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March 25, 2004

Why being a curry muncher can be good

A few months ago a dispute broke out on the message boards of this blog about the validity of a group pressure strategy to no longer have South Asians be defamed, or at least be made the objects of ridicule, in the United States. There is a serious issue here, in that I believe that South Asians are fair game in a way that blacks, Latinos or Jews are not. Recently, there have been a spate of heavily accented South Asians on television commercials doing their sing-song entertainment for the masses. As a brown-guy-without-accent (BGWA?), it get's old after a while. It's been a long a time since I've been told "I speak English well," but it still happens now and then (I'm sure black guys get annoyed when told they are "well spoken"-but I wonder how often that happens now).

All that being said-I still think that South Asian Americans should be very cautious of pursuing a strategy like blacks or Jews in upholding standards of sensitivity.

1) I believe that the negative treatment that blacks & Jews have experienced historically is far more egregious than what South Asians go through today.

2) The downsides, the beasts that we unleash, can be hard to predict, and impossible to control.

40 years ago most African Americans experienced apartheid. I don't need to detail the circumstances, they are part and parcel of the American experience, and we all know what went down (or should). In response, black Americans went to the courts, and over a period of years, civil rights leaders pushed for implementation of court orders across the country that equalized legal standing of the races. The NAACP had finally born the fruit of its promise.

Today, race relations between blacks & whites are not ideal, but few would trade 2004 for 1960. Nevertheless, we now have on our hands the children, the beasts, also born of that revolution, the "leaders of the black community." Men like Jesse Jackson, the "President of Black America," a prominent politician and shakedown artist, or Al Sharpton-no more need be elaborate about that gentleman. This leadership class is to some extent parasitic. If there is no crisis, one must be manufactured. One could say the same thing about the leaders of most political groups & movements-they are always creating crisis after crisis to justify their existence. Like the appendix, they inflame to remind you that they exist.

But there are other, more personal, consequences of these men and their agendas. The keyword here is sensitivity. To illustrate of what I speak, let me recollect an anecdote....

About 6 months back, I was watching C-SPAN, and Diane Ravitch was promoting her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. I was interested in that topic so I watched most of her talk.

As question time rolled on, a black woman, about 60, rose. She explained that she was a teacher-so she had some interest in Ravitch's book. But, she wanted to add that she thought that only blacks should teach black history, since it was their history. Ravtich looked at her blankly. At this point, the woman went on, and said, "After all, I wouldn't teach you your history, you should teach me your history."

At this point I jumped up shouted, "Fuck you!" This was basically an emotional response on my part, as someone interested in a lot of history that isn't "mine," I took exception to someone acting as if you can't teach about cats unless you were a cat. Nevertheless, I waited for Ravitch to rip into this woman. After all, the topic of her book was about censorship, about the disortion of objective learning by subjective political considerations, the paramountcy of "sensitivity" that is infesting the curriculum of American schools.

There was no rebuke. No, response. No acknowledgement of how asinine the woman was being. Rather, Ravitch nodded, pretended like woman didn't say what she'd said, and went off-topic, like a politician would do when asked a hard question during an interview show.

Why didn't she respond? Was it because the woman was old? Ravitch isn't young. Ravitch is a woman, so let's not hope that gender was a problem. Perhaps because she was a teacher? But Ravitch respects the idea of education and educators, whatever issues she might have with its current implementation.

No, my hunch, based on nothing more than induction, is that Ravitch didn't want to say the woman was stupid because she was black. By this, I don't mean that Ravitch would imply that anyone would be stupid because they are black, rather, she did not want to even approach that implication by pointing out that the woman who asked the question was something of a moron (judging by the fact that she didn't comprehend the gist of Ravitch's book and went on a politicized tangent as if it would be welcomed). Not only was she a moron, she also happened to be black.

In everday life, people say stupid things. There are many stupid things that are asked and asserted during "question time" on C-SPAN shows. Very often, the speaker will make only the most cursory attempt as politeness before bring to bear the full arsenal of their intellectual blades. But when confronted by a black moron, many white liberals will demur the act of intellectual natural selection that demands to be enacted. This tendency can be extended to many minority groups. One benefit is that we can pop the bubble of political correctness, because many white liberals confuse intellectual rigor with dogma, and when we violate their dogma, we don't get chopped apart as we should, but are engaged in dialogue to "convert" us to the "just" position.

But the sum impact of this double-standard, of the inability to destroy intellectual opponents of color, to treat as equals, is that, for example, that black female teacher might never be corrected, or challenged, and so might transmit her bizarro ideas that only any given group can transmit information about that given group to her students. The modern Western intellectual tradition of empiricism, rationalism and skepticism, requires rigor, confrontation, and takes little account and sensitivities and feelings. The fact that minorities can be excused from this tradition does everyone, but especially the minorities, a disservice.

This tendency manifests itself in many ways, and transcends race, as Islam is not challenged with the same vigor by many liberal secular individuals as Christianity would be, based on considerations of "sensitivity," never mind that the tools to deconstruct one are appropriate to the other (by the way, this leaves the deconstruction of Islam to fundamentalist Christian wacks like Pat Robertson!). This "sensitivity" also puts up a barrier in interpersonal relations, as whites/males/non-muslims/non-disabled/etc.... must alter their behavior/speech/cadence/manner so as not to offend any given group. In contrast, when one is in the "safe zone," one can relax, and "let down their hair," and shoot the shit as they are wont to do.

This "safe zone" is where close friendships are cemented, where genuine understanding, intimacy and confidence is attained. In the quest for sensitivity, I do believe that barriers are being thrown up between people. In the workplace many men are terrified of harassment. Many whites of racism. Many young people of agism. And so on.

Now, in certain contexts, sensitivity is warranted. The problem is where to draw the line. In light of the racial situation in the 1960s or the plight of women in regards to their legal inequality, I can accept that the monsters of sensitivity are the acceptable byproducts of the move toward justice. But, I think that South Asian Americans will become enclosed in their own ghetto, and close off avenues toward becoming "mainstream," if they insist on being treated differently (look, I've seen enough smiling Italian-caricatures waving a pizza in the air to know it happens to white ethnics). Unlike the two above situations, we are not legally bounded and restricted, and in fact have benefited from the black civil rights movement.

Of course, as I note, all this matters if you want to be "mainstream." If existence within an ethnic enclave is acceptable, or preferable, than attempts to mobilize as a group is the rational decision that one would make.

As for me, I'll stay a curry muncher as long as I can insult back in kind, and then brag about all my non-existent sexual conquests....

Posted by razib at 03:49 PM