kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

I can't believe we're leaving for Japan on Saturday. And are leaving here on Friday.

 . . . I only have thirteen or fourteen chapters of Genji left and yet I still don't think I'm going to manage to finish it before we leave.

Anyway. The week that was:

Dear new massage person,

When I say, "I have bursitis in both hips, and just got a cortisone shot in the right one," do not lean really hard on a tight spot in my right hip, because that? Was the inflammed bursae, and now the cortisone shot might as well never have happened.

Yours in never coming back,

She Who Will Limp Her Way Around Japan

Two movies in one weekend, which is pratically unprecedented for us. Besides Bourne, previously discussed here, we saw Stardust on Sunday with [livejournal.com profile] yhlee. It was pretty enjoyable: de Niro's role was, I thought, a misstep that verged on offensive, and there were a few places in the story that had been Hollywooded up, but those flaws didn't taint the entire thing. I refuse to compare it to The Princess Bride, however, because I've been watching The Princess Bride for almost all of my movie-watching life and I simply can't be objective about it.

(I really need try and make an icon of The Grandfather saying, "Yes, you're very smart. Now shut up," and possibly one of "She does not get eaten by the eels at this time." But not tonight.)

Pretty much everything else was International Blog Against Racism Week (my posts, all posts), which was enlightening and frustrating and heartening and maddening and oh so very time-consuming. My deepest thanks to everyone who took time to explain, who listened, who asked clarifying questions, and who otherwise helped make it a little easier to talk about racism. I had a lot of things to say this year, partly because I'd stored them up, waiting for the relative protection of being one of a school of fish; but I'm working on needing that less.

And on that note, I highly recommend damali ayo's I Can Fix It: Racism (PDF), which lists five things you can do to fix racism (via [livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink's post recommending three basic online resources; see also her recommendations of five books).

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

In Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino argues for a new way of looking at discrimination and civil rights. As the title indicates, this centers on the concept of covering, or downplaying a disfavored trait to blend in:

Famous examples of covering abound. Ramón Estévez covered his ethnicity when he changed his name to Martin Sheen, as did Krishna Bhanji when he changed his name to Ben Kingsley. Margaret Thatcher covered her status as a woman when she trained with a voice coach to lower the timbre of her voice. Long after they came out as lesbians, Rosie O'Donnell and Mary Cheney still covered, keeping their same-sex partners out of the public eye. Issur Danielovitch Demsky covered his Judaism when he became Kirk Douglas, as did Joseph Levitch when he became Jerry Lewis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt covered his disability by ensuring his wheelchair was always hidden behind a desk before his Cabinet entered.

The central argument of the book is that covering is an assault on civil rights because it is an assault on autonomy. If one has a right to be something, one has the right to do the things that one feels are part of that identity. Otherwise, "the demand to cover . . . is the symbolic heartland of inequality—what reassures one group of its superiority to another." In other words, though assimiliation can be necessary for peaceful co-existence, its dark side also should be recognized.

The book is a blend of memoir, history, and legal analysis. It begins with a chapter of memoir, charting the author's "struggle to arrive at a gay identity." Yoshino did undergraduate and graduate work in literature before switching law when he accepted his sexuality—because, he writes, "A gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person"—and all of the autobiographical portions of the book are elegant and precise. And in the later chapters Yoshino moves between memoir and history or legal analysis with a remarkable fluidity, never jarring me in the transition.

After the context-setting opening chapter, the book divides into three parts. The first is an examination of gay history, which is itself divided into three parts: conversion, or attempts to change sexual orientation; passing, or attempts to hide sexual orientation; and covering, or attempts not to flaunt sexual orientation. Each section emphasizes how it is still a current problem. Conversion lives in the idea that homosexuality is "contagious" and therefore children need to be protected from the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and passing in the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And both can co-exist with covering, such as in custody cases:

[When denying] custody to a lesbian mother in 1990, a Louisiana appellate court cited "open, indiscreet displays of affection beyond mere friendship . . . where the child is of an age where gender identity is being formed." If acceptable sexuality for same-sex couples is limited to the appearance of friendship, then the expectations for parents are clearly not orientation-neutral.

Notice as well why such covering is required—parental flaunting is dangerous because it could convert a child whose "gender identity is being formed." All three demands for assimilation are simultaneously in play—because children must not be converted, parents must pass to their children and cover to the courts. The shifts from conversion to passing to covering . . . are shifts in emphasis.

The book then considers covering as applied to race and sex, drawing its examples mostly from the employment context. One of the new wrinkles it examines is reverse covering, particularly with regard to women. For most non-dominant groups, the pressure to reverse cover comes from other group members. Women, however, are pressured to cover and reverse cover at the same time and by the same outside group (men), that is, "to be 'masculine' enough to be respected as workers, but also 'feminine' enough to be respected as women."

(Though the book focuses on groups currently protected by civil rights law, because it's written by a law professor, the book takes care to note that everyone covers in ways small and large: "the mainstream is a myth. . . . All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.")

Finally, in the shortest section, the book looks at models of civil rights law. It considers two areas in which the idea of accommodation is supposed to be recognized, religion and disability, and examines the pressures towards assimilation within those areas of law. It then argues for a new model of civil rights:

  • The law right now tends to prohibit only discrimination based on immutable traits. This is misguided: the question should not be whether a person can change, but whether the person should be made to change.
  • One way the law can do this is by focusing on common liberties/fundamental rights, rather than on whether group X needs additional protection. This is partly because courts are more likely to be comfortable with such a formulation, and partly because the group X formulation brings up the question of what's essential to being part of group X, which is dangerously near stereotyping.
  • The law is limited in effectiveness and appropriateness when it comes to covering:

    When I hesitate before engaging in a public display of same-sex affection, I am not thinking of the state or my employer, but of the strangers around me and my own internal censor. And while I am often tempted to sue myself, this is not my healthiest impulse.

    Instead, civil rights law should be part of broader attempts to view ourselves and others with compassion and understanding.

On the whole, I think this is a well-written, useful, and accessible book. It's true that unless carefully deployed, the idea of covering could reinforce stereotypes. As a colleague of Yoshino's puts it, "One way minorities break stereotypes is by acting against them. If every time they do so, people assume they are 'covering' some essential stereotypical identity, the stereotypes will never go away." For this reason, the book attempts to emphasize individual autonomy and authenticity, rejecting demands to reverse cover as well as cover; I think this bears repeating, because it strikes me as the kind of point likely to get lost in general discussions. Also, because describing solutions is harder than describing problems, the final section feels a bit slight (and also strikes me as having somewhat more jargon than the prior sections). However, by targeting a general audience, the book necessarily limits the amount of legal implementation details it can offer.

The idea that everyone covers immediately resonated with me, and I have begun thinking about my own covering and whether all of it is necessary or useful. I hope that when others recognize the concept, they will do the same, and in the process gain awareness of and empathy for those who are pressured to cover without good reason.

(The book's preface, which functions as a short summary, can be read online, as can the scholarly law article which originated the concept (choose "View as PDF" from this Yale Law Journal page).)

(ETA: see also a long New York Times article by Yoshino, The Pressure to Cover, which functions as a long (5,000 words) summary. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] ckd for the link.)

[Cross-posted to my booklog.]

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

This is an American-only post, as I understand that "nationality" has different connotations in different countries. For the general version, which I fully agree with, see [livejournal.com profile] karaadora's post, "Where are you from?" "London" "No, where are you FROM?": why this annoys me and other stories. (Also, Supernatural fans, there is a link to a picture of her with Jensen Ackles.)

It is also part of a set with the previous post.

Dear fellow Americans:

Please stop asking me my nationality, or referring to other people of my nationality. Here in the United States, "nationality" refers to your country of citizenship. (See, news discussions about "foreign nationals.")

When you ask me my nationality, or tell me (in a very well-meaning way) that "other people of my nationality" have been having trouble finding glasses that fit because of the way our faces are shaped, you are assuming that I am foreign. That I am not, in fact, American. And since this is a long-standing stereotype about people of Asian descent, that we are foreigners, you are perpetuating a stereotype. You probably don't know that you're doing it, but it pisses me off. And now you know. So don't do it.

What you really want to know is where my ancestors came from far enough back that everyone around them had yellow skin. I'll accept, "what's your ancestry" or "ethnicity", though I have to say, why do you want to know? I don't go up to random people of European descent and ask them what country their ancestors came from.

Oh, and the same goes for showing off your knowledge of some Asian language by greeting me in it. Do I greet you, a perfect stranger, by saying "Ciao"? No. I know you think you're being polite and respectful. But you're not. And now you know. So don't do it.


An American

(Chad does this nicely when asked, with perfect reason, if we're going to Japan because I have family there: "Kate was born in Korea, but she's from Boston." Which I will try to adapt, except that I would substitute "Massachusetts.")

(I say "try" because, for all that I am ranting here, it's really hard to come out and say this when someone does it in person. I'm working on it, though.)

(Also, on ranting: I'm doing this here, and somewhat in the last one too, because this isn't directed at anyone specifically, and because it does make me angry, and anger has its place—as does being polite. [livejournal.com profile] oyceter has a good post on this.)

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

Another post I should have made earlier!

As the subject says, (almost) all of the conventional race labels are dumb. "White"? Paper is white. People of European descent—which in contemporary American discourse, and probably elsewhere too (international folks?), is what "white" really means—are pink or olive or light brown. [*] "Black"? Likewise not an accurate color description. I've known people who self-identified as "black" who had skin lighter than me.

And more: since white is, as we were all taught in elementary school, the absence of color, it implies that color and therefore race is something only other people have (from the point of view of the dominant "white" population, which is after all the one that matters. </sarcasm>). And "black" and "white" are thought of as opposites, which unfortunately has been made true in a lot of ways when it comes to people, not paint chips, but is still a rotten implication.

[*] I know some people use "pink," which I rather like, but I think that it wouldn't be quite accurate for a lot of people with ancestors in southern Europe, along the Mediterranean, who in current discourse count as "white."

"[Location]-American/British" (etc.) is an identity statement that's not universally true. (An unhyphenated "Asian," unless the person is literally living in Asia, is worse, because it only acknowledges foreignness.) "Native American" is apparently only used by outsiders, and "native" has (to me at least) a faint connotation of "primitive." "Latino/a" and "Hispanic," those are my "almost": I'm ignorant and all I know about them is that people outside those groups tend to get them horribly confused, and perhaps there's also variant usage within the groups; I don't know if they have any negative implications. If anyone with knowledge would care to comment or to point me to useful sources, I would appreciate it.

As for group labels: "People of color" or "non-whites"? Same problem as "white." "Racial minority"? Err, only in limited contexts. Asia alone has 60% of the world's population.

What these labels actually mean, in the ways I hear them used, is, "this is where this person's ancestors came from far enough back that almost all of the people around them looked basically like them, or just where their ancestor (singular) came from if we can tell that the ancestor was from Africa and we're in America and maybe some other places too." So, as I already said, "white" people are really people of European descent; "Asians" are really people of Asian descent; "black" people are really people of (some) African descent; and so forth.

And yet, you will notice that rarely in all this week's discussions have I said, "people of European descent," or "people of African descent," or "people of Asian descent." I've tried, where I thought that level of precision would be helpful, but you know what? The phrases are just too cumbersome in ordinary language.

So I find myself, reluctantly, using "white" and so forth. I don't want to, and I wish there were something better. But at least when I use these terms, I'm aware of some of the implications in them and try to keep those implications from influencing my thoughts.

I'm sure I've missed something, besides my ignorance on "Latino/a" and "Hispanic": tell me!

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

Really quick this time, but to put up-front something I mentioned in a few comments:

I am trying to talk about actions and ideas, not about people, when I'm talking about racism. Here are two reasons why.

[livejournal.com profile] gaudior, [IBARW] The “gotcha” game: How not to undermine your own anti-racism work.

[When anti-racism activists are educating/arguing the anti-racist position,] the purpose is to present anti-racist ideas to people as clearly and convincingly as possible. It has to be done smoothly, in such a way that it slips past defenses to present a point of view that people may not have thought of before, such that their first reaction is “Oh, interesting—I never thought of that before!” not, “Shut up! I am not!” The former lets the person think the idea over and decide whether or not s/he agrees with it—the latter cuts off that possibility before the conversation’s started.

[livejournal.com profile] jonquil, It's not who you are, it's what you do.

Racism, homophobia, and all the other sins are not adjectives: they are verbs. Each individual action counts. It's not whether you are racist, it's that you just said something racist that matters. So suck it up, consider the action, apologize, and don't do it again.

I see these as two sides of the same coin. And I'd take it as a courtesy if people would consider this when commenting in my posts.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

A quick morning link: Scientific American has a story this month entitled "Race in a Bottle." It looks at the history of the approval of the first "ethnic" drug, BiDil, approved to treat congestive heart failure specifically in African-Americans, which is actually a combination of two generic drugs. It concludes that "no firm evidence exists that BiDil actually works better or differently in African-Americans than in anyone else," and that it was presented as an "ethnic" drug for strictly commercial reasons.

It points out that

The patented drug costs about six times as much as the readily available generic equivalents. The high cost has already made many insurers reluctant to cover BiDil and may place it beyond the reach of the millions of Americans without health insurance. Moreover, the unprecedented media attention to the race-specific character of the drug may lead many doctors and patients alike to think that non-African-Americans should not get the drug, when, in fact, it might help prolong their lives.

Perhaps most problematically, the patent award and FDA approval of BiDil have given the imprimatur of the federal government to using race as a genetic category. Since the inception of the Human Genome Project, scientists have worked hard to ensure that the biological knowledge emerging from advances in genetic research is not used inappropriately to make socially constructed racial categories appear biologically given or natural. . . .

The FDA's approval of BiDil was based on accepting NitroMed's argument that the drug should be indicated only for African-Americans because the trial population was African-American. This labeling sends the scientifically unproved message that the subject population's race was somehow a relevant biological variable in assessing the safety and efficacy of BiDil. Most drugs on the market today were tested in overwhelmingly white populations, but we do not call these medicines "white," nor should we. The FDA's unstated assumption is that a drug that proves effective for white people is good enough for everyone; the same assumption should apply when the trial population happens to be black. Otherwise, the FDA is implying that African-Americans are somehow less fully representative of humanity than whites are.

It discusses a paper reviewing 29 drugs claiming to have greater benefits to specific racial or ethnic groups, and point out that the paper was misrepresented in the media, and actually found that less than half those drugs were addressing consequences of genetic or physiological differences.

It concludes by noting to a growing trend toward race-specific drugs, and argues that

When [race is] used to bolster the commercial value of a drug, it can lead to haphazard regulation, substandard medical treatment and other unfortunate unintended consequences. The FDA should not grant race-specific approvals without clear and convincing evidence of a genetic or biological basis for any observed racial differences in safety or efficacy.

Prior post on medical treatment: Implicit Associations Regarding Race and Medical Care.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

I try to post quickly by building on other people's posts! (Seriously, this has been nagging at me, which combined with its relatively short length, is why it's jumping the queue. Even though it ended up taking longer than I wanted.)

While I was on vacation, John Scalzi posted about science fiction and race [ETA: Wayback version after database crash], saying

My way of dealing with spec fic's racial lopsidedness (on the writing side, at least) is somewhat passive-aggressive: I avoid making any sort of overt racial identifiers at all with my characters unless it's required by the plot, which for my books it generally isn't. . . .

I'm very likely to continue to include non-white characters in my books, because, you know, it's a mostly non-white world. I'm also likely to continue not to overtly note their race unless it makes sense to do so in the plot, because that's the way I feel it should be done. Now, admittedly, this is a chicken-and-egg issue; one of the reasons I can get away with avoiding making race an issue is simply positing the idea that in my universes, race doesn't matter all that much, or at least not for the stories I'm telling in those universes. But then, I don't see that as a bad thing.

I think "passive-aggressive" is the wrong word here. The word I'd use is "ineffective." (Disclaimer: I haven't read Scalzi's books yet, but my understanding of his writing style is such that I don't think reading them would change that opinion.) Since I was away when this discussion started, various people have already pointed out the problem with this approach, in his comments [*] and elsewhere. I'll sum up by quoting Kameron Hurley:

The problem with writing in "race-neutral" (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we're going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it's otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we've been programmed with, and it's the default setting we've been pumped full of since birth . . . .

These are historic holes, ways we view the world, that have been shaped by race and cultural and power and gender. The race and gender and rich land-owning elite in charge . . . determine what we care about and what's important. We can fight against that, and learn more, and question everything, but we have to fight those unexamined truths every goddamn day.

This discussion struck a chord with me because while on vacation, I found myself thinking about the way a specific experience differed from another person's, analyzing all the variables to see if racial prejudice was likely the source of the difference. And it took me literally hours to see a really big variable: the other person is one of the palest people I know.

Let me state this clearly. It's not that I am "colorblind," because I know what colors our skins are. It's that at a very deep subconscious level, I am convinced that I am white. (For those of you new here, I'm not.) That is how strong the cultural default is. The cultural default is white, therefore everyone's white, therefore I must be white too.

I know it sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But it's real.

So, to go back to "ineffective," I mean that in two senses. First, because of cultural defaults, readers are quite likely not to notice that the author has included non-white characters, if the author doesn't do more to specify their race. (Because of mine, for instance, I probably would have passed right by the "clues" (really just one clue, and one not meaningful to many people) Scalzi cited regarding the race of Samuel Young in The Android's Dream, for instance.) Second, to the extent that Scalzi is implying that not overtly noting race in his novels is going to help lead to a less racist society, well, that fails as a consequence as the first problem: if readers don't notice that the characters belong to different races, they aren't going to be impressed that the characters are treated equally. (Compare Rainbows End, which makes a gesture in this direction, even if it does implicitly posit miracles having happened to get there.) As Hurley says, overcoming racist defaults requires actively acknowledging and confronting those defaults.

Which is just another example of what's been said before: completely ignoring race is only positive—or possible—in a non-racist society. Standing alone, then, it cannot be an effective anti-racist strategy.

(For more on this, see the "Color Blindess" and "Writing" sections of [livejournal.com profile] ibarw's race-related resources post.)

[*] Which, tangentially, is a little refreshing, as it seems like comment sections on writers' blogs are more often knee-jerk defenses of the writer, even when the writer clearly isn't asking for defense. Scalzi actively discourages this, which is one of the things I like about him.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

I realized that I wanted to participate more in International Blog Against Racism Week this year a few months ago, when I happened to look at my introductory post from last year.

Here's what I said then about this icon:

I read the Lorde poem as saying two things. First, other people's attitudes toward and treatment of you (racism, sexism, child abuse, what-have-you) can distort your image of yourself. Stereotyping is a failure of empathy, a refusal to see someone as themselves; and while the stereotype isn't necessarily transmitted, not being seen as yourself is corrosive. Second, the response ought to be recognize that the source of the distortion is external and then work to change that.

Granted, that the step before the "and then" is not necessarily trivial. Because my experiences with racism have been transitory, I don't have any useful personal experience to offer. My only suggestion at the moment for how to go about that to be educate one's self about racism (or sexism, or child abuse, or what-have-you), and then take a hard look at any overlaps between that and one's self-image.

Notice what's missing? I didn't, until recently. What's missing is any acknowledgment that the hand to be stopped could be external. In fact, I limited my comments to self-directed racism, which is real but so much less of a problem than institutional racism.

That's the journey I've made over the last year of reading about, and occassionally discussing, racism. Then, I was just starting to understand the way it affects me specifically and society generally. Now, I can see blind spots of my past self—I don't say the blind spots, because I'm sure there are still more—and one of those was this unconscious instinct to duck the issue as much as possible, to focus exclusively inward, and to avoid conflict.

I'm trying not to apologize for my past self, because I think most people's understandings of racism can and should evolve, and saying "OMG I was so stupid!1!eleventy-one!" strikes me as likely to impede other people who are starting in a similar place. But I want to acknowledge that I'm both still learning and still trying to learn. More, I want to suggest that this is a good way to start International Blog Against Racism Week, wherever you are in understanding and fighting racism.

kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

I have the post-vacation blahs in a big way, not helped by an upset digestive system (bad airline food? reaction to Northeast allergens? just not wanting to be here? who knows!) and a serious lack of sleep. Have very briefly skimmed over reading list and marked a rather large quantity of things "read" on Bloglines.

Feeling overwhelmed at the idea of leaving for Japan in less than two weeks. I still have fourteen chapters of Genji to read, not to mention learning more than five Japanese words, and half-a-dozen doctor's appointments, and all this laundry, and, generallly, everything that needs to be done for us to leave the country for three weeks.

Speaking of Japan & Worldcon: has anyone else filled out a program questionnaire & not gotten a schedule? There's at least one other con e-mail I've not gotten that Chad has, and so I'm worried that I'm not getting e-mail for some reason. (The other possibility is that they've decided they don't need me after all, which is fine, but I'd really like to know.)

Further to traveling: can anyone recommend a simple, preferably shareware, e-mail program for the Palm TX? Versamail apparently refuses to send anything longer than 4KB of text, which rather puts a damper on my post-by-e-mail plan for Japan.

I have this whole list of posts I wanted to write for International Blog Against Racism Week, and failed to write any of them while on vacation (and to finish Genji, and to read new-to-me John M. Ford books in preparation for a proposed Worldcon panel, and and and . . . ). I don't know whether I'll have the guts to write them and post them outside of IBARW (I was telling Chad, it's like being in a school of fish: it feels like there's less chance of trolls coming and eating you). But I did read Covering and will post about it, so that will be something.

But now, I am going to go buy food for the family and a camera for me. Yay, blatant consumerism as a mood lifter, or something.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

As a follow-up to my International Blog Against Racism Week post on M. Butterfly (link to day view to preserve spoiler cut), an article from Harper's Magazine on a Ukrainian bride-hunting tour: "A Foreign Affair". As David Henry Hwang did in 1988, the article points out the intersection of racism and sexism in foreign "mail order bride" companies, and also explicitly demonstrates the role of class: "the more miserable the place, the more capital a visiting man will have to leverage against his prospective wives; that was why we had left the United States for Kiev, and why we had left Kiev for Vinnitsa."

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

There have been a lot of good posts, and I encourage people to peruse [livejournal.com profile] rilina's link roundup (now in the triple digits!). I just wanted to put a few personally relevant links here.

  • [livejournal.com profile] rilina on why she is participating, which I agree with.
  • Malcolm Gladwell on pit bulls and profiling versus stereotyping; I'd read it earlier this year but want to put it somewhere I can find it, because it's a really useful point. (Also, I have a soft spot for pit bulls, as we came thisclose to adopting one from a rescue group—we held off because he was afraid of cats (no, seriously) and we thought we might get one, but he was so sweet that after a couple of clinics, we were going to take him at the next one if he was still there. (Don't tell the best Emmy ever.))
  • And on a lighter note, today Chad was surprised to meet the people from our cleaning service.
kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

There has been some mention, in this week's posts, of the tangled set of issues that can come along with romantic relationships between white men and women of Asian descent. Being in one of those relationships, I felt like I ought to say something, but, well, anyone who's met either of us knows that Chad didn't marry me because I'm exotic and submissive.

(When I was at Northeastern, I did very briefly date a guy (who was, I believe, Hispanic) who was interested somehow in Asia—he might've majored in Asian Studies, I'm not sure. It gave me a very minor twitch to wonder if my Asian-ness was part of what interested him, but the topic never came up. Nice guy, but no click, and also I had absolutely no idea what I was doing—I swear, the only way I managed to get married was by skipping the dating part of things—which to this day I feel kind of bad about. Then again, I was at least as twitchy about the guy who I suspected was attracted because I was actually shorter than he was, so the feeling's not restricted to race.)

But the topic reminded me of M. Butterfly, a play by David Henry Hwang. I first read it in an academic summer program in high school, and hadn't re-read it until last night. For those not familiar with it, it was inspired by the story of a French diplomat convicted of espionage; he had passed information his lover of twenty years, a Chinese man pretending to be a woman.

Hwang's afterword sums up the issues involved in this scenario very well, so I'm going to quote from it at length, in two pieces: the ending first, as it doesn't have spoilers for the play and talks about the broader issues raised by that premise; and then the beginning, and my reactions, behind a cut.

From David Henry Hwang's afterword to M. Butterfly:

From my point of view, the "impossible" story of a Frenchman duped by a Chinese man masquerading as a woman always seemed perfectly explicable; given the degree of misunderstanding between men and women and also between East and West, it seemed inevitable that a mistake of this magnitude would one day take place.

Gay friends have told me of a derogatory term used in their community: "Rice Queen"—a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians. In these relationships, the Asian virtually always plays the role of the "woman"; the Rice Queen, culturally and sexually, is the "man." This pattern of relationships had become so codified that, until recently, it was considered unnatural for gay Asians to date one another. Such men would be taunted with a phrase which implied they were lesbians.

[Ed.: it jumped out at me, typing, that the taunts were labelling men as women.]

Similarly, heterosexual Asians have long been aware of "Yellow Fever"—Caucasian men with a fetish for exotic Oriental women. I have often heard it said that "Oriental women make the best wives." (Rarely is this heard from the mouths of Asian men, incidentally.) This mythology is exploited by the Oriental mail-order bride trade which has flourished over the past decade. [Ed.: this was written in 1988.] American men can now send away for catalogues of "obedient, domesticated" Asian women looking for husbands. Anyone who believes such stereotypes are a thing of the past need look no further than Manhattan cable television, which advertises call girls from "the exotic east, where men are king; obedient girls, trained in the art of pleasure."

In these appeals, we see issues racism and sexism intersect. The catalogues and TV spots appeal to a strain in men which desires to reject Western women for what they have become—independent, assertive, self-possessed—in favor of a more reactionary model—the pre-feminist, domesticated geisha girl.

[Ed.: class is probably lurking around somewhere, in that the ads are targeted at men with money to spare.]

That the Oriental woman is penultimately female does not of course imply that she is always "good." For every Madonna there is a whore; for every lotus blossom there is also a dragon lady. In popular culture, "good" Asian women are those who serve the White protagonist in his battle against her own people, often sleeping with him in the process. Stallone's Rambo II, Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Clavell's Shogun, Van Lustbader's The Ninja are all familiar examples.

Now our considerations of race and sex intersect the issue of imperialism. For this formula—good natives serves Whites, bad natives rebel—is consistent with the mentality of colonialism. Because they are submissive and obedient, good natives of both sexes necessarily take on "feminine" characteristics in a colonial world. Gunga Din's unfailing devotion to his British master, for instance, is not so far removed from Butterfly's slavish faith in Pinkerton.

It is reasonable to assume that influences and attitudes so pervasively displayed in popular culture might also influence our policymakers as they consider the world. The neo-Colonialist notion that good elements of a native society, like a good woman, desire submission to the masculine West speaks precisely to the heart of our foreign policy blunders in Asia and elsewhere. . . .

M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings.

For the myths of the East, the myths of the West, the myths of men, and the myths of women—these have so saturated our consciousness that truthful contact between nations and lovers can only be the result of heroic effort. Those who prefer to bypass the work involved will remain in a world of surfaces, misperceptions running rampant. This is, to me, the convenient world in which the French diplomat and the Chinese spy lived. This is why, after twenty years, he had learned nothing at all about his lover, not even the truth of his sex.

M. Butterfly Afterword, spoilery section; my reactions on a re-read )

The play was adapted for screen and directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone; I haven't seen it and don't know how it's regarded. The play takes place almost entirely within Gallimard's mind, in his memories and fantasies; this fits so well thematically that I suspect the less fantastic medium of film would fare poorly in comparison. At any rate, I think it's worth reading as an accomplished and humane drama; the political and sexual issues are inescapable, but not the only thing the play has to offer.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

A couple of people asked about the Audre Lorde poem on my icon for this week, which is a good lead-in to something I was toying with writing about.

For those who can't see the image, the poem reads:

It is a waste of time hating a mirror
or its reflection
instead of stopping the hand
that makes glass with distortions.

I should say, first, that this poem was in a text file of cool quotes that I kept in college. When I wrote it down, I probably didn't have racism in mind, and indeed there's no reason to limit its applicability to racism. But I was thinking about blogging about racism, and what I might say. As I've said before, I've experienced very little racism, and my color is pretty low on the list of things important to my identity; and I didn't feel I had anything new or interesting to contribute about portrayals in books or movies or whatnot. Also, talking about race and racism is difficult and uncomfortable [*] and can lead to some really nasty and infuriating comments.

But as little racism as I've experienced, I do know how it makes me feel and can contribute that. The Lorde poem jumped out at me because it's another metaphor for that feeling. The description that originally came to mind is that it's like a smudge on my heart: I am angry at the other person, but I also feel worse about myself—smaller, dirtier, ashamed. It's irrational but it's true; and though I recover quickly, that doesn't negate the experience.

I read the Lorde poem as saying two things. First, other people's attitudes toward and treatment of you (racism, sexism, child abuse, what-have-you) can distort your image of yourself. Stereotyping is a failure of empathy, a refusal to see someone as themselves; and while the stereotype isn't necessarily transmitted, not being seen as yourself is corrosive. Second, the response ought to be recognize that the source of the distortion is external and then work to change that.

Granted, that the step before the "and then" is not necessarily trivial. Because my experiences with racism have been transitory, I don't have any useful personal experience to offer. My only suggestion at the moment for how to go about that to be educate one's self about racism (or sexism, or child abuse, or what-have-you), and then take a hard look at any overlaps between that and one's self-image. I hope other people will offer their thoughts on this in the comments.

[*] I don't want this to be a self-congratulatory post, so I will make a confession. One of the ways that these discussions are uncomfortable—important and useful, but uncomfortable—is that they force me to recognize my own racism. I fervently hope and believe that I don't act on it, but I have, for instance, noticed-with-negative-connotations that all the black (or whatever) kids were sitting together—and it never occured to me until the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM that no-one ever asks why all the white kids are sitting together. No, I'm not saying that I ought to be stoned or shunned—I'm really not trying for a reverse-sympathy play here [**]—but things like that still weren't very enjoyable revelations.

[**] Is there a word for this, when someone posts "Oh, I'm such an awful person for [x trivial thing]" in a deliberate attempt to be reassured? There seems like there ought to be.

kate_nepveu: (con't from comment field) "that makes glass with distortions. --Audre Lorde" (International Blog Against Racism Week)

I spent so much time thinking of an icon for International Blog Against Racism Week (link roundup) that I didn't actually, you know, write a post. Something, I'm not quite sure what, will be coming in a day or two. In the meantime, there are some interesting posts in the roundup above.

Anyway, the real point of this post: is this legible on other monitors?

April 2019

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