the race situation.

“just being a negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.”

— dick gregory, quoted in an article about dave chappelle in the believer, posted on twitter by my friend steven.

***

back in college and early grad school, when about 70% of my conversations were about dudes, my friends and i would sometimes wander onto the topic of the kind of person we eventually wanted to end up with.  on occasion, the question would arise of whether i saw myself ending up with someone asian.

usually, my answer to that question reflected who i was hanging out with at the time.  were my friends mostly white?  then no.  were my friends mostly asian?  then yes.  which made sense, i suppose:  the best data i had was the most current data, and if i kept hanging out with people who looked like my current friends — and i had no reason to believe that i wouldn’t — then statistically speaking, i would probably end up with someone who looked like them.

it wasn’t until the middle of grad school when i realized that my answer was too simplistic.  having spent enough time with a whole range of white people and a whole range of people of color, and having become more and more attuned to issues of race and culture, i realized that the question of my future partner and race was about more than just phenotypical or cultural preferences.  what really mattered to me was not the race of the person i was with but whether or not they understood “the race situation,” as gregory put it.

and that’s a lot more complicated than our society makes it out to be.  more often than not, it seems, white people and people of color are dichotomized:  people of color get the race situation, and white people do not.  and we point to white people in podunk towns in alabama and idaho, the kind who watch fox news and go to tea party rallies, as evidence.  but that simply isn’t the case.  i don’t doubt that there are plenty of white people, in small towns and elsewhere, who don’t get the race question.  but there are also tons of people of color who don’t.

i didn’t really understand this until i moved to LA.  i had never lived in a place where being asian was normal or anything close to it — but now, i was living minutes away from cities where asian americans were the majority, where people can live their entire lives without having to learn english, where asian americans don’t really have to wrestle with questions of race and ethnicity because being asian is normal.  i thought that all asian americans had to wrestle with those issues — the shifting between two sets of norms and values and expectations, the questions of identity, the never-fully-fitting-in-anywhere — and suddenly i was faced with tons who hadn’t.

which is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you — i think it’s beautiful that there are places where being asian is so normal that you never have to question it.  but there are negative consequences, too — one of which is that many of these asian americans i met, in arcadia and irvine and diamond bar, did not understand the race question at all.

they did not see themselves as disadvantaged in any way.  they did not see institutionalized racism and how it keeps entire groups of people oppressed.  they attributed their successes to the hard work of their parents and themselves, looked with raised eyebrows at other races who hadn’t been as collectively successful, and left the conversation at that.  in many ways, they were as ignorant about the race situation as the white people from small towns that i described earlier.  the only difference is that these asian americans pass as nonignorant because they’re people of color.

all that to say that the question of whether or not you get the race situation is not a function of your own race.  some of the people i’ve met who are most conversant on these issues are white — like the man i ended up with — and some of the most ignorant people i’ve ever spoken with about these issues are people of color.  which i find even more frustrating (and embarrassing, frankly) than the white person who is ignorant on this topic, because the ignorance of people of color is a large part of what perpetuates racial injustice, and their words are often used to discredit those of us who are trying to fight it.

so that quote from dick gregory, which i read earlier this week, articulated something that i’ve felt for a long time but never articulated.  in contrast to what a lot of people think, being a person of color does not automatically qualify you to understand the race situation.  the only thing that qualifies you to understand the race situation is actually understanding the race situation.

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2 thoughts on “the race situation.

  1. First things first I just wanted to say that I absolutely love your website and your style of writing. Very articulate and beautifully written. I had a couple of questions about this particular article. What do you exactly mean by the race situation? It’s funny that you mentioned diamond bar since I’m from there. However I never felt like it was normal/comfortable to b asian although there was a large asian population since I didn’t grow up in diamond bar (I too thought it was odd about how proud the Asians there were). I definitely felt there was a lot of institutional racism in diamond bar , the assumption that Asians are quiet and meek so the community/school/police force took advantage of that. In college I learned about entire ethnic groups having their history/narrative excluded from mainstream US history which is probably a factor in propagating racism because of ignorance and lack of empathy for other social ethnic groups. I am definitely interested in knowing your opinion on these subjects.

  2. “the only thing that qualifies you to understand the race situation is actually understanding the race situation.” Haha love it.

    I agree with Kimberly’s comments above: I love your style of writing. 🙂

    Most of my life before coming to college was spent living in a town where Asians were less than 2% and blacks and hispanics made up around 90%. Coming to college was definitely a game-changer for me. I think beyond just your own race, is living with others and truly understanding the race situation via experience and exposure.

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