Sunday, August 16, 2015

Inside Out

These two quotes do not closely follow one another in the source, but they relate to the same event. I think that the context is important here, and I want to make sure that I capture it as accurately as is feasible, so I'm presenting them together.

A few weeks ago I ended up on a date facilitated by an online dating service with a white guy who disclosed halfway through the date that he has a preference for South-Asian women. I left the date feeling offended.
I’m 37 and unmarried and I just went on a date with a guy who was essentially telling me, after all my successes in life and my awesome personality, that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin.
Tinder isn’t perfect – but why would it be?
What I found to be interesting about these passages, that more or less bookend Samhita Mukhopadhyay's defense of Tinder/indictment of certain straight White dudes is that (assuming her representation of her date's disclosure is accurate) her assertion "that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin," could easily have simply been an assumption that she was making. After all, there are other ethnic groups in the world who share the same range of skin color as Indians, and cultural stereotypes cover any number of different traits. But, for all of that, I understand precisely where she is coming from.

When I was growing up, the adults in my life taught me, a number of things about getting along in the world. Following are three of them that dealt specifically with dealing with White people:
  1. The first (if not only) thing that they'll see about me is the color of my skin.
  2. Any one of them who says otherwise is almost invariably lying.
  3. These judgments of them are okay (even if we don't own up to them) because they're objectively correct.
The most pernicious effect of prejudice, as I've encountered it, is the constant expectation of prejudice. And once people are taught to be constantly vigilant for it, they start to see it everywhere. Which often eventually metastasizes into prejudice itself.

I understand Ms. Mukhopadhyay's disappointment that her date didn't openly validate her for those traits that she feels the most pride in, her "successes in life and [...] awesome personality." It's often disappointing that people don't seem to see those invisible traits that reside inside of us that are most important to us. But that's different than people, especially people of other races, only seeing the very surface of us. And when we call them out on that, especially when we do so without dialoging with them, it's hard to see how we've done any better.

One of the things that makes discussions of race and ethnicity in the country so contentious is that it's remarkably easy to make judgments of other people based on nothing more than a few superficial traits, and then convince oneself that no more information is needed. The Black Lives Matter activist, Indian writer or any other "person of color" who immediately chalks up a negative encounter with Whites to an inability to see past race tends to miss the irony in their own pronouncements. Yes, there is a difference between saying that Whites aren't as color-blind as they like to think themselves and saying that Blacks bring police violence down on their own heads. But in a society that judges by the content of character - or doesn't judge at all - neither statement has a home.

Validation, I came to understand, is like any other important task - If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. When I left it up to other people to validate me and my experiences, I often came away not only hurt, but with an inability to understand how so many people could miss what was right in front of their faces - until I remembered my father's admonition that "Obvious is something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it." Mark Twain was exactly right when he noted that "The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself." And given the difficulty of making other people see us as we want to be seen, I think that there is also more wisdom that we credit in the idea that "When you cannot get a compliment any other way pay yourself one." Our accomplishments, our personalities, our wisdom - these are all things that we can place on display - but they are not things that we can expect that everyone will see in the same way that we do, or see at all. And yes, I understand that I'm allowing the willfully blind to escape censure. But if I don't need, and therefore don't ask, someone to do something for me, does it really matter their exact reason for not doing it?

It's true that people's judgments and opinions of others tend to say more about the holder of the opinion, than the subject of the opinion. But that doesn't mean that we can automatically know what someone's judgements say about them. Accordingly, perhaps we should be more aware of what our often self-serving judgments say about us. Because while, I, for instance, have no problem with being called Black, I'd rather it not be because I was caught calling out the Kettle.

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