Questions, and racism
This is a reply that turned really, really long to a comment I got on G+, in response to a link I shared, so I thought I would just turn it into a post here.
I won’t paste in the comment, but you can click through to see it if you like. Again, I’m not trying to single out this particular commenter–and got the impression that the comments were, indeed, coming from an honest difference in experiences and expectations, from Poland. But it also included common enough themes that I thought it might be worth a post.
The original post:
This may be funnier if you were raised to be way too polite sometimes [ETA: And the people asking this stuff obviously were not!], but I’d be rolling in the floor if I weren’t already lying down.
Because white tears taste like freedom and delicious soy sauce.
Darn, they let the secret out.
It was intended as humor, and I can understand the frustration if you keep getting to hear the same questions which are not coming from real curiosity and respect for the other person. (From what I’ve seen, it’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference.) When somebody is asking things but does not seem nearly as interested in listening to a genuine, polite answer as in finding someone to tell them their own ignorance and rude behavior is OK, that can get frustrating.
It boils down to respect. And it can get hard to continue being polite dealing with someone who is not showing you, or people like you, much respect. No matter who they are. (And, again, it’s usually not that hard to tell the difference.) That particular list is of questions that very commonly get asked in the US, with very little genuine attempt to understand respectful answers–and usually as a lead-in to a whole disrespectful conversation. My own more usual unspoken mental response: “What gives you the right to expect answers to nosy questions from total strangers–then try to argue with them if they don’t give you the answers you want/expect?” (Too often racist assumptions, yes.)
I’ve personally heard pretty much everything in this video, repeatedly (except for people hoping you can get them drugs–WTF?!):
Shame it’s not subtitled, especially originally intended to include for someone whose first language is not English, but I am not up to doing a transcript. But, there is also Weird Sh*t People Say to Indians on Facebook–which I ran across trying to find a transcript for that video–which covers some other common crap. And I actually had to do a post a while back about the repeated “Can I touch your hair?”, included in the video.
(BTW, my real answer to the original post’s “Why are you native peoples so light?”, from my own Eastern US perspective, would be closer to: “Because my ancestors were mostly not racists–including the Scots and Irish and West Africans who married or were adopted into matrilineal societies that were already very open to that–and a lot of their own men had been killed. (10:1 sex ratio in some places, at times; not so extreme where I am from, but survivors banding together to form new political units, adoption of anybody decent-acting who wanted to join you, and intermarriage were still matters of survival as peoples. Also things that get used against people now.) And we are talking about culture rather than slave-days ‘blood quantum‘. And it just makes no sense, outside colonial racism, to expect a whole continent full of people to look exactly the same, in the first place.”)
But, there are a lot of bad learned assumptions built into that kind of question which I am usually totally willing to politely correct if people actually want to listen and learn better. Unless that is the third or fourth person that day or even week who has asked me something like that, without even listening; time just to walk away, or try to change the subject if you can’t just end the conversation. There may be no obligation to educate, but I usually try if people behave respectfully.
Imagine that you are part of a small minority group in your own land of origin. And total strangers keep demanding answers to things like: “But aren’t all the Poles dead or vanished into thin air?”, “What kind of Eastern European are you anyway, with how much ‘blood’? And do you have special racial registration pedigree papers from the (German/Russian/etc.) government to prove it?”, “Do you live in a yurt? Well, then, you can’t really be Polish.”, “But you don’t look Polish [as shown by Hollywood]! You can’t possibly be Polish. Besides, all the real Poles were wiped out a long time ago.”, “Are you part Polish? You look so exotic!” (bonus points if they then grope you or make totally inappropriate sexual comments), “Why do you people get so pissy when somebody calls you [word that can translate as ‘cunt’]?”, or even “What are you?!”–and keep acting surprised that you have things like the ability to read and an internet connection, in spite of obviously being rich from both casino profits and special welfare benefits that don’t even exist, because Polish. And the (majority ethnic, non-Polish, living in Poland) people who ask these questions are obviously not interested in correcting their ignorance. And some of them are in positions of power over you, like teachers or bosses.
While you might try to stay polite dealing with them, and just answer their questions on a surface level, “You have a lot of nerve, you ignorant jerk”–at best–would probably be what you were thinking after a while. Not the best analogy ever, but hopefully it gives some idea of what it might be like when too many people refuse to treat you with the same respect you are showing them–which hopefully includes just not asking strangers nosy questions about their racial/ethnic background, much less trying to argue with what they tell you.
Living in the UK, I have not run into the same kinds of repetitive questions like people were working off the exact same script they learned in school (and, yeah, see the reference above to teachers); not that there’s no racism, but people have been taught different things, without the same lasting political reasons to believe that a whole continent’s worth of people are safely dead and out of the way. (I do suspect things would be different if there were many indigenous Americans living here in London, like South Asians, West Indians, and Africans.) And without the same history of slavery, ethnic cleansing, and later legal inequality and eugenics on British soil as in the former Empire.
And I suspect that part of the difference here is that the history and dynamics are so different between the US and Poland.
I mean, my husband is an ethnic Swede who grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, and with the immigration history there other than from Nordic countries or also around the Baltic, he has said that he never saw an African person on the street until he was seven or eight years old–and not many then. Given that kind of experience, people could and would have some honest questions (if not always well thought out, and some based on stereotypes from films, etc.) that, say, people in New York or even London would not. Asking things respectfully out of honest curiosity and a willingness to learn is one thing; running up to random strangers and quizzing them out of a sense of not true unfamiliarity but entitlement is quite another. And not paying attention or getting angry when they don’t want to talk about something–or if their answer doesn’t match the ideas you already had–is also another thing.
I only ask about equal treating. If something is penalized for me, it should be penalized for all.
That is exactly what I am looking for, too: equal treatment. I actually wish this didn’t matter at all in dealing with other people, but some disrespectful ones won’t leave others in peace and keep making it matter.
I just haven’t heard the same disrespectful stuff coming from anyone but an unfortunate minority of Euro-Americans, ever. (I keep overhearing different bigoted, xenophobic things coming from a minority of White British people–mostly toward immigrants or people assumed to be immigrants even if they were born here, definitely including Polish, other Eastern European, and still sometimes Irish people after how many centuries–but not directed at me.) I do understand why sometimes people who keep getting to hear this kind of stuff lose their tempers when somebody else starts in–or they are expecting to hear the same insulting things–but there is just not the power behind it. Doesn’t mean it’s nice, but it’s not the same. And expecting people to be nice and patient all the time, based on a group membership, is also not right.
Also, like myself and so many other members of minority ethnic groups in former colonies, that blogger is also in a position where actually looking down on or hating people of European descent would also mean looking down on themselves; it’s the attitudes some people show, not their actual racial/ethnic background, that is the problem. There is a pretty big difference there. One good, thinky post about this: There’s White and Then There’s Whiteness.
And it’s not really paranoid to start unfortunately half-expecting to have unpleasant interactions with members of certain groups, if that keeps happening and coming only from members of said group. For example, even though it sounded bigoted to me at the time, I can understand better where my mother was coming from when she was very concerned that my now-husband might not treat me with the respect I deserved (based partly on some experiences living in Germany), until she got to know him and how he treats other people. (Especially with 75% of intimate partner violence and almost 90% of sexual assaults coming from members of other racial/ethnic groups.) Attitudes and behavior are what count. And you don’t know what somebody else has been dealing with, especially if you don’t share that experience.