Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Amazing Ethnicity

Doesn't quite work the same as it would if I used 'race', but I don't use race because the term comes from the entire idea of an ethnic hierarchy ie racism. Besides which, I like ethnicity; it sounds better to me, and makes it easier for me to separate culture.

Last week my sister commented that I am very colour conscious. I was surprised; I speak openly about ethnicity and culture all the time, and no-one has said that to me before. I wondered if she was right, and decided she was. Then I wondered - and discussed with Vincent - whether that was a bad thing, and we decided not. Actually, we decided How can I not be? I bang on about lived experience; everything we do is done through the bodies we have and is shaped by the bodies we have, regardless of what our minds are like. To me, not being white shapes my experiences as much as not being a man; it is natural to me to be conscious of the differences between the way I am understood in the things I do and what is expected of me, and the way things would be if I were not a woman, or not brown-skinned. The fact is, I am a brown-skinned person living in a world (and a country) that is dominated by white people. Not being part of this group means I am always the Other; even if my habits and culture are the same. For years and years I thought I was the same as all of my friends, and everybody else, but I never was; they knew, but I didn't - you can laugh at their jokes, drink with them, fart with them, but you will never be in the boys' club if you were not born a boy. And if I am something - a woman, and a member of an ethnic minority, then I am not going to make you nothing, because that means accepting you are the default, and I am not going to do that. I know Cixous. I know Beauvoir. If I am something, you are something too.

I'm already way off what I came here to talk about. Over the last couple of days I've been reading about the experiences of other people who are not white but live in countries where most people are. One of the funny things about New Zealand is that because we are small so we live within short distances of each other, and we don't have riots, and a million other reasons, most New Zealanders think our country is not racist. If for you, as for me, racism is a not irregular experience, this can make you think you are crazy. A few years ago I read an interview with Ian McKellen (am I meant to say sir?) where he talked about a bbq he was at with Helen Clark (in the good old days, when the ol' ship was under her command), and complimented her on NZ not being a racist place. She told him that actually, NZ is very racist (but that she was determined to change that as much as she could during her time as PM). I was so grateful to read that, and relieved to know that whatever everyone else seemed to think, the lady at the top knew what was happeneing. But anyway, because people don't see NZ as racist, they don't worry about what they say, how it might sound, and what they mean when they say it. They will say things about a lifestyle (meaning a culture), or a place (meaning a socio-economic group and, often, by default, an ethnicity). Bollocks, I'm off topic again. 

Okay, the first thing I read was this article on Jezebel, about institutionalised racism on tv, and terrifyingly racist attitudes in America. The part I found most horrifying was the result of a poll taken last year that showed that 40% of Mississippi Republicans believe inter-racial marriage should be legal. What, now? But this isn't just an American thing. When I was at uni, a girl I had worked with forwarded me one of those email quizzes that people did before facebook was born, purportedly to get to know your acquaintances better. In this instance, it was more a case of get to know your workmate's frightening bigotry. One of the questions was (fuck knows why) Do you believe in inter-racial marriage? And her answer was No, plus some reasons why. This was a semi-educated (she was at uni, but she may have studying property management or something), young (I think three years younger than me) woman who had lived her entire life in NZ (albeit in one of those far eastern suburbs which seem to be favoured by immigrants from countries with histories of de jure racism - you tell me why). Not only do I think this is just inherently fucked up, I take it extremely personally, both being a Samoan with an English surname and married to someone of a different ethnicity (who, needless to say, is as angry and offended at these things as I am). What is so scary about people whose ancestors came from different parts of the world, getting it on?

The next thing I read, also on Jezebel (it's so much better reading than the weekend papers, and not only does it have the Hollywood gossip stuff that I pretend not to be reading when we have the paper, it makes fun of some of the people), was this article about the mono-cultural world of Lena Dunham's new HBO series Girls. I'm not going to repeat all the stuff I've said before about this kind of racism on tv (yes, exclusion absolutely is racism). Nor am I going to go on about how the fuck did she get to make and star in an HBO show after the awfulness that was her debut feature Tiny Furniture, that Vincent and I went to see (but didn't walk out of, for some reason; I can't remember if it was because we were wedged in or because I had sore legs). So I'll just say this is Not Fucking Good Enough. The bit about universal experiences on tv only ever being those of white characters is something that bugs me all the time, as is the fact that tv and movies aimed at both men and women always centre on a male character. And yeah, I can boycott, but what does that leave me with? Not much. I can only watch The Wire so many times before I have some kind of breakdown.

Lastly, I read this conversation between two writers on Rookie, which I really liked. Rookie is meant to be for teenage girls, but I dunno, I think maybe I'll always have a bit of the teenage girl in me. Besides which, any person could get a lot out of the website; above all it's about figuring out who you are and how to be yourself, and everyone can use a bit of that. Anyway, the two writers are what they term bi-racial, and I think the article is incredibly important - even at 28, having experiences like mine shared means a lot to me because it so rarely happens. As you know, I am frequently asked where I am from, and it drives me completely beserk. 1. Do you mean what is my ethnicity? 2. None of your FUCKING business. 3. Can I gift-wrap any or all of this for you?

Ethnicity is both amazing and unremarkable. It can be central to who we are, but that should be up to each of us; not the people who look at us. I think lived experience really refers to reactions to our beings, but I dream of the day when it is about our mental and physical capabilities, and nothing else. Simon de Beauvoir talked about an open-ended future - and I believe it's our birthright. Not as women, or anything else, but just as people.

This is completely unrelated, but I've been watching this clip and I'd be interested to know if you think it's funny - I do. The movie was kind of an epiphany for me (I always seem to have them during movies that I didn't really want to tell people I saw; maybe part of the lesson), and I remember enjoying it. Here it is.

No comments:

Post a Comment