Tuesday, October 27, 2009

336. learning to read x-rays


It's been a long time since I've felt the writer's itch - that longing for the tortured joy that comes from writing.

And so I hope to be back at writing.

There's a good chance that it may not be as regular as the once-per-week that I used to strive for. School is a TON of work. I've done more reading in the last month than I've probably done in all the time I've been here in Seattle.

Anyway, there's lots going on with me and in my head and so I hope to share some of it with y'all.

It feels great to be back.

[end preface]

I've never been a huge fan of the Blade movies - I did like the second one more than the first and I don't remember the third even though I saw it. The description of Blade that other vampires often say of him is that he has all of their strengths but none of their weaknesses since Blade possesses superhuman vampire strength but can walk around during the day, which, of course, the vampires can't do.

Well an incident occurred recently that has me wondering if I'm like the opposite of Blade - that I'm one who has all of a group's weaknesses while sharing none of their strengths.

I'm speaking of racial privilege.

I don't know who reads my blog (especially now, after not posting for so long) and so I have no idea how much knowledge any of my readers may or may not have in regards to the issue of racial privilege. And so I guess I'll start by sharing the little I know about the topic.

In America, there are people from many different racial/ethnic backgrounds. And out of these differences, a particular group often has benefits, powers, privileges that those outside their group do not share. The privileged group may or may not be aware of these advantages and even if they are aware of them, they may not actively exploit them but nevertheless, they hold access to assets that those outside their group cannot attain. (Click here if you have no idea what I'm talking about - it's an excellent introduction to the topic.)

In terms of race, this is most often talked about as White privilege.

And that's a big can of worms but there it is, I said it, I went there.


But that's not the only kind of racial privilege that exists in America.

I grew up in Hawaii where Asians are the majority racial group (link). As an Asian-American, that means I grew up being the advantaged group.

Among other things, this means that:

  • When giving me my receipt at Safeway, the cashier would say, "thank you, Mr. Ajimine" instead of just "thank you" like they do in the mainland (and this after they said, "thank you, Mr. Anderson" to the person in front of me).
  • Likewise in school (K-12-college), my teachers/professors knew how to pronounce my name without asking.
  • In local magazines and publications (the Honolulu Weekly for example) it was easy to find people who looked like me.
  • Although I went to a private school where it didn't happen (at least I never heard of it happening), I knew of a practice at some schools known as Kill Haole Day. On this day (usually the last day of the school year) white students were taunted and sometimes assaulted. White kids not coming to school on that day was not a rare occurrence.
  • The butt of racial jokes were usually white - the Portuguese, for example, were a common target of racist jokes.

Those are just a few examples but basically, what that adds up to is that I grew up never having to think about my racial identity. Because there were examples all around who looked like me, talked like me, behaved like me, I never had to worry about fitting in or standing out. And it pains me to admit this but in cases of blatant racism like Kill Haole Day and white jokes, I didn't really think about them. In fact, I laughed about it with my friends and didn't think it was a problem because that's what it is to be a member of the privileged group. I had the luxury of remaining blissfully unaware and unconcerned because I and those around me were not the ones affected.

In college I took a Political Science class where the professor spent a few weeks talking about issues of race and racism. Looking back on that time, I honestly can't remember much of what was said, but I do remember the prof talking about how even though Hawaii is very diverse racially, there were still problems of racism that were unjust and needed to be dealt with. But I didn't understand what he was getting at. My thought was, "hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do," why can't everyone just behave like us and think like us and talk like us? Then everybody would get along. What I didn't realize then was that I was able to say "us" because I was in the "us" group and it was those outside my group I wished would change and fall in line and not make a fuss. Because it's far easier to want another group to change than to change yourself or your own group.

And then I moved to the mainland and the shoe was on the other foot.

Now I'm the one that feels the pressure (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so) to conform to the norms of the group in power so that they can feel comfortable.

And I suppose that's messed up enough as it is but here's the other thing.

Because I grew up with privilege growing up in Hawaii, I have little to no experience of what it's like to be the other - the one without privilege. And so not only was I one who had perpetrated acts of racism on others (I remember learning white jokes, laughing at them, then telling them to others) back then, I am now someone who lacks empathy when it comes to race, even now that I'm in the mainland and am part of the minority group. And by that, what I mean is because I used to be the one with my boot in the face of the other, I don't know what it's like to have a boot in my own face. And so even when the boot is there kicking out my teeth, sometimes I don't feel it.

That's a poor metaphor because how could I not feel a beat down like that? Maybe because racism is not always so stark? Or is it? One of the things I've learned from men and women of color in the mainland is that when you grow up with constant reminders of your marginalization and your otherness, when you grow up in an atmosphere where you're under pressure to conform to some impossible "norm,"1 then when you bump up against privilege (personal or institutional), you're aware of it immediately.

Maybe a metaphor would help here.

When doctors learn to read x-rays, their teacher puts a film up on the illuminator and asks the students to point out what the image is showing them. As this process begins, the students just see white splotches on a black background. They can recognize structures like bones and maybe organs but that's all they see. Then the instructor puts his finger on one of the splotches and says, do you see anything there? And the students say no because that grey bit looks exactly like the grey bit next to it.

As their training progresses, they keep looking at x-ray films and they begin to get better at identifying normal grey bits from diseased or cancerous grey bits. After a while, it becomes second nature and so when they're with a patient discussing their x-ray results, they can point confidently at something they see in the image - something that the patient doesn't see at all.

I think that's kind of what it's like to learn to see racism for someone who didn't grow up seeing it. Imagine growing up in a household where both your parents were expert radiologists and so you grew up looking at x-rays. If this was your upbringing and you decided to become a doctor, when you went through your training and got to the bit where your fellow students were learning to read x-rays, you'd already be able to see what the instructor was trying to point out because you grew up with that skill whereas the other students just see splotches.

Unfortunately, unlike this metaphorical hypothetical, when it comes to race, growing up with an awareness of it (because you're in it, because you're of it) is a disadvantage, not an advantage because unlike the students trying to learn to read x-ray films, those who can't detect instances of racism aren't striving to learn to recognize it - a difficult process that takes months, years, maybe lifetimes.

And when it comes to racial reconciliation and advocating for justice, learning to see is only the first step. And as difficult as that step is, it may actually be the easiest because once you see, the next step is figuring out what to do about it.

Honestly, for myself, I'm still learning how to see. You'd think it'd be easier for me to recognize since now I'm an Asian-American in the mainland and so I'm sort of surrounded by it. But for me, it's still hard to see unless it's right there in my face. For example, a few months ago when I was working at a temp job at a copier company, the guy I'm working with asks me, "where are you from?" and I say, "Hawaii." He responds, "Hawaii? But you don't look Hawaiian." I explain to him that I was born and raised in Hawaii but no, I myself am not Hawaiian. Then he asks, "okay, so where are your parents from?" And I tell him that they were born in Hawaii as well. Of course by then I realized what he was asking me and so I finally said, "I'm Okinawan." And he says, "oh, well why didn't you say that in the first place?"

I'd venture to guess that some of my mainland Asian-American friends are reading that and groaning. They probably knew where my co-worker was going from the very first question because they've heard that question throughout their lives. Me? It took me a while to figure it out and even after the incident I just thought to myself, "hmm, that was odd."

And it seemed merely "odd" because that was a new experience for me. But friends who grew up with that kind of ignorance probably have a different reaction. Think of it this way. Say you're sitting in an airplane on a long flight. You get settled in and then you feel a bump from behind you. You don't think much of it because you figure that's just the person behind you getting situated. But then the bumping continues and continues and continues because maybe it's a fidgety kid with an inattentive parent behind you. The bumping, of course, drives you crazy and even when you ask the parent to ask their kid to stop, the bumps continue all the way to your destination.

Now say you get on a connecting flight. Again, you find your seat and are glad to see that the kid is no longer behind you. But if the new person behind you accidentally hits your seat, your frustration level spikes immediately and even if that's the only bump of the entire trip, you still have a general sense of unease just anticipating another jostling.

Imagine growing up with a lifetime of bumps. Often inadvertent, sometimes purposeful, but still there - bump after bump after bump. Imagine always feeling the sense of anxiety that the passenger felt on that second flight. Imagine feeling that all the time. Imagine living with the expectation of being bumped - knowing that it will come, sometimes subtle, sometimes direct and sharp and full of spite.

I didn't grow up being bumped. I was the one who did the bumping - sometimes unknowingly, sometimes with full knowledge of what I was doing. And I never felt compelled to stop other people from bumping because it didn't seem like a big deal. Because what's wrong with bumping someone - telling one small white joke even when there's a white person around? For me it's just the one joke but for that person it may be one more in a series of bumps that they've had to endure throughout his life.

And now I'm the one being bumped. But I just sat down in this seat and there have only been a few kicks from behind. I don't have that sense of anxiety or expectation of one who's been bumped their entire lives. Even worse, like the person who can't read x-rays well, I don't recognize it when those around me are being bumped and so it's hard to step in and to help stop it. Even when a friend gets bumped and asks me, "did you just feel that?" Sometimes I have to say, "sorry, I didn't." They've got their finger on the cancer on the film right in front of me and I can't see it. I can't feel it.

And that breaks my heart.

And so I'm trying to see. I'm trying to feel. I'm trying to learn.

But it's hard.

But it's vitally important because I can't fight a disease if I can't see it.

Because the bumping has to stop.


I wish I had finished this post a few weeks ago but it's been difficult for a number of reasons, not just because school has been keeping me busy. But I wanted to let you know that starting this evening (10/27/09), my church is beginning a three-week depth class on the issue of race called Faith and Race. It culminates in a one day conference called Skin Deep: A Conference on Faith & Race in the Church. If you're in the Seattle area, I highly recommend you attend the depth classes or the one day conference, preferably both.


1This is my understanding of what it's like to grow up as a minority in the mainland based on how I've heard the experiences of friends here. If I've missed the mark, please correct me through email or in the comments and I'll revise. Thanks.


Kacie said...

I simply DO NOT get how asking where people are from can be racist - that always gets me.

I've asked that and gotten rude or angry looks in response and I think... geez...

I grew up overseas too, but I'm white. So when I see people MIGHT have grown up overseas (whether its the clothes, the skin color the accent... anything might make me wonder), I eagerly ask where they are from, hoping to find some commonality with someone that might be like me.

So... when I get angry looks in response I think wow, that is just so unfair. You have judged MY motivations for asking because of MY skin color.

kate said...

@Kacie: It's not always, but it often can be.

Scenario: You've grown up your entire life in the U.S. So have your parents. And often their parents. Yet because you are not the majority race, those IN the majority often assume that you are not from here. And so you get questioned - over and over and over again, every day and week of your life, and in some way this questioning can often have the effect of creating an 'Other' simply based on assumption. Can you see how that would be painful, to somehow be assumed to be an immigrant, always having to implicitly explain and defend the fact that you're as American as anyone else?

So what seems like innocent questioning, just becomes another 'bump' like Randall is speaking of, no matter how well-intentioned the questioner is.

josephrlee said...


That in essence is the exact reason why one would feel rubbed the wrong way, it is because for the past centuries that America historically has rubbed minorities the wrong way. Even if you are earnestly asking because you want to know more about that person, there's a history and weight that racism has ingrained into the fabric of being an American.

Unfair it maybe, but that's a result of how complex this issue really is. If you understand the response of rudeness stems from history and what your skin color has represented in the past and still does now, you can begin to understand the reason behind those angry looks. It might not be your fault, but it's a consequence of the past that you've inherited, and though that might not be fair, well there's a lot to life that's not fair I suppose.

Kacie said...

Yeah, I understand how things build and people can be oversensitized. That is where personal responsibility comes in though - being sensitive is fine, and there are definitely places where offense should be taken.

But, in this matter... it seems like offense shouldn't be taken, at least not in most cases. When we become overly sensitized, then WE have also moved to where we are also in the wrong. It is wrong to react badly when someone has said something that shouldn't be offensive, and simply because of your past you are reacting. It isn't difficult to kindly tell someone that your family has lived in the US for generations. They actually may not turn out to be surprised.

It is understandable to over-react, but it isn't fair.

I don't say that to judge, I totally relate to the buildup of hard knocks - just in other areas. I'm a "hidden" immigrant. People assume I'm from here and I'm not - and thus people have their own misconceptions about me.

Personally, I've sort of always wished I was actually Asian American. Having grown up in Asia but not looking like it and not having any claim into Asian American communities.... yeah, I grow envious.

The_LoneTomato said...

Hi Kacie,

Can't give an extended response here (grad school is kicking my tail) but wanted to thank you, first of all, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate both.

I also want to thank you for sharing your frustrations with how your question "where are you from" has been received.

To be honest, I'm still very much where you're at. I'm still learning about the issue of race and what it's like to grow up in a place where a person's "otherness" is always at play.

That said, I have learned to be very cautious of putting responses to questions/situations/experiences in the category of over-sensitization, especially when such a response comes from a member of a disenfranchised group (whether that be a result of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)

Speaking for myself, I feel that it's not up to me to decide what should and what shouldn't feel offensive to another person and/or whether or not someone is overly sensitive to a particular question or statement. I haven't walked in their shoes and so even if I don't understand where they're coming from (yet), I take their feelings very seriously and assume from my end that I'm the one who has something to learn.

I wish I could respond in more detail and at greater length but school assignments beckon.

Thanks again for reading and commenting and engaging. Hope to hear more.

kate said...

@ Kacie

To dismiss someone as "overly sensitive" and claim that their reactions are "understandable but not fair" is, to be completely honest, only perpetuating institutional/individual racism not to mention invalidating the history of pain that those of the majority have caused to minorities in America, like Joe mentioned.

Is it our INDIVIDUAL faults? Mostly, no. Hoever, did that history create a system that still favors us INDIVIDUALLY, that we enjoy simply by being white middle-class heterosexual Americans? Yes. Does that need to change? Absolutely.

She says it better than I do:


omOSHIROi said...

HI Lone Tomato! Sending a mensore and a touch of aloha from Okinawa! We have been looking for you and being "a little slow" with technology, took me a while to figure out how to "break into the posting section" - that being said... HI!!! Don't know if you remember me but I am "Mirakogrow" from Hawaii days! I hope this message finds you doing good - but didn't want to interupt the flow of your pretty heavy topic - I just wanted to figure out a way we can get in touch with you, b/c we wanted to send you something (good of course, and no not a box of uchina tomatos!!) Hope you will get this and be able to let us know how we can contact you! Thank you so much! BTW you guys have a lot to think about living on the mainland!! Sometimes I think the "smaller this world becomes" the further (farther?) apart we sometimes become as a human race. - the closer the physcial space, sometimes further the cultural and emotional space. Muzukashi ne! But thanks for making us think about things!

The_LoneTomato said...

Chisako, Cary!

Amazing and so great to hear from you!

You can email me at lonetomato808@gmail.com.

Can't wait to hear from you!

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read this article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

Fixed Gear said...

Everything is racist nowadays ..

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