I think a lot of the people who would potentially read my blog are familiar with the idea that you don’t want to define one group as Label X and everyone else as Non-Label X, because that sets up the former group as The Norm and everyone else as Other, defined against the norm rather than in their own right. Sometimes I think this tactic doesn’t work as well as it’s thought to – like, please, just call me a non-Jew, because to me Gentile sounds more exclusive. Maybe it’s all that Bible reading I used to do, I don’t know. But anyway. I just noticed that I’ve seen people use the term “ethnic” a fair amount, and there probably are people out there pointing out the problem with it, but just in case you hadn’t noticed…
Who’s ethnic? When you walk down the ethnic food aisle in the grocery store, what kind of food is there? Well, there’s Mexican food. There’s Chinese food. There’s Indian food. The pattern escapes me. It’s just everything that isn’t what American-born people usually eat. What’s ethnic hair, ethnic eyes, ethnic clothing, if not simply non-white and non- Western?
In this case, we’ve named the Others and left the Norm defined in the negative. But it’s still the same thing. And I know all you non-linguistics majors out there are wondering why the hell anyone should care, they’re just words, as long as you don’t overanalyse them, they won’t hurt you – but I think they are hurting us. On both sides.
When I was in high school, I read a book called The Gatekeepers, which was about how college admissions people decide who to let in and who to reject. I hated it. Granted, I had a very different view of the world then, but I still think I’d hate it even now. Instead of saying “this student is a minority and so she hasn’t had the same opportunities as everyone else, she’s fought against racism her whole life which has made her different from our white students and made her path harder, and helping her get an awesome education will help a little bit in rectifying the way her race has been held down in the past and can break harmful cycles, so let’s let her in” they said “we want our campus to have a mix of races because otherwise it would be boring.” Now, I do think that it has been wonderful for me to be surrounded by so many people from so many places and with so many skin colors at college, because I had to confront my ideas about people of different races and start to “get” on a subconscious level what I already wanted to believe on a conscious level, namely, that they’re people too. But. I have a culture! (Yes, white American culture is a culture.) And an ethnicity! And I’m not the same as every white person just by virtue of my skin color! Isn’t that one of the tenets of anti-racism, that not all people of one race are the same, that stereotypes are wrong, that people are individuals? Not that I’m trying to say poor me and reverse racism, I’m just saying that this way of seeing things is factually incorrect, and when you believe things that are false, it tends to cause problems, what with your mental representation of reality not matching reality and all.
So I think this attitude that white people have neither cultures nor ethnicities sucks for everyone. I’m reduced to a blank (“white bread” comes to mind), and people of color are again otherized. Even if you think the Other is interesting by virtue of being different, you’re still defining them as Not the Norm, not to mention that you’re exoticizing (a word I just made up) them by attributing something to them that (supposedly) normal white people don’t have. That usually doesn’t end with white people appreciating the nuances of their culture so much as looking at them like animals in the zoo/stereotyping them/thinking about how different they are (as opposed to my much-needed recognition that they are in fact not that different; while understanding that cultures differ is important, I think in countering racism you need to show that we’re all people, no matter what we eat, wear, and say).
If you think white Americans don’t have a culture or an ethnicity, then beyond, you know, ignoring their culture and ethnicity, you’re basically setting them up as the center of the world, that by which everything else is measured. You set something that actually has qualities to neutral, as if it couldn’t have been any other way, as if it’s natural. If it’s natural instead of cultural, then why do other cultures do things differently? Because they’re weird. Probably the best thing you can learn from cultural comparisons is that there is no normal, no baseline from which people deviate (in certain things, that is; we all eat and breathe, of course). From there you realize that people who are different from you aren’t better or worse, they’re not crazy for doing things in a way you would never dream of doing them, they’re just different, because of their history, because of their environment, because of chance. They have just as much of a reason as you do, and you have just as little of a reason as they do. That’s something people have to realize, because without going through a thought process along those lines, there are a lot of things we do that we take for granted as necessary or natural that are actually coincidental or random or that follow from a circumstance that not everyone shares. (Stupid example: when you take exams in France, they have a special sort of packet for you to write it in. Damned if I could figure out where to start writing, how to add more pages, or that I had to seal the flap with my name. Nobody tried to explain it, because they thought it was self-explanatory, having used these packets for who knows how long.) So if you speak in a way that allows people to very easily continue taking their normalness for granted, or the normalness of the culture that has always dominated the place where they live, you allow people to keep thinking in this Norm/Other way, and thinking that way allows for a lot of belief in falsehoods and a lot of racism.