So You’re Not Racist, What Next?

The author being cultural and appropriate in Chowk Azam, Pakistan

In this day and age, as a female “person of color” living in a first-world country, I have many opportunities to indulge in the love of Western progressives. Nonetheless, I invite you to look at the big picture, to stop pampering some of us more than we deserve. You’re not racist, good. The next step is to distinguish—really, really distinguish—one “colored” person from another.

Consider the following 21-year-olds:
1. A third-generation Chinese-American or the like.
2. A China-born foreign-raised Chinese-American.
3. An upper-class Chinese educated in international schools, overseas for university.
4. A middle-class Chinese, overseas for university.
5. An upper-class Chinese living in Shanghai.
6. A middle-class Chinese living in Shanghai.
7. A lower-class Chinese living in rural China.

I have more distinct examples in Africa, South(east) Asia, Central/South America, and many Muslim countries in today’s world. Afraid of being accused of cultural appropriation, I stick to Chinese-related cases. (Just kidding. I’m fearless, but people who don’t know me believe me more when I stick with Chinese. :P)

So, are you calling everyone from #1 to #7 “Chinese”? Tell me, among them who has the loudest voice in the West? #1 for sure, followed by #2 and #3 then #4, followed by #5 then #6 then #7. Now,

Does the view of #1 represent that of #7?

No way.

Does #1 outnumber #7?

No way.

I don’t relate to a third-generation Chinese-American any better than I do to an average American. Their grandparents hadn’t fought through the Cultural Revolution. Their parents hadn’t grown up with slogans like “Albania is the bright light of socialism in Europe”; the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 had meant little in their adolescence. And they—the third-generation Chinese-Americans themselves—haven’t been through exam-oriented education to appreciate critical thinking the way I do. They have no right to represent me in your head. Notice the “in your head” bit: They simply want to talk and have the means to be heard; it’s your job to be informed of not-so-easily-accessible voices and gain a balanced understanding. To do so directly is difficult (among all, it involves learning languages), but the least you can do is be aware of your under-informed self.

Four months ago, it was brought to my attention in a Bostonian racial activist group the case of a White girl wearing a qipao being accused of cultural appropriation. In any such cases, #1 would form the majority of the accusers. #2 and #3 would have split opinions. And #4-7 would like her for wearing the qipao. In fact, #7 would rejoice! But #1 are the loudest, so #4-7’s voices get drowned—and activists end up clamoring in support of #1, thinking they are advocating for the Chinese people. They’re not. Note that the accusing comment that went viral was written by a person named Jeremy Lam. I don’t need to explain the first name; the last name you wouldn’t see in mainland China. Yet he writes:

“My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”

Excuse me, “your” culture? You may be eager to hold onto Chinese culture, but there are healthier ways to do so. Funny how some accusers of cultural appropriation are appropriators themselves—and masters of self-victimization, their army formed by good-hearted, self-critical, but under-informed Western progressives.

Indeed, many (not all) White people accused of cultural appropriation have no malicious intent. Their acts, on a global scale, may be loved by many from the culture in question, while the few who have a loud voice accuse them. Activists, please, think before you side with the accusers. And really think, before you become an accuser yourself. As someone from a middle-class Chinese family who moved to Australia as a teenager (hence associates with #2, #4, and #6), I say, wear the qipao all you like. You’re showing me your appreciation of the beauty in Chinese traditional clothing. Go for it.

It’s time to look at each individual in the world as an individual. If your worldview is closer to the right end of the political spectrum, put yourselves in others’ shoes so you can stop seeing others as “others.” If you belong to the left end of spectrum, stop thinking of all non-Whites as “once-bullied colored people.” #7 may have never taken a hot shower, #6 may think of McDonalds as fancy food, while #3 may have never been discriminated against. Not them, not their grandparents. They live a life wealthier than most upper-class White people’s.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof said during our breakfast last year, “I don’t like the word ‘advocate.’ ” What he meant was to save your opinionated self and keep an open mind. How? Travel. After all, all media—movies, documentaries, books, articles (like this one), podcasts, etc.—filter information. Traveling? Not so much. That is, if you actually travel. Being a tourist isn’t the same. Living there, volunteering there, learning the languages there, talking to locals outside tourism, avoiding fancy hotels, restaurants, and tours—these form real traveling. Go. Be informed of the great variance in economic and social spectra in third world countries, so you don’t make a fool of yourself advocating something you should not advocate.

[This article was originally posted on my website and intended for the general public. Now, writers, listen up. A third-generation Chinese-American and a White author have equal right to write about a contemporary youth raised in a village in Qingtian, Zhejiang, China. Unfortunately, truly disadvantaged people from second and third-world countries do not have a voice. That is why we try to tell their stories, to be as authentic as our best research efforts allow us, and to tell them with love. Note that love doesn’t mean all praise. Everyone should be given a chance to do this.]

 

11 comments

  1. What a great read — thank you. Lumping masses of ‘others’ into PoC as one disadvantaged cohort diminishes every individual in that imagined group, to the point of veering in on its own form of racism, not to mention ignorance.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this complicated subject. I agree with you that travel of the type you describe is a good way of opening one’s eyes both to the commonalities of humanity and the differences in people’s circumstances and viewpoints. I wish everyone could have that opportunity.

  3. When an author of such extraordinary intelligence and experience as Lily chooses to brave what goes for public discourse these days it is as if the lights suddenly went on in a very dark room. How lucky we are to have her in the Grub Street community.

  4. Gerald Whelan

    Thank you for exposing, with intelligence and without malice, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of what has, unfortunately, become a sad. stifling, and intimidating propaganda campaign against the freedom to imagine the lives of others. Your exhortation that “It’s time to look at each individual in the world as an individual” is a celebration of the infinite, interconnected diversity of human life, while all attempts to declare limits on the efforts of artists to describe it are abstract, and therefore deadening: the antithesis of life. Sure, there are malevolent caricaturists lurking out there, but they’re easily recognized, and the price to be paid for living in a (last time I checked, anyway) free society.

    Your analysis is, in my opinion, right up there with John McWhorter’s piece on another recent case of “cultural appropriation” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/who-gets-to-use-black-english/566867/). I hope that, not just writers, but agents, editors and publishers take courage from both. (By the way, great explanation of the difference between tourism and travelling!)

  5. Laura Roper

    Yicheshi, I see you’ve jumped into the incubator life. Thanks for this thoughtful contribution, love your list of your seven 21-year-olds.

  6. Anna

    Question: Should we in the Western world begin persecuting people from the Middle East, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa for wearing “our” clothes and calling them out for “cultural appropriation”?

    • Michelle D Hoover

      Anna, that’s not really a proper parallel, particularly for those countries that underwent colonization and whose citizens were therefore often forced to adapt western wear for school or work, not to speak of other propaganda efforts by Western cultures to denigrate the native culture and seduce with the Western’s own for the purpose of commercial or cultural profit.

  7. Lise Brody

    Dear Lily,

    Thank you for posting your thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I’ve been mulling over (and re-reading) it for some weeks now, trying both to take your points to heart and to articulate what I found troubling in them.

    Your point that “Chinese” people are not a monolith is a welcome reminder of the traps of oversimplified analysis and lazy thinking. But your concern that the voices of “third-generation Chinese-American[s] or the like” are drowning out those of Chinese people with different backgrounds and experience – and that white activists are giving those voices too much weight – left me struggling.

    Your objection to Jeremy Lam’s protest of a white woman wearing a qipao seemed to be based primarily on his lack of lived experience in mainland China. Here’s my best attempt to frame the issues using thought experiments of my own:

    • If a Chinese person living in China wore a cowboy hat and boots, would I mind? No.

    • If a Chinese person living in China wore a cowboy hat and boots and said they were dressing up as an American would I mind? No.

    • If a Chinese person living in China wore a cowboy hat and boots and said they were “appreciating American culture,” and I was one of a minority of Americans living in the community… I would surely feel uncomfortable and stereotyped.

    Moving on:

    • If a non-Jewish person went to a Halloween party with payot, yarmulkah and tallit, would I mind? Yes. I’m not religious. I can’t even read Hebrew. But I was born and raised as an ethnic Jew, and while I would never put myself (or anyone) forward as speaking for all Jews, I would find that caricature violent. There’s a history of dehumanizing caricatures of a range of ethnic groups in the US (including Chinese people) and I think Americans of these ethnic backgrounds are justified in calling attention to the othering that these caricatures perpetuate. (I understand that a prom dress is not a Halloween costume… but I’ll save my cultural critique of proms for another time!)

    It seems to me that since the woman in the qipao is from the US midwest, Jeremy Lam’s reaction is more relevant, in this case, than that of a Chinese person who grew up on the mainland. Lam is reacting based on deep personal experience with American attitudes toward Chinese culture and representations of Chinese people. If a lot of third generation Chinese Americans say they find her action offensive, my job, as a white American, is to listen to them.

    “It’s time to look at each individual in the world as an individual,” you write, and I agree. But I also know that there are cultural and historical forces that group us whether we like it or not. My half-Asian daughter gets referred to as “exotic,” something I’ve never been called. She has different assumptions made about her based on her looks than I do. (I find this TED Talk by Tricia Rose illuminating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmoiH1PkHGQ)

    I skittishly anticipate that the next step will be for someone to accuse me of advocating “censorship.” Calls for respect and empathy are often demonized as an affront to free speech. I may be battling a phantom here, but just in case – and partly in response to your postscript for writers – let me clarify my thinking on that issue.

    You assert that “Chinese-American and a White author have equal right to write about a contemporary youth raised in a village in Qingtian, Zhejiang, China.” Of course writers have the “right” to write about anything. But I do think we have an ethical obligation to ask ourselves about the role we’re playing in a complicated world.

    The question often gets oversimplified to “am I allowed to?” or “is it okay to?” The answer to the first is: you’re allowed to do anything you want. There’s no governing body or edict from God. The answer to “is it okay to,” of course, is “according to whom?” – which makes it unanswerable and useless.

    The questions I find meaningful –“What role do I want to play within an existing structure of power and privilege? What narratives do I choose to perpetuate?” – are harder, and full of unsolvable ethical conundrums. As you point out, many people “do not have a voice” (or at least, don’t have access to the publishing industry). Is writing that character from Qingtian empowering to the people there, or paternalistic? Does accuracy matter? Is any attempt better than none? Or is a better solution to put down our own mics and work to amplify the voices of the residents of Qingtian? Or to write that character, publish the book, and donate all the proceeds to the people who live there?

    I’ve struggled in my own work with representations of people from cultures not my own. I haven’t come to a neatly wrapped solution, but I think my work is better for the struggling. If that includes cutting some stuff that I just don’t feel culturally entitled to use, I’m okay with that kind of “self-censorship.”

    Please forgive me if I’ve misconstrued anything in your post. As I said, I’ve been wrestling with the questions it raised, and I may be responding to words you didn’t write. In any case, I welcome the chance to be in dialogue with you (and maybe some other incubees will jump into the fray, as well!)

    Best,

    Lise Brody

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