Sunday, March 14, 2010

Something I Think (A Lot) About

I was in a grocery store perusing the shelves of condiments and sauces when I saw a bottle of soy sauce whose logo was a Chinese man: the coolie hat, queue, little mustache, and unnaturally yellow skin.

I bought another brand of soy sauce. Its logo was written in "Chinese" font. I suppose that's a bit better.


During my first weeks in Denmark, I met a lot of new people. Naturally a common question is "Where are you from?" This time it came from a Danish girl I met briefly at a party.

I replied that I was from the United States.

"Oh but you're not American, are you?"

"I am."


I remarked in my facebook profile that I didn't realized how much I felt at home in America until I left it. I feel this most keenly when I am confronted with incidents surrounding race, in particular ways in race and ethnicity are not discussed in the States. It's something I think a lot about as I have addressed it here, here, here, and here. But none of those incidents directly concerned me as an individual. Today I am going to get really personal about exchanges I have had with people I know here in Århus.

Excerpt from the Study Abroad Handbook given to all MSU students when they go abroad. It represents not only the university's official recognition of race and ethnicity for its students abroad but I think typifies a sensitivity that many people have in general.

As in the United States, some societies and groups are more open to accepting diversity than others. People react differently to looks and behaviors they are not accustomed to or that appear unusual. Reports from students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are varied, from those who felt exhilarated by being free of the U.S. American context of race relations, to those who experienced different degrees of curiosity about their ethnicity.

While I have no illusions that the complexity of global race relations can be conveyed in a paragraph in a handbook, this excerpt describes most the kind of exchanges about race I have had in Århus: different degrees of curiosity about their ethnicity.Most of the time questions about my heritage are sincere. The atmosphere amongst exchange students is, for the most part, open and welcoming. Since we're all from different places, the people we meet have different customs and cultures.

But at other times I glimpse into the way race is conceptualized by people whose home countries have very different or altogether nonexistent dialogs about race. Most of the exchange students I know here come from ethnically homogeneous countries. That's just the fact. One student told me that it would be very rare to see a black person on the streets in her city.

It's one thing to simply note incidents of indirect racism and it's another to discourage such incidents from happening. Because indirect racism is subtle, it's all the more difficult to challenge, especially if the person expressing it is a friend. Not long ago, I did confront to an exchange student friend of mine about some racist humor that was circulated on facebook. No, confronted is not the right word. I merely made my known that I didn't think his joke about Asian people was funny. It was regarding the gesture is to pull one's eyes toward the side of one's head as if to emulate Asians.

The reaction I got was a common one: I was dismissed as lacking a sense of humor, overly sensitive. I wanted both my personal my feelings and the recognition of its offense to the wider Asian population to be acknowledged and but instead I was treated as if I was the one with the problem of not being able to take a joke.

I recognize that perhaps in other countries this gesture is an acceptable way to joke about a group of people. (Recall a Spanish basketball team photo in which every player gestured this way.) But I think this is very rude, childish, and tasteless. On the playground in elementary kids made slant-eye gestures but in later years made Jokes and gestures are time-honored way to mask poor judgment and pass on ignorance.


Coming back to my earlier comment about feeling at home in America. It's true. I really do feel at home there. I think our country is making sincere efforts to address race and ethnicity in meaningful ways. Of course at times I feel like some efforts are mere tokenism. Of course we're not living in a "post-race" country. But here in Århus, it's all the more evident to me that America is a multiracial and multiethnic society. Not only that but we recognize our diversity. but I am very glad for it.


Taz said...

can't seem to access the "Danishize" blog Multilingual...

Monika said...

There's nothing like living in a racially/ethnically homogeneous society to make you realize how blessedly diverse the United States is. Our country is fairly unique in that aspect, and I agree with you, it makes me very happy to be living here.
In Uganda, except for a one day trip to a hotel, my friend Anya was the only other person I saw for six weeks who wasn't black. In some of the villages we visited we were the first 'muzungu,' or white person some of the children had ever seen. They stood in the dozens as close to us as possible for hours, staring, the brave ones touching our skin and hair.
It is completely unheard of for there to be a 'muzungu' in that society who calls himself Ugandan. It made me reflect on the US race relations as you did from your experiences in Denmark. I have so much more to discuss on this subject! We have to get together when you return and chat. :-)