Friday, September 19, 2008

On Being "Other"

I enjoy going to the movies. Any movie, really. Stupid action flicks, comedies, dramas, fantasy - whatever. I just enjoy going to the movies. But there's always a price I pay.

For instance, the other night, I decided I wanted to go see a movie in the theatre. I didn't know what I wanted to see, but I noticed that "Burn After Reading" (the new Coen brothers movie) was showing at the little neighborhood theatre down the street from me. So I went. Alone.

And so I got there, bought my ticket, got some popcorn, and found a seat. I was a little bit early and - this being a little "historic" theatre - there weren't any ads or anything else playing before the show time, so I had a chance to munch my popcorn and look around the theatre. And - lo and behold - I was literally the only non-white person in the room.

The only one. Nobody else. A full theatre. And I was the only non-white person. And it's not that there were some "probably-white" folks thrown into the mix. No - everybody was as white as white can be. Everybody. Except me.

And then the previews started. And one of them was a preview for a movie coming out (poorly) lampooning Michael Moore called "An American Carol" (let's just say they made a slavery joke and two Arab jokes in one minute-long preview) that got a couple laughs.

I brushed it off. I hadn't come to see that - I already know that people like that exist, that people find that kind of thing funny. Moving on.

So the real movie started, and I got pulled in, and off I went. But while I was getting into the movie, I couldn't help but count that there were only four people of color in the whole film (with speaking parts - none of them more than two lines), and I'm pretty sure that included the extras. But I knew that was going to happen - it always happens like that - so I moved past it. I brushed it off and kept watching the movie.

And - overall - I enjoyed it. I thought it was pretty funny. Nothing in the movie was overtly racist or pissed me off (one of the speaking characters of color was the Latino janitor . . . but they didn't really go there in a bad way, so I could shake it off). So when the movie ended, I felt more or less satisfied.

But then, as I got up to leave the theatre, I saw everyone else around me again. And I was reminded: oh yeah, EVERY single other human being in the place was white. Everybody. Except me.

And then I re-reflected on the characters in the movie - oh yeah, everyone that even slightly mattered was white. Not like me.

And then I started thinking about the fact that I was probably the only person at that showing that actually gave a sh-- about any of that. That noticed that. That looked out at that sea of white faces and felt uncomfortable in any way. Because - for all those people - what they looked at when they did so was "normal." It was like them. It was like what they were seeing on the big screen. It was like what they see all day every day. "Normal."

And so one more little chip settled onto my shoulder. One more added for another day when I couldn't avoid thinking about my other-ness in the particular world and city I live in. Just like every other day. One more chip piled onto the thousands already settled there. One more chip that my soul has to adjust to, get a little stronger to carry. Because that's how "normal" treats those that don't look like the "norm."

And that's the thing that keeps white folks from EVER being able to understand race. Because "that one time" doesn't do it. A whole year or two of voluntarily (and I stress, VOLUNTARILY) standing out in a foreign country doesn't do it. It's a lifetime. And the knowledge that it's going to last the REST of that lifetime, as well. There's no going home. There's no changing my mind. A plane ticket isn't going to do anything. There's no choice.

And yeah, yeah - I chose to see that movie, at that theatre, in this city. I chose all that. And I knew exactly what to expect. But that's not the point. It's that I have to very consciously think about those decisions and what that's going to mean for me, as an experience. That if I choose to go with "mainstream" - I'm going to get this experience. That I have to choose very specific movies and locations in which to watch those movies to get a taste of a different kind of "norm."

THAT'S what race means in this country. It's carrying around this weight on a daily basis and constantly having to adjust and think about how and where and when you're going to walk around in the world. Having to "brush off" constant little reminders and insults and frustrations just to stay sane and smiling.

And when I think about all this, it occurs to me: for some people, that ISN'T the case. For some people, what they see on tv and in the media actually does somewhat resemble what they see in the mirror. For some people, the sea of white skin that poured through my evening wasn't even noticeable because that is what "normal" looks like. For some people, that ever-so-slight ache of loneliness doesn't hit them every time (or any time) that that kind of "normal" surrounds them.

And that's kind of crazy to me. Because, for me, the consciousness and ache and other-ness . . . THAT'S "normal" in this country. And I wouldn't want to be on the other side if it meant losing that awareness. But those few hours per month (or two, or three) when it all flips upside-down? DAMN, if I don't appreciate it . . .


thesciencegirl said...

Really, really nicely said. I can totally relate to this. In fact, I was sitting in my local Starbucks tonight, in my very white neighborhood, thinking about some of these very things. The longer I live in this neighborhood, the greater my discomfort grows. But to move to a more diverse neighborhood requires a lot of inconvenience on my no-car, bus-riding, busy-student self. I requires moving further way from the city center (b/c the people of color always live on the outskirts of cities), and further away from friends.

It's funny. I've always lived in very white areas. But I think it bothers me more now because as a self-sufficient adult, my environment is now a direct result of my choices. It's just unfortunate how difficult those choices can sometimes be. Like my choice to pursue higher education: that right there is a choice to remain a minority among my peers. And the more education I pursue, the fewer the people who look like me.

Kate said...

I started this comment a couple times because I want to contribute, but... I'm white. And ok, so I have a small amount of perspective on this through being a woman (I know someone who doesn't go to see a movie unless there are two female characters in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. She hasn't seen a movie in three years), and because of what it was like in China.

Yes, I know. Voluntarily, and I knew that there was somewhere (several somewheres) where I could fly to that I would be the norm in. But it was a visceral experience and, while it can't and doesn't make me understand what it is like to be non-white in a default-white place (which is supposed to be YOUR place), it opened my eyes in a very real way, and I'm grateful for it. It gave me a (very) small insight into how much energy it takes to build that bubble around yourself, to shrug off all those things.

In the end, what I have to offer is this. Someone pointed out to me last week that they can't buy skin coloured bandaids. Because they are black. And bandaids are... well... skin coloured. MY skin colour.

I think I've thought about that every hour for the last week. It blew my mind. And what else haven't I thought about, because I don't have to. Because I am 'normal'.

Greg said...

I totally hear ya. And it's *constant*. Yeah, it's in the jokes that people know are offensive, and it's in the comments that people don't even think for a moment might be insensitive. But it's also in what's not there -- where is my representation?

It's so sad that, for most people, if they're not forced outside their box, they'll never leave. For people who are "other," looking at things from an "other" perspective *is* normal. I sometimes wonder if I'd be as sensitive to things if I weren't "other." Or would I just live life as if there were no real problems, no injustice, nothing out of the ordinary?

Lxy said...

Your experiences could be summarized as The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.

White cultural norms, worldview, and "moral values" (such as they are) are normalized in the West and indeed the world.

After all, White people are the universal exemplars of the human race--and they have a disgusting sense of racial entitlement no matter where they spread on this planet.

Global white supremacy.

It's coming to a theater near you.

CVT said...

Science Girl - I definitely hear you on being in mostly-white areas by choice . . . I constantly ask myself, "What the Hell am I doing in PORTLAND!?" But then - I feel like maybe I can change some of the mentality by being an active representative of the color that keeps leaving (or was never here to begin with).

Kate - You're white. And you still are part of this whole racial dance, so don't worry about saying your piece. Just wanting to be part of this conversation (and being willing to read about it, and think about it, etc.) puts you a step ahead of the rest.

And Greg - I am constantly thankful for my "other" status because of the awareness it brings me.

Lxy - nothing more for me to add.

da kine hapa said...

CVT, thanks for posting.

Your movie story totally reminds me of the time I went to see Dave Chappelle's Block Party. We picked a theater based on the most convenient showing time and ended up in a "historic" theater too, in a "gentrified"(read: mostly white) neighborhood. When we walked into the theater, at first, I thought we were in the wrong one, because every last person in there was white. Except me. I actually got up to check the marquis because I was so confused. And let me tell you, it was weird. At least for me. Everyone was so quiet during the movie. Talk about block party poopers.

As a hapa, there are very few places I don't feel like an other. Depending on the people, I pass or don't pass according to what they see in/on/about me; or what they want to see about me. And yeah, sometimes I feel sad and lonely. But I agree with cvt, I'm glad at least my experience of otherness gives me an *awareness* of other-status that people who fit the norm don't often have.

hexy: hexpletive said...

You've phrased this so well. It's something I always find hard to put into words, and I usually end up snapping something curt and unhelpful like "Well, isn't it nice that YOU had the luxury of not noticing the racial makeup of the room?"

It happens all the time. And as someone who passes as white for most of the year, I get to stack feelings of invisibility on top of feelings of abnormality and unconscious ostracism.

Anonymous said...

Also white (Euro-American) living in HK. So, I'm used to being "other" (of course w/ tons of white privilege, legacy of colonialism). If you look Euro, you get praised for the same bad Cantonese that someone who's ethnic Chinese raised Anglophone in S'pore gets scolded for.

One time I was in a group of other women (almost all from the USA & Canada) and, I raised the issue (as an anti-racist): "Hey, isn't it kind of weird that we're all white here." - it was more than 30 women and some got angry for me even *raising* the issue. How they hated talk about race, how race didn't matter, it's all about individuals, the usual shtick. Frustrating.

My kids are Eurasian (hapa?) - their schools are mostly HK-Chinese, people of Euro extraction (either directly from Europe of via NZ, Oz, or the No. Am w/ some So. Asian Kids and a few Asian Other (Japan, Korea, etc.).

A few years ago, my daughter (then 10) said something along the lines of "I wish there were more mixed kids in my class". And I said "what about X, Y, and Z". She answered, "Yes, but there's only about 4 of us." [out of ~ 28 kids). So, even what looks like a good environment to me as a parent - she felt she wanted more of her own.

Her swimming teacher is hapa - a guy about my age (in fact, his son was in her class). One time I asked her if she liked that he was mixed too, like her. She said yes - that she liked him for other stuff as well (kind, patient, funny, etc.).

Raising my kids here, I wonder if/when they live in the USA, what their whole take on the race thing will be - and how their identities as Americans will develop (since they're mostly being raised outside the USA).

So, I read sites like this to gain insight and to develop my thoughts.

CVT said...

Anonymous -
All I can say is "thank you." You have no idea how important it is for the white parent to show some awareness of the kid's different experience due to race - and to ask questions and do the research. Your kid is lucky to have you.

hopkimi said...

This is a paradox that I really need to get to the source of: I'm hyper-sensitive to noticing that I'm the only black face just about everywhere I go. It's a standing complaint with me that I'm always the lone black spot on the page.

Here in San Francisco, that page looks mostly asian and white.

But I've always CHOSEN to be in these places so what gives? And having dreadlocks really doesn't help to blend in, but I chose those too. This is tough for me to get my head around, but I think there's something underneath it all that has to do with how I view myself.

Is it possible to give up this notion of "otherness" without the rest of the world having to change in some way?

Lisa Movius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa Movius said...

I have come to cringe at the word "normal" almost as much as I do at "exotic" - they are the flip sides of the coin of presumptive ignorance.

Like previous commentator Kate, I'm a white woman living in ML China, have lived my entire adult life here. Growing up in America, I started out via my family in a wacky extremist religious subculture, apart from a few years at public school where only my fellow outcasts the recent immigrant kids were nice to me. Once escaping I landed into a smart, quirky group that was heavily Taiwanese-American.

Ironically, I "fit in" better in China than I ever did in the US. Mainstream Caucasian-American culture has always bewildered and slightly alarmed me. Growing up and when I visit now, I am expected to know/associate with all this stuff that to me is totally "exotic" and bizarre, but others presume is my "normal" because I'm white. It's not.

In China I'm pretty assimilated, and while I look funny and always start out harassed as otherized - and hate it - once my mouth opens that disperses. I am a lot more culturally fluent in China than I ever was in the US. However, I thus get told I'm "Chinese" by my community in China - and the meaning that I've racially/culturally upgraded is not quite the compliment that they intend.

Perhaps the worst, as Anonymous cited, are the white "expat" types in Asia - who cluster defensively together so they don't have to deal with being a minority. Their cultural parameters are the narrowest imaginable, and their condescending otherizing of Chinese people pisses me off. To them, someone like me - who has shrugged off what they so cling to, and embraced what they so fear - is some sort of seven-eyed, tentacled alien.

My point? is that not only non-whites find all/mostly white films and crowds alienating. I always cast about for a comforting Asian face, my "normal" that I can relate to, and who I presume will be more able to relate to me, instead of deeming me an "exotic" "freak".