Friday, January 8, 2016

There's this prevalent notion floating about on the Internet that we are in a "post-racial" era.  That declaring,"I'm colorblind! I don't even notice race!" is the same thing as saying, "There's no such thing as racism!"

Except a) we're not in a post-racial world, and b) if you truly "don't notice" race, then you're either deaf, dumb, and blind, or an idiot, because everybody notices if the person they're talking to is different.  Especially if the answer she gives to the question, "So where are you from?" is not what they expect it to be.

Granted, racism these days is not expressed by burning crosses and telling black people to GTFO of wherever it is they're "not supposed" to be.  Not usually, anyway.  And in Europe, it's conflated (especially now) with religious animosity against Muslims, and in the Netherlands, the yearly Zwarte Piet debacle.  I'm not going to offer any solutions; as an expat, my understanding of local politics is limited to "Well, that's dumb" and swearing at the IND every time they demand that I cough up 228 euros for an ID card that's apparently no longer valid once you get a Dutch passport.

But I can tell you what racism looks like, since a lot of people don't seem to realize that they are committing these "microaggressions" when they're "just making small talk." And honestly, I know that they're trying to be friendly, but unlike most Chinese people in Europe (I would imagine--I haven't met that many) I actually possess the vocabulary to spell out exactly what's so wrong about and why it's so horrible.

I'll give you 2 examples:

  1. Karel's friend is really big into traditional Chinese medicine and yoga and Eastern medicine.  Whatever. That's his thing. If he wants to talk a blue streak about it, well, I'm cool with that. I'm not a believer--and frankly, acupuncture is just creepy to me. And he said, "I never thought I'd have to argue for TCM with someone from China." Which is just irritating, even without taking into account that he knows me well enough to know that I grew up in the US, attended a medical school, worked in biology, and don't cook Chinese food and instead make a mean stamppot
  2. I was at the printer's, getting something printed out in preparation for a client meeting, and the guy who's helping me...actually doesn't start up with the whole "So where are you from?" line of questioning.  Nope, instead he seems surprised that kidlet speaks a mix of Dutch and English, and asks me what other languages I speak.  I tell him that we speak Dutch and English to him.  And then he asks me what my mother tongue is.  I tell him it's English (because it is). And then he asks me if I speak Chinese to kidlet.  And then he makes a comment about kidlet's big eyes, somehow completely missing the fact that kidlet's hair is definitely brown, not black, and assuming that he's Asian rather than a halfie.  (I mean, okay, kidlet definitely takes after me in terms of facial features, but how do you miss the fact that his hair is brown?  Especially when I'm right next to him for comparison? I know I'm going gray but I swear it's not that bad yet).
Do these incidents mark the end of the world? No. But here's the thing that white people don't get:  we can't talk about racism without dealing with all of the subconscious baggage that you guys have about what someone is "supposed" to be like.  And that's the thing with subconscious baggage--you can swear on your life, and even believe, that you don't see color/race, but subconsciously, things register, and slowly but surely they color the lens through which you perceive the world. And you can swear on your life that you don't hate [race] people, but hate isn't the problem. It's the thousand invisible things that you guys do that grate on our nerves, but woe be the one who says anything about it, lest she appear "too sensitive". 

But every time you do one of those things, you're feeding a machine that tells people that they are limited by the color of their skin and their ancestry, telling people like me that being born somewhere determines who I am rather than the effort I've put into making something of myself.  You're telling me that you're only interested in my story if it fits your preconceived ideas of what an Asian person is doing living in the Netherlands. You're telling me that you, whom I've just met at the bus stop and am making idle talk to while we wait, know me better than I, who spent 34 years living my life and working out all the shit in my life, do. And maybe I'm presuming--but at least I'm aware that I'm doing so--but I do think that you'd be fucking pissed if I were to do the same to you.

And yet, every time this happens, I feel bad for the person I'm talking to.  I feel like it's my job not to let them down, or at least do so gently. I mean, I get it--they don't mean to be nasty, not like the jackholes who scream, "Konichiwa" at me as they ride by on their bikes (would that eye rolls be translated into bowling balls). And being polite has always been second-nature to me.  But still--why should I have to be the only one swallowing my discomfort just so the person I'm talking to--the one who started this--doesn't have to feel bad?  

Answer: because nobody wants to be "the supersensitive" wilting flower that can't take a comment the right way. Even if it's the one making the comment who could do better.  

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