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Blog against racism meme

It's Blog against Racism week. Details are here.

I'm a disabled Anglo Burmese woman of above average height. I'm married to a Chinese American man of average height.

The worst way I experience racism is when I've been mistaken for Hispanic and get treated badly. Along with this assumption is frequently the assumption I can't speak English, and the person speaks to me in loud patronizing slow tones or tries really bad Spanish. However as soon as I open my mouth and my slight Queen's English accent comes out, the person realises I'm not in fact Hispanic. That may be part of the reason I retained a little accent, but if so it was unconscious.

The main way I experience racism is white Americans often assume I'm white, because I have relatively pale skin (not white but a little lighter than most East Asians) and I'm tall. Sometimes African Americans do also. That unconscious assumption that everyone is white dovetailed with my childhood discomfort with my own race. There's much about my Burmese heritage I don't understand and most Americans have never even of heard of Myanmar. I used to feel bad about this, that I wasn't Burmese enough. My brother and sister are both several shades darker than me, darker than most East Asians, unmistakably a non-white shade. Then I realised that beyond this set of folks, other people knew I was multi-racial. They might not get the Burmese part, but they knew I wasn't white.

And I'm afraid when people do know something about Burma, their characterization of my mother's people invariably grates. They describe them as happy or loving life or backwards, terms you'd use to describe children. Yet before college I didn't identify as a person of color.

But I also see that it's hard to recognize the privileges one has. I went to a womyn's music festival and yes woman was spelled with a 'y'. At a concert, some women of color were dancing in front of some white women in wheelchairs. The women in wheelchairs asked the women of color to move, because they couldn't see. The wheelchair seating was limited to a specific area. The women of color called them racist and oppressing them. Finally a woman in a wheelchair managed to get a guard who escorted the women of color to another area. Later one of the women of color complained to me about their "ill-treatment". She was totally shocked when I not only took the women in wheelchairs side, but that in fact she was being incredibly ableist not to see how far from being oppressed she was abusing her able-bodied privilege to oppress others.

But in many ways my self-image has changed a lot. I feel a lot more comfortable identifying as half Burmese. I can see more clearly the culture my mother passed on to me. And in some ways right now I'm the ideal Burmese woman.

Yet this has not changed people's assumptions. Most people who know me say my daughter looks a lot like me. However she has straight black classic Asian hair. My hair is a couple shades lighter than black and wavy. Once I was asked if my daughter was adopted! Others would ask the question "Where does your daughter come from?" and look surprised when I said "From me". Now that my son has been born and he has dark brown hair, I rarely get asked if my children are my birth children. Ironically other than hair color and skin color, he looks a lot like C.

Earlier in my life, I would feel offended or worried that people think my children don't belong to me. Now I think it's funny and reflects their own silly assumptions. I accept my role as someone who can pass as both white and ablebodied not because I am either or get to bask in privilege, but because people fail to notice the obvious due to their own blinders. At some point, another family member shows up (besides C), or I have to eat, and the gig is up. I get tired of speaking up sometimes and I haven't had much energy to do it lately, but I do still speak up instead of remaining silent. That's the best I can do right now.

But actually I do think I have a tremendous amount of racial privilege that Americans don't talk about much. I profit every day from other races in the Third World including my mother's native country. The US spends billions of dollars arming oppressive regimes who kill and rape people. Billions of children starve while my country and other rich nations do very little. The Gates foundation leads the fight against basic African diseases. I think it's shameful it has taken so long and it takes a software engineer to wake up the Western world. The equivalent masskiller European diseases were wiped out or controlled in the beginning of the previous century or earlier. I buy goods made by people who will never have access to the infrastructure, education or goods and services that I do simply because of where they were born. I know I contribute to the problem by not paying careful attention to where I buy things and that my government's own policies contribute massively to the problem. And most of the time I don't give it a second thought. I take it for granted my numerous privileges like running water, a tv, and basic sanitation. Only sometimes do I remember shocking things like if Little T had been born in Myanmar, he would not have survived.

Comments

( 8 notes — Leave a note )
poets_hand
Jul. 19th, 2006 02:25 am (UTC)
This was a powerful post.

I'll have to check out that site.
waterowl
Jul. 20th, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks :)
funcrunch
Jul. 19th, 2006 02:38 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. You've inspired me to speak out about my own experiences.
waterowl
Jul. 20th, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC)
Hooray! Thanks for speaking up!
jennyrob
Jul. 19th, 2006 05:40 am (UTC)
Racism in our area is so hard to talk about. There isn't any institutional racism, like apartheid, so it's all personally perceived or inferred from measuring populations (like in prisons).

Plus, there are also so, so many people (especially children) of mixed race that people even 10 years from now are going to have a hard time making snap decisions about people based on skin color and the host of other subtle variables that make up race.

Still, people do act with racial bias all the time, with greater and lesser consequences. But, it's so mixed up with class that it's really hard to tease out.

Personally, as a Caucasian, I've experienced racism from Chinese people while I was learning Chinese. They wouldn't make eye contact with me. They dismissed my comments. It made me feel stupid. It made me doubt myself. It put up road blocks to communication. There was really nothing good about it.

But, now I have my own racial bias--when Chinese people act as if I'm incompetent or infantile, I think, "Oh, that's just the typical Chinese way of thinking that Westerners are imbeciles." I still withdraw and feel a little hurt, but I try not to take it so personally.
waterowl
Jul. 20th, 2006 10:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks for speaking up
vivwiley
Jul. 21st, 2006 01:51 am (UTC)
thank you for sharing your insights and reflections on privilege and color in America. Very powerful.
waterowl
Jul. 21st, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much.
( 8 notes — Leave a note )