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