I said a stupid thing the other day. I had seen a play with family and we were discussing what age we thought the star of the play may have been and it seems we grossly underestimated his age. I then made a comment to the effect it was difficult to tell his age because he was Chinese…
I’m sure you’ve probably literally or internally just face-palmed at the words in my sentence and trust me, I’m still face-palming for days after I said it. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why I said it and what I can do about it now that I have already done the hurtful thing. I obviously can’t take it back, because the deed is done, but I can think about where, deep inside of me it came from and how I can do better as an ally.
I think I should start by admitting that what I said was racist. *Shutter* Ok, I said it. I am a person who believes there is no such thing as a non-racist white person, at least in the culture I am a part of. I believe both that white people have privilege and that we, inevitably as a result of our growing up in the culture that we have, carry inherently racist or at least problematic thoughts.
In this case, I believe the thought was subconscious and likely influenced by a variety of social constructions. I did not openly intend to hurt anyone and I believe strongly that any ideologies about racism should be challenged. However, I know that having positive intentions does not always mean you will have a positive affect nor protect you from doing harm. Therefore, the next thing I should do is apologize.
I apologize for what I said, both to the Chinese community and to my community as a whole. It was both ignorant and could potentially be harmful. I recognize that people who identify as Chinese do not need to accept my apology, but I will apologize to you anyway.
This particular comment made me feel especially ashamed, and I think that may have been an indication that I need a push to do some learning about why what I said was so upsetting. I doubt feeling guilty or ashamed is particularly helpful to anybody in and of itself, but if I can use to be motivated to do something positive, maybe that could be a little more productive.
I did some reading on thoughts that I had, trying to find more input and I found a few articles. The first thing I did was attempt to search for ideas about aging and different races in the hopes that I could find an article that would correct me and teach me about where this problematic idea comes from, but despite the fact that I have heard other white people say similar things many times, I actually did not find anything very helpful. What I did find was informative, but not in the way I had hoped. I found mostly articles that attempted to justify why people with an Eastern heritage do, in fact, appear to age differently. It was not very encouraging, and was absolutely racist, but what it did bring to light for me was just how hard white people attempt to justify standards of beauty, racism, and even ageism, and how once again, it is so very important to study intersectionality. It also got me thinking about how their may be aspects of model minorities I had not previously considered.
I did some research on the words “model minority”, and that actually did turn up some historical information related to Eastern peoples that I had never been taught. I had really only ever considered the aspects of financial success and how having money tends to (unfortunately) give you more power and a sense of respect in the western world. But the article I read pointed out to me how cultural ideals such as strongly valuing obedient children or honoring rigid discipline in a lifestyle were valued and praised by the white people. Most importantly the convenience of being able to pin multiple oppressed peoples against each other made it easier for whites to stay in power. By telling African Americans and Native peoples, for example, that they should adapt cultural ideologies from the East, they could then justify to themselves why it was ok to continue to treat them as less than human while also creating conflict between many races at once. The other problem with this kind of stereotype that seems positive, is that it often sets the bar unrealistically high. In our Western culture, appearing to be young is often considered both positive and a flattering comment, but certainly it is not attainable for all people of Eastern descent, which brings me to a slight transition –
Ageing, signs of ageing, and being considered an older adult are not things people should be shamed for at all. Certainly, our culture has many sayings about honoring the wisdom, maturity, and time spent by older adults who have “paid their dues” to our community, (again, more unrealistic expectations based on stereotypes) but it is also fraught with cognitive dissonance and conflicting messages. People are encouraged to dye their gray hair, get facelifts, use gravity or “age-defying” creams and make-up, to exercise in such a manner or party so that they will receive compliments like “you don’t even seem old” or “they act young at heart!” Men are expected to perform with the same sexual endurance and eagerness, as though their bodies have not changed. Women are expected to hide any and all trace from their bodies that they have aged. And many queer people, especially trans or nonbinary people, struggle to find any idea of what successful ageing is supposed to look like for them. There is almost no media or political representation for us and this is due to partly to the fact that we are lucky to make it to old age at all. I’m not even sure I have ever seen a media representation of an openly asexual-identified older adult. I suspect that this is due largely to the fact that not only is it culturally unacceptable to be elderly and an elderly queer person, but that queer people are discouraged from existing entirely. Can’t get old if you don’t exist.
One thing that occured to me particularly as a result of the ignorant comment I made and from the racist beauty articles I read, was that what does or does not look like signs of aging is also social construction. There likely are subtle, and insignificant statistical studies about race and aging, that could tell us about genetic differences that contribute to the appearance of aging differently. What would it matter? Liver spots, wrinkles, balding, sagging skin, gray hair, tiring easily, lack of mobility etc, are inevitables for many, but they are also part of the fabrication we have developed as a culture to construct our concept of “old.” Some people will see those symptoms around the same time/age, and some will not ever see them at all. But more importantly, none of them are relevant to how we should treat people.
People should be both seen and treated with respect because they are people. Not because they are any given race, age, or not. Not because they are or not wise, or healthy, or active. We treat people with respect because they exist as people, not because it is earned by way of obeying or existing as the cultural ideal demands.
I hope my learning about my mistake will help me speak in a more empowering as an ally, and that opening up about it will also help other people with privilege to open up about their own mistakes. Feeling guilty and ashamed tends to make us want to hide away what we have said and done, but I think that if we’re going to address and progress on issues like this, admitting mistakes needs to be normalized. Sometimes that starts with white people being able to say, “I said something racist.”