Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Wanted To Be White.....

LOL!!! Psyche - No I Didn't!

An article in the Guardian this past week caught my attention and I thought it would provide a good excuse to start the blogging year on a lighter note!

A Filipino priest has been suspended by his Diocese for giving the welcoming blessings for Christmas Eve Mass while singing a hymn - all while gliding up and down the aisles on a hoverboard. The Diocese was not amused and accused the priest of "capriciously" trying to get the attention of the people. Although I don't know for sure if the priest is Pinoy, to me his actions are Filipino-esque and are certainly culturally appropriate - which should be taken into account when judging him.

I say culturally appropriate because Filipino culture - and hence Filipino people - tends to look favourably on extroversion. Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the solemnity expected for Catholic worship practices, but it also contrasts with the traditional racist view of Asian cultures being introspective and reserved. In fact, not only do Filipinos have an extroverted streak, we are, sometimes, the biggest cheerleaders for any Filipinos who exhibit this trait.

It so happened that my family was the cheerleading-for-Filipinos type. Of particular interest for this blog was that I grew up hearing extremely positive things about Filipino men, both those in my immediate family, but also positive things about the character and masculine qualities of Filipino men in general.

In short, I developed a general sense that being Filipino was just awesome and being a Filipino man came with a proud and powerful history to both live up to and strive for. Whether the stories were true, partially true, or embellished I cannot know, but that is not really all that important - it's the possibilities for aspiration that these kinds of stories present that gave them significance. For someone like myself growing up in a society that demeaned Asians - particularly being the only Asian around - this positive image of Filipino men was hugely instrumental in creating a foundation to mentally resist racial denigration that most of us are exposed to.

Thus, when this article came out last year - and has just been republished as one of 2015's Best Personal Essays by Salon - I found the piece to be strangely familiar, but also at odds with my own experience. Describing his racialized childhood experience, author Tom Phan recounts how his identity as an Asian made him stand out from the white people he lived amongst and how much angst this caused for him. His obvious racial characteristics, various microaggression-type incidences, and even his own Asian name, all served as obstacles to his desire and drive to fit in with his white peers.

The result was that Phan distanced himself from his Asian-ness and from other Asian people, rebelling against the stereotypes placed upon him by consciously trying to embrace behaviours and activities that he felt could set him apart from other Asians. Phan describes this as internalizing his racism and bias so that he could look down on other Asians and be more like the white people he lived amongst.

I am always saddened when I see Asians expressing these kinds of sentiments, and I think that if some of these guys had only taken a solitary first step toward looking at their white peers more critically they might have saved themselves from years of identity issues. Don't get me wrong, I understand and have experienced what it is like to grow up in a culture that dehumanizes Asians but I still wonder why it seems so hard for Asian-Americans to take that leap from wide-eyed adoration to disillusionment about the object of their aspiration.

It's a natural personal process and a common cultural narrative to yearn for something or someone for so long, only to find that once you attain it it was merely an illusion. Asians who have described the process of wanting to be white and who reject their Asian-ness usually get to a point where they choose to embrace their race, but never do they describe the process of being disillusioned with the whiteness they craved. Never do they seem to reach point where look at whiteness with an edge of cynicism about the presumptions it makes about itself.

Cynicism has a bad reputation, but I think that for ethnic minorities, it can be a rational stance to adopt. Even when Phan realizes that he has internalized his experience of racism, I am left wondering if he has made that leap into disillusionment that might finally rid him of the drive to venerate whiteness. Has Phan - or any other Asians with similar experiences to him - started to look at whiteness and the white identity and wonder what the fuss was all about? Is there any inkling of disappointment at having striven so hard to fit in only to find that the fitting in might not have been all it was cracked up to be? That seems to be the part of the journey that we never seem to arrive at.

It is almost a classic journey of self-discovery in which the protagonist yearns for something he perceives some other group possesses, only to achieve his goal and discover that the people he looked up to are a disappointment. That element almost seems to not exist in the Asian-American narrative - or perhaps it does and we are just too polite to mention it. But, it is not just individuals that seem to never reach the point of disillusionment.

I find myself looking at Asian-American culture and I wonder if we are ever sufficiently cynical of the mainstream that we are marginalized from. Are Asian-Americans ever cynical about their conceptions of mainstream sensibilities in their own creative output? It might be hard to find such a theme of disillusionment in Asian-American culture, which is sad because that seems to be the very thing that young Asian-Americans who are struggling to find themselves need. We need the disappointment of seeing the warts in whiteness so that we can distance ourselves from its overbearing and intrusive monopoly on defining the Asian identity.

It is worth mentioning on this point, that Fresh Off The Boat may become the most successful Asian-American centered show to date and its premise seems to be fundamentally critical of whiteness. Cynicism and disillusionment sells.

My disillusionment with whiteness was inherited as a by-product of the positive stories I was hearing about Filipinos, and the disappointment it fostered in me was liberating. The cynicism that followed in its wake knocked the pedestal out from under the mainstream sensibilities that put whiteness up there. My disillusionment was also circumstantial - I experienced anti-Chinese racism because people thought I was Chinese. I could not help but look at these people and be disappointed for them. The result was that I did not internalize racism, but instead found that I was comparing myself favorably against the majority and was happy to look and be different in the ways that Asians look, and are, different.

The gist of all of this is that Phan's rebellion against his background, and his desire to set himself apart from his Asian peers was a good and normal process. Wanting to not be like those you come from is actually normal also. The only negative is that he seems not to have gone far enough in his rebellion because he seems not to have cast an equally critical eye on whiteness.

But, what does all of this have to do with being proud of my Filipino heritage? Being on the receiving end of racists who thought I was Chinese, but who were confounded when they discovered I was Filipino - a people they apparently had never heard of - only reinforced my sense that there was nothing in principle that necessitated my placing white folks on a pedestal and I developed a cynicism about, and disappointment with, notions of white awesomeness. Being inundated with stories of strong Filipino men and the attitude that being Filipino was just awesome gave me a rich inner narrative that went untouched by the ignorance around me.

My unsought advice for young Asian-Americans who struggle with identity and who see whiteness as a Shangri-La is to simply say; look for the warts and the dirt around the edges of the whiteness you see around you. Notice how the system is set up to foster the illusion of white awesomeness and then notice and laugh at the ways that it certainly is not. My hope for Asian-American culture is that it, too, will develop as a critical iconoclastic endeavour that sweeps through the places of white worship in the minds of Asian-Americans, smashing the idols of white perfection that reside there.

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