Most of what I want to say about this has been said elsewhere.
For some background, see Jezebel‘s video post, the supposed “last video” of the killer. Be warned, it’s…not very exciting. Sounds like a badly scripted Josh Trank film. It’s so utterly mundane that it pisses you off. Only a rich, passing-for-white American male thinks it’s okay to shoot people after not getting what he wants. And possibly fascist dictators. :D
The New Statesmen: “Capitalism commodifies that rage [regarding the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power], monetises it, disseminates it through handbooks and forums and crass mainstream pornography. It does not occur to these men that women might have experienced these very human things, too, because it does not occur to them that women are human, not really…As soon as women began to speak about the massacre, a curious thing happened. Men all over the world – not all men, but enough men – began to push back, to demand that we qualify our anger and mitigate our fear.”
What I disagree with…: “We have seen incontrovertible evidence of real people being shot and killed in the name of that ideology, by a young man barely out of childhood himself who had been seduced into a disturbing cult of woman-hatred. Elliot Rodger was a victim – but not for the reasons he believed.” No. This isn’t a cult. This is a widespread culture of hatred which is openly tolerated, accepted and defended by “normal” people. I know them. You know them. As an example, if you have ever felt that sex was owed to you, you are one of them. This isn’t some bizarre deviance, this is our culture, people. Next time you hear your friend, your parents, your siblings, your teachers or coaches say something racist or sexist or dehumanizing, call them out. At the risk of losing a lot of face and getting called a hypocrite (which we are) and being really unpopular, call them out and don’t let them get away with it. Call out hatred where you see it. You can do it in a loving way. But do not “lovingly” let it go like it’s not your problem.
What really disturbs me having watched “Elliot Rodger’s Final Video” is not how deviant and aberrant he seems, but how much he reminds me of boys and men that I know. It’s not scary because it’s so random and crazy, but because it’s so sickeningly normal. This particular dude is only special because he was materially and ethnically “privileged” enough to kill as many people as he did before killing himself. If you have even the tiniest suspicion that I am talking about you, then you should be disturbed (and I probably am).
But hold up a second. Do I think that people who are angry and outcast and lonely do not deserve to be empathized with? No. In fact, if our society weren’t so cripplingly patriarchal, there is a chance that empathy could have saved the day. There is a chance that by being listened to, the killer might have learned how to listen to others, women in particular, and see them as human with problems and feelings like his own. The suppression of emotions as feminine and negative is a big contributing factor to the mental health problems experienced by a disturbingly large proportion of Americans, which no one seems to want to talk about.
The last thing I want to say….
People. A lot of women like sex. They really really want to have sex. So do a lot of queer people. If you ever feel entitled to sex, stop for ten seconds and think about aaaaaaaaaaalll the other people out there who want sex, too, and aren’t having it. Think about how most people might feel real sorry for themselves but aren’t frequenting misogynist, racist forums to talk about it.
Think about how a feeling of self-entitlement can easily lead to a situation where you rape someone, as in you coerce someone or drug someone or physically use force against someone or pout until someone succumbs to what you want. If you ask once, twice, three times and they finally say yes, is that consent? Women and queer peeps might even feel as entitled to sex as men do. Don’t let this confuse you into think it is anything less than rape if it’s a women or a man or a queer person doing the coercing.
It seems rather questionable when white people* say America is a post-racial society, when rich people claim that class is non-existent, or when a wealthy, educated and otherwise privileged person claims that “the patriarchy is dead”.
I was disappointed to read those very words on Hanna Rosin’s Slate column, though I’m not sure how surprised I should be. Rosin’s book The End of Men never insisted that the “end” of men equated to the end of patriarchy. In fact, she didn’t talk overmuch about patriarchy. This was an oversight, I think. Her case studies and statistics did not so much translate as a transition away from patriarchal worldview– not in the least. But actually women can and are adopting and exerting patriarchal values to a much greater degree than ever before. The end of men is hardly the end of patriarchy, when women are adapting to a new environment of greater freedoms and more opportunities. If this sounds like a good thing, let’s clarify that patriarchy functions on principles of inequality and oppression. The really new thing that Rosin’s book captures is women’s transition from mainly the Oppressed to now being Oppressors, themselves.
If inequality and oppression ceased to exist, then we could declare, “patriarchy is dead!” And we could throw a big party.
This pronouncement from Rosin would imply that she doesn’t know what patriarchy is. But wait! “I suppose the patriarchy was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, tricking me into believing that it was more my duty to stay home with our new baby than my husband’s,” she writes. Hmm, maybe she kind of gets it… “But I didn’t see it as a “duty.” I wanted to stay home with her, and I also wanted to work like a fiend. It was complicated and confusing, a combination of my personal choices, the realities of a deadline-driven newsroom, and the lack of a broader infrastructure to support working parents—certainly too complicated to pin on a single enemy.” Oh boy. Seems like she’s not ready to admit that she is not conscious of her acculturation into a patriarchal worldview, a lifelong process. This would include her apparent belief that careers cannot or should not accommodate women (or men?) who want children/want to spend time with their children. She seems unconscious of the effects of the inequality induced by patriarchal values even as she reports on them:
“…many of those women who pick up [my] trash yearn to bring back at least some aspects of the patriarchy. They generally appreciate their new economic independence and feel pride at holding their families together, at working and studying and doing things on their own, but sometimes they long to have a man around who would pay the bills and take care of them and make a life for them in which they could work less.” Would they still feel that way if they made a living wage, got paid maternity leave– Rosin’s idea!–, had reasonable working hours and paid vacation?
This was a deflective response Rosin gave to someone who questioned her about the choices of the “woman who picks up your trash after you leave at five.” Rosin scoffed this off as an “irrational attachment to the concept of unfair”. She must have been asking herself the question, Isn’t this why some women desire the return of certain patriarchal values? when the question she should have asked was, Why doesn’t this woman have the opportunity to get a different, more self-fulfilling job? (Unless, by chance, that particular woman finds cleaning up the trash of others to be meaningful and fulfilling.) She could also have asked, Why is the woman’s husband out of work when he, too, could be picking up trash? Perhaps that job is beneath his perception of himself? But that couldn’t be possible, since patriarchy is dead…
And a word about this whole irrationally-attached-to-unfair bit: when the privileged, wealthy, highly “educated” career-mom with the supportive husband (who also happens to be her boss) tsk tsks someone for complaining that sociocultural realities that are so far removed from her own are unfair, is she really in a position to be like “Oh, stop obsessing already, would you?” (No. No she’s not.)
She also cites growing numbers of single mothers as evidence that women are less “beleaguered”. That seems quite simplistic, and she does say she isn’t sure if this should be taken as “feminist progress”. What does it say of a society that vast numbers of women would rather be on their own than attempt to negotiate a traditionally patriarchal institution like marriage? Could it imply that women are fed up with attempting to wrest control from husbands? This should not necessarily be seen as a step towards equality.
One could simply cite case studies and figures about women in government, gendered violence, the existence of practices like dieting to be ultra thin or getting cosmetic surgery done, double standards for women in academics, politics, the family, careers, and so on (and this is only with America in mind!). I have a feeling that Rosin would dismiss these, too, as “irrational”; are we just obsessed with the notion of our own oppression? Will feminists be out of a job if there is no oppression? Please, I invite you to put us out of a job.
What I think Rosin fails to understand is that the oppression doesn’t work unless the oppressed party believes, at least to some degree, in their own inferiority. Oppression is reinforced through education and socialization, and if that fails, social stigma, and if that fails, violence. Rinse, wash, repeat as needed. Over time, these practices become normalized.
Just because inequality, oppression, or violence are normalized does not make them right. This was Dickens’ argument against the Victorian idea that poor people were poor and rich people rich because God made them as such; poor people could not help their lazy, immoral, deviant nature. Similarly, just because the woman who picks up Rosin’s trash in her office at Slate has any job, at all, does not mean that she is fulfilled and satisfied as a human being, and doesn’t have the right to question or complain about the mechanisms that have landed her there.
Rosin seems to have discounted classism and racism in her assessment that Patriarchy is Dead. Er, sorry, “the Patriarchy.” She still seems to think that The Patriarchy is some identifiable, yet amorphous, entity, perhaps “the enemy” she mentioned before, whose sole goal is to Oppress Womyn. She detaches race and class dynamics by centering on gender. She doesn’t seem to understand that when she makes such remarks like u r so lame when u talk about unfair, she is patriarchy. And she benefits directly from it, even as she is a victim of it. Her oppression (such as having to choose between a fulfilling career and being close with her children) must be very normalized that she doesn’t see an alternative to it. Rather than believing societal norms could change to improve her life circumstances (providing daycare services at the workplace, for example, so she can spend extra time with them if she wants to), she seems to see as immutable truths some aspects of mainstream American [gendered] culture. On some level, perhaps she believes that she is undeserving, choosing not to confront what are for many American women questions of “conflicting” desires– which might serve as a basis for empathizing with all those she deems to be preoccupied with “unfair”.
I really want to like you, Hanna Rosin. Better be careful, before you go the way of Naomi Wolf.
*Really anybody, but especially the dominant ethnic group.
The 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust includes an extended rape scene in which two white Western men rape a young indigenous-Amazonian (Yanomamo) woman in a muddy field while their white Western female counterpart films them.
The film is supposed to be a commentary on the state of modern “civilization”, wherein wealthy, white privileged Westerners manipulate, abuse, and exploit the “uncivilized” of the so-called developing world/Third World/Global South/etc.
While the film fails on multiple levels to sincerely translate its theme of “who are the real savages, anyway?”, that scene has always stuck with me. Similarly in The Last King of Scotland, the terrifying Idi Amin calls out his Scottish physician as only having come to Africa “to fuck and to take away”.
The global hierarchy is sort of a large-scale parallel of the social human hierarchy composed of individuals. The patriarchal hierarchy tells us who is allowed to rape whom, and where, and when, and to what extent they can get away with it. In the global patriarchal scheme, the “West” is at the top of this hierarchy. America can rape nearly whoever it likes, whenever it likes, and never stand to account for its actions.
Why should I be surprised, then, when its individual parts, its people, behave the same way. White Westerns (men particularly) come to Southeast Asia feeling completely entitled to buy other human beings. They have little or no shame in it. They sit across from me at a hang bai (rice shop) eating their loc lac with one emotionally detached, casual arm draped over the shoulders of a girl half, a third their age. We can talk more about that girl later (a whole post unto herself, she is), but for now let’s look closer at that man.
He might be British, Australian, American, New Zealander, or from somewhere in Europe. He doesn’t need to be wealthy where he’s from; being white makes him wealthy enough here. He could be 20, or 40, or 75; it’s inconsequential in determining the age of the girls, boys, women he will purchase.
He probably feels like he’s doing nothing wrong (yeah, yeah, it’s a crime, it’s illegal, but he was driven to this!); he justifies to himself that “a man’s got needs” and he only flew halfway around the world to satisfy those needs because there wasn’t a cheaper, easier source accessible in his own country. Besides, the real perk of Cambodia is that being here makes him feel like a god. All the locals seem to revere his white skin, his pocketbook. He is taller, richer, whiter, smarter, better than everyone in this godforsakencountry.
He might not be a backpacker or a sex tourist. He might be a teacher at a nearby school. He might be in charge of classes of children aged 6 to 18. He might friend some of them on Facebook and meet some of them off school grounds, after school hours.
He might establish himself as a member of the community by marrying– purchasing– a Khmer woman (not legally, necessarily, but only ceremonially) and having children with her.
Taking a long, close look at this man helps me understand myself, my own hypocrisy. Our familiarity ends at the point where I realize we don’t deal in the same currency. This man, like the men in Cannibal Holocaust, see Cambodians (Africans, South Americans) as subhuman. They are purchasable, expendable, replaceable items. They are like animals. Sometimes I fixate on the way Khmer people occasionally treat me like an animal, like the Other, and the way they do it to other Cambodians. But in the hierarchical scheme of things, their Othering will never be as sinister, never as dehumanizing, and never inflict the same level of damage as That Man’s will. He has too much power to compare with them. He’s out of our league. He can get away with almost Anything.
And I’m making it a point to find a way to stop him.
I have come to the realization (again) that I am racist. For some reason, I feel disappointed every time I have this realization. Maybe I gave myself too much credit, thinking that once I got it the first time I was just gonna get over it? Or maybe I thought it was an easier problem to root out than it’s turned out to be. A friend recently tried to console me that these realizations of my “cognitive biases” are a step in the right direction, which of course they are, but I still don’t feel very positive.
When I came across this open letter, I felt grateful to the author, but I also felt nervous reading it, as a “white” person. Could I ever read a letter like this, intended for a black man, with sincerity? Am I subconsciously, permanently tainted with racial prejudice? Then I got to part where Dyson, the author, says, “in America, we are taught to fear black men.” And whether or not I can read a letter like that with sincerity stopped mattering right then, because she had just spoken the truth, and the truth speaks not only to the subconscious self, but to all Selves. Yeah, I thought, we are. Who teaches us that? I instantly recognized that as true, but could not pinpoint particular moments in my life when I felt like I was being taught to fear black men. I guess this has just been a part of my general societal education, and is deeply rooted in me, whether I like it or not.
It’s really not easy to recognize one’s hand in oppression (of any kind). It’s painful. It’s humiliating. It’s depressing. Whether it’s small-time oppression or full-scale oppression, most people seem interested in justifying their behavior and, really, avoiding guilt.
I know that my friend knows what they’re talking about, concerning cognitive biases; I have seen them realize, acknowledge and begin to work through their own. It takes a huge amount of humility and honesty to even begin that process. I also understand why oppressed people resent their oppressors even after they have begun this process– but it can’t stay that way forever, if things are going to change for the better. Begrudge them, punish them, but eventually, work with them. Recognize them for the ally they’ve become.
I felt guilty reading that letter, like I didn’t deserve to. I’m still trying to work out precisely what that means. My friend also said that acknowledging one’s participation in oppression is only the first step…”the end of it is what you do after you know that about yourself.”
There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:
“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”
Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.
While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).
No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.
Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes lame attempts to suggest that war isn’t all cool: look, you could get your sword hand cut off, and then no one will want to fuck you– least of all your sister. Wow, is that the best he can do? Can we drop the feminist act now?
And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!
Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”
Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).
Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.
Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!
*Heads up: this post isn’t appropriate for everyone, it’s got dirty words in it. You’ve been warned.
**Moreover, trigger warning.
Many bloggers get their readers through links from other blogs; some even advertise their blogs. And a whole lot get readers from search engines who are looking for something and stumble onto blogs quite by accident. Below are some things people have apparently searched for (or should I say googled, since that’s my biggest referring search engine), and found me…haha. The irony. [Note: I’ve kept the original search terms exactly the same– spelling and all.]
Since “race” isn’t real I will take the liberty of defining it and “racism” in order to best suit my needs. For the purposes of this essay, let “race” mean a category of people defined by ethnocultural, linguistic, and geographic similarities. Let “racism” mean the classification of these groups of people within a hierarchy of peoples, wherein those groups are typified by certain traits or characteristics which are then applied to all individuals within that group, and moreover that the rank of a given group with the hierarchy implies what sort of value that group has. Therefore, some groups are better than others. All of this, as well as the subscription to and promotion of this thought system, I call “racism”.
I readily admit that I have harbored racist sentiments in the past. In fact I still do, though such sentiments hold significantly less power because I recognize them now for what they are, and actively work to eradicate them. This isn’t always easy to do, I’ve discovered.
South Koreans are one group of people against whom I have been biased. My experience with native South Koreans is limited; mostly I have known the children of Korean immigrants, who to my mind are virtually indistinguishable from “typical” Americans. That is to say, they are typical Americans, and therefore aren’t “Korean” in my imagination. “Korean” has remained foreign, Other, something I don’t understand. What does it mean to be Korean? What is Korean culture? Who are Koreans?
My few experiences with “off the boat” (is that considered derogatory? I’ve never thought so, but is it? Though I suppose today “off the plane” would be more accurate…) Koreans has been distancing at best, and negative at worst. Michigan State University has recently a huge influx of South Korean students, so one would think I would have many Korean friends and know a lot about Korea and Korean culture.
I didn’t have a single friend from South Korea. Actually, I didn’t know a single person from South Korea, that I can recall, save for acquaintances in passing. Probably because of that I didn’t (and didn’t bother to) learn anything about Korea.
What I learned about South Koreans at MSU was from observation. It had long been noticed and discussed that the Korean students would flood certain establishments around East Lansing at certain times, often in groups of ten people or more. At first I felt ambivalent, at times positive, about this: they were just meeting up with their friends for coffee and chit chat, and what could be bad about that? After I time I began to be annoyed by the crowds of Koreans who would take up all the tables and chairs at my favourite coffee shop. It seemed like they had no regard for anyone else, as if the rest of the patrons were invisible. They wouldn’t even ask me before borrowing a chair off my table, though sometimes I would have to ask for it back because I was saving it for someone. It occurred to me that maybe they were shy about speaking English with me, for I only ever heard them talking in Korean. Ultimately that didn’t make sense, though, since they were attending school at an all-English language university. Their English must have been perfect. What’s more, when they left the coffee shop, they would never rearrange the tables and chairs as they’d found them, and often they wouldn’t throw away their trash. They would also throw their cigarette butts all over the ground on our patio, which really baffled me. This behavior was only matched by the drunks who would stumble in at 4 a.m. (and in fact the drunks were often apologetic). Ironically I ended up working at that very same coffee shop, to be endlessly frustrated by the waves of Koreans who would come in, order together (often the very same drink as all their other friends), clump all the tables together, be exceedingly loud, and then leave. I would be left to hurriedly pick up the mess before more patrons showed up. Needless to say, this wore on my sympathies. My conclusion about the Korean students was that they didn’t respect their surroundings or other people.
I once asked, very carefully, a friend of mine who is Korean American about this phenomenon. I “didn’t want to sound racist” (how that expression so amuses and irritates me now, since it didn’t sound racist, it was racist), but I had to know: why did would Korean students rarely show up individually to a place (coffee shops and bubble tea places, most noticeably), but would often show up in groups? And why did they always go to the same places?
“Most of them when they get here, they don’t know their way around, they aren’t confident about going out on their own and speaking English– they want to stick with what’s familiar,” he explained to me. “So when their friend who has been here a year already takes them to a certain coffee shop, they will keep going back to that place again and again. They will probably take their friends there, too, when they come here to study from Korea.” This even seemed to account for why they often ordered identical drinks.
This made a lot of sense to me, though I still disdained their apparent lack of adventurousness.
Then I went to Cambodia.
In our Kampong Cham village, my fellow volunteers and I would buy coffee from the exact same place at the exact same time every day. We would take up every table in the small seller’s shop, grouping them all together and using up every chair so we could sit around and have loud, boisterous conversations purely in English. When we left, we didn’t clean up after ourselves.
Thinking about this now, I am…at a loss for words, I suppose. No, I’m just deeply embarrassed. My Korean American friend’s reasoning had seem to come round full circle, and it seemed absolutely true. I suddenly felt a lot more empathy for all the foreign students, not just the ones from Korea, who traveled to America to study. It was a scales-falling-off-one’s-eyes kind of experience. [Note: this isn’t to say that my behavior and therefore the behavior of the Korean students back home wasn’t entirely rude and self-centered– most definitely I still think it is. Welcome to culturocentricism.]
After living here for a year and a half, I more or less “do as the Romans do”. Since I’m on my own with no “fellow Americans” for company save for a rare visit from a village Volunteer, I have lost a lot of my training village habits. I’m no longer restricted to a certain area or establishment, I no longer have a routine that is dictated by a desire for a sense of normalcy. Things are more flexible, and now that the culture shock has worn off a good deal, I have a lot more freedom. I can try out many different coffee shops if I want to, and then I can go back to the ones I like the best. I can experiment with venders at the market to see who will rip me off the least, and don’t feel obligated to keep returning to the same one– or too scared to try something different. Through trial and error, I also have a better sense of what is rude, what is polite, what is expected of me, and what people assume that I expect of them. It helps to have a sense of humor about all this (which I cannot say I have every day, especially not during hot season).
Although, my experience here doesn’t shed much light on another encounter I had with a Korean back home, which was quite different and on a more personal level. For a while I was tutoring a Korean man in his fifties, but after several lessons it became apparent that he wanted more than a tutor. Unsure what to do about it, I continued to teach him, but the situation only became more and more uncomfortable. Finally I stopped teaching him and told him he’d have to find a different tutor, though I didn’t confront him about his inappropriate behavior. In the back of my mind, I thought that maybe “in Korea it would be appropriate.” So I let it go at that.
Recently I gave English lessons to a Korean missionary who lives not far from me. He already speaks decent English, but he says he wants to study in order to “speak like an American”. And my “old complaints” started to resurface– same old acquaintance, but in new clothes.
At first I shrugged off his racist and sexist remarks (about Cambodians and about me), because this was a strictly teacher-student relationship. It wasn’t supposed to matter to me what his bigoted mindset was. After teaching several lessons, it was evident that he was very lonely and probably wanted a friend. I never felt at any point that we had much in common, but I invited him to lunch one day with an American and some Khmer friends. I wasn’t paying very close attention to the exchange of dialogue, but evidently he insulted my Khmer friends by making a show of his wealth and then comparing that with their relatively not wealthy state. This was just one in a long line of offensive behaviors, unfortunately. “You should grow your hair out. Korean men find short hair unattractive,” he said to me quite plainly one day. Apart from his dazzlingly enlightened opinions on women (“Women who choose to wait until they are older to have children are selfish. Women who choose not to have children are also selfish.” “A woman should not travel alone; it is not safe.” etc.), he often expounded upon his views of Khmer people and Cambodian society, in general. “Cambodians think foreigners are stupid; they think foreigners are under their boots.” “Cambodians always want something from us, because we’re foreigners. They are always asking me for things.” (Yes, he would say “us”: me and him, versus the Others.) He said he’d left his expensive watch back in South Korea because so many people had tried to ask for it during his previous trip to Cambodia, and he had felt pressured to give it to them.
I explained to him that this was not my experience, that yes perhaps some Cambodians take advantage of foreign charity (but foreign charity is most assuredly taking advantage of them, so I call that mutual reciprocity), but in general I didn’t know what he was talking about. Cambodians had never asked me for anything of my own, as a general rule. Beggars, of course, have asked me for money and/or food and I have often given that to them, but “beggars” and “Cambodians” are not one and the same. In any case, I do the same thing in my own country. Once there was a rather coy ninth grade girl in my old village who asked me if I ever thought of selling my computer, and if I had how much would that be? But she never, ever asked me to give it to her.
Thinking my experience was just a fluke, I asked a couple of my American friends from the villages what their thoughts were. One was a man, and he said that yes, he’d been asked for things and it hadn’t been a joking-around situation. People had asked for things off his person, though not obviously expensive things. The other was a woman and she said that she had been asked for things as well, though rarely and never something on the rank of an expensive watch.
I wondered, why had our experiences been so different? I don’t look obviously less poor than they do; I’m white and by default that means I’m rich, oftentimes. I don’t think it has anything to do with appearances. Rather, once people know why you are here, I think that is more likely to determine if they seek to gain from you or not. Both of my friends are Volunteers, and my Korean pupil is a missionary, and everybody knows this about them. I imagine this plays a major factor in the “making gain off them” scheme. But that has just not been my experience.
To realign from that major tangent…
Said Korean student also expounded on his philosophy of Japanese and American culture– or rather, their lack thereof. I listened to all he said: “Japanese people hate Koreans because they have no culture of their own. Their culture, and their blood, came from Korean.” “Japan used to be part of Korea, and some day we will get it back.” “Americans are similar to the Japanese, because they have no original culture. Their culture comes from England.” I was sorely tempted to laugh at this last statement, because he, himself, had previously told me that “American culture and Korean culture are the same,” to explain why he felt so comfortable during a visit to the States. But in the end, I wasn’t left feeling sardonically amused, or academically challenged (what would be the use in suggesting my definition of culture to this person who believes “culture” is something some people have and others dont’?). I just felt depressed.
This one Korean student had recalled all my negative feelings about Korean socioculture as a whole. Now really, that’s just unacceptable; we can’t just leave it at that.
Recently I had an epiphany (late in coming, I’m sure) that if I want to see something with “unscaled eyes”, I may just have to go to that place and meet those people. The source of most racism is ignorance, which can be cured by learning.
There was a time where Cambodians were Other for me; that is no longer true. They’re not just illustrations in a storybook, alien and unknowable– they’re my friends, my neighbors, my students, my teachers, my sisters and my brothers. These people are my community. Though I often still feel like I am not their community. I am still barang to all but my closest friends.
The moral of the story, though, is that I may just have to go to South Korea. I hate basing everything I know of Korea off of a handful of people: I would never want Cambodians (or anyone else, for that matter) to base their opinion of Americans off a small number of encounters they have had with tourists. If that were the case, they may well think that it’s normal for Americans to yell belligerently at tuk tuk drivers who are only trying to offer them a ride, or to pick up prostitutes. And really, it can and does get lower than that.
In addition to South Korea, I may need to visit Australia, South Africa, and China. You don’t even want to hear the bigoted opinions I hold of those places.
All racism is an outcome of the phenomenon of categorization.
I have been told over and over that human beings seek to categorize, to group everything in the world into ways that “make sense”. I have be taught in high school and told by educated people that this is a natural function of the human mind.
Not true. It is learned behavior.
The systematic categorization of everything in the universe is ingrained in us from a very early age, and only grows deeper and more complex the older we get. As children, we are given blocks to play with, of various shapes, sizes, and colours. We are encouraged to group these blocks: by colour, by shape, by size, by overlapping commonalities. If a child groups their blue blocks with other blue blocks, or triangular-shaped blocks with other triangular-shaped blocks, they are affirmed as “correct”. If a child groups their blue blocks with red blocks or their triangular-shaped blocks with round blocks, we shake our heads and say they got it wrong. (I think this “block test” was similar to a test a friend of mine took as a kid to determine their ADHD status.) The SAT, ACT, and IQ tests feature questions based on the same principle. We’re given questions that tell us to identify “the one that doesn’t belong”. Analogies are based on the same principle, only we’re told to identify pairs of things which have a like function or relationship. There is always a correct answer to these questions.
As a child, I asked why? As I grew older, I wondered about the necessity of categorization, inclusion and exclusion. And finally (and possibly most importantly), I want to know why is the ability to “correctly” group things seen as an indication of our level of intelligence? We see this obsession with grouping and categorizing in everything from taxonomy to architecture to genealogy to astronomy.
“Without grouping and categorizing, too many things simply wouldn’t function.” Yes, maybe so, and would that be a bad thing? In any case it is a mistake to think that this habit is “natural” or “inherent” to humanity. It is also a mistake to assume there is a “correct” way to group something. To assume as much means that we also assume other conceptions of a thing are incorrect, which in turn excludes possibilities for a “better” way to conceptualize (or to group, in this case).
Once we submit to the process of categorization, those categories become our reality. I think this is why so many people believe that human thinking or human society simply couldn’t function without categorization– they cannot conceptualize a reality sans categorization.
Just as it is seen as natural to group all living things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and species (an admittedly imperfect system, just ask any biologist), it is also seen as natural to group people: by “race”, by “ethnicity”, by “gender”, and so on. These groups are seen as distinct: the “African” race has black skin, the “White” race has white skin, the “Asian” race has dark hair, and these things prove their difference. Even cultural anthropology, which after two centuries has still not settled on a definition of “culture”, is reluctant to give up the idea of distinct races or ethnicities.
Perhaps the most fundamental categorization of a human being is into one of two genders or sexes. That there are only two sexes is an imperative lesson in every form of our education, and is stressed to us over and over from childhood.
“Continuous and Discontinuous Variation: A feature that shows continuous variation may vary in only a small amount from one individual to the next, but when the variation of a number of individuals are compared they form a wide range. Examples include the range of values seen in heights or body masses. A feature that shows discontinuous variation shows a small number of distinct conditions, such as being male or female, and having ear lobes or no ear lobes. There is not a range of values between the two, as there is between a short person and a tall person, for example. However, there are very few examples of discontinuous variation in humans.” (Italics mine). This excerpt is taken from a biology textbook belonging to one of my 7th grade students.
This biology textbook, as mine did in high school, speaks with absolute authority. It does not suggest; it makes statements. A young student who reads this book and then is tested on its contents is expected (forced?) to believe that this material is true. There is no disclaimer that says, “The statements we are making in this book should be qualified, and in fact we don’t necessarily know what we are talking about, we are just guessing based on our limited knowledge and the small amount of evidence available to us.” That is really frightening to me. At some point, I had some teachers who said, “The things you’re about to learn from us/this book/this film are based on incomplete knowledge; by the time you are my age it is likely that some of this knowledge will have been modified, or even proven false.” I was lucky. But there are plenty of children who grow up without the benefit of critical thinking. This book becomes their reality.
The dogma espoused by the aforementioned textbook is no different from that espoused in, say, a Baptist church: “Before you we have laid the truth; you need only choose to believe.”
How will we ever break free from the confines of “natural categorization” (and everything that spawns from it) if throughout our education we are told to place faith, rather than question?
Perhaps a better question is, why do we choose to submit ourselves to a reality that is not only limited, but which harms other living things and ourselves?
I think oftentimes most people don’t see, or don’t want to see, the existence or possibility of choice.
Sometimes I see monks here in Cambodia doing things “they shouldn’t be doing”: using banks, talking on cell phones, riding (though not driving) motor vehicles, smoking, taking walks on the beach and staring at women (especially foreign women in bikinis).
When I ask my Khmer friends why they are doing these things, some say “because they don’t know any better.” Others tell me, “because they are bad.” And some say that there is nothing wrong, per say, with the monks’ behavior: The Buddha did not write the law; the Buddha said only, “These are my suggestions to you. Who knows if they are right or wrong. There are many paths to enlightenment.”