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.

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