Philosophy  •  September 28, 2003

Problems to Be Banished

There is a controversy developing at Freedom High School in Oakley, California where a 15-year-old student Lisa McClelland wants to start a Caucasian club. Her rationale is: Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have clubs, why couldn’t white people have one? I have to agree with her. I find any type of organization based on race to be racist. Telling her that she could not have something that people of other races could, is even more racist. The reason why a white girl is not allowed to form a white club is because white race is perceived to be superior in our culture. By disallowing her to form a Caucasian club, we would inadvertently be reinforcing this perception.

As Jerry Seinfeld once joked on his show, it’s OK to make fun of your own race, but not of others. The point here is that you must make your position clear, that you are not racist, before you can play with the idea of race. As long as you can prove this to your audience, anything goes. For instance, Quentin Tarantino feels that he is qualified to use the N-word because he has many black friends. Tarantino is required to prove this, because he is white, that is, because he is in a superior position. Whereas black comedians like Chris Rock do not need to prove this. Again, by making white people prove themselves, but not making black people to do the same, implicitly reinforces the position of white people to be superior. Also, by going out of your way to prove to your audience that you are qualified, reinforces this notion of superiority. You feel that you need to prove your qualification because you are aware of your superior position.

Reinforcement works the same way whether it is positive or negative, whether you are embracing or criticizing. It strengthens the psychological divisions between racial lines, as well as the hierarchies among them. What is important here is to recognize the true source of racial problems in our society, and not to mix two separate issues. Racial and ethnic differences in themselves are not problematic. Reinforcing the differences or similarities in themselves does not cause any problems. Between Italian and French cultures, for instance, we can reinforce the differences as much as we would like without creating any problems. This is because there are no implicit hierarchies in those comparisons or distinctions. In other words, reinforcing of hierarchy is a separate issue from reinforcing of differences. The latter without the former does not create any problem.

On the one hand, I enjoy hearing and making racial jokes, but on the other, I oppose forming any groups based on race, no matter how good the intension may be. This is because uniting is inherently about power, and therefore about reinforcing of the racial hierarchies. Even if the group is in a disadvantageous position, I oppose it, because, as I said above, reinforcement works in both directions in the same way. The purpose of uniting is to give more power to the individuals of the group than they could have on their own. It is a strategy of empowerment. I am not against empowering a black person; I am against empowering him as a black person. There is a difference. I do not want to be empowered in a group because I am Asian, but I would not mind being empowered as a person just as a democracy does.

The idea of Caucasian club is controversial because white people are perceived to be already more powerful than others. The vision of white people uniting, which would empower them further, is disturbing to many people in minority groups. Their efforts to even out the competition are in jeopardy. But they must realize that using race as a basis to form a power structure is misguided. Whether you are in a minority or not is beside the point. Race should not be a basis for power. As long as you insist on race being the basis of power, some race will always be superior to others. This will lead nowhere. The fight will never end. We must realize that it should not be a fight in the first place. It is not a problem to fight, but a problem to be banished.

Here is another example of problem to be banished:

In response to my paper about how to tell a real Japanese restaurant, Mark Dong says:

“I don’t agree with your whole ‘Chinese people love red’ and most of them are cheap and exploitative and ‘the printing characteristics can tell you who is culturally behind It’. The tone of your piece sounds like ‘Chinese/korean people are tacky and vulgar’ and ‘Japanese have style and wouldn’t be so crass’.”

It is natural to interpret my writing this way, and to some degree, I expected it. This is because Japanese are generally perceived to be superior to Chinese and Koreans. For instance, take the criticism of printing characteristics. What I said was that Chinese delivery menus have specific characteristics, usually printed on Legal size paper, folded into 4 vertical panels, and printed with black and red inks. I said nothing about the quality of the design or the print job, but it is only natural to extend the interpretation. Why does this come naturally? Because the public perceives Japanese culture to be superior to Chinese culture. Ironically, among the vast collection of delivery menus I have, the opposite is true about the superiority. Most Japanese restaurants do not even bother printing the menus professionally; they simply use Xerox machines. Thus, I had no intention of implying that Japanese delivery menus are better designed or printed.

The same goes for the color red. There is nothing wrong with red. There is nothing inherently tacky about using red on a menu. My conclusion was based on a statistical fact. The vast majority of Chinese delivery menus I have are printed using black and red.

I also never said that Chinese and Koreans are the only people who are exploitative. I acknowledged upfront that some Japanese people are trying to cash in on the popularity of Kimchi by making inferior versions of them. The Japanese are just as exploitative as Chinese are, if not more. It was never intended to explore who is more exploitative. I was simply taking the Japanese restaurant phenomenon as an example of cultural exploitation. If someone were to write an article about how to tell a real Chinese restaurant in Japan, I would love it. Better yet, if someone were to write an article about how to tell a real Italian restaurant in Rome from the ones designed to exploit tourists, it would be very helpful as well. Only an Italian person who lives in Rome would be able to write that effectively.

The reason why extending the interpretation to mean “Chinese people are exploitative” comes natural is because the public perception concurs with it. Chinatowns throughout the US is known for selling goods that are almost illegal. There is a perception that Chinese people would sell anything as long as they can make money. Hence, if I present a phenomenon that happens to back up this perception, it would naturally be interpreted to be a criticism of it. I refuse to reinforce or acknowledge this perception positively or negatively. If I were utterly unaware of this public perception, I would have no reason to be sensitive about this issue. And, it would not occur to me to clarify that I have no intention of implying that Chinese people are exploitative.

Suppose I said something like this: “Mr. Brown’s family is very poor and uneducated. Please note that here I do not mean to imply that all black families are poor and uneducated.” I hate writing like this. What this type of disclaimer is designed to achieve is to relieve the writer of any guilt, but the effect it has, despite its negation, is to reinforce the notion that blacks are poor and uneducated.

I believe in ignoring public perceptions when I write. I do sometimes make exceptions whenever I feel that it would be too controversial and/or misleading. I do not want to ensure my readers that I do not mean to imply that Japanese are superior to Chinese and Koreans, because I do not feel that way. And, I do not feel that this is even an issue that deserves clarification.

Most problems in life can be solved by thinking and tackling actively. But there are certain types of problem in life that can only be solved passively, by ignoring them and by making them vanish. The western culture is rather bad at this. They end up fueling the very fire that they want to extinguish by blowing oxygen into it.