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.

Further reading

Bad Journalism

As I write this article, there are two “news” pieces irking me, but there will always be similar ones for years to come. First of all, there are numerous reports about the seemingly unprecedented success of Shrek 2. Secondly, among liberals and radical leftists, there is a small panic about the supposed denial of voting rights to college students.

Certainly, bad journalism has been around since journalism’s very inception, but what bothers me most about these two bits of “news” is they’re things I care about. I love Shrek 2, and, being a liberal/radical leftist myself, I am always concerned about the denial of rights.

I searched Google several times, looking for statistics about the number of box office ticket sales, but I found none. I’m not saying the statistics don’t exist on the internet—they’re just hard to find. I easily found a slew of sites with meaningless box office numbers (gross profits in dollars). One site compares box office takes for “all time.” So, S2 is supposedly breaking a bunch of records, second to only Spider-Man for opening weekend takes. Who cares, though? If you look at these “all time” lists, you’ll quickly notice almost every movie on the list came out in the last ten years. There is no adjustment for inflation. How can you compare a movie’s gross earnings in 2004, with cineplexes abounding and average ticket prices around $10, with gross earnings in 1950 (I don’t know how many cineplexes were around or what the ticket prices were then)? It’s all about hype. It’s all about saying, “This new movie is making records.” The implied message is, “Go see it. See what the fuss is about.”

It should be obvious that the only meaningful comparison is in the number of ticket sales. If one ticket costs $6 (I seem to remember this being a reasonable price in the 1980s) and another future ticket costs $20 (this will happen sooner than we think), the movie with the future ticket cost needs to have only 1/3 of the turnout that the 1980s movie has in order to have a higher gross in dollars. Records in dollar amounts will continue to be broken as inflation goes up. That goes without saying, even if fewer and fewer people are going to the movies these days. Don’t see Shrek 2 because it’s making money. See it because it’s funny and entertaining.

Even sadder than “hype” journalism is “panic” journalism. I love Alternet. It is my number one alternative news source. Sometimes the articles have no real point to them, though. For example, this article had the introductory blurb: “All across the country, college students are being denied the right to vote in their adopted hometowns—effectively banning them from local politics.” Honestly, who cares? I was not a resident of my college’s town the four years I was there, and I didn’t feel disenfranchised. In fact, I knew few students who wanted to vote in local politics. Most of the article deals with trite issues (e.g., people not being able to vote on the placement of crosswalks), but the crux of the message lies in this sentence: “It isn’t just local elections that are a concern. The 2004 presidential elections loom large in people’s minds.” I’m sorry, but I have two words for you: “absentee ballot.” The supposed counter-argument is that absentee ballots “require[] a lot of forethought, which many Americans, not just students, don’t contemplate.” So does general voting. Voting isn’t logistically easy in this country, whether it’s with an absentee ballot or in a voting booth. People who care about the 2004 presidential election will vote. The fact that they can’t vote in a town where they’ll spend four years of their life isn’t tragic. Get the absentee ballot. Vote by mail. Your vote will count just as little as it usually does.

Now, that said, I do think students should be able to vote in the town they live in. It’s just a technicality, though. It will not affect the presidential election, and it’s not “news.” This “denial” of voting rights has been going on forever. Town-gown relations have always run the risk of being strained. It’s not some mass conspiracy to prevent people from voting Bush out of office or to prevent young people from voting in general.

Bottom line: keep things in perspective.

As a postscript, I was disappointed by the fact that an assertion in Super-Size Me remained unchallenged (and presumably endorsed) by Morgan Spurlock during an interview with some forgettable expert, who claims that the “hectoring” (what common folk call “heckling”) of smokers and the non-hectoring of fat people is a double standard. His simplistic thinking goes as follows: You smoke. Smoking is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to smoke. You eat too much. Eating too much is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to eat. At first glance, the two situations might seem parallel, but as Morgan Spurlock says at another time in the film, heroin is not ham (I’m paraphrasing). Likewise, cigarettes are not food.

There are two major problems with this comparison between smoking and eating too much. First of all, smoking is smoking. Eating too much is eating too much; it’s not just eating. The difference between eating and eating too much is quantitative (a little versus a lot). The difference, however, between smoking and not smoking is qualitative (not at all versus at all). If I tell someone, “Don’t smoke,” I don’t need to know how much she’s smoked before or what her body type is. Smoking is unhealthy for everyone in every degree. If I tell someone, “Don’t eat,” I need to know that the person is eating too much. You can’t look at a fat person and decide she’s been eating too much. There’s a big debate about how much of being fat is a lack of discipline and how much of it is “genetic” or one’s body type. Wherever your values fall in that debate, you have to acknowledge that if you meet a stranger who appears to you to be “overweight” (whatever that means), you don’t have that right to tell that person, “Don’t eat that,” even if that is an ice cream cone or a piece of cheesecake. Everyone has unhealthy food indulgences every now and then. Not everyone takes a puff of tobacco every now and then. Food is necessary to the body. We need to regulate how much we put in. It is dangerous only in the quality and quantity we take in. Tobacco is not necessary to the body. No amount of tobacco helps the body.

Saying smoking and eating too much are alike is like saying driving fast and shooting small children are alike. Yes, it can be dangerous to drive fast, depending on the situation. It’s almost always safer to drive more slowly. It’s never a good idea to shoot a small child, no matter how annoying she may be.

Both eating too much and driving too fast require context for justified condemnation. Smoking and shooting small children do not. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice drove 90 MPH,” I don’t know right away that she’s endangering lives. Maybe she was on the autobahn in Germany. Maybe she’s a race car driver. Maybe she was driving through the desert on a straight highway with no other cars around. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice shot her first-born child,” I’m not going to be in a rush to meet her. Yes, maybe it could in some way be justified, but it takes a huge stretch of the imagination (“My first-born child was coming at me with a huge cleaver. She had it at my throat, and the only defense I had was the gun lying next to me”), as does smoking (“Oh, I was smoking because I’m an actor, and my character smokes”).

The original scenario from Super-Size Me was in the context of a comfortable social situation, like a dinner with friends. If I’m eating dinner with my friends, I may actually say, “I don’t know if you should be eating that much,” but there is no fixed amount of what’s okay to eat and what’s not okay to eat. The fixed amount of smoking around me, though, is zero. If my friend eats too much, gains too much weight, vomits, or has a stomach ache, that’s her problem. If my friend smokes around me, that’s my problem. It’s called second-hand smoke, people, not second-hand binge.

Gmail and Privacy

Some people might say I’m naive, but I trust Google. Could it soon turn into an “ugly” corporation? Yes. There are some indications it’s moving in that direction—for example, its introduction of banner ads, when they used to have just text-only ads. I won’t trust them forever, but I trust them now. There is a lot of skepticism in the media these days about Google’s new “free” email program Gmail, so much so that Google has to even offer a disclaimer page in light of the controversy.

Well, what are people so upset about? Apparently, Google’s robots (i.e., not real human people) will scan incoming emails in order to target ads relevantly to the email content—the idea being that it makes sense, for instance, if you’re discussing music with your friend that ads for music services would appear next to the email message, as opposed to ads for a digital camera or a vacation to Paris. The skepticism itself reveals a large degree of naivete, though. If a company (especially a major one) says its robots will scan your emails and not its employees, you have to trust them; otherwise, don’t use their service. If you don’t trust the folks at Google, why would you trust the folks at Hotmail or Yahoo? They also say they won’t have humans read your emails… but you don’t know. You never know. As long as your email messages reside on their servers (yes, the messages physically reside in other people’s computers), someone else will have access to those messages and you have to trust that they won’t read them.

The only way to be truly safe is to buy an extra computer, make that computer a server, and create your own email program that will store your messages on your own server; then, you have to make sure you encrypt all your messages with the latest security technology. Very few people do this. Most of your email is open and out there. If you use Hotmail or Yahoo! and you trust them not to read your emails because they say they won’t read your emails, you have to trust Google not to read your emails as well.

Google’s disclaimer page makes a good point, too, that every email provider scans emails. That’s how they institute spam-blocking, by scanning for content. The real issue is whether or not Google reveals any information about you to the sponsoring advertisers whose links you click on. Google says it doesn’t. And you just have to trust what they say because that’s what you’re probably doing right now with someone else.

Distracting Dress Codes

One of my friends from youth group is now a youth pastor and has posted a dress code on his church’s website. I find one sentence particularly amusing: “Undergarments should be worn and they should not be visible.” If they’re not supposed to be visible, what does it matter if they’re not worn? The rationale behind most of the guidelines is expressed in a statement implying that certain ways of dressing (“rags or ripped clothing”?) tempt others into sin: “Each of us have our own responsibility to take measures to protect and hold ourselves accountable from temptation and resulting sin.” The explanation for the rules doesn’t explicitly say what the “resulting sin” is, but the rules themselves seem to indicate lust.

There are several things problematic about this line of reasoning. First of all, it places too much of the responsibility for lust on the lustee rather than the luster. This runs dangerously close to the “She was asking for it” mentality of the rapist. By extension, it gives lusters an excuse for their lusting: it’s the provocative dress that makes me sin. Such reasoning is false, of course. Both men and women lust with little or no visual provocation. In fact, if one is lustful, one tends to seek out stimulation. If people don’t provide it in the way they dress, one may look to pornography, television, erotic literature, or even brain-generated fantasies. Certainly people can dress inappropriately, but it seems to make more sense to make rules about lusting than to make rules about what might possibly provoke lust, especially when many items on the list do not seem to be undeniably provocative (lack of “clean[liness] and neat[ness]” or “fish nets”).

My current school has a similar (but less stringent) dress code, and there’s much debate among the faculty as to how much energy we should put into enforcing it. The dress code is, on one level, a nod to the professionalism that not only teachers but students, too, should observe—the motto we use is “it’s school, not the beach.” There is a hint, too, of the “don’t provoke lust” ideology inherent as well, though, since we do allow students to dress shabbily or in an ugly way, but we don’t allow bare midriffs or short skirts. It’s not the sinfulness of lust that schools fear so much as the supposed “distraction” cleavage, bare midriffs, and short skirts provoke in a co-ed environment (with the assumption that all boys are heterosexual, of course). Honestly, though, I have never had a male student so distracted by his fellow classmate’s dress that he is not able to function in class. It would seem to me to be more distracting (or to take away from learning time) to stop class, single out the offending student and have her go get a change of clothes.

In some ways, it’s kind of like Christians protesting The Last Temptation of Christ or Jews protesting The Passion of Christ. The publicist’s proverb “All publicity is good publicity” has some truth to it. Sometimes if you don’t raise a big fuss over something, it loses its power. Sometimes the best way to defuse an offense is to ignore it; not always but sometimes. Why do girls dress scantily? For attention. What do you do by policing them about it? You give them attention. In some ways, it’s a lose-lose situation, but policing isn’t the solution. Both girls and boys need to understand what motivates people to dress provocatively. The natural defense is “It makes me feel better/more confident about myself.” The more important follow-up question is “Why does it make you feel better about yourself?”

Some Guidelines for Effective Change

Models focus on ideas, narrative testimonies, proposals, characterizations and recognize that having established or identified said model, scope then becomes the issue. Scope focuses on the prevalence of an idea, population or behavior. Recognizing the complexity and inter-relatedness of issues. As a basic collegiate scholar’s example: the difficulty in separating racism and sexism.

  • Setting as a goal total societal change, not just the trickle-down economics of intellectual thought (i.e. the attitude: just because we in academia have discovered it, we can move on to the next thing, instead of making sure our ideas get implemented, understood and taught to “the masses”).
  • Not being tied down by language/ expression. Consider part of the dialogue disenfranchised media, such as comic books, and colloquial expressions of intellectual thought outside of professional academia.
  • Either a non self-centered view of sociology or an acknowledgement of self-centeredness.
  • Leave assessment to the people on the front lines. (e.g. Don’t have politicians decide what schools need without asking teachers!)

Some Casual Critical Theory on Conventional Wisdom

Some Casual Critical Theory on Conventional Wisdom

Few of the simple ideals I held as a child persisted through my college years. Some left for more complex, more practical models. Some left altogether. This is the nature of life. We don’t talk about the simple values of belief and experience enough in academic forums. First of all, as I am writing this, I am afraid—very afraid, so much so that I cannot even express the degree to which I am in this sentence—that some scholar may stumble upon this paragraph months or years later and dismiss me completely because I did not state a thesis; I did not write in an academic tone; and I did not support my argument with relevant examples, accurate statistics, and impeccable logic.

As an English major, and as a teacher, I am acutely aware of the fact that presentation is a large part of the efficacy of expository writing. I repeatedly tell my students that they cannot settle for simply getting across what they have to say. They have to do so in an academic manner. They have to sound just a little more pretentious. They will impress their audience more if they attribute quotations by the book, include a cover page, spell-check, and write in complete sentences. Fairly basic advice, I think. Many other academicians would agree.

But sometimes we know the most effective media for the communication of cutting edge ideas are not the properly formatted, extensively researched articles in professors’ journals. One of the books that hit me the hardest in my development—as a human being, as a student, as a teacher, as an American—was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He did not attribute his quotations with footnotes. He did not have a clear thesis. Sometimes his logic was flawed. Yet he spoke to the issues that pressed upon his heart and pressed upon America, revealing his intelligence, while not allowing himself to be hindered by academic red tape.

The Bible has had an immense impact, not only on my life, but on the lives of hundreds of millions around the world. It speaks many truths, even to non-believers, and does so without “proving” anything. Hollywood movies. TV talk show hosts. Comedians. Comic strips. Comic books. There are many examples of media through which one or a set of people can get across a message with immense cultural value without indulging in intellectual filibuster. Something every intellectual knows in her heart is that even though officially there are things that social scientists, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc. can talk about in conferences, journals, books, lectures and other official forums; no one bases her life beliefs solely on academic proof. Once we find out how many doctorate-holders in the world practice astrology to some extent, then we will plow past the hypocrisy of how the burden of proof the religion professors in liberal arts universities across America put on whether God exists or not compares to the burden of proof professors put on whether their own academic training has any validity.

Notes from the Underground is the ramblings of the madman genius Dostoevsky. Somehow that’s literature. How do we get to the base of what we believe and why? How can we truly be introspective, as individuals, as a community, even as academics?

We need to see the value of large words, proper formatting and all the trappings of academia for what it is: a polishing, a finishing, a coup de grace. But first we need to answer for ourselves: What is worth talking about? What is worth re-examining? Whose opinions are worth understanding? What resources do we have? How dependable are they? Those are just some basic questions to start off with. And even before we ask those questions, we must first ask ourselves what we believe. I have read academic journals, popular and not-so-popular magazines, popular and not-so-popular books, watched numerous hours of TV and movies, talked with intellectuals and down-to-earth people alike; very seldom, in these forums, have I seen a discussion of conventional wisdom for content, but even less so for concept.

Conventional wisdom is quite an interesting concept, actually. I love thinking about it. I love trying to examine it. It is what helps us live/ survive from day to day without constantly proving ourselves. It is how people get sociological statistics or ideas in their minds without actually polling neighborhoods and countries. Two prime examples of how conventional wisdom comes into play in our daily lives:

1. In a conversation, two interlocutors (of varying academic background) can argue about a sociological phenomenon, cite statistics, studies, urban legends, and one person could convince the other of an idea without supporting her argument with a shred of academic evidence.
2. We are not surprised when a certain circumstance leaves us with a demographic cross-section disagreeing with us on a certain issue.

In more concrete terms, the first is the case of two friends talking. Here is a clip from their conversation:

Marie: I don’t think that’s true.
Bob: No, it is. I read it somewhere.
Marie: Really?
Bob: Yeah. They said it was cancerous.
Marie: Oh, wow.

It is not an accident that I choose the hypothetical convincee to be the female in the scenario above. Oftentimes we each choose in conversation to believe (note: this belief at any time is tentative and we often override it at a later time) a person simply because he states his opinion or idea emphatically. Males tend to be overly assertive (right or wrong) in this manner—not always, though. What it comes down to are these two questions: “Might this person actually have read this somewhere/ might this person have a real reason for believing this?” and “Am I intimidated by this person’s knowledge or confidence?” I will not be so haughty as to deny I have been a victim to such a circumstance, because it is the natural course of human conversation. That is an essential part of our development as human beings. We cannot and should not base our ideas on only that which is presented to us in an academic forum with substantial academic proof. We weigh what needs that kind of proof by our personal experience and feeling of what could or could not be right, which leads me to the second scenario.

Every human being who considers herself a “reasonable person” has at least two different types of beliefs: those of which she is conscious and those of which she is not. Sometimes the ones that she is not constantly conscious of are close enough to her consciousness to be easily retrievable. The reason that, without having done extensive sociological research, most people can go about their daily lives and usually not be surprised by the people they encounter on a day-to-day basis is that, whether we think about it or not, we develop our own (though often not fully articulated) sociological theories—based on our experiences—that may not be established enough to base academic sociology on but have at least limited application to a larger sociological theory. For instance, when I have taught children—both outside and inside the public school systems, I have found they usually hold to or at least make the appearance of holding to several, simplistic ideals of American culture:

We should treat others as we want to be treated.
We should care about social issues.
One person can make a difference.
You should not judge people by the color of their skin.
Education is important.

The degree to which said children (or even adults, though sometimes in modification or in still-conscious abandonment) adhere to the above principles is irrelevant to non-academic, personal sociological analysis. The key to understanding conventional wisdom as a concept is recognizing that some ideas, whether a certain individual agrees with them or not, are on the table. Conventional wisdom, pared down, is a factoid or value piece from the larg
er cultural puzzle. That is, if culture is the set of values, traditions, customs, languages, beliefs, etc. that those who surround us perpetuate as a group, regardless of our particular preference; then conventional wisdom is a more localized set of beliefs or values in one arena of culture.

There are three ways of categorizing knowledge, then:

1. Apparently Active Knowledge: the knowledge that is in question, in acceptance, in dispute, in the forefront of modern dialogue-each person knows that knowledge is out there, but may not herself “know” it to be true, nor know that anyone else truly “knows” it to be true.
2. Official Knowledge: the knowledge that learned in school, academic-sounding, backed up with statistics (accurate or inaccurate), likely to be found in books or journals.
3. Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge: the knowledge that has a carrier who may not even be consciously aware she is carrying such knowledge—it is based on the accumulated small pieces of input she receives from her daily interactions with other people.

Conventional wisdom is a cross-product of the three ways of categorizing knowledge. Thence, as regards race, I would label the different parts of teaching race in the following manner. The idea that students present (whether they themselves fully believe it or not) is that you should not judge a person by the color of her skin. This is Apparently Active Knowledge. It is an idea which is in the forefront of dialogues about race. People who “believe” this may, in fact, judge many people by the “color” of their respective skins. However, it is the safe, prescribed answer, which is out there, regardless of how many people think about its implications or fully believe every word of it. The idea that race actually correlates directly with the “color” of a person’s skin is debatable (but in pre-college forums is not debated!), and has to do with Official Knowledge. And, finally, the ideas which a person actually carries about race due to hearsay, personal experiences and a combination of Apparently Active and Official Knowledge is her Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge.

Bob: I hate white people.
Marie: You don’t really hate white people.
Bob: Yeah, I do.
Marie: That’s so bad.
Bob: Why is that so bad?
Marie: You can’t hate white people. Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?
Bob: No. Racism supports a system which oppresses non-white people. And race isn’t the color of one’s skin. And white isn’t a race. It’s an attitude.
Marie: Huh?
Bob: Yeah, all people of color know this to be true intrinsically, whether that shows in their outward expression or not.
Marie: No. That’s not true.
Bob: No, it is. I read a sociological study which surveyed the state of California. It’s true.
Marie: Oh, really?
Bob: Yeah.
Marie: Oh.

The above contrived conversation touches upon the reality of everyday conversation in ways directly related to the idea of conventional wisdom. First of all, I would like to propose that Bob knows before he begins talking with Marie that she will be shocked by what he has to say (In making a proposal, I am always asking the reader to, for a moment, make an assumption of a certain principle’s truth. I am also putting an idea on the discussion table that I believe is underplayed. Whether someone disagrees with what I have to say or not in proposing something does not hinder my goals: something must be on the table before anyone can agree or disagree with it). Bob’s knowledge here is an example of his Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge. He does not stop to think about where he has the idea that people may be shocked by, really, what is only his opinion. Everyone has the right to express her opinion. In the midst of conversation, though, we usually have a good sense of whether what we’re about to say is going to shock whomever we’re talking to or not. We haven’t done any demographics studies or even really thought about it. We just know this without even thinking about it. It’s an essential part of the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years through our interactions with others. Sometimes it is not a generalization we extend to everyone. Our ideas of people’s reactions to what we say vary depending on said people’s national origins, circumstances for meeting us, depth of acquaintance with us, gender, social standing, academic background, speech/ language ability, age, sexual orientation, religion… a whole host of criteria. This type of conventional wisdom is unspoken. It is not on the table. It is not up for debate.

The type of conventional wisdom that is spoken is what Marie says in reply to Bob’s statement about white people: “Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?” She does not say, “That’s an intriguing idea. I’m not sure I agree with that completely. Can you explain your reasoning?” or “That’s funny—that’s exactly what I was thinking!” Marie tries to convince Bob that he may be wrong. She appeals to his inner sense of what is commonly thought. In a sense, she is saying, “Bob, don’t you remember conventional wisdom?” She follows her polite reminder with a flat-out command, “You can’t hate white people.” She has the confident assertion in her mind, without even contemplating it, that Bob has violated some rule of life. Although Marie tries to intimidate Bob out of his crazy ideas about white people, Bob also tries to intimidate Marie. He convinces her (at least for the ten seconds following their conversation) of a statistical possibility simply by reasserting himself forcefully. He uses the tools of personality, strong self-confidence and a “study” that, for all Marie knows, he could have pulled straight out of his ass.

I would like to propose that there are at least four types of readers who have made it thus far through my theoretical tirade:

1. The slightly (but probably traditionally) educated white liberal or conservative who believes that the parts of my essay she understands are total bullshit and the rest just confuses her.
2. The haughty academic who realizes in her heart that much of what I say is true yet dismisses these new ideas for the very reasons I am critiquing academic theory.
3. The earnest and educated soul who does not particularly like critical theory and is hoping that I will move on to a new topic, as some of what I’ve said may ring true to her ears, but most of it seems too esoteric.
4. A kindred spirit.

Letters from reputable publications

I don’t know where these are from, but I clipped them a long time ago, and I think they’re just as insightful now as they were then, even if Netanyahu isn’t the leader of Israel any more.

Criticism of Netanyahu is not anti-Semitic
As an American Jew, I take profound offense at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt (“Netanyahu asks to be understood,” Page 1, Oct.9) to link criticism of his government’s brutal and self-aggrandizing policy toward the Palestinians to historic “incitement of falsehoods depicting Jews as the enemy of mankind . . . poisoners of the well.” To be sure, anti-Semitism continues to exist in the world; in Europe, if not in America, it is clearly growing stronger. That in no way justifies Israel’s reneging on signed peace accords, blowing up Palestinian houses or killing demonstrating children.

That a government guilty of such offenses is condemned by public opinion throughout the world need not reflect anti-Semitism. More plausibly, it reflects a simple sense of justice. At best, Netanyahu speaks for only half of Israeli Jews. The future of Israel, and the struggle against anti-Semitism, would be served by forthright condemnation of policies which cannot be decently defended.

Leon Kamin
Boston

Are Gay Men Born that Way?
Even if homosexuality is determined to have a physiological origin [Science, Sept.9], why should homosexual practices be any more accepted than alcoholism, drug dependency, eating disorders or any of a host of other aberrant manifestations that may also be rooted in physiology? All of these practices, including homosexuality, should be handled the same way: with respect for the humanity of the individual and with treatment for and discouragement of the behavior.

Genevieve Cochran
Medford, Oregon

So what if gay men are born that way? A straight society will still discriminate against them, just as a white society discriminates against nonwhites. Gay men may have small hypothalamic nuclei. That’s not the problem. Too many straight people have small hearts. That’s the problem.

Steve Swayne
Oakland, California

I see no benefit in knowing the reason for sexual orientation. Is the implication that if there is no physiological cause, gay people do not deserve legal protection? Whether people choose to be gay or are physiologically gay is a moot point politically. People who practice religion choose to do so, and yet no one would deny them political and legal protection.

Thomas Foster
Oda, Japan

Race Relations: Is Progress Impossible?

Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes the riffs and tensions go untalked about. That’s why I like movies like White Men Can’t Jump that have characters who aren’t afraid to reveal the stereotypes they hold about one another, that have white characters who can talk explicitly about their whiteness. I know someone doing a research project about Samuel L. Jackson. In all of his interviews either he or the interviewer somehow brings up Blackness—is it hard being a Black actor? What about this Black/white scene? But how often do you read interviews with white actors where their race becomes the central focus of their identity? And some white people have the gall to say there’s no such thing as white privilege.

Hold on. I’m going to take a step back, because I wanted to talk about progress in race relations, and even though I am speaking the truth, some white person reading this is already thinking, “An angry, white-hating reverse-racist Asian bastard mouthing off. I’ve heard it before.” The point I was trying to make is that sometimes we need to just say what’s on our minds. I know white people, behind closed doors, with no people of color around, talk about how “The Chinese really are…” or “Not that I’m a racist, but have you noticed most Black people…” And people of color do the same thing. Most people of color in America, not just African-Americans, have a fear of white people, and most, for most of their lives, are (rank-wise) underneath some white person, if not many… bosses, patrons, teachers, supervisors, the media, whoever it is, watching them… they can’t be too radical, too political, too angry… I’ve tried it, believe me! When you’re a person of color in this country, you can’t say what’s really on your mind.

And I’ll take the other side of the coin, too… I know white people can’t say what’s really on their minds either. Everybody harps on political correctness, not because it’s a bad idea, being sensitive, being progressive… it’s just that you can’t force it on people without explaining the reasoning behind it. Some of the most bitter people in America are 20-30-something white, straight male protestants. All of a sudden they can’t be ignorant or insensitive—they have to watch everything they say.

So we have white people bitter and repressed and people of color bitter and repressed. And then Newsweek and Time act all surprised when there are race riots. Why? I’m amazed the riots are not all over the place.

One interesting instance of the explosion of racial tension is the impetus for my writing this article: an incident at a prestigious liberal arts college in America known for its activism. Every April there’s an Asian Awareness Month, and to kick off the month there is a convocation.

The school newspaper covered the convocation using a Jewish-American reporter, who probably had three term papers hanging over her head plus a deadline. A convocation doesn’t seem a serious event: she can take a few notes, talk to a couple of people and write her article in a half-hour (all of this is my assumption of her situation). Then the angry letters came in from Asian-Americans on campus, primarily those heavily involved with the campus group sponsoring the convocation but also some others. The outrage seemed to be directed specifically at the writer of the article. They called her journalism shoddy, called her ignorant, told her she was perpetuating racism and misunderstanding.

Then, floods of letters from (I assume, white) friends of hers vouched for her efforts, saying that she is the nicest person and that she means well and really tries to research her articles as best as she can and doesn’t appreciate the personal attacks.

But the attacks kept coming. The school newspaper, a mostly Jewish-American-run paper, definitely kept out a lot of anti-reporter sentiment, because, as is the natural human instinct, they were protecting their own (in more than one sense). Then the Asian-American organization on campus published their own supplementary pamphlet to the school newspaper, with previously edited or non-published material, expressing due outrage at the offending article.

In the midst of all this, I was wondering, “What does this all solve? Will the writer of the article really be enlightened? Will the campus? Does this make the Asian-American community appear any better in the eyes of the campus at large?” I read the critiques of the article. They made a number of valid points, about the continued exoticization of Asians or those of Asian descent, the perpetuated image of angry minorities with strange concerns, among others. Then I thought, “Why was it when I read the article, it didn’t shock me… it didn’t stand out to me as being weird?” It’s not that I don’t have the critical skills to tear apart a piece of writing, analyzing all the sociological implications, etc.

Then, a new light on the whole situation dawned on me. There’s so much repressed, usually unexpressed, anger and misunderstanding between white people and people of color that the minute a certain key incident sparks one or both parties, they’re out for blood. Nobody wants to enlighten anyone. Nobody wants to understand. I can sympathize with the Asian-American group’s objectives, being an Asian-American myself. But I did not see as productive the singling out of this one writer. This is counterproductive. For one thing, all the attacks on this one person further perpetuate this image of people of color as angry minorities who just want to bitch and gripe. Secondly, direct attacks on one person end up demonizing that one person and making her responsible for a racist system. That’s why the article, with all its faults, didn’t strike me as odd. It’s the journalistic and racist quality one can expect from almost any white-run publication but specifically from that particular school newspaper. If anything, the school newspaper and the general white American mentality should have been the object of attack. After all, what produced this white reporter’s ignorance? I do believe her friends that she was well-intentioned and worked hard. I also believe she is a racist and ill-informed about minority issues. I don’t believe it is just her, and I don’t believe it is her choice.

We need to stop jumping down each other’s individual throats, and we need to start expressing our offensive beliefs more explicitly. When we look at the big picture, and we talk when we are not fighting… maybe then, there can be racial progress in America.

People of Color Should Be More Than Just Useful

Disclaimer: Even though there is a certain amount of anger in this piece, I believe it is healthy anger. And anything I hold against white people is not against the people themselves but against the system that makes them white. I have tried to put as much calm and practicality into my essay for those people of color who have wondered all their lives how to express in words what white people can do to change racism in America, and for those white people who have genuine sincerity but feel helpless… to be educated and to be awakened. I write this in the spirit of Malcolm X and his hard truths, and I pity anyone who, because of this reading, ignorantly dares to call me a racist. If that is you, please try for a second read. Here’s hoping for peace in America… after a little truth.

As a person of color in America, I think about race often, sometimes casually, sometimes academically, sometimes mournfully: but not a single hour goes by when I do not think about the state of race relations in this country (either as relates directly to myself or in general theory). All people of color in America know that part of the amorphous label “white privilege” is the concrete manifestation of the ability “not to…”—in this case, the ability not to think about race. This is why so many liberal intellectual whites today will say things like, “Why does everything have to be about race? Can’t we all be human beings?” Truthfully, even to the well-meaning white person, discussions about race are usually just that—discussions, which she can dispense the way she dispenses toilet paper. At worst, it is a trash can that sometimes has an unavoidable stench. At best, it is an unpleasant locale she makes frequent trips to in order to alleviate the guilt of her conscience.

What can white people do? Think of race as an integral part of their being, if only by default, in being the only race in the United States that is not forced to be race-conscious every day of the week, every week of the year. I’ve heard many white people say, “we feel guilty enough,” or “it’s not our problem; it was our ancestors,” “I’m not a racist,” “you’re just as good as me,” “I just see people as human beings.” To all those white people, I say this again: concrete action #1 is to think of race as an integral part of your being because that’s what it is in today’s society. You cannot solve a problem by ignoring it. Identify the problem, recognize its existence, discover its prevalence, then work on solving it. But first you must recognize that race cannot be wished away any more than a building made of concrete can be wished away.

Still, I can hear the cry of the well-meaning white person: “But I’m not a racist! Maybe I have some hidden prejudices, but I do not discriminate.” Ask any white person who says this or thinks this way what those “hidden prejudices” are and she will not be able to answer you. Well, I can tell her exactly what they are—any time she perpetrates, or allows society to go unchecked with members perpetrating, the following:

1. White people (total strangers) asking an American-born Asian (without even knowing her name), upon meeting her, where she’s from (meaning some place in Asia, not an American geographic area), if she knows Kung Fu, or if she understands some butchered version of a Korean, Chinese or Japanese phrase.
2. White people always having an opinion about something, never once feeling it normal to just not know something that perhaps a person of color knows.
3. Along similar lines, as Malcolm X noted, no matter how a white person praises a person of color for her intelligence, asking her opinion solely on racially-related matters.
4. Casting Hollywood movies with white protagonists who have depth of character, supported by people of color who are either positive or negative stereotypes.
5. Assuming that the status quo, as per racial theory/ literary canon/ current psychology-related conventional wisdom/ etc., has an inherent (not rationally argued on equal footing) truth to it that so-called “radical” theories do not.
6. Referring to people of color as “Black people,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” etc., and then feeling uncomfortable when a person of color says, “white people,” or “that white guy.”
7. A white person purposefully avoiding social situations where she will be the only white person present because they make her feel uncomfortable.
8. Not realizing and not bothering to find out the ways in which white people constantly remind people of color of their race while still affirming that “we are all human beings.”
9. White people feeling uncomfortable in a situation where people of color are leading a discussion or in which white people are not the loudest voices in the room or the people who get the most air time for their opinions.
10. Comparing Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr., and discrediting Malcolm X because he “didn’t do anything. What did he really do?”

I am going to leave the list at ten, though I’m sure if other people of color in America had a few hours to think of more ways racism continues in the U.S. as systematic and prevalent (i.e., not isolated, extreme/ violent incidents), they’d be able to come up with at least 200 more, not the least of which is that some “scientific” white-initiated projects study only Blacks and whites in America and actually believe that white people have a genetic predisposition to intelligence that Black people do not. Oh, and complaining about how sexist or violence-promoting rap “is” without acknowledging the extent to which other forms of musical expression are as well.

The tenth perpetration is what irks me most about any talk about race. When I do think about race in America, I think about race in terms of three categories:

1. People of color who’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
2. People of color who have yet to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
3. White people.

Most people of color I know do not agree with everything Malcolm X has to say (in fact, how can anyone ever agree 100% with anything she reads?), but they recognize the power of who he is after reading his book. Any white person I’ve talked to about race, whether she’s read Malcolm X or not, still questions his worth, his value.

I’ve had at least two people ask me what Malcolm X “did.” One was a white person, who had read the autobiography (yet who still asked me), “What did Malcolm X do? Martin Luther King, Jr. got legislation passed which affected everyone in America.” One person of color, very enlightened on racial matters in general (but who still had not read Malcolm X), asked me a similar question. I do not think, after reading the book, she will ask that same question.

Of course, the case could be argued that Malcolm X, in fact, did more than Martin Luther King, Jr. Many historians recognize that no matter what the abolitionists did, Lincoln only “freed the slaves” as a political move when it was convenient, and, in fact, he only ordered the emancipation of slaves in the South, over which he had no jurisdiction at that time. And Malcolm X himself told the truth about “The March on Washington,” and the power it had over civil rights legislation: nothing. Congress, the president, Washington… they do nothing, they pass nothing, unless it is politically advantageous to the parties in power: P.R., votes, image.

But there’s something more important than arguing whether Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work directly affected legislation in the U.S. Why should it matter that much? Evidence of the white American’s dominance of the national thinking about race is the fact that most discussions about race center on what’s “useful.” What legislation got passed? Are people making more money? I remember reading a Newsweek article recently about how conditions for African-Americans are improving. If that were true, no one would need an article explaining things were getting better.

The condition of race in the U.S. will not improve with legislation. Corrective legislation is supplementary, secondary to real social change. You can change policy, but you will not change racism until you change people’s minds… especially white people’s minds and their thinking about race. Then, the real change will happen. Once we can figure out a way to do the following, in the following order, racism will be on its way out:

1. Get every white person in America to recognize racism (which benefits whites and not people of color) exists as an operating and prevalent system, not a series of incidents.
2. Get every white person in America to realize that white is not some there’s-nothing-I-can-do guilt-trip to be stuck in… it’s not a complexion gene or eye color: it’s primarily an attitude of entitlement.
3. Get every white person to realize real integration can come about through only natural means: people of color want dignity, not to live with white people. As Nina Simone said, “You don’t have to live next to me. Just give me my equality.”
4. Focus on education: do not keep critical race theory in the upper echelons of academia. Bring it to the masses, the children, the public schools.
5. Work on uncovering subtle forms of racism. This will undermine more overtly violent expressions of race discrimination. Dwell on this illustration: who changed more laws before he died—Jesus or Hitler?

Mother Nurture

“I can’t run.”
“I can’t draw.”

I’ve heard these phrases over and over again and I wonder if they’re consciously devised excuses or simply naive delusions. This (excuse or delusion) notion of “can’t” stems from the unnecessarily polarized nature v. nurture debate. Where did the “v.” come from, anyway? Do they have to be fighting each other? I tend to, if forced to choose a side, side with the nurturists. After all, if something is to some extent genetically predetermined, why not fight it (if it’s bad)? Someone with a genetic predisposition toward diabetes does not shrug her shoulders, give up, and eat unhealthily in the hopes that she might speed the “inevitably” predetermined “genetic” condition.

Neither should someone who thinks she’s non-athletic not participate in sports or someone who thinks she’s not artistic not practice drawing. If public education forces every student to learn math and English, and try her (theoretical) best, whether or not she thinks she’s a math or English person, why not encourage all potential artists and runners to draw and run?

I pick running and drawing in particular because from an early age my family, peers and teachers encouraged me to draw. And, ever since high school, I’ve suddenly become “a runner,” even though I’d had no athletic promise before high school, I never became that great a runner, and I’ve gotten severely out of shape since. Not only that, but I’ve seen other “non-runners” (like me) become record-breaking cross-country runners. And I’ve seen non-artists practice and practice and practice, eventually becoming amazingly skilled artists.

Now the discussion of ability in art is interestingly ironic. When artists are children (whose abilities presumably are limited by their young age) society judges the degree to which they are artists based on the quality of their representational art. Then, when an adult artist produces a piece of expression (at least in this day and age), society often judges the quality as being proportional to the apparent childishness of the “artwork.” In other words, in order to prove yourself to have artistic potential as a child, you need to draw as much like an adult as possible, and in order to prove yourself to have artistic potential as an adult, you must be able to draw like a child. It’s not just a joke of polite society—much of modern art does indeed look like the work of a kindergartener.