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Monday, April 21, 2003

Interracialness


Ok, this has been building for several days now, so: time for another explosion on interracial relationships.

Why is it all the racism and anti-miscegenation I come across is from minorities and from liberal northerners? I know it used to be a signpost of white southerners, but two generations have come and gone and it's all been drummed out of them (with, of course, exceptions, as there are to nearly everything); now it's acceptable if you're not white and can say it patronizingly enough, it seems. Aargh!

Maybe I'll start off with a history of my relationship and my awareness of it as interracial:

Bob and I went to high school together. The school (K-12) has an odd racial mix -- as in, they have moderately high amounts of all racial (or otherwise somewhat birth-related) groups, but not consistently; my year had very few blacks and hispanics, a large number of east asians and south asians, a very large number of jews, and the rest white, whereas my sister's year had very few south asians and relatively few jews and hispanics but a large number of blacks and east asians. I hear things are different now, and I hear they were different before my time, but when I was there, and especially during the last few years of high school, there was no racial self-segregation that I was aware of. Sometimes a group of parents of the same origin would do something together, such as when several Gujarati parents organized a party for the whole grade, but that was about the extent of it. A majority of my closest friends were either Indian or Jewish (yes, I know those groups are not mutually exclusive -- Bob's cousin was dating an Indian Jew -- but they didn't overlap in my case), and everyone was so constantly making Indian and Jewish jokes that I was shocked to come to Harvard and find out it's racist to say that someone "looks Jewish" (one HS friend got a nose job, and her mother was horrified that she no longer looked Jewish -- something the mother thought was part of their identity and quite desirable) or is late because they're running on "Indian Standard Time" (yes, that's 1/2 hour off. It's strange). The Houston Roommate would likely point out that there was some undercurrent of anti-black or hispanic racism in that culture, but I never noticed it; there was definitely no racial tension that I ever encountered between south asian / jewish / non-jewish people.

So, I start dating Bob, thinking nothing of it. It was honestly about five months before I looked at our hands together and noticed that it looked pretty cool. No friends seemed to think it was strange; in my circle was a Hindu-Zoroastrian couple, a white Catholic-Jewish couple, a Lutheran-Jewish one, and many other mixed wannabes (best friend, Hindu, going after an Italian Catholic and a Zoroastrian in turns). I put off discussions about religion (and still have put them off, slightly...), so that wasn't really encompassing my thoughts. My family was just fine, too; my mother couldn't care less (she dated black guys in college in the early seventies not as a political statement, but because they liked each other just like the white guys she dated), and my father (of a more insular background) thought it was pretty cool and started cutting out white/indian marriage ads from the paper -- his comments along those lines, after a few months, were the first time I'd even thought that an interracial relationship could be at all different from a uniracial one.

Coming from a white, politically and socially conservative, traditionalist Episcopalian, southern family, the first encounter I had with opposition to my interracial relationship came from Bob's family (a flat-out veto on any dating, especially with people who weren't south indian brahmin), and the rest came from racially-accepting northerners and open-minded and tolerant progressives. My course of study, while it has also garnered opposition from those latter groups, has put me in ecstatic good standing (I'm in ecstasy, not they) with Bob's family, who now seem to think that, if Bob has to date someone, I'm really not bad. (That's just thrilling! It took four years to get that far, but I'm so happy!) I'm in good with the cousins (who also hope that we make it, so that they can have it easy if they choose a love-marriage); just have to win over the aunts and uncles and then deal just with the questions and issues that come with relationships of any variety.

Then I get to Harvard, and (through the influence of Diana Eck and John Carman, both white, lecturing on Indian religions, I'm sure) managed to make it through the better part of a year without thinking things might be different. I participated in all the South Asian Association events, went to the weekly meetings of the Hindu student group Dharma, and occasionally went to class wearing a salwar kamize that Bob brought me back from India. In the spring, I came across my first noticable opposition, in what had normally been a wonderfully open and welcoming group, when a student who worked for the VHP up here told me I shouldn't continue coming to Dharma meetings if I were to keep associating myself with the Christians on campus. It was in April, so I brushed it off, and went to India the next semester. I wore Indian clothes, and, when people didn't assume I was a Hare Krishna, everyone seemed very pleased with me; many asked to take pictures of themselves with the strange-looking foreigner in their midst (ahh, openness, when nobody gets offended and people can ask for harmless favors; they'd be damned for exoticism here). Had a few instances around temples, where our Christian (yet Indian) tour guide could go inside, but an ashram-born white guy raised Hindu couldn't, but nothing big.

Then more welcoming loving elders, who have almost all since graduated, soon to be replaced by people occasionally nicknamed by their predecessors as the "fundies." Emails were sent, talking about Hindu religious supremacy (with which I'm fine) and racial supremacy (with which I'm not so much). And talking about how any good Hindu would be opposed to interracial dating. Under new authority, was no longer made as welcome at meetings -- although the antipathy was by no means unified. The new head of Dharma, a good friend of mine, is into Islamic studies and definitely open to people who are not brown and Hindu, but I'm still on edge and not sure if all the members there would accept me, even if the leader did.

Now back into frustrations.

They hold symposia on what it means to be asian, how terrible it is when Asian is seen as uncool and how terrible it is when Asian is seen as cool and how terrible it is when "Asian" is seen as a unified group and how terrible it is when it isn't... One such forum last year had as its advertising campaign how terrible it was not only for Madonna to wear a bindi, but also for henna tattoos and Indian prints to be fashionable and Indian food to be available to everyone everywhere. It's the commodification of culture, they feel. (An alternative, which many liberals do go for, is the museumification of culture, patronizingly picking out some cute quaint native culture and trying forcibly to prevent the natives from interacting with other people and changing their culture.)

A friend who sees this from my opposite side (she's Indian, marrying a white guy) explains it better, although she also thinks the people are just dead wrong. Thing is, she says, you push so hard to be accepted and to get your cultural quirks accepted instead of viewed with suspicion or ridiculed, when they do get accepted, you've got to change your efforts, and you get angry. It's hard to deal when the opposition has accepted your argument. Or you find out you like being weird and strange and special, so you're bitter when suddenly everyone can do it. (I know I've been that way with some things -- I liked being the only girl in my physics and math classes, and I felt jealous when others joined in; I have also at times enjoyed being the only non-brown person in an activity, the only twisted and morbid person around, etc. It's fun to be special.) You've got this chip on your shoulder, defending yourself for being different, and when suddenly everyone else can be the same, you feel bitter at them because they get to have your cultural bits, but they feel cool for it and you felt ashamed or defensive about them. Or they know the name of the third prime minister and what-all went on during that term, and you know nothing, so you hate them because they make you feel inadequate. So it all boils down to an unstable self-image and severe insecurities. Which is why they can get livid when there's a picture of Ganesh on a t-shirt Madonna wears ("would they do that with a Christian deity?" the supposedly rhetorical question goes; well, yes -- my sister has a tiny-tee with the Blessed Virgin on it), or when a toilet cover has the Om-kar on it ("could they do that with Christian signs?" -- again theoretically rhetorical -- well, yes, they've got the Madonna with crap and the crucifix in urine, for starters, but also gag stores selling bible-verse toilet paper etc. without a big outcry), and get insular when someone suggests that someone like me might like one of them as a person, not because of an exoticism fetish or a latent colonial drive.

I must be weird for seeing a difference between deriding something, lightheartedly spoofing it, and taking inspiration from it. You can wear a skirt that's got a border print without being a neo-imperialist; you can have as little knowledge of the origin of it as you do of the origin of the zipper and of the history of cotton production and equally little interest in "stealing the culture" of people who traditionally wear border-print saris. I'm kind of sick of being told that I shouldn't be interested in things that aren't "my own culture" (what's that? can I try to stop others from participating in generic American culture? do I want to? I'm proud of it (at least the parts of it I participate in, among others) and not scared of its being hurt by other people participating in it; when I lived in England and Germany I was thrilled when anyone else displayed any interest in something most of the population was only too happy to profess to hate!); I'm especially sick of being told that I shouldn't be interested in a guy that isn't my own color. Bob, for his part, has told me that he sees me just as a person and is also secure enough in his identity that he's willing to share it with anyone else and isn't afraid it would get corrupted (he says Indians corrupt Hindu thought themselves often enough, so why should they be particularly angry when non-Indians follow their lead? if it's an error, it should be pointed out, he says, and people should correct errors, if necessary, regardless of what color person the error or the mention of it is coming from).

To prove it's not me: Harvard had some problems several years back when a director (or something -- I don't know the whole story) of Kuumba, the gospel choir, sent out an email complaining that the non-black people in the choir were racially incapable of performing the same way as the black people. Various of the Asian groups have complained that there are too many non-Asians involved in their groups -- they say, in effect, "we're open to everyone and love it when people are interested -- just as long as not too many are interested and we can keep our racial majority."

And if they find a white person who says he's only interested in dating other white people, they'll say he's racist and exclusivist and unwilling to try new things. But, if he tries new things and dates one of them, every book he reads and every symposium he goes to will say he's got to have an Asian fetish or something. And if they themselves say they're only interested in dating other Asians, they're seen as commendably devoted to tradition and culture. But, if they date someone non-Asian, they'll be accused of abandoning their culture and selling out to white corporate America. It's damn hypocritical and, as much as they don't want to admit it, racist. Bob insists that Indians are the most racist people he's ever come across; I've not got enough info to make a comparative judgment there, but I'll definitely agree that it's not a whites-only problem anymore.

The NYTimes reports that some 40% of Asian-Americans are marrying non-Asians, so a heck of a lot of people are getting a heck of a lot of crap. As much as I regret its existence, I'm dang happy it's happening, so they'll reach critical mass and get people to Get Over It! Not everyone who's not one of you is out to get you, people, so just let us treat you the same as we treat each other and expect the same from you!

Aargh. Sorry about that.

(Afterthought: there, Mr. Yglesias, is that a rant enough for you?)

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