Yo, Is This…?

I’ve been reading the archives of yoisthisracist.com for the past week or so, because it’s awesome and pagers are dope as hell. Okay, also because it’s spot-on.

Racism is, obviously, one more facet in the “people suffering because of something they didn’t choose” prism slash spectrum of stuff I hate. I’m actually kind of embarrassed that I haven’t blogged about it yet. The reason, of course, is that because I’m white, I don’t encounter systematic (systemic? both?) racism aimed at me personally very often, and so it slips my mind when it comes to things about which to rant. Which is (hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to use profanity in this post, just a heads-up) total bullshit, because I’m of course aware of system(at)ic racism all around me and hate it and should be calling it out more often.

So last week I wrote about studying in India, and reading this blog (do I have to call it a Tumblr? Does that matter?) got me thinking about some things. Then I came across this post, which sets the stage nicely:

Anonymous asked: Yo, some photography professor at my college went to Bali, filmed a bunch of religious ceremonies and people dancing, and made a video that called the Balinese people “artsy” and “deep.” She called this art. Did she actually make art or is she just another racist fetishizing Asians?

Yo, if you’re going to send in fake shit, at least make it halfway convincing; a motherfucker with an MFA in Photography is going to drink saturated fixer before they use the term “artsy,” have you heard those motherfuckers talk before?

(link)

Here’s where I start to question myself.

I minored in South Asian Studies. I spent four months in Delhi, and four years studying South Asian religion, culture, language, and post-colonial literature. My question to myself: Have I been fetishizing Indian culture? In short: Am I more racist than I thought?

It’s not easy to answer. I was and continue to be genuinely interested in the history, religion, and politics of the Indian subcontinent. I am absolutely aware of and drawn to the beauty of much of the literature, art, and culture of South Asia, much as I am absolutely aware of and drawn to the beauty of much of the literature, art, and culture of Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Mali, China…etc. ad nauseum. I don’t think racial privilege is a good reason not to study and learn from a culture–I think that that study just needs to be responsibly done, with awareness of biases and privilege. I also know a lot about the parts of all these cultures, South Asian not excepted, that have been fueled by hatred and that I vehemently dislike. So there’s part of me that thinks, “Hey, you did it by the book, you know that India isn’t all about spiritual awakenings and delicious chai” and feels okay.

(Straight up, chai with lots of milk and sugar is amazing though.)

But hold on, don’t let me off the hook too easily. The reason I first wanted to take a class on South Asian religion and history was because I saw a fantastic bharatanatyam performance of The Ramayana at college and I thought, “I want to be able to do that.” Partially because it was beautiful…but partially, also, because it was different. I can’t guarantee that there was no hint of exoticism in my motivation. And when I went to India and decided that my research project would be a one-woman show, in which I portrayed characters like the god Shiva and his consort Parvati, was that okay?

You can argue that because it came from a respectful place, because I did months of research and actually learned Kathak dance and worked with instructors from the National School of Drama and all, that it was okay. But I could have organized and written a show for other people to perform. Like, real Kathak students who actually knew what they were doing.

All right, practically that would have been very difficult. I’m just saying that I think it’s important that we remember where we’re coming from when…well, every-when. I applied for a Watson Fellowship after college to go to Mali, Senegal, and Ghana to learn traditional theatrical techniques from the griots and from several other specific traditions of performance. I wanted to set up a festival that could bring artists from around the world to perform traditional art forms. But I also wanted to be able to glean techniques and learn forms that were new to me so that I could then use them in my art. Which is a little bit, “Hey, I was born able to have anything I want and now I’m bored with all this stuff, can I have your thing too?”

Or what about the time when I went to the South Asian Festival in Boston and faced what seemed to me to be a surprisingly hostile reaction from a lot of the people there, a sort of “This is our one day, we don’t want you here” vibe–and my confusion about what to do, whether it was necessary or helpful or relevant to say that I wasn’t just someone there for the novelty or if I should just leave and give them their day where they didn’t have to be reminded that the majority of people in their city saw them as “other?”

I’m genuinely interested to know what you guys think about all this. Part of the reason why I’m writing is that I’m trying to figure out what my actual opinion is. Because:

1. I’m definitely not trying to pull a “reverse racism is a thing!” boo-hoo-fest

2. I’m glad to be intensely aware of my own privilege

3. I think studying other cultures is a valid thing for anyone to do and, when done responsibly, can actually reduce racism and promotes the reminder that people are people are people

4. Mera dil Bharat mein hai (my heart is in India) (double points to anyone who gets my reference)

I’m going to go ahead and greenlight you guys calling out something I have said or done as racist; I hope you realize that if it was, it was unintentional and the reason I write about this stuff is to learn and get better. I also greenlight your sharing your opinions about what isn’t racist. I just ask that we not go too far down the road of “people are too sensitive about this!” and “white people can face prejudice too!” and “we should all just stop worrying about this and be color-blind!”

Because like it or not, white privilege is a thing, racism is a thing, it’s a thing that people of color have to invariably face at some point in their lives, and it’s a thing that completely sucks. I’m not interested in denying that. If one way to move toward being better is to go way over the top in analyzing, I’m absolutely happy to do that.

Now if you want something silly to look at as a break from tough stuff, might I suggest this.

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7 Comments

Filed under Musings, Rants

7 responses to “Yo, Is This…?

  1. I think the two most important things to remember are that:

    1. No one can be racist against white people, just as no one can be sexist against men. That’s not to say that people can’t have terrible, based-on-sterotypes opinions about either group. Only that the historical weight and social framework and narrative of oppression isn’t there, and white privilege is always, always, always going to be a thing. (See Louis C.K. talking about how the worst thing anyone can call him is a “cracker.”)

    2. All white people are racist. (Note: This isn’t the same thing as saying someone is “a racist,” which to my mind implies that what you do and who you associate with is motivated by racism. Only that, at the end of the day, white people are inherently at least a tiny bit racist, and the best thing to do is to acknowledge it and then work to examine and maybe even begin to dismantle one’s privilege.)

    Also, I love Yo, Is This Racist? Easily one of my all-time favorite Tumblrs.

  2. Francesca

    Welcome to my life at UChicago

  3. Jacob Watson

    Yes, this is all very complicated. I’m no expert on the subject, but I would offer two thoughts:

    1) You are right to talk about intention. While we all make mistakes, wanting to genuinely, respectfully learn about someone else’s culture is not (in itself) a “racist” intention.

    2) That said, it ACTUALLY sounds like you are talking more about privilege and otherness than race, per se. Your comment about “This is our one day, we don’t want you here” is particularly interesting, re: gay pride. It’s easy to feel that way about straight people joining in the celebration, and again it’s about intention. Are you here in solidarity, or are you here for a party? There are certainly folks doing it for both reason.

  4. Michael

    I also feel as though I can’t speak about these issues with much (any) authority, but here are my reactions. My feeling is that you have a responsibility to question your own actions and reactions, but that you aren’t obligated to do so perfectly. You do your best and maybe sometimes you miss something. If someone tells you that it wasn’t okay and you think they’re right, then you can adjust. You seem to be doing plenty on that front.

    I also think you should check out Project Implicit (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/).

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