Saturday, October 2, 2010

For Distant Observers

Get a little closer.

When you say that you don't understand how a person's motivations could be so misconstrued, that it's alarming how appreciation is taken as appropriation, you need to come closer to see for yourself how intentions don't matter, and no matter how nice the intent was, taking cultural items for your own amusement, even if it's for appreciation's sake, feeds into a centuries-long tradition of removing cultural artefacts and stripping them of their symbolism, from the the owners of the culture, to become trophies.

Back then, it was to show how pretty and sweet and quaint these people in the foreign lands are, or as trophies to show how the good people conquered over the barbarians and savages, or as sentimental items of a holiday well-misspent among the servile natives. Now it is to show how much you love this culture, that you would use their cultural artefacts even over the protestations of its living people.

Get a little closer.

Set aside your accusations of oversensitivity for a few moments, and listen to the complaint upon complaint upon complaint - of being ignored in daily life, or being treated just a little bit worse than other people, or being constantly asked, 'where are you from?' as if we could never be assumed to be from "here", because we must always qualify who we are, to prove we belong. Set aside your knee-jerk assumptions that everything is okay and read the reports of discrimination, at work or in the grocery store or at school or, you know, where normal people really should be able to go without feeling uncomfortable.

Get a little closer.

You might feel the stomachs turning when we see yellowface, brownface, blackface, performed by unwitting, well-meaning white people who think that it's a tribute to the cultures that Western-European civilizations have effaced and forced into hiding. You may see our grimaces at being reminded that we cannot wear these images for ourselves without being stereotyped, and our nostrils flaring in rage that once again, our Other-ness is flouted in our faces, as if we didn't live with it enough. You might feel the nervousness and anxiety over the fact that once again, we have to play the role of educator on what is respectful and what is not, while having to field demands to acquiesce to your right to play with our essences, and accusations that we are selfish.

Get a little closer.

You might feel the sadness that we can't perform our own cultures everyday without constantly being questioned whether we really belong, without constantly being stopped to be asked about our Other-ness, without being constantly told to assimilate. You might hear our rage at being told we're doing something wrong by people within and without our culture, at being told to be grateful for your forbearance of putting up with our strange-ness on a daily basis without us showing our Other selves into your face.

Get a little closer.

You might hear the passive-aggressive jabs at our inferiority that serve to keep us in our place, tell us that we must always bend over backwards to please people who wouldn't give us the same benefit of doubt, ensure that when we speak out we are shut down.

Stop playing distant observer. Stop worrying about intent. Stop sitting on the fence. 

Get a little closer. See the effects that these problems you think we're "making a big deal of" have an effect on us and ours. Sit down beside us and really get to know us.

You might be surprised, because these would be stories we don't trust to just anybody, because the reaction we get from telling them is so hurtful, it's best to tell them only where we can feel safe, and these spaces are rare. 

You might get angry because these would be stories which challenge your view of the world and paint you as a bad person, because you might have been that person causing the hurt, and you might be grouped with the people being racist, and you don't want to see yourself as that kind of person.

You might get scared, because these would be stories where you could be the villain, and your good reputation's too important to tarnish, and you don't want to lose your friends, or the permissions to keep doing these things that actually cause the hurt.

But you should be surprised and you should get angry and you should be scared, especially if it means you'll learn something about how to stop the hurting and the anger and the fear. 

Because if you don't, you're part of the problem, whether you meant to, or not.

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