Tuesday, January 09, 2018

When it's not really respect

Recently a group of women organized a healing workshop in a suburb of Chicago. They incorporated meditation and movement, and one of the exercises used a gong. But they used the gong in a way that wasn't part of any Chinese ceremony or tradition. They simply took the gong and used it in a way that fit the theme of their event.

The reaction of Asian-American women included amusement and offense. These women were going to do what with a gong? Why? Whose idea was this? And what made this group of women think they could take a Chinese ceremonial object and use it as it was never intended?

A friend of mine asked one of the women on the event planning committee about it. She got the response that, yes, they had changed the traditional use of the gong, but they were doing it with complete respect for Chinese culture. These words indicated such a gulf between the viewpoints of the two of them that my friend didn't know how to respond.

Appropriating objects from other cultures that you don't know much about, and using them as they were never intended, is insensitive and exploitative. No amount of respect makes that right. 

But such respect isn't true respect anyway. That's an objectifying kind of respectFor instance, to see Asians as wiser and more spiritual than white people might seem good, but it's a stereotype. It objectifies Asians as being fundamentally different from everyone else. Such respect views a group of people in a way that keeps them mysterious and other. 

An analogy is the way some men respect women by thinking women are more precious, pure, good and close to God. It sounds good, but it's actually dehumanizing and leads to men not treating women like regular human beings with regular human needs.

Positive stereotypes are just as damaging as negative ones. I first heard the term "model minority myth" when I was at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s. I didn't understand how being seen as smarter than brown, black and white people could be bad, but my Chinese-American and Korean-American friends explained it to me. 

They said the idea of Asians being the ideal minority group locked individuals into a set of  painful expectations. If you were Chinese-American and weren't good at the things Chinese people were supposed to be good at, you could disappoint others just by being you. White people could fail calculus or chemistry without evoking "But you people are supposed to be good at that." Such a person could turn to another major without reflecting badly on his or her entire culture. But an Asian-American student who did poorly in math risked not only a lower grade point average and disappointed parents, but the feeling that they had let down everyone who shared their cultural background, including ancestors who had passed on decades ago. It's a traumatizing burden to carry.

The model minority myth penalizes people for being themselves if their natural inclinations don't fit the stereotype.

Returning to the women's healing ceremony: to make up a new way to use a Chinese instrument because you want to include some ideal of Asian spirituality is bald cultural appropriation and evokes the stereotype about Chinese people being more naturally spiritual than others. To use the defense, "But we're doing it respectfully" indicates how little you understand the insult. 

When a Chinese-American woman tells you that your view of Chinese culture hurts her, don't try to convince her that she shouldn't feel hurt. Put your confusion or guilt or embarrassment aside and listen. The more hurt someone is by your actions, the more important it is to listen because it's an opportunity to learn.


Monica said...

"When a Chinese-American woman tells you that your view of Chinese culture hurts her, don't try to convince her that she shouldn't feel hurt."

Very powerful statement. When someone tells me I shouldn't feel something, I know they aren't listening.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Monica, that's right. I once expressed to someone (the CEO of an organization) how his employees were feeling and had him say, "But they shouldn't feel that way." That might be all right for an initial response, but as I tried to explain, he just kept repeating it. It felt like a form of denial.