Individual Choice

People should be responsible for their own actions—no one should be able to use the excuse, “Well, I was brought up in this environment,” or “It’s just not easy enough for me to do that.” The flip side of being responsible for individual actions (or inaction) is recognizing how much individual “choices” are not so individual. They’re still choices based on who you, as an individual, are, but you may not be in a vacuum.

Whenever I think of people using the excuse “It’s my choice,” White male/Asian female couples and women wanting to be skinny also come to mind. Most White male/Asian female couples, when approached, will not use an explanation for their coupledom, “Oh, we just buy into stereotypes of the submissive Asian female and the masculine White male.” They’re more likely to say, “We’re really in love.” Maybe they are really in love. They cannot discount, though, that they are part of a huge sociological trend. Statistically, WM/AF couples outnumber WF/AM couples about 2.5 to 1. The real question is not whether the WM/AF couples are genuinely in love or not. Only the couple themselves would know the authenticity and mutuality of their attraction to one another. Why aren’t there more WF/AM couples, though? What makes an Asian female attractive to a White male? What makes a White male attractive to an Asian female? There have to be cultural forces at play.

A similar phenomenon occurs when I hear my female friends complain about their weight. A typical exchange might go as follows.

Female Friend: I think I’m going to go on a diet.
Me: Why?
FF: I don’t know. I just want to lose weight.
M: You don’t need to lose weight. You’re fine the way you are.
FF: Well, I don’t need to lose weight, but it’d be nice. I just want to be a little skinnier.
M: Is it because other people have told you you need to lose weight?
FF: No. It’s something I just want to do for myself, just to be more confident.

I’ve had many of these conversations with friends. I don’t doubt that people have not told the woman she has to lose weight (not to her face, anyway). I don’t doubt that she feels the diet is for herself. It may even, temporarily, make her feel more confident. There is a subtle delusion in this belief, though. Why lose weight, though, to feel better about yourself? Why not jump out a window? Why not write a book? Why not eat some dessert? Why not listen to music? Why not sleep? Even though, according to this woman, no one said to her face that she needs to lose weight, she has that cultural value ingrained in her that skinniness breeds confidence. If you are skinnier, you will feel better about yourself. The message to paint, think, or help someone in order to feel better is not as strong as the message to lose weight in order to feel better. “It’s something I just want to do for myself” assumes a cultural vacuum. No one has influenced me. I decided to do this with no input from others.

Likewise, the WM/AF couple feels a genuine attraction toward one another, but they tend to believe it is not because of Asian fetish or notions of Whites being more masculine or romantic. The couple is above being influenced by such notions, cultural ideas, and stereotypes. They love each other as individuals. It just so happens that many of these individuals are White men coupled with Asian women.

My own crime of rationalizing individual choices in a supposed cultural vacuum comes in the form of my adoption of Christianity. I can rationalize that Christianity is unique and makes the most sense to me as a religion. I can say I’ve seen the power of prayer. I can say Jesus has touched my life. All of these things are true. I cannot discount, however, that children most likely adopt the religion of their parents. My parents were Christian, so am I. I can’t discount that there is a higher percentage of devout Asian-American Christians than there are devout White Christians (I don’t know if the same is true for African-American or Latino Christians). I can’t discount that, in an experiential way, I’ve been immersed in only Christianity and no other religion (though, I’ve studied other religions in the abstract). There are cultural factors that influence my decisions… all of my decisions: whether to like a certain food or not, what movies appeal to my intellect and feelings, where I like to live, the qualities I’m attracted to in my wife.

Many times when we study individuals and their motivations for beliefs, practices, or sayings, we look to their biographies: where they grew up, what their education was like, what kind of family they were raised in. I didn’t understand Malcolm X until I read his biography. All of his choices are still his own as an individual, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how different he would be had he been a Christian, first-generation Chinese-American raised in New England by two college professors during the 1980s and 1990s.

The fact of the matter is, even with our own individual decisions and choices, who we are as individuals is partly (if not mostly) made up of cultural forces and norms. Right now an American woman may feel better about herself, more confident, if she loses weight. Maybe in a century or two, she may feel better about herself by gaining weight.

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