Sunday, November 2, 2008
On Being More Other than Other
Recently, the subject of racial hierarchies has been on my mind. At "Mixed Race America," Jennifer posted about Asian racism in regards to interracial dating. At the same time, I was having a conversation with a mixed (black/white) friend of mine about hanging with her relatives, and the different styles of ignorance that comes out depending on which side she's with. Not too long before that, I had some conversations with my mother (Chinese) about her dating mostly white guys growing up, and her exposure to black folks (and culture). Add to that all the forms of bigoted Halloween costumes and what that says about people's respect for other races and cultures, I haven't been able to avoid thinking about it.
So I think it's time to lay down an obvious fact (but one few people acknowledge or talk about): EVERYBODY ranks the races in some way. Some may be more conscious about it all, but EVERYBODY does it. And so I thought I'd put forth a list of my perceived racial rankings, from the point of view of people of differing racial backgrounds.
Now, the rest of this post is going to be based purely on observation and experience, so I don't have statistical data for those that want cold, hard, facts. However, I think a lot of it is just common sense - but anywhere where I am just plain wrong, I welcome my readers to set me straight.
So here comes the CVT's Hierarchy of Race:
Let's start with white America.
There are a few different sub-sections here, dependent on economic class, geography (in terms of the likelihood of being exposed to different races), and self-proclaimed "liberal-ness" or "conservative-ness." But, to cut to the quick - white folks are on top. They are in a literal, power-structure sense, but they are also on top in a sub-conscious understanding sort of way to white folks. And this transcends other variables, mostly due to the power of the media. No matter what a white American professes, the vast majority of them understand that being white is "normal" while anything else is not. And with that "normality" comes a sense of superiority. Because even "liberals" have a gut-level belief that other races are inferior enough that they need "white saviors" to come swoop down to save them. At best, these saviors poor pity on other races - using the numbers of "minorities" to demonstrate the level of difficulty this "saving" takes (i.e. more non-white people = "tougher" school/neighborhood, etc.). I don't need to talk about the more overt levels.
Now, the rankings for white folks after number one differs dramatically by the situation. If we're talking about academic success or raw intelligence, white folks will stick to the stereotypes of Asians being number one (while putting black and Latino at the bottom). However, athletic ability will have black folks at the top, followed by Latino, then "others" and Asians at the bottom. In terms of just raw "coolness," black and Latino are at the top, again with Asian at the bottom.
So the question is: what about all the other races? Why am I not ranking Arab, Native American, Pacific Islander, or other more specific ethnicities in the white racial hierarchy? Because, mostly, they don't exist in the hierarchy. They just get lumped into a category of a race that has the most similar skin-tone or eyes (unless we're talking about "terrorists," of course).
So what about Asians?
Asian-Americans are a hugely diverse population of people, but the basic hierarchies remain the same. Depending on the ethnicity, Asian folks (and right now, I'm drawing more on Chinese experience, as I know less about other Asian cultures, directly) would have white and Asian in the first two places. Some Asian folks in America will set white as the bar to reach, while others (and my grandmother was definitely on this list) hold to the superiority of the homeland and their own race.
And then it falls out much like with white folks. Black folks are seen to be the most "dangerous" and "unacceptable" in terms of dating and the like (I would say, in many cases, even MORE so than with white folks these days). Other brown folks would come in second (even Asian-Indians have a clear preference for lighter-skinned folks within their own "race"). But again, in terms of "coolness," many Asian youth tend to emulate "black" youth culture and music. In many cases, Latino folks aren't as low on the list as with white folks, though - which might be due to the shared immigrant experience, as it's less likely to revile the "foreigner," when you yourself are almost as often seen in that light.
Now my experience runs less strongly with the rest (since it's not my background), but I can hazard some general guesses.
Sadly, black folks - as a whole - do NOT put themselves at the top of the list. The media and constant barrage of negative stereotypes and set-backs have been too strong for that. So white people make the top of this list, as well. Similar to Asian-Indian culture, lighter skin, straighter hair, etc. too often become a standard of "better than," as opposed to more strongly black-associated features.
And, in some ways, I don't even know if - on a very general level - the black community would put themselves second on a racial hierarchy. So much encouragement to fight and hold down EACH OTHER comes down through media messaging, that I often see my kids thinking more highly of other races (other than white) over themselves. Asians seem to have a different standing in much of generalized "black" culture - seen more often as the goofy, non-English-speaking "foreigner." Latinos are also often lumped into the "foreign" category, as if white and black are the only actual "American" races (this mirrors white hierarchies, as well).
This is hugely dependent on country of origin and immigration status (similar to Asian culture). This makes it hard for me to make claims, since I'm less involved with this widespread community. However, I would say that on a very superficial level, white still makes the top of the list.
This would parallel other indigenous cultures and the system of self-hate that has been beat into them from the days of the colonization. It's a combination of pride and defeat that holds white as far below on a scale of nobility, but simultaneously on top in terms of success and power. In my experience, I have not come across another group that so clearly holds contempt for the white race while also standing them on a pillar. It makes sense, given the history, but it's an interesting (and frustrating) dichotomy.
And I'm going to stop here because I've been slowly treading into the land of blind conjecture, and I don't feel like making any more blanket stereotypes with even less personal experience to back me. In the end, this is my particular perspective based on my particular experience as an ethnically-ambiguous Chinese/white mix who has found himself mixing it up with a lot of different racial cultures. I'm sure I've been far too broadly general, but I would love to hear folks' more personal takes on my claims - to set the record straight, as well as let me know where I'm accurate.
After I see some outside opinions on the matter, I'll follow up with a more thorough treatment of WHY and HOW this all happens, and what I think we should do about it.