Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On "Freeing Tibet"

A land populated by a people with thousands of years of history, thriving cultures and traditions is invaded by an occupying army. Through a brutal campaign of violence against an entire people - women, children, and the elderly - millions of people die, and the land is taken and occupied. The occupying government encourages its people to take over land that was previously populated by those they killed. The occupied population dwindles and is forced onto the worst land, where they deal with poverty, alcoholism, and depression. They are forced into new schools, their culture brutally stamped-out and tarnished.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Yeah - exactly, it's how the United States was colonized. It's how the Native Indian populations were subjugated, robbed, and destroyed. It's how the original occupants of the land I currently live on hardly exist, anymore. It's how the most successful colony in the world occupied its current territory and got away with it.

It's not too different from how businessmen - that's right, freaking BUSINESSMEN - overthrew the sovereign Queen of Hawaii and then handed the land over to the U.S. government to "annex," so they could make a people's homeland into a glorified theme park for non-native tourists.

Reminiscent of how the same government forcibly interned its own citizens - who happened to have Japanese blood - and stole their property with no real reparations (I don't count a lip-service "apology" and token money generations later as reparations).

Did I mention that they got away with it?

Because where are the international protests when WE host the Olympics? Why doesn't the world cry out in rage about OUR human rights injustices?

Is it because those that benefitted from the theft are the ones who generally protest against all the rest of the world's injustices? Is it because there's an expiration date on justice and what's wrong or right? Or is it just because that would be awfully inconvenient for a lot of people?

Now, don't get me wrong - I don't exactly think the whole current Tibet situation is all good. I don't. I don't think there's a problem with seeing wrong in the world and wanting to bring attention to it - or to try to do something about it. I'm all for it, really.

What I AM against is this ridiculous level of blind hypocrisy that so often goes hand in hand with protesting. If you are a United States citizen, then how can you spend time and energy protesting the situation in a foreign continent and not spend more time and energy trying to fix the injustices of the country in which you live? How can you be against foreign occupation by the Chinese, and then be okay with the fact that your house is built on land that your government lied, cheated, killed, and stole to get?

And the answers all seem to come the same way - "well, that was so many generations ago - I didn't do it." Right. So then shouldn't we all "stop living in the past" and worrying about what China did 50 years ago (before most of the current residents were born)? Of course not. So then the "past is the past" argument is B.S. People are still suffering and paying for it. Native Indian cultures are in greater danger of dying out than the Tibetan culture - so, if anything, it should be more pressing to do something NOW.

Oh, but right - that would be so very inconvenient.

Because the second response is the "what am I SUPPOSED to do about it?" To be honest - what the Hell are you really going to do about the Tibet situation? Right - build up media attention, get the information out, not give the government an excuse to ignore it, MAKE IT MATTER. Now imagine if it was the country's own residents doing it. Not just Indians, themselves, but the people who benefitted. What if there were tons of "Free the U.S." benefit concerts headlining the biggest American bands? What if there were thousands of volunteers and protesters doing their part every day? What if popular media personalities talked about it? Maybe something could actually happen. Probably not - but so far all that hasn't changed China's mind, either.

And the fact is - unless you're willing to give back your land to whichever tribe it originally belonged to (REALLY willing to do so), then you have no right to protest against all these foreign "occupiers." Want to know why they don't give up their occupations (this goes for Israel, to China, to Morrocco)? The same reason the people of this country aren't willing to give up their homes and land to make right for the ridiculous, horrifying injustices of this nation's past. And all these other countries didn't kill off a whole other race of people to make good on their occupations.

And it always gets flipped, right? The question - so what are YOU (meaning me) doing about it all? No, I don't hold protests. I'm not organizing a petition of people willing to give their land back (although, maybe I should get started on that). But I AM asking the questions. And I try to get people to think. It's not enough - and I'm enabling the injustice to continue, as well - but in none of that does it make it non-hypocritical for U.S. citizens to fight other people's battles while ignoring that of the occupied in their own country.

And that's the problem. That's white privilege. Or "upper-middle-class" privilege. Or "developed-nation" privilege. Or "superpower" privilege. Whatever you want to call it - the tendency to think that we know it all and have the right to tell other people how to do things. That we know better, and thus are "doing good" by getting mixed up in other people's problems, as we view them from our own narrow cultural world-view. Meanwhile, we let injustice happen on our own doorstep because "it's not my fault - I'm not directly responsible" or there's "nothing I can do." And then we re-convince ourselves that we're "making a difference."

Yeah - we ARE making a difference. But the direction in which that difference tends is up to more of a debate than we like to think.

* Pretty good of me to write this whole essay without even putting it on the current popularity of China-bashing (because they're starting to get some clout) while we ignore white countries' similar injustices (Ireland, for instance), isn't it?

** Oops - I guess we can ignore footnote number one.


Anonymous said...

Hello - I found you via racialicious and I have to say "THANK YOU" - really. It has been very difficult to explain this to some people (being a person of color), without having them get defensive and derail what I'm saying with "putting YOUR PAST concern over a current one is wrong."

Grandpa Dinosaur said...

I also found this via Racialicious.

Your words really reached out to me, I'll try to share this with whomever I can. Thank you.

mthgk said...

I think your sentiments are spot-on! Frankly, all of the to-do about Tibet has always left a bad taste in my mouth. Many proponents seem self-righteous and pretentious; the cause being more about their egos than the plight of the Tibetans.

Yes, there is injustice in the world, but who are we to presume to pass judgment abroad when we have so many current and past blemishes on our country's human rights record. "People in glass houses...."

seitzk said...

here via racialicious

I completely agree. Thanks so much for this post, the sentiments of which I've seen before, but rarely if ever so well expressed.

@mthgk - I disagree with you that the post said we can't pass judgement. If someone does something f-ed up, it's wrong, end of story. But when you are simultaneously standing on someone's neck and bemoaning the fact that someone in the next town over is also standing on someone's neck, there's some hypocrisy that you need to address before your outrage can be taken seriously. At least that's what I've gotten out of it. I feel like your reading might justify excusing other people's bad behavior if you've got any faults of your own, which is not what I saw this saying. Whew.

magda said...

Not to mention the US prison population (2.3 million) which is actually greater than China's (1.6 million) or any other country.

Source: http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/23/america/23prison.php

Anonymous said...

I'm a Tibetan Buddhist and a POC, and I just want to say that this is the very reason why I'm reluctant to join any "Free Tibet" organizations not headed by an actual Tibetan, even though the issue cuts me harder than most others. I tried to put into word what you've wrote and thank you for getting this idea across. I really think a lot of these Free Tibet white people are just using this issue to demonstrate the very white privilege of self-righteous indignation while ignoring their own extreme hypocrisy, while at the same time justify their own xenophobia against the Chinese, the next world super-power which might change this white-dominated world. There are ways to change the situation in Tibet, but whatever the organizations run by white people is doing ain't it.

ansel said...

I'm a white guy. I agree that a lot of pro-Tibet folks aren't critical of their own white/American privilege. At the same time, I've heard similar critiques from folks on the left, to the effect of "Why are you criticizing China when America violates human rights just as much, if not more?" I don't accept that I should criticize one, simply because I'm a citizen of that nation, but not the other. I should apply the same standards and scrutiny to both. If I'd been 20 and not 8-years-old during the Atlanta Olympics, I hope I would have been out protesting the destruction of affordable housing in that city and the country's very hosting of the games. This year China hosted the Olympics, and folks who are concerned about human rights anywhere would be remiss not to use the spotlight on China to demonstrate. Someone said that it's important to back groups led by Tibetans. I agree, and I think one of the best orgs is Students for a Free Tibet. They're the ones who effectively pulled off high-profile protests in and around Beijing during the games. Their actions were amazing and critical to bringing a level of public scrutiny and accountability to the Chinese regime that the media and IOC totally failed in doing. It's effed up that there's not a similar level of organizing around, say, the abandonment of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe which has been devastated by Hurricaine Gustave. So yeah. USA and China: both deserving of much protest and outrage. That's my thought. Please call me out if my view is being clouded by my privilege.

CVT said...

Thanks for all the kind words from various readers - I'm glad you found this, and I'm glad it spoke to all of you. It's especially nice to hear from a Tibetan regarding these particular thoughts.

Again, I'm not saying that justice is being served over in Tibet, but there's just so much for people to take care of over here - it just kills me how much more common it is for (generally white) Americans to find "foreign" causes to hype and spend so much time on while letting things they should be more able to affect go on here.

Ansel - I appreciate you chiming in with a (slightly) dissenting opinion. I'm not going to get anywhere in a dialogue where everyone agrees, so it's important you jump in. I'm still not entirely sure you're catching me here, though. China's got it's issues, and the government surely isn't above reproach just because the U.S. government isn't squeaky, itself. My point is just that it's got to be more than a coincidence that Americans (again, generally white, but not necessarily) are so quick to jump on the "Free Tibet" bandwagon, while letting the situation of Indian reservations continue without a peep. Again - if thousands of people regularly stood up (ESPECIALLY thousands of white folks) for land repatriation to Native Indians, I would shut up about this. But they don't. Because it's not something they are willing to pay for (because they/we are the ones benefitting). And - again - that's the same reason the Chinese aren't exactly going to change their minds.

As far as white privilege goes in this: it SHOULDN'T be an equal thing. If you are a U.S. citizen (of most races, really) you are directly benefitting from an occupying nation's dirty work. Therefore, you should be spending MUCH MORE time and energy to make up for that than criticizing a foreign nation (which just so happens to be a competing power full of non-white people). Criticize Chinese policy and then ACT on the last few hundred years of genocide and land-theft.

OR - stay out of both. That's not helping, exactly, but at least it's consistent. And when a person in a privileged position is being inconsistent at the cost of those of another culture - that's when people get angry.

Does that make sense?

jenessa said...

There is a lot to be said about the amount of work that needs to be done in the US and gets put to the wayside because people find it sexier to fight the good fight abroad. However, some credit should be given to the fact the US citizens have been protesting their countries illegal occupation of other lands via the war in Afghanistan I mean Iraq I mean Iran.

I understand that there is a considerable amount of privilege tied to being able to travel globally in order to stand up for principles. But in a sense that same privilege IS put to use by US citizens in the US. The same people rallying against the war are rallying to save Darfur. I can remember during the WTO protests thinking "Who the eff has the time or money to take off to Seattle and riot?" (especially since the news made it seem like anti-Starbucks protests). Even when you look at the demographic in social justice networks, educational programs, and jobs you see white, white, white, white.

There are a number of different reasons for this, and to say "privilege" is a fairly good umbrella term for a lot of deeper and connected problems.

So, in a sense, I agree with you, and in a sense I feel like the extent of your criticism is a little short sighted. Native Americans have not gotten the amount of focus that they should and consideration that they should be given by people working for social justice. However Native Americans and Japanese Americans have not by far been the only groups effected by the US's racism, human rights violations, and colonialism. We could perhaps start with Native Americans, but would also have to include American's of African decent and the entire Hispanic and Latin American diaspora in the Americas, not to mention Asian Americans (from all regions of Asia including the Middle East and South Asia, not just East Asian).

What ends up happening is that, via US foreign policy and the large number of ethnic backgrounds found in the US, and also via the entanglement of the west's colonial past in the current situations facing the rest of the world, its hard to prioritize one cause over another. I say this especially as a Black woman, and maybe you're criticism was meant to be an exclusively white criticism. I don't feel obligated to prioritize my social justice work according to my nationality, my race, my sexual orientation, my gender etc. I feel like this is a reflection on the old philosophical ethics question of distance. Are we ethically more responsible for people who are nearer to us, either in proximity or via identity, than we are to people who are further away? I don't think so.

It is spot on that a lot of people, whether consciously or unconsciously, are more willing to subvert foreign systems as opposed to domestic because they benefit from the domestic system. But the entire American way of life in some way or another benefits from the existence of the third (read: rest of) the world's poverty, corruption, and violence.

So, guess what I'm driving at is an honest question: Do you find that the international causes that whites, in particular, rally against (or for) are the kind that will have a subsequent effect on the global and domestic oppressiveness of the American system, or are you giving more of a critique to those protests against foreign situations that are far enough removed from the US to avoid any subversion of the status quo domestically?

Kudos on breaking the seal of critical thinking here, by the way. Its 7 am, I haven't had coffee yet, and you got my brain working, theres a lot to be said for that as well.

CVT said...

Jenessa - thanks for the thoughtful comments. Let's see if I can - relatively briefly - respond:

I am specifically talking about the whole "Free Tibet" trademark for right now. There are plenty of other hip "movements" out there that bother me for similar reasons, but I'm sticking to one thing for now.

And you've hit on it in regards to the privilege that enables somebody to protest (at all) and especially when it calls for travel. That doesn't necessarily make it wrong or not useful, but it's worth mentioning (and thinking about).

But what I'm really going for is the inconsistency in "standing up for" foreign causes that don't ask for the people doing the standing up to give up anything important while avoiding standing up for in-home causes that would likely ask for just that. If I'm asking a Chinese national to now give up his farmland in Tibet, so that they can be free from Chinese occupation - then I should be fighting just as hard for myself to give up my own land and privileges that European occupiers procured for me through violence against other people.

That's what I'm shooting for: honest-to-God consistency and self-examination by those "fighting the good fight." Because I don't doubt the good intentions of (most) protesters and activists. What I do doubt is their self-reflection while throwing themselves in.

And I chose the Native Indian and Hawaiian examples because they most directly mirror the situation in Tibet. Also, because it blows my mind - daily - that I live in the only really successful imperial colony in the world, and nobody talks about it. How can colonizers "win Independence"? It's so ridiculous a concept - and yet everybody seems to accept it.

Of course, there are a million more issues in the U.S. that could use some attention - reparations for slavery of African-Americans is an obvious one. However, I feel like that gets talked about more, and by more qualified people than myself (i.e. black folks), so I didn't need to bring it up in this particular case. I would list everything else, but nobody would read through all of it - hence this blog and my slow slog through each thing, one at a time.

So to recap - I'm not saying that we should ignore the problems of our global economy and society. Not at all. In fact, I should probably write a post about that. But what I am saying is that folks (especially white folks, but not just them) need to do a lot more self-reflection and privilege-checking when they decide to put their time and effort in. Not to mention getting more consistent in addressing problems that they directly benefit from and would have to pay to redress.

If that honest self-reflection happens (Ansel seems like he's on that track), and the decision to go forward happens, then that's fine. But I ask those (like Ansel) to then help call out their partners-in-protest to make sure that that self-examination is a universal thing, as opposed to the exception.

jenessa said...

gotcha. I totally understand your argument and agree that a remarkable amount of self reflection is essential to being socially conscious and aware. However, I'm not sure if you can separate the States' success as an imperial colony from the current and historical race relations in this country, particularly as it relates to African Americans and indigenous populations (including the Hispanic populations originating in the south western states). I also think that defining who and who does not fall into the racial categories of African American and Native American would be problematic. Reparations along those lines are difficult at this point in history for a lot of reasons, for example African Americans have no original claim to land ownership on this continent and both African and Native American ethnic identity is hard to define and trace without running into contradictions. Just some considerations. Thanks for taking the time to give such a thoughtful response.

ansel said...

Thanks for the reply, ctv. You're totally right, of course. I was thinking that I should come back and correct my comment. White Americans do bear a unique level of direct responsibility for their own country's actions. That shouldn't preclude me from protesting China, but it does mean that I should devote at the very least an equal, but really greater level of effort to resisting my own government's repression and ongoing occupations against indigenous folks than to foreign causes in which the government has no involvment.

I think the Tibet movement is attractive to most white people for a number of reasons, some of which you already mentioned, which don't interfere with their privilege: the exoticism of the place, the celebrity of the Dalai Lama, and the opportunity to feel good about representing for an exiled people while criticizing China. I was drawn to pro-Tibet activism early on for some of those reasons, which is messed up.

The thing is, my understanding is that Tibetans really do want and need all the help they can get, whatever the motivation behind it. I've come to know a group of Tibetan families who live in Austin, and they've been disappointed by our local Students for a Free Tibet chapter's relative lack of success. They're disappointed by the Dalai Lama's excessively non-confrontational leadership. They'd probably dispute your portrayal of Tibet as being a "hip cause" - to them, Tibet and its culture are dying away more with every passing day, and despite the lip service from various people with privilege and power, nobody is actually doing anything to challenge China or change the situation on the ground.

The Native Americans here are in just as desperate a situation, if not more. So I'm not sure it's possible as an individual to be in real solidarity through actions with all colonized people. Dismantling the repressive systems which benefit me directly, that sustain the land beneath me which was stolen, should come first.

By the way, you mentioned you were glad that a Tibetan had left a comment. Not sure if you're referring to anonymous, who said he/she was a Tibetan Buddhist and POC, but a lot folks who say they are Tibetan Buddhists mean that they're adherents to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism and not that they're Tibetan.

Also, just wanted to note that after China invaded, the CIA began funding, training, and arming small bands of Tibetan guerrilla fighters. This continued for at least a decade, until relations with China began to normalize. The Tibetans were suddenly cut off, hung out to dry, and the guerrilla movement died. It doesn't compare, obviously, to the colonization of Native lands. But there is that connection, in which Tibetans were at one point also abused and then abandoned for the sake of US empire.

Okay done, sorry for the long comment. Again, call me out if I'm being stupid. I just subscribed to your blog.

CVT said...

Jenessa -
I agree with you in that race and the success of the U.S. "colony" are intricately tied together. So much so that people are able to think of that as "normal" and ignore it.

Which then puts me in the position to (sadly) agree that reparations (on any level) would be ridiculously complicated and not very realistic (especially at this point). I don't really have a solution. Of course, the "unrealistic" aspect of the need to do something to make up for it does not change the fact that people should keep it all in mind.

Ansel - My whole take is looking at "Free Tibet" from an American citizen's viewpoint (one not of Tibetan heritage). Of course it's not a "hip cause" to those it directly affects. To those whose heritage comes from that land, in the same way that racial equality is not a "hip cause" to me because it so directly affects who and how I am. That said, some issues around race really are a "hip cause" to some white folks - it's all a matter of perspective.

I also relate Tibetans' desire for help to issues of globalization and humanitarian aid . . . which I think I'll just go ahead and post on now to prevent further long comments on this particular thread (by me - I welcome long comments from the rest of y'all).

And finally, Ansel - I have to say just your presence and participation on this blog give me some hope. I just wish more white folks were willing to read opinions from folks like me (and actually have some dialogue about it without getting uncomfortable).

To the rest that found me through Racialicious - it feels good to get the feedback. I hope you all keep popping in to say your piece(s) in the future.

Lisa said...

I'm also here via Racialicious. I'm a US-born caucasian, and a permanent resident of China.

I get so irritated with the Western fetishization of Tibet, coupled with the demonization of China. Ask these people about Taiwan or Xinjiang, they mostly haven't heard of them. Because no cute fuzzy monks or "deep" religions there in Islam or normal Buddhism.

What China is doing to Tibet has nothing on what China is doing to China. The cultural holocaust is ongoing, and the government is aggressive and relentless about eradicating Chinese culture so they can replace it with a more pliant faxsimile. And dumb Westerners gawping at the Olympics and the latest Zhang Yimou tripe are complicit.

"Western" hypocrisy and idiocy towards China, ugh. Because Han-on-Han oppression just isn't as sexy as when you involve yak grease.

Anonymous said...

holy shit this is sooo how i have felt but never been able to really put it into words like this. wow thank you!

ansel said...

@Lisa: "What China is doing to Tibet has nothing on what China is doing to China."

Really? Is it really necessary to elevate one oppression over the other?

Anonymous said...

People seem to forget that by many accounts, Tibet before the communist invasion was as equally a shitty place to live for Tibetans (if they weren't monks) as it is under the communists.

Clouding the thinking of free Tibet activists more that white privelege is white naivete. Tibet was a theocracy, clerical minority at the top with a peasant majority living in medieval squalor at the bottom.

Romantic notions of a peaceful Shangri-La, suspended in a mutually blissful equilibrium are simply false. Tibetan serfs were brutalised in ways that would make communist torturers proud.

So what exactly does a "Free" Tibet mean?

Anonymous said...

What of Indians supporting the Free Tibet movement? Are they benefiting off the blood of their forebears seeing how Indians are also U.S. citizens? White folks may not get away with the hypocrisy argument aimed towards them by the pro-China camp or their sympathizers but skins can. So what are you going to blast at a skin who supports Tibet or any other indigenous group in the grip of colonization? Yes, there are skins who support Tibetans and don't see China in a positive light.

Anonymous said...

While we're on the topic of Indians, didn't the Chinese help develop the railroad system? Yes, the very same railroad that cut through Indian country, made bison hunting a popular sport for Americans and foreigners alike thereby decimating the bison population further. I wonder how sincere the Chinese that bring up the tired Indian argument to slap pro-Tibet Americans in the face are about helping skins or if they actually care. Or are we simply tools any foreigner can bring up to slap Americans in the face and once Americans shut up you can go back to ignoring us... even when Chinese are currently living on American soil and thus contributing to the illegal occupation of Indian country.

CVT said...

To the most recent "Anonymous" -
Why would you think I would have a problem with indigenous Americans fighting for a "Free Tibet"? The right of that particular fight is pretty much the whole point of this post (as it is no longer hypocritical, in that case).

As for your second round of comments:
Please read my other posts before you tag me as some random "Chinese" guy trying to shift attention away from China through the use of Indian history. The general outrage is understandable - but I never once claimed that my own ancestors aren't also to blame (I'm half-white, too, you know) for the theft. I think if you read my other posts you'll understand that I'm not mindlessly flapping my gums with no action - and I certainly don't blindly support China (I still haven't ever even been there, and don't identify as "Chinese," really).

Again - read more and let me know what you think. I have no problem with the challenge (I could use more of that, in general), but I just think that you'd think differently about my intentions if you read more of my posts . . .