don’t subscribe to the notion that one must be acting their race at all times. I’m not a very good Indian, but there’s a reason for that — I live in America, not in India, so obviously “nurture” is going to have a huge influence in how I construct my identity.
Maybe I’m Lucky Because…
On the flip side, white people love India. Or at least, they love the idea of India, but have little tolerance for Indians being Indian outside of India. As an Indian (a POdarkC), this perplexes me. For starters, Americans are still calling indigenous peoples Indians, which is wrong on so many levels, and shows a basic misunderstanding of the importance of nominal identity. If you’re fine lumping two completely distinct groups of people together under one moniker, even knowing that you’re perpetuating a mistake, you obviously don’t care about the unique characteristics that define those groups. You might say you do, but you reveal your ignorance when you have to clarify, “Indians from India..?” or worse, “Dot Indians?” No. We’re the only Indians. Clarification is unnecessary.
And yes, I think most white people dressed up in Indian clothes, mispronouncing Indian yoga poses, and scalding their tongues with “medium spicy” Indian food look like earnestly pretentious fools. But I’m not going to drop the hammer on those who genuinely do appreciate certain elements of Indian culture, of which there’s so much (arguably the most in the world..) cultural wealth. The clothes are incredible, as are the food, music, movies, customs, jewelry, scenery, etc, etc. And yoga is damn good for you, whether you can pronounce the asanas or not. (Just, please, keep your naah-maah-stays to yourself.) Some white people even know more Indian mythology than I do, partially because I’m an embarrassment to my race, but also because not all interest in my culture is an attempt to recolonize it. (Been there, done that, amirite Brits?) I do have cultural pride, surprisingly, and that goes for both my Indian and American sides. But that pride doesn’t mean I have to spew vitriol — as a knee-jerk reaction — on anyone who attempts to understand or learn more about India or Indian people.
But at the same time, I do get upset when people “do” my culture half-assed. In Pondicherry, the French-dominated territory in southeastern India, I saw a girl wearing a ultra-mini-skirt made out of sari material. On one hand, I’m glad that she could appreciate the beautiful embroidery and detail typical of Indian saris. On the other hand, the older people in the temple were on the verge of a collective heart attack. If you choose to adopt one part of a culture, make sure to understand what role that piece plays in the overarching hierarchy. The more central and important, the more you should keep to the original usage.
Diversity vs. Ethnic Cohesion
I live in a relatively diverse region, but even this notion of diversity would be immediately attacked by hyper-politicized POC. My definition of a diverse community is that region reflects the national ethnic breakdown, both in terms of percentage and variation. A commenter in a Bold Italic article about gentrification in Oakland said it best: “..’Diversity’ doesn’t mean ‘lots of non-white people’. Diversity means having a good mix of all people, and white people are people. Oakland was less diverse when it was majority black, now that there is no majority here, the city is MORE diverse.” Defining diversity in terms of true diversity — cultural, racial, socioeconomic, etc — is different than defending ethnic communities, which are by nature not as diverse.
I’m more interested in living in a diverse community than an ethnic one, which is (one of many reasons) why I much prefer living in America — and particularly California, and specifically the Bay Area. People might say that this is a privileged white opinion, but… I’m not white. I belong to an ethnicity with a strong community, and I could cling to it if I felt my identity hinged on it. But it doesn’t. I’m well-traveled enough to know that the Bay really is something special, and this is an opinion shared across all races.
Amongst POC communities, it’s a huge insult to be called white, as though being white is to have lost all connection to your roots. Attempts to defend yourself will be met by fervent POC extremists, who accuse you of Stockholm syndrome and a lack of class consciousness. These radical race advocates will tell you how you should be and who you should like, in order to reconstitute your identity into one that fits their vision of their POC community, one of a righteous POC bent on destroying white patriarchy. Anything else is giving in.
That mission isn’t inherently bad, and I support alternatives to racist, male-centric power structures. I understand that the best defense is a good offense, and that reverse-racism isn’t a real thing because it’s impossible to oppress the oppressors when we still live in their highly segregated world. I do understand that. But what I don’t appreciate is the pomposity of ultra-feminist, POC class warriors who blame me (and other culturally-relaxed POC like me) for perpetuating a system which nurtured me, provided me with innumerable benefits, and shaped my identity today. What these people don’t seem to realize is that we, the atypical women of color, have unique opinions and interests that color our experiences in a way that splinters from the overarching message. However, just because it’s not as radical or as militant doesn’t mean it’s misinformed, or unimportant, or somehow buying into the system.
If everyone’s personal experiences influence their political decisions, shouldn’t it stand to reason that my upbringing — not as “white” but simply “privileged” — validates my more neutral tone regarding my membership to the POC community? Am I somehow “less” because I don’t think of myself as a victim? I understand the strenuous efforts of the militant POC, whose passion I feel when persuading ultra-conservatives to care about social policy, but disrespecting those in the community you serve to elevate isn’t the way to do it.
Instead of preallocating things as “white” or “not white” and prescribing those who appreciate “white” things as having bought into neoimperialist thought, can we take a step back and see that the cultural landscape has changed enough that not everything has a predesigned target audience?
As a woman, though, I’m a bit more sympathetic. I recently went to a conference in which the disturbing stares and inappropriate touching of one of the other attendees discouraged me from contributing as much or dedicating as much of my attention to the workshop as to minimize my presence in the room. It was exhausting trying to avoid him as he repeatedly cornered me and another woman I had befriended. I grew increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable as it was clear from his disturbing photo-taking and lascivious, creepy body scans of us that it wasn’t an oversensitive reaction to unwanted attention. In piercing clarity, I understood the weight of patriarchy and male dominance in the workplace. In theory, I knew that women were discriminated against for a series of overt and discrete reasons — but in practice, it was obvious that the problem was much more subversive.
But still, I wouldn’t consider myself too well versed on feminist literature, and though my experiences as a woman color my opinions on gender relations, I’m not very proactive in stopping discrimination. Though I’m sure I’ve missed hundreds of opportunities on account of being a woman, and I’ve put up with far more shit than I should have from immature, insecure boys, I have chosen to make the most of what I’ve been given and work the benefits. Though this is exploitative of the same system that routinely victimizes women, I try to balance it out by being the best at my job — gender-neutral. I’m open to suggestions on this topic, because it actively involves me, but I’m not willing to become part of a national movement that “represents” me unless I truly feel like the opinions espoused by the campaign are things I can get behind.
Girl on Girl Action
But the same problem of inter-community shaming happens amongst females as well. There’s a whole dialogue about slut-shaming, and why women should feel empowered to express their sexuality in whichever way they feel appropriate. Giving the women power, and not stripping away instances in which women are represented the same as men, is incredibly important. But by forcing the patriarchy to relinquish some of their power in order to prop up females, feminists are just drawing from the well and creating a zero-sum game in which opposition is always key and men are always the oppressors against which women are constantly struggling.
This is how allies of all sorts get confused. And frankly, it’s a very confusing topic. On one hand, the presence of allies invalidates the attempts of minority (or in this situation, feminist) groups to rise up using their own strength and prove in a head-to-head competition that they are equal. Allies will be credited with the success of any minority progress, which again links the minority to the majority in a subservient role. But on the other hand, without allies, minority groups are spinning their wheels, abandoned within the system they’ve historically been incapable to defeat. The conversation of alternatives to the status quo wouldn’t even come up, be it not for the gatekeepers who ease mainstream culture into the subject.
So in regards to male feminists, women are divided — and they turn on each other regarding everything from these allies to slut-shaming to lesbianism to the role of the mother. Some hardline feminists argue that women haven’t gone far enough, and these people hold moral superiority over all moderate feminists who think that Blurred Lines’ Emily Ratajkowski should be allowed to do whatever she wants with her body (because isn’t that the end goal of feminism?) instead of being insulted for being a mindless pawn in a sexist music video. When women can’t respect each others’ decisions regarding their own conscious sexualization, what is the cohesive message we’re supposed to send men?
Some More Thoughts on Allies
Allies are in a tricky spot. As a LGBT ally, I find myself oftentimes questioning whether I should get involved with Pride parades and protests, whether I should share my thoughts on legalization beyond the logical, rational ticker-tape argument that there’s no constitutional basis for a ban on gay marriage. Personally, I believe that marriage is a ridiculous religious institution that no one should have to feel pressured into pursuing, but this is the world we live in and there are only so many battles one can wage per day. But after reading so many vicious responses by bitter gays and lesbians angry that Macklemore and other famous straight allies have appropriated their struggle, I’m nervous about speaking out.
I understand the issue. Macklemore’s success is too little, too late, and it satiates demand for political progress without actually changing much about the current dialogue. Queer rappers and musicians should be elevated in Macklemore’s place, so that they’re the mouthpieces of the movement. In a general sense, allies aren’t speaking the truth of the oppressed people; they’re speaking their own truth in relation to the issue at hand and positioning “others” as a charity case. This can feel condescending and privileged to those who are truly suffering. I totally understand the sentiment.
That being said, the discrimination these people face is the exact reason whythey’re not their own poster children. Homophobes are not unaware that gays and lesbians are treated as unequal — they just have no reason to change their behavior because their power hasn’t been affected and their lives haven’t been disrupted. They live in total isolation of these oppressed groups. The mutually exclusive attitudes of both the oppressor and the oppressed leave no opportunity for the latter to coexist with respect in a society with the former (which seems to be the end goal of the LGBT campaign).
Allies pop the bubble. They don’t have to do it — they could very well enjoy their position of power and look away from gross injustices in our social fabric. Many do. But allies do the humane thing; they give groups the support they honestly need to enter mainstream discussion. They serve as a bridge between the fringe groups and the audience they hope to influence, and they hold the door open for representatives of that culture to emerge. Yes, Macklemore is a straight white male who has received much (perhaps too much) attention and praise for his outspoken approval of LGBT rights. But the discussion about who and what Macklemore is allows for conversations about minority, queer rappers to take the main stage. Embittered LGBT advocates argue that these rappers have been around for days and listeners shouldn’t even waste their time with Macklemore. But they’re not giving credit where credit’s due: prior to his immense popularity, these rappers were spinning their wheels and preaching to the choir, and that got them exactly nowhere outside of their preexisting communities.
What hyperpoliticized vigilantes fail to acknowledge in all of their rage is that social progress is a process. Fighting for your rights, in an arena in which certain social constructs are so deeply entrenched that micro-aggressions are part of our daily lexicon, is not easy. It’s not instantaneous. And it’s not coming overnight. I’m not saying that we should give up, or deprioritize political activism, but rather develop a more peaceful, constructive attitude towards a slow-moving (but moving) evolution towards social justice. Not all allies are oppressors, and no one — not the oppressed nor the allies—should be stereotyped according to their race, gender, or sexual orientation either.
Macklemore isn’t asking to be the face of the gay marriage movement, and he’s gone out of his way to discredit his contribution despite the fact that he has a better message (anti-consumer culture, pro-woman, pro-dance) and has earned his totally independent production success more so than most mainstream rappers out there. (Plus, to say that he doesn’t understand struggle is unfair; substance abuse is a struggle that cuts across all races and socioeconomic classes, and it’s not made more legitimate when someone from a rough background throws it into their ‘woe-is-me,’ racist, sexist garbage.) By the way, the criticism of mainstream rap is 100% true; the lavishing of conspicuous consumption and the denigration of women might have some “cultural roots,” and they might be themes explored in other styles of music, but it’s undeniable that rap plays them up big time.
It’s not easy to be discriminated against in every step you take, but it’s absolutely necessary for the acceleration of cultural acceptance to adopt a more compassionate, understanding, and demonstrative stance. One has to describe their situations without proactively pointing the finger; to be accessible so that people want to help/ support/ not stand in the way; to be respectable by showing respect to others. Radical feminists, race warriors, and militant LGBT advocates create a wall between themselves and everyone else when they begin to lock themselves into their hardened identities, all while pushing for a greater acceptance of all identities.
One of those identities is mine, a POC female. I understand that everyone has a different opinion on their own representation, so I’m careful to preface criticisms of race or gender with “I think…” or “in my experience,” because I know that my unique circumstances have shaped my views in a way that might be different to another POC female. But I honestly do feel boxed out, limited, or somehow condescended to more by other members of my so-called “communities” than by people outside of it. And while I can get upset when a man suggests that I might be more comfortable with menial tasks, or when a white person mocks me by saying that if I’m allowed to have two weddings (in the very likely case that I don’t marry an Indian) that they should be able to have seven (to represent every fraction of their ethnicity), I can’t say anything against fellow women or POC who scold me for my “surrender to the white patriarchy,” because it only bolsters their point.
It’s impossible to coalesce the various splinters of feminism, race consciousness, LGBT tolerance, etc. They splintered for a reason. But it ispossible to set a clear agenda, to define what each group wants and can see as a viable outcome, and to embrace others who are—with this clarification—supporting that cause. Macklemore isn’t spitting in the faces of black, queer rappers; he’s moving the conversation along (and in a wholly positive manner). I wish radical advocates would do the same.