Among the countless pursuits one could dedicate their weekend to in this city—which I won’t delve into because this isn’t a Zagat book—I will, on occasion, put on a nice oxford and a matching sweater, sport some impressionable shoes, and give Buddy Guy a call. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but apparently he knows where all the good spots are in this city.
A few Saturdays ago, I was enjoying a night out at an unnamed Upper East Side establishment with my fellow ULOT writers, taking a brief moment from the bar to head outside to grab some fresh air. It was greeted by a man, smoking a cigarette, enjoying the cool fall air. I greeted him briefly, to which I received this friendly response:
“Dude, you’re the WASPiest (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Asian person I’ve ever met.”
Now normally I tend to disregard commentary originating from outside of a bar, but there was something about this guy’s comment that truly resonated with me. At that moment, I felt the same way I do when my students act out and say something incredibly ignorant or stupid. There’s no point in scolding or directly reprimanding them, for there’s always that delay, the processing time where one realizes that, in fact, what was said was actually said.
As if the situation warranted any additional clarification, the guy went on. “Look at your really nice collared shirt and sweater,” he said, motioning to my really nice collared shirt and sweater. “I mean, that’s a really WASPy outfit.”
I’ve been called much worse at a bar, which is why I wasn’t particularly offended by his comments. But there was something certainly astringent about what he said. It didn’t take a sociologist to analyze his comment: I didn’t appear as I should—that my outward appearance was apparently more white than Asian.
Which got me thinking: what would a non-WASPy Asian wear out on a Saturday night? A rice hat and a kimono?
And through what I can only assume to be an innocuous comment, I was faced with a very important social issue that remains to this day: our inability to disassociate white with mainstream identity. It is an issue that has been addressed by many scholars and social figures. Ethnic studies classes will question whether our associations between white and orthodox culture are inevitable given our social programming. Others will argue it’s the result of social conditioning that serves to promote the majority. But this dialogue goes beyond simple mainstream identity. In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama criticized the notion among the poor black community that reading was “acting white.” This is the same ignorance condemned by Malcolm X in his autobiography, recalling a schoolteacher discouraging him from pursuing a career in law in favor of a blue collar job. And through it we can see that racism is self-perpetuating and hardly exclusive to the majority.
The struggle for minorities is ultimately for acceptance into the mainstream. This hope is propagated by the ideals of this nation; that all men are created equal, that all are afforded the chance to pursue their own life, liberty, and happiness. This is an idea we can certainly appreciate on the surface, but only when scrutinized further do we realize the roadblocks inherent in our world. What stands in our way is our desperate propensity to claim ownership of identity through typecasting. Perhaps it is cognitively convenient for us to associate language in the inner-city as “black” or politics as a “white” man’s game. But if the Obama candidacy is any indication, politics can no longer be seen as simply a “white” activity, and, on a greater level, cognitive associations are meant to be broken.
Categorizations are pitfalls we must avoid if we truly believe in the progress of this nation. It is clear through recent census data that American identity is changing ethnically to a more amorphous, colorless (or colorful) form. But this progress is negated if said prejudices and shallow classification persists. What is ultimately required to combat stereotypes are those divergent few who wish to counter our own superficial expectations. If reading is perceived as a “white” activity in your school, destroy the expectation by encouraging all of your students to read. If your students speak colloquially in class using slang, correct it as informal language for the classroom, not “black” language from the inner city. Ultimately, stereotypes rely on expectations, and when those are destroyed, the stereotype withers and ceases to exist.
If we are committed to this notion, then we must first challenge our own lexicon. If so, then we must immediately start with our language, for language is the most direct manifestation of our thoughts and perceptions. We should do this with the understanding that the white label on political office and the black label on inner-city culture is limited in scope. This kind of thinking seems short-sighted because it is, simply put, short-sighted. Our world is not nearly as simplistic as stratification makes it out to be. Only when we realize this can we begin to build new mental constructs and truly realize the potential of our society. This new kind of mental construct—free of bias or short-sighted slant—is much more flattering in every means. For example, take that guy over there. He’s not the WASPy Asian guy anymore. He’s just a guy in a really nice oxford and a sweater. And he looks good.