It's a hard thing to realize as a minority in a White-dominated society: though I am saturated with White culture, White society, White history, and White people, and though I can probably guess-timate to a greater extent what Whiteness is all about compared to a White person trying to imagine the life of a person of colour, my best guess-timate is still just that — a guess. Recently, I have been preoccupied with trying to understand how and why many Whites in America seem to have such an alien reaction to discussions of race relations, very much akin to a “White Man's Burden” narrative, that strikes me as wholly foreign. (I was particularly struck last night as I watched David Mamet's film adaptation of his play, Edmond.)
As a woman of colour, race remains foremost on my mind. Every morning, I step out into a world in which I am perceived primarily as different, unique, and unusual. I cannot hide in a sea of faces, and believe that I am just like everyone else: even the slightest comment is enough to remind me that my skin colour and “almond eyes” are a factor. Even the most supposedly tolerant White people I work with cannot help but Otherize me; last month, I was subjected to several non sequitor remarks referencing my “Eastern” heritage in conversations that otherwise had nothing to do with anything Asian. Two weeks ago, I noted that I was one of a mere ~265 Asian Pacific Islander graduate students at my school last year (representing a fraction of a percent of total graduate students), a statistic which most graduate students wouldn't even bother to look up, let alone place any significance upon.
It's hard to imagine myself in a position where I wouldn't feel racialized, or in which, when I step outside in the morning, I can rest assured that, if all else fails, I am just like everyone else: normal.
So, I can only scratch my head when I observe what seems to be an increasingly popular sentiment amongst the White mainstream: a frustration with race relations and a backlash against racial identity. Just a couple hundred miles north of where I currently sit, an undergraduate student group at Arizona State University has gained national notoriety. Over 40 students at ASU have formed and claimed membership to the newly-founded Caucasian American Men's Club (CAMASU), which describes itself as a cultural club for Whites (CNN video).
The choice of name is hardly incidental: though the group purports to celebrate Caucasian culture, the name specifically cites Caucasian men. We understand almost immediately that this is a club intended to re-invent the most privileged group in America — White men — as the underprivileged, based on cultural clubs that have been traditionally used to communicate minority viewpoints to White-centric college campuses.
The group's founders state that they feel the existing of CAMASU is only fair in light of the existence of an African American Men's group on campus. One founder, Matt Jiezerski, cites Whites as an emerging minority group, saying:
I [as a Caucasian man] do feel like a minority and I do feel like Caucasian males in general, y'know, from all parts of Europe, from all nationalities are being underrepresented… so [after seeing a poster for the African American Men's group] I thought it would only be fair to have a Caucasian American group and to show it as, y'know, a legitimate organization and as, y'know, a group of people with a cultural history and a signficiant heritage and past.
The formation of this group is, to me, in the same vein as the formation of specific groups earlier in this country's history that was intended to exclude, explicitly or inexplicitly, the Other. Like White Southerners who grow up long past the era of the Civil War and yet still claim pride in the Confederate flag, it seems as if, more and more frequently, we are seeing White Americans who misread privilege and normalcy as oppression, and are drawn to these groups because they see something “special” in being different. Though the CAMASU advisor is quick to point out that the group doesn't advocate White supremacy or the exclusion of people of colour, one has to wonder what message is sent by a group of people, with membership in the racial mainstream, feeling the need to appropriate niche aspects of people of colour to further emphasize their own identity.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that CAMASU shouldn't exist. I simply don't understand why it needs to.
I have to wonder why Whites seem to feel threatened by the existence of minority-oriented clubs and organizations in the first place. What was it about the African American Men's club that so bothered Jawierski that he felt the need to create CAMASU? Clubs like the African American Men's Club are also open to people of races, and focus on narratives largely excluded from the traditional American narrative. Back at Cornell, when I participated in events held by the Black Students United group (or created my own events for the Asian Pacific Americans for Action club I led), we discussed parts of history that are ignored by the White-centric classes taught in courses we could take for credit. For my group, we focused on the presence of Asian Americans during the Civil Rights era (for example, a radical Asian American group the worked closely with the Black Panther Party called I Wor Kuen that is rarely mentioned in today's history classes, even those focussing on Civil Rights) or the struggle of Asian American men in navigating Hollywood's sexual stereotyping of them as demasculinated and invisible). What, we have to ask, would CAMASU do for its events to highlight White heritage that is not already addressed in class?
Beyond just CAMASU, I have heard ever more frequently this characterization of Whites as a minority group, underrepresented in a society with increasing minority presence. Though statistics don't support any possible underrepresentation of Whites in mainstream media or on campuses like ASU (as an aside, Survivor: Cook Islands singlehandedly increased representation of Asian American characters on television by a third), why are many Whites feeling marginalized by minorities? For that matter, why do some Whites still struggle with discussions of race politics?
Many of the Whites I have the greatest problems with on a racial level, are those who most avidly claim to be non-racially biased. Although one might imagine the vocally intolerant, older generation of Whites who lived through Jim Crow to be the most difficult to interact with, I have come to find that it's frequently the White liberals, who claim to be open-minded and tolerant to diversity, who have the hardest time adjusting to discussions of race relations. I interact with many White people who blanche (no pun intended) at the mere mention of race, or who almost instinctively respond with the nigh-hysterical statement, “I'm not racist! I don't have a problem with race! It wouldn't matter to me if you were Black, White, Brown, or Yellow!” anytime I bring up my perspective as an Asian American woman. What's frustrating is that this fanatic adherence to superficial tolerance is almost as close-minded as the most fervent KKK member; so desperately are these Whites afraid of being labelled a racist that even suggesting an open discussion on race terrifies and frustrates them.
Instead, clinging to a view of the world in which racism can be willed out of existence by merely chanting the mantra of “un-racism”, these White liberals soon find my presence untenable and unwelcome. My identity as an Asian American woman becomes exhausting and I become the problem: always finding racism where they see none. I, as the person of colour, become the perpetrator of racism, by being “over-sensitive”. I, as the person of colour, become the oppressor by making the White person feel uncomfortable in their privileged skin. I, as the person of colour, become the self-absorbed, because I experience racism when they do not. In the end, these “un-racists” prefer to return to their world of “tolerance”, safe in feeling liberated from racism while never being challenged by the thoughts of a genuine person of colour.
And so, CAMASU exists, to cater to this “new minority” of Whites, who see racism in the existence of race and who feel oppressed by America's history of oppression.
Unfortunately, this seemingly inconsequential reaction to the Civil Rights Movement has a more sinister side: this interpretation of race relations as marginalizing Whites only serves to refocus discussions of race relations away from people of oppressed races. The unspoken consequence of the CAMASU club is, also, to parody the African American Men's Club that inspired the group's name. Rather than approach race relations in good faith, this “un-racist” mindset would reject complex discussions of race politics in favour of sweeping the discomfort of racism back under the rug.
In a mere century, racial minorities have gone from being animalistic creatures undeserving of basic human rights (let alone Constitutional rights) to representing a sizable fraction of people in the country and at institutions of higher learning. Brought to this country under bondage, forced to work for the benefit of Whites, marginalized, misunderstood, misrepresented, and — on occasion — murdered for our differences, we have nonetheless forged ahead and created a round table where we can share mutual equality.
That table might be rickety and creaky, it might sit in the back-room of a large restaurant, and we might still struggle with the number of chairs to seat at it, but, at least, it is ours. Whites own the rest of the building — why do they want a seat at our table, too?