So You’re Not Racist, What Next?

The author being cultural and appropriate in Chowk Azam, Pakistan

In this day and age, as a female “person of color” living in a first-world country, I have many opportunities to indulge in the love of Western progressives. Nonetheless, I invite you to look at the big picture, to stop pampering some of us more than we deserve. You’re not racist, good. The next step is to distinguish—really, really distinguish—one “colored” person from another.

Consider the following 21-year-olds:
1. A third-generation Chinese-American or the like.
2. A China-born foreign-raised Chinese-American.
3. An upper-class Chinese educated in international schools, overseas for university.
4. A middle-class Chinese, overseas for university.
5. A middle-class Chinese living in China.
6. A lower-class Chinese living in China.

I have more distinct examples in Africa, South(east) Asia, Central/South America, and many Muslim countries in today’s world. But I’ll stick to Chinese here.

So, are you calling everyone from #1 to #6 “Chinese”? Tell me, among them who has the loudest voice in the West? #1 for sure, followed by #2 and #3, then #4, then #5, then #6. Now,

Does the view of #1 represent that of #6?

No way.

Does #1 outnumber #6?

No way.

I don’t relate to a third-generation Chinese-American any better than I do to an average American. Their grandparents hadn’t fought through the Cultural Revolution. Their parents hadn’t grown up with slogans like “Albania is the bright light of socialism in Europe”; the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 had meant little in their adolescence. And they—the third-generation Chinese-Americans themselves—haven’t been through exam-oriented education to appreciate critical thinking the way I do. They have no right to represent me in your head. Notice the “in your head” bit: They simply want to talk and have the means to be heard; it’s your job to be informed of not-so-easily-accessible voices and gain a balanced understanding. To do so directly is difficult (among all, it involves learning languages), but the least you can do is be aware of your under-informed self.

Three months ago, it was brought to my attention in a Bostonian racial activist group the case of a White girl wearing a qipao being accused of cultural appropriation. In any such cases, #1 would form the majority of the accusers. #2 and #3 would have split opinions. And #4-7 would like her for wearing the qipao. In fact, #7 would rejoice! But #1 are the loudest, so #4-7’s voices get drowned—and activists end up clamoring in support of #1, thinking they are advocating for the Chinese people. They’re not. Note that the accusing comment that went viral was written by a person named Jeremy Lam. I don’t need to explain the first name; the last name you wouldn’t see in mainland China. Yet he writes:

“My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”

Excuse me, “your” culture? You may be eager to hold onto Chinese culture, but there are healthier ways to do so. Funny how some accusers of cultural appropriation are appropriators themselves—and masters of self-victimization, their army formed by good-hearted, self-critical, but under-informed Western progressives.

Indeed, many (not all) White people accused of cultural appropriation have no malicious intent. Their acts, on a global scale, may be loved by many from the culture in question, while the few who have a loud voice accuse them. Activists, please, think before you side with the accusers. And really think, before you become an accuser yourself. As someone from an average Chinese family who moved to Australia as a teenager, I say, wear the qipao all you like. You’re showing me your appreciation of the beauty in Chinese traditional clothing. Go for it.

It’s time to look at each individual in the world as an individual. If your worldview is closer to the right end of the political spectrum, put yourselves in others’ shoes so you can stop seeing others as “others.” If you belong to the left end of spectrum, stop thinking of all non-Whites as “once-bullied colored people.” #7 may have never taken a hot shower, #6 may think of McDonalds as fancy food, while #3 may have never been discriminated against. Not them, not their grandparents. They live a life wealthier than most upper-class White people’s.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof said during our breakfast last year, “I don’t like the word ‘advocate.’ ” What he meant was to save your opinionated self and keep an open mind. How? Travel. After all, all media—movies, documentaries, books, articles (like this one), podcasts, etc.—filter information. Traveling? Not so much. That is, if you actually travel. Being a tourist isn’t the same. Living there, volunteering there, learning the languages there, talking to locals outside tourism, avoiding fancy hotels, restaurants, and tours—these form real traveling. Go. Be informed of the great variance in economic and social spectra in third-world countries, so you don’t make a fool of yourself advocating something you should not advocate.

[A note to writers: A third-generation Chinese-American and a White author have equal rights to write about a contemporary youth raised in a village in Qingtian, Zhejiang, China. Unfortunately, truly disadvantaged people from second and third-world countries do not have a voice. That is why we try to tell their stories, to be as accurate as our best research efforts allow us, and to tell them with love. Note that love doesn’t mean all praise. Everyone should be given a chance to do this.]



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