Archive for February 11th, 2010

Subtle Discrimination: Cases in Point

Posted on February 11, 2010. Filed under: Culture, HowTo, Music, Philosophy, Spirituality |

A slight teeny tiny warning: This is one of my rare semi-ranty posts. I’m publishing it because a dear friend told me his awareness and sensitivity changed because of my expounding on the following issue in conversation. Sometimes we’re not aware of our own assumptions until someone else holds a mirror to them. In that spirit, and having looked in many mirrors myself, I offer this:

Life events have conspired to put a topic much in my mind. First occurred a recommendation from *B&T bud Deirdra to read this post on “The Default Human.” Very pertinent and provoking. I’ve spent much of my life pondering the notion of the default person; only it wasn’t until reading this excellent article that I had a specific name for it.

In my country, and many in the western world, the “Default Human” is “white”, i.e. **”Caucasian”, and, often (even though they make up less than 50% of the population), Male. The “default” conception tends to further assume age: mid-twenties to mid-forties (old enough to convey some authority, but not too old to be “past it”), and economic status: middle class to upper middle class, and educated. Also assumed, of course, is his heterosexuality. When one applies all these filters, one is left with, really, a smallish fraction of the population of the United States; nevertheless, the persons contained within that fraction are who many of us think of as a “person”, without other qualifiers.***

This is understandable, to a large extent. After all, our “Founding Fathers” fit this classification. Yet, when I look around, other than at the “suits” on the television, this is not who I see. As a matter of fact, I believe American television, so voraciously consumed by much of the planet, contributes to the myth.

The notion of the “default person” can express subtly. Here are a few examples in my own life.

  • I recently attended a group discussion in which a participant asked if there was a “larger meaning” of the earthquake in Haiti. The discussion leader rambled on for a bit–after all, who can really know?–and at one point made the rather trite observation that “They’re just like us” [First of all, who is “us”?] and, here’s the punchline: “Race doesn’t come into it.” [!] No one had said anything about race! The questions were about a tragic situation happening in a specific location, not to a specific “type” of people. But the “us” in “They’re just like “us” implies, at least to me, that “us” is the default person referred to above. There were people of color in our discussion group. Are they “us” or are they “them”? And how are they supposed to feel about that?
  • I had the honor of participating in a Chinese New Year festival over the weekend. I was part of a group of backup-singers for a huge musical program, with an orchestra and its conductor. The conductor is originally from another country, but is now an American citizen. Generally a very open-minded person, he made a couple of references that disturbed me. My group was singing along with a “Chinese Choir”—and I have that in quotes because I must explain that the Choir was not made up of just Chinese people, although most of them were. The “Chinese” in “Chinese Choir” meant that the group mostly sang traditional Chinese music, used Chinese teaching methods, and sang mostly in the Mandarin language. So, back to the conductor: “American singers, please listen to the Chinese singers for the correct pronunciation.” –not TOO bad, really, but…many in the “Chinese” choir were American citizens, of Chinese descent. Then, the kicker: “Chinese people, please sing this passage for the White people.” …What? Was he LOOKING at us? The implication that we were either “Chinese” or “White” was, I felt, inadvertently insulting. There were several “White” people singing in the “Chinese” choir, but, more obviously, in both groups there were also other people of color. We have African-American people, Indian-American and Hispanic-origin people in the group. We also have two Japanese Americans. What are they supposed to think? Furthermore, the way this was phrased put us into two distinct groups: “Default” and “Other”.
  • This one has been pointed out to me by myself, on numerous occasions. I read many novels, as well as much nonfiction. Most novels I find in my library are written by a “default human” (as defined above). So comfortable are they with their “defaultness”, they assume that we assume that every character is “one of them” unless defined otherwise. The “hero” of the book might be described as “tall and gangly”, but almost never—White. Whereas an African-American neighbor is described as just that, while his Hispanic lawyer also must be delineated. Once most authors add a character out of the “default norm”, qualifiers are used. This includes those pertaining to the female gender, i.e. the “beautiful ambulance driver” where her beauty, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the story. The relative attractiveness of the male characters is generally not given much ink, except in Romance novels. [But that’s another discussion.] One can’t help feeling (at least this one!) that the token neighbor of color doesn’t address the deeper issues.

The challenge with all this (actually one of many) is that the “Default” group, as intimated above, is only a portion of the actual population in my country, yet we have taught the world to default to that image. I have been attending a discussion group on “Racialism” of late, and it has put some new thoughts into my head. For instance, I’m told that the concept of “Race” is common in the US, but not as much elsewhere, even in Europe. It seems other countries don’t tend to label people by supposed racial characteristics as much as by country of origin. A group member wondered why we divide people into races by skin color first, asking questions later. Why not consider all “Tall” people another race, or “Green-eyed” people, or something? It seems obvious that a person’s color is the most obvious thing about them, but, as I’ve learned from the discussions, we are often mistaken in that. I am considered “White” by most in my society; I appear that way, but I have little tidbits of other things in my ethnic makeup. Even though those are a fraction of who I am, ethnically, I no more wish to deny them than I do the German or Scottish larger pieces of my ethnicity. I’ve begun to think of myself as a “European-American”. It’s more in line with “African-American”; as there are many countries in Africa which have shared their populations with the US (willingly, or not), and even the non-Caucasian ancestors of mine were immigrants to Europe, so, that’s fair, I suppose.

Going back to the Chinese New Year festival, I found it meaningful and enriching to participate. I’d missed the large celebrations we had in San Francisco, where I grew up, as I’ve posted elsewhere. When a cultural background is used to facilitate both cultural identity—which gives one a sense of comfort and belonging—and education for those of different backgrounds—which brings diversity into the mainstream—then, perhaps we can incorporate diversity rather than “default” to the norm.

The year of the Tiger begins most auspiciously on western Valentine’s Day this year. I follow the path of the heart as I combine celebrations in my personal practice. ♥ Peace to all who read here.

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**Caucasian: Of or being a human racial classification distinguished especially by very light to brown skin pigmentation and straight to wavy or curly hair, and including peoples indigenous to Europe. —The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

*** Image from Origin68. You can get this on a T-shirt!

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