Race, Shame, and Self-Defense

( Welcome to the US, now buy some bonds  | 1917, Sackett & Wilhelms Cop., N.Y.)

(Welcome to the US, now buy some bonds | 1917, Sackett & Wilhelms Cop., N.Y.)

In high school, I asked an older Korean-American student, who was about to go off to college, for some advice, any advice. She said to me, "Sam, be real and keep it real."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

[*Author's note - Some readers are uncomfortable whenever they read a critical think-piece on race. Skip this or challenge yourself.]

The psychological phenomena of self-shaming and self-deprecation are types of ingratiation techniques someone might use to gain the favor of their target. For instance, someone might talk about how "fat" they are in a misguided attempt to gain friends. Comedians use these techniques regularly, and they do become more likable, part of the appeal is they are less threatening. The lovable loser. This is also a common tactic minorities have used to appeal to the majority.

Defense Is About the Self-Preservation

My concerned parents enrolled me in martial arts as a way to defend myself. I went from a country where I was a part of the majority, to a new country where I was the minority (which is different from people who have only ever known being a minority). We did not speak the language and faced something brand new to us, racial prejudice. Being older parents, they lacked confidence in their abilities to protect me physically. This was the early 80s, and due to my race, I faced constant intolerance. Many times it was physical. But martial arts was not enough. The way people thought, the people with whom I surrounded myself with, the things taught, all needed to change. Martial arts work in isolated situations, but when the danger is systemic, then one must hold on to the principles, rather than the physical techniques. When fighting perception, there is no physical "bad guy" to defeat.

What I quickly realized was, social justice was also a form of self-defense, so was activism, so was journalism, so was education, and so was making better friends. I have found that not everyone in my sphere can relate, but whether one can relate or not, does not dismiss these truths. Because if you are at the top of the institutional food chain, you may not sense the same dangers. That is good for you, but you are not the whole of the collective experience.

In my youth, I did what I had to do to make friends and survive. A principle of Helio Gracie's jiu-jitsu was, it is not about winning, it is about taking the least amount of damage. This is what I tried to do. That is what many of us tried. Taking the least damage is not ideal when compared to winning, but that is self-defense. Real life is not a prize fight where the winner gets rewarded with a purse. In real life, if you win the fight, tomorrow you may lose the war. You learn that the hard way.

The techniques I used to survive were less than ideal and I only realized later, some came at a sacrifice. I used self-shame, shaming of my race, my heritage, to be more accepted — to become the "exception." I did not care if they accepted all Asians, as long as they accepted me. It was purely about my own self-preservation, even if it meant insulting the newer Asian immigrants. I am not like "them," I am more like you. To save myself I threw others under the bus. I didn't care if my peers were racist, as long as they weren't racist against me. What I realize now was that I was already under the bus, and I was pulling newcomers down to me rather than lifting them up.

Unless someone shows you a better way, ingratiation becomes the basic default, especially if you're young. Since no one talked to me about this, I created my own form of self-preservation, not based on well-thought-out philosophy, but on immediate instincts. Instincts are short-sighted. History class, where we learn about strong leaders from the past is how many of us see there is another way.

Learning to Be Nonthreatening

It is a weird competition thing between individuals and groups, and in putting myself down, I came off as less of a rival to the group. I gained approval, sometimes even pity. It was a practical way to protect myself against aggression. I didn't want to outshine the peer group; I wanted entry. In modern slang vernacular, this is referred to as being an "Uncle Tom." Someone who will do anything to gain the acceptance of the establishment. The critique is about losing authenticity, yet if there are few others like you, what is so wrong with wanting to live a normal life? But what is meant by normal? In the dojo, it often means being a 190 lbs of muscle. In society, it often means white. This is the framework (and belief) many of us are living under.

Bruce Lee on Diversity and Keeping an Open Mind

Bruce Lee on stereotypes, differences, and keeping an open mind.

You know what I want to think of myself, as a human being. Because, I don’t want to sound like — as Confucius say — but under the sky, under the sky, under the heaven, man, there is but one family. It just so happen, man, that people are different. [...] Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.

People take Bruce Lee's quote on water to be a metaphor for fighting, in which some ways it is, but in a larger context, he's talking about having a formless and open mind. No preconceived notions or stereotypes. Think of yourself and others as fellow human beings, as being part of one family. But it so happens that people are different, but that's okay. Lee's philosophy cannot be divorced from his Asian-American immigrant experience, they are one and the same. And he fought against those stereotypes and challenged people to think beyond them.

There Is No Carte Blanche on Racism

A person can think an insulting behavior is acceptable when they are never called out on it. It gets more confusing when the target of the joke participates in their denigration. This person is doubly surprised when they eventually meet someone who does not take kindly to it and punches them in the eye. I have had to set this record straight more than once and had to explain, "Yeah, your friend might be cool with that but I'm not your friend." They may call me militant, yet they could just as easily consider their "friend" submissive. (If you're part of the out-group, you're either militant or weak, but never strong.) This mystery "friend" does not speak for all of us. Secondly, this "friend" may also take offense, but they are acting in a way they believe to be reasonable, and I am free to do the same.

There was an incident where Saturday Night Live alumnus Chevy Chase was on a racial tirade on the set of the show Community. In using the n-word, he explained it was okay since legendary black comedian Richard Pryor let him use the n-word. Richard Pryor only allowed Chevy to use that term for an old Saturday Night Live skit. Secondly, Richard Pryor despised Chevy Chase and would never allow him to use that word outside of a skit. And even if Richard Pryor had, no one can give you permission to disrespect a whole race. That is the same as thinking, having one minority friend or being a fan of Margaret Cho somehow excuses you of racism.

Maybe no one complained because they were afraid, were outnumbered, wanted to be accepted, wanted to make their lives easier, or it just was not worth the effort. Perhaps they lacked maturity or strength. Perhaps they lacked the critical thinking to see what was happening, since everyone else was laughing they thought maybe it was not a big deal.

If I Am Inferior to You, Maybe We Can Be Friends

In today's social climate, body shaming still makes people laugh — so does racial shaming. There are minority comedians who have gone far making fun of "white people," but I would argue, the ones who gain the most national exposure are the ones who have made their careers criticizing their own race. We allow them into our homes, through late night specials, because we feel "safe" with them. They do not make us feel guilty, they do not make us self-reflect on our ugliness, they make it acceptable to laugh and say, "Hey, you're different, and that's funny!"

Margaret Cho, surrounded by non-Koreans, making fun of Koreans.

Margaret Cho, surrounded by non-Koreans, making fun of Koreans.

The contemporary definition of a "minstrel" is a person of color who makes fun of their race for a white audience. With that in mind, it is hard not to have a different perspective of entertainers, and of ourselves.

Sometimes the Girl Next Door Is Black

When there is a "good" minority, there is always a "bad" minority. People can play into these themes without necessarily realizing it. Selective racism makes it particularly hard to recognize negative biases since there are some minorities (or select individuals) we deem as good. This creates a false sense of objectivity. From experience I know your religious or political views do not make you immune to prejudice.

Keisha runs an incredible blog called "The Girl Next Door Is Black." Even the title is a play on the cultural stereotype of who the girl next door is. We do not typically picture black, but Keisha's point is, yes, sometimes they will be black.

Being Selectively Progressive

We share some common friends, many of whom pride themselves in their progressiveness (gay marriage, animal rights, and marijuana). Though we are both minorities, I noticed their interactions with me were different from their interactions with her. Often, people will relate to us in the only ways they know how, they relate to us based on our race — as if we were the representative of a whole people and not individuals. That in itself is telling, but whereas I got questions about why Asians are so smart or dedicated, Keisha got questions about why African-Americans are so loud or angry. I asked Keisha about the irony, and she said:

I hate to say it, but some white progressives are too busy patting themselves on the back for being open-minded, they are blind to their own prejudices/ biases. However, those are the types who are more likely to examine their beliefs if they’re shown a different perspective in a way that doesn’t put them on the defense. I don’t much enjoy protecting fragile feelings of the majority when it comes to racism and prejudice, but if I’m in this battle for the long-haul, I think that comes with the territory.

If we do not put people on the defensive, they will be friendlier and more likely to listen. That is the same conclusion I have come to learn, as a martial artist and as a person of color. The ideals of the two are the same, a marginalized group who needed a systemized way to protect themselves against a dominant group. Martial arts were not created by the elite class but by peasants, slaves, and monks.

On why some minorities self-deprecate their own race, Keisha said it may be that they are "really interested in appearing to be a 'good negro' to white people," or it may be that they have "bought into the negative images projected in the media."

On maturity, she added:

I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens more with school-aged children and maybe college students. If anything when I was younger, I felt more pressure to be the black entertainment and to answer any questions people had about slang, dance moves, anything involving black people. My youngest sister is 24, and she said the same thing recently. She works at a social media firm and is the only black employee in her company. Her team is all white. She said it seems like they always expect her to be fun for them, and she said, ‘Sometimes I need a break. I don’t want to be performing all the time.’

Becoming the Exception

It may be more acceptable to make minorities feel aware of their own race rather than making the majority aware of their racism. Minorities can turn a blind eye to being the "token" friend, unintentionally reinforcing prejudices for the sake of getting along. I read this article by Tiffany Tsai on xoJane titled, "It Took Me Two Years to Realize My Boyfriend Was Racist." A necessary and long overdue article on fetishism. There are several themes here: of men and women, power dynamics, and race and relationships. There is also the misguided logic that someone cannot be racist if they have a minority friend. Here is an excerpt from Tiffany Tsai's article regarding her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend Matt:

When Matt and I had first started seeing each other, I often feared that he liked me only because, to him, I was a rare sight. His comments about my physical features often triggered that same concern, but I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it.


When our relationship finally ended, I struggled because I’d given up so much of my identity to accommodate his. I didn’t know how to define myself without him. But I realize now that our relationship didn’t fail simply because he was white and I was Asian. It failed because we had different value systems.

Although Matt did not use racial slurs against me or tell me I was unequal because I’m Asian, he had racial biases that prevented him from seeing people of color as the same as him. He didn’t think minorities should be afforded equal opportunities because he benefited from white privilege and wanted to maintain that. He viewed me as an exception, someone who could pass as white, even though his family didn’t.

But I’m not white. I don’t identify as white or as a member of the ‘model minority.’ I don’t want to pass or be privy to conversations supporting white privilege. I know this now, but back then, I was too afraid to speak up, and too afraid to be alone.

Longing for Approval

Relationships are complicated even without race in the picture. Sometimes people will like you because you are that rare commodity or that "exception." They are cool because they like you, and you are cool because they like you. Similar to when a fashion brand meets the right celebrity endorsement, they both benefit from the relationship. However, people are not objects, and should not be "cool" in the same way a rare bottle of wine is "cool." People should not be possessions. This only benefits the "owner." Yet, it happens, and it can be hard not to value (or devalue) yourself in this human exchange rate — as a wanted object. This is not just a race problem; it is a problem women regularly face.

It can go both ways; just as Matt saw Tiffany as a symbol, maybe Matt was also symbolic. Perhaps he represented the "majority approval" that some minorities long for. I have heard people of color proudly announce that they only date "white people." In the same way, people declare they only drink top-tier vodka or wear designer jeans — in some warped attempt to be couture. It is no longer a product or a person, it is a social signal, that they are somehow better than the herd — the herd being anyone like them. Those houses over there are way better than the houses over here, and that includes my own house.

If "nice" people date "bad" people, maybe it only makes sense that the "good" minorities can date people with racial bias. We may fear introspection because we may not like what we find — as it pertains to our self-esteem and self-image. Self-deprecation, just like racism, is contagious. This is the danger. It creates two symbiotic cultures: a culture of power and a culture of victimhood.

You're Not Being Ironic; You're Being Racist

Growing up in a Portland, Oregon suburb, with very limited racial diversity, I had my issues with identity. People are surprised to hear about my experiences, since Portland is so "liberal" and hip. It is the way we categorize, into small buckets. The two common types I have found in the US are, liberal and conservative, and everything must fit into one or the other, no overlap. Everything then becomes mutually exclusive. Racial diversity is often tossed into the liberal bin, so people assume if a city is liberal, it must have racial diversity. So, yes, Portland has liberals of all sizes, sexes, lifestyles, and sexual orientations. It is also one of the least racially diverse metropolitan cities in the US. I have often heard, "Well, they must just not want to live there." If that were true, the following progressive questions should be, "What is making them not want to live there? What happened to the ones who used to live there?" Portland is now a cool place to live, but the majority of the influx is still white, and ingroups tend to attract ingroups, not always consciously, but the results remain the same. Just as there are no laws segregating students, de facto segregation still exists.

The diversity of  Portlandia

The diversity of Portlandia

I have often wondered, "Can a modern American city truly consider itself 'progressive' if it lacks racial diversity and has de facto segregation?" One would think, "No," but the mainstream resoundingly says, "Yes." Being apathetic and not opposing a cause is not the same as supporting and empathizing with a marginalized group. Apathy is in itself a form of marginalizing, "I will marginalize this thing by not caring about it."

False Equivalence Logic Fallacy

People like to point out that there are two sides to a story and make a comparison assuming all things are equal. Two people can engage in similar activities, but the activities are different based on who is doing them. A Jew in Germany hating Nazis is not the same as a Nazi in Germany hating a Jew. Context is vital and based on context, there are different power structures involved. Oppression is based on who is in charge. A contemporary example: a Japanese man in Houston who makes a joke about Caucasians is not the same as a Japanese man in Tokyo making a joke about Caucasians. In Japan, he would be the dominant group, in the US, he is not. Context matters. A white male may have had a hard time in school for being "nerdy," but that is not the same as being a black female. There is a difference between being bullied and institutional oppression. There is common ground but thinking it is exactly the same is a false equivalence.

This is not a double standard — double standards are about preferential treatment, and pretending it is all equal only benefits the people who already get preferential treatment. We cannot close that gap if we pretend things are the same. If two people run at the same speed, the person who started out in the lead will stay in the lead. To catch up, the person in the back will have to run twice as hard. Equality is nothing without equity. These are not complicated ideas; we can float these thoughts in our heads. But we may not want to if it does not work out in our favor. A quality of a civilized culture is that of empathy. Survival of the fittest is natural, but it is also primitive. The very existence of medicine is a challenge to the survival of the fittest, yet a civilized society means giving everyone a chance at life. That is what civilization is consistently working towards.

Still a Long Way to Go

I began to be more outspoken in high school. It continued into college where I attended my first two years at a university in Portland. I had classmates of color come up to me and thank me for the things I would say. They wanted to say the same things, but they admitted they were afraid. I only made the connection later on that the more outspoken I was, the more of an outcast I would become. That was what my classmates were afraid of, being ostracized in a predominantly white area. They had learned to play by the rules. Learning how to speak "their language," as I have often heard minorities say. We become fearful and disillusioned when we talk and it never goes anywhere — or when things get worse when we choose to speak up.

I have a friend who came out as homosexual — he has embraced his sexual identity, but I do not know if he has embraced his racial identity. He is still the "designated Asian" amongst his friends. Though he is Korean, he must be the expert in all things Asian — whether it is Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. He still wants to be liked; he still wants to be that "rare sight." Race is one of those identifiers that is immutable, you don't come out, people will just know, which makes it the hardest thing to see past.

Dropbox posted this image online to talk about the diversity in their company. But it immediately got into hot water for lack of racial diversity.

Dropbox posted this image online to talk about the diversity in their company. But it immediately got into hot water for lack of racial diversity.

Just as I mentioned previously about buckets, we put sexual identity and racial identity in the same bin, so if one is embraced, so must the other. Yet humans are very difficult to categorize, and some issues transcend those categories we have constructed in our heads. Perhaps it is about picking one battle at a time.

This is not an uncommon feeling, as feminist and bisexual writer KaeLyn succinctly points out:

My ethnicity was written on my face in the shape of my eyes and my small flat nose. But until a few years ago, it wasn’t an identity I felt connected to. There were many identities that came first — poet, bisexual, queer, feminist, activist, organizer, fattie, vegan. Being Korean was a fact, but not an identity. ... I am often the only person of color in the room, but it isn’t uncomfortable to me because it’s my normal. ... Simultaneously, I was living into other identities that felt very authentic. I was the co-director of my campus Women’s Center. I was out as queer and friends with other queer and feminist people. I went vegetarian and then vegan. I was anti-war and pro-choice and anti-sweatshop and lots of other labels. Claiming an identity was super important to me. I had t-shirts that had those identities printed on them in bold white letters. But I didn’t identify as a person of color. That was not, in my opinion at that time, my struggle. ... By claiming a Korean identity, I let myself acknowledge that I’d faced oppression and racism.

Fighting for a plural identity is harder than fighting for a single narrative. Labels separate us, but we also use labels to gain acceptance. Perhaps this is ultimately futile. The great philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said:

Once you label me, you diminish me.

Going Overboard With Good Intentions

Simplifying a minority group as always "good" or right, is exchanging paternalism with infantilization. It is reducing a group to a stereotype when there is a wholeness to people — a racism of low expectations. Some people are good, some are not, some are right, some are wrong — the same wholeness that exists for the majority group. A white person may not say all white people are bad since this is a gross generalization, but they may say all immigrants are good. Though this is preferred, it is nonetheless a generalization. Being well-intentioned and knowing the most up-to-date social justice script can also mean setting up newer barriers to be overcome at a later date.

Back to Square One With New Found Knowledge

What I have learned in my thirty years on the mat is, only a person's ability matters. There is a sense of urgency with my Brazilian jiu-jitsu practice; if I do not focus on anything other than my opponent's abilities, I will physically get hurt. In the training hall, within our uniforms, I do not know the cops from the reformed criminals, the custodians from the doctors. Uniforms have no gender or race. We look at the belts rather than the resumes. And after years of losing to smaller opponents, what they look like says nothing about their ability. Then everyone should be given a chance to prove their ability. This is not a worthy goal for martial arts; this is a worthy goal for society.

We all attack and we all defend in our own ways. We should not attack without cause. We should not defend in a manner that inflicts more damage to ourselves and to those around us. We need to embrace our unique qualities and the diverse qualities of others without stereotype.

In high school, I asked an older Korean-American student, who was about to go off to college, for some advice, any advice. She said to me, "Sam, be real and keep it real." It's still sound advice.

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