Monday, November 19, 2007

Black and white

There was one moment from my vacation that was pretty striking to me as an Asian-American. I can't help share it when I'm with people because it demonstrates how differently cultures interpret how to distinguish people.

The first day my friend and I went on a tour of a village. It involved us walking around to view the various farms in the neighborhood. Naturally, we walked past various homes where kids were playing. When they saw us, many would wave their hands and say "hi" and follow behind saying things in Swahili. I could only wonder what they knew about visitors to their village. Did they think us strange, amusing, intruders? Our guide had told us that the children in the village had been told that allowing visitors helps build things such as their classrooms. While I believe this of the children who happily said "hello," I am less sure of the small boy who quietly spied on us for 15 minutes with an air of caution on his face.

Towards the end, a little boy and girl were running down the road saying a couple words over and over as they watched us walk up the road. I asked the local guide what they were saying. He said they were yelling "white people, white people." While I understand how that's true compared to the people they are used to seeing, I felt a bit odd and uncomfortable hearing it.

Here in the U.S., "white people" defines a specific group of people, those typically of European descent. Asians, Hispanics, and other ethnicities are separate categories. America is funny that way. We boast about our wonderful melting pot, and yet we fiercly protect and promote our differences. For better or worse, we identify anything and everyone into millions of categories. There, however, considering the dominant population, anything not black is probably considered white (though I'm not sure what they'd say if they met an Asian Indian). (Of course, parts of Africa continue to discriminate each other by tribal associations.)

There was this general sense of guilt to be associated with "white" because these were the people who colonized them. I didn't want to be associated with that history. Sure, the Africans benefited from some of what was implemented, including education and good farming practices, but on the whole, the colonization was disruptive and devastating for some areas of Africa.

It feels strange to be called "white" because that's not what we learn here in the states. In some ways, being called "white" has a negative connotation as an Asian-American. Some could interpret that as a person who prefers "American" habits over their family's practices or lacks any connection to the customs and beliefs of their ancestors.

Being called white also reminds me of stories that I've heard other Asian tell about visiting the South during segregation. Where do you sit on a bus? Which water fountain do you drink from? One Japanese man recounted how he thought he was supposed to sit with the other "colored" people when a white man directed him towards the white seating. I would have been just as confused as him about which seat to take. Heck, I probably would have just stayed standing the whole ride.

When I've told white friends, they seem to comprehend but simply give me nods of understanding, "oh, that's interesting." When I tell me Asian friends, however, the mood is more of a big laugh followed by discussion and attempts to interpret the situation. I wish there was a way all people could appreciate multiple perspectives.

I'm not an expert on racial studies, it's just my insight into one moment of my life... .

1 comment:

doing nothing at work weds before thanksgiving! said...

It's interesting because in the two examples you gave, the segregation is based not necessarily on the 'melting pot' theory of race, but rather being "not" something. For example, in Africa, if you're not black/African, you're 'white' (or even, you're a foreigner, regardless of race) - they don't care what variation of that you are.

In the 60s, the idea was similiar - the water fountain wasn't for Europeans/Asians/Indians/Arabs - it was for non-blacks.

I agree with what I think you're implying - that views of race so many times are black and white (hehe, no pun intended, just using the expression...) when clearly humans are so much more diverse and complex than that. There just doesn't seem to be space in most societies to encompass everything that actually exists outside their realm of 'reality'.