Ex-expat thoughts on race: it’s my problem now

Part 1: race abroad

As an expat, the problems of your nationality country are distant, and the problems of your resident country are not your fault. I saw things from afar; news in America was distant and even foreign. When I moved back to the states, one thing I knew would change is that I would no longer be a minority. I would also be a part of the community, and its problems would become more my responsibility.

I am a tall, thin, white woman. In America, I have a lot of societal norms on my side. When I am in non-ethnically-European countries, be it Turkey, Egypt or Hong Kong people assume I do not speak the language; I look different; I don’t belong; I am not in the conversation.

Race is treated strangely everywhere, and framed differently in other contexts. A worryingly consistent trend in the places I have lived is that the lighter your skin, the better. To illustrate commercially: I have seen whitening creams sold in pharmacies in both Hong Kong and Turkey; I probably made more money in Hong Kong because I looked foreign. Parents specifically request white tutors: one of my friends didn’t get a job because she “didn’t look American enough”, meaning, because she was half Asian. In Egypt the paler ethnically Egyptian was preferred over the darker Sudanese citizen, assumed to be an immigrant or refugee. Minority groups always face some difficulties, whether their skin color, religion, gender etc. But race is the easiest to determine.

In Hong Kong, stereotypes, sometimes damaging, were along national boundaries: British “failed in London tried Hong Kong”, Aussies are fun, Filipinos are helpers, Mainlanders are gaudy, Japanese are polite, Americans are obnoxious. Racial lines, which tend to melt with money, still follow a hierarchy: paleness is preferred over darkness. If you go to a job interview and there are 4 qualified applicants the rank might be thus, depending on the language fluency requirements: White, Chinese, Indian, Black. This is unfair, obviously, and yet it happens and is often acknowledged and verbalized.

Compared to the States, other nations can be more overt about their racism. In the places I have lived, this is partly because of the overwhelming ethnic homogeneity. In Turkey, diversity comes from mostly Kurds or foreigners, and in Hong Kong it is all from foreigners. I would often be the only white person, or with the only other foreigners, on the bus or train or restaurant. 93% of people who live in Hong Kong are Chinese and 75% of people who live in Turkey are Turks. Nations often define themselves along ethnic lines. Then, when they talk about race, it is often entwined with conversation about immigration. Consequently governments often do nothing about racial discrimination, other than change an immigration policy in favor of xenophobia.

In Hong Kong, this is most salient in the immigration status of domestic helpers: Filipino and Indonesian maids come to Hong Kong to work for a pittance, live in tiny rooms with their employers, get one government mandated day off per week, and go home once a year to see their families. They are legal residents, but they are not treated the same as other legal residents according to immigration law because Domestic workers are not eligible for permanent residency. There are routine cases of abuse, verbal and physical, and little recourse for many of these vulnerable women. They provide an invaluable service to many families, enabling full time day care so both parents can work, but these women are often just seen as a luxury good.

Yet, this was not my problem. I couldn’t vote, I had no place to petition the government. what could I do about it? I talked about it with students, encouraging diverse viewpoints. I talked about it with friends, but I also got annoyed at crowds on Sundays, most helpers’ day off, and hired a maid myself for 2 hours a week. Other expats who cared responded by treating their helpers well, but not much else. I was living there, but I was not responsible for the way society functioned. What could I do in the face of systematic social problems, in a place I was not a citizen, or even a permanent resident? All I could hope to do is share information.

Part 2: coming home

When I moved to the States again, became a resident of the place wherein I voted, these things would become my problems. Compared to my life in Hong Kong and Turkey, I knew that the US would be dramatically different when it came to race. American airports are noticeably diverse compared to the rest of the world. In other countries diversity tends to come from immigration, and America is a land of immigrants.

So when I moved to Chicago there was significantly more diversity, and yet Chicago is an incredibly segregated place. I ride the red line in Chicago with frequency, which travels from the far south side to the far north side of Chicago. There is a line at Lake where the train car goes from being 80% black passengers south of Lake to 80% non-black passengers north of Lake. This is, of course, a non-scientific observation. Historically, the south side of Chicago was the place where black families settled upon leaving the south, and where abusive mortgages prevented sustainable homeownership, creating lasting community damage. How could I be majority in one part of town and a minority in another? I was used to being the minority everywhere I went, actually visibly different. I was excited to be in a place with diversity, but found myself in a place that was instead an inconsistent spectrum. This segregation also leads to inherent inequality.

There are so many ways that racial minorities, especially black Americans, are kept out of success. In school black students are more likely to be suspended, prisons are overpopulated with mostly black men who receive longer sentences, years of discriminating housing policies, whether redlining or blockbusting, prevent homeownership and stable communities. Structural problems, hold-overs and legacies from centuries of enforced discrimination and oppression, keep minorities out of the higher echelons of economic and social success.

In addition to these structural problems, I think one of the important themes in minority relations is exceptionalism and representation. If you are a minority, you suddenly represent all people of that minority. This is, I think, well represented in the context of women in math by this comic. Further, if you excel in an area in which you are supposed to fail according to racial, gender, and cultural stereotypes, you are the exception. Stereotype threat exacerbates this; if you are reminded of your race, gender, stereotypes, you are more likely to adhere to them. Being told you are supposed to fail or to succeed, to be a criminal or a lawyer is an active factor in making you fail or succeed. Expectations help determine outcomes.

Thus stereotypes are perpetrated, in many ways, increasingly damaging wider society. While we were discussing a novel, a professor referenced Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” who said, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Racism in our society is thus. Most people are not maliciously racist, (though there are malicious racists), but rather choose not to engage. They ignore it, sometimes claiming we’re in a “post racial society.” People justify their choices by using other words, “he’s aggressive,” or “she’s less competent”. It is difficult to overcome people’s subconscious biases, especially when they won’t admit these biases to themselves.

But the problems aren’t even just in individual choices. When you are surrounded by poverty because of entrenched social policy, it is nearly impossible to escape. Without many resources of time, money, community stability, powerful family connections, etc, it is difficult to get beyond one’s lot at birth. There is so much talk of the American Dream, but often it is just talk. Because economic success relies on these things, and we have no viable social safety net, social stratification is calcified.

The US is supposed to be the “land of the free” and the “land of opportunity”; one is supposed to pull oneself up by ones bootstraps. Yet the victories for equality that came out of the 20th century did not in fact fix all the problems, or come close to “leveling the playing field”. The assumption that they did prevents us from addressing the current problems. Americans try to keep our race problems hushed and covered. But it is not working.

The United States does not define American-ness on racial lines, or at least it should not. When we talk about race, we aren’t just talking about immigration, as other countries may be, but we are also talking about Americans whose families have been here for generations. US society is supposed to be open to all people, all races and immigrants included. At least, this is what I was taught in my American schooling, but it is clearly not the case.

The protests and riots in Baltimore and Ferguson happen because of the systematic problem with race in our country. A system that targets a group of people makes them vulnerable continuously. Some individuals are mourning their friends and families. Some individuals are worried about their own safety. Some are begging for change, some demanding it. Some are raging mad. These are responses to trauma. Non-violence in response to trauma, in response to violence against your community, is hard. Especially when society is attacking you every day. Attacking you by keeping you out of good schools, by keeping you in substandard housing, by putting you in prison, by ultimately causing the deaths your friends.

The outcries in response to deaths while in police custody, or during arrests, mostly shows that there is a problem in our society that needs to be remedied. In many ways the rioting has shown the desperation of the problem. If someone condemns a protest against police brutality because of violent outbursts, they should immediately also condemn police brutality. As my college roommates posted on Facebook the other day,

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Martin Luther King, Jr., 14 March 1968 

Part 3: Can we act?

Now this is my problem.

I live here, it is my problem, so why aren’t I doing more? This affects my community, and it affects me. I write about it, I talk to friends and family about it, I occasionally write an email to a senator, I donate a little money here and there. But that is it. This is more than some people and less than others. The protests have been largely homogenous, and what results have there been? Even though I vote here, I participate in the conversation here, I don’t feel like I can actually do anything to change it. I also have other things going on. I get busy, and I don’t prioritize social change. I don’t prioritize figuring out how to help. When I do try to figure out how to participate the advice I get ends up looking like this:

  1. Learn about the problem
  2. Donate money to reputable organizations
  3. Write your representative or local government
  4. Record police interactions (or know how)

This still doesn’t feel like participating. I can learn, I can donate, I can write, but I am still sitting on my sofa. I don’t see any change because there isn’t any change. Even though it is my problem I am now faced with the monolith of bureaucratic government, and the tyranny of the lazy majority.

I spoke with some friends the other day about protests in Chicago. How many of them ended up being protests for 8 different causes—placards with disparate slogans, many groups attempting to unite as one—rather than one clear message. And protests are easily ignored.

Even though I am here, even though I consider this my problem, I don’t feel effective. In Hong Kong, I could talk about it, here I can talk about it and talk to my government and vote. How can all of the people who care about this make a difference? Is all we can do tell our representatives, and hope they take our advice? When there are state governments actively increasing discriminatory policies, like voter ID laws, it feels like my voice will just be ignored. Do I need a pro-equality lobbying group? Should I focus on my own immediate surroundings, live in neighborhoods where I am a minority, volunteer my time to tutor at-risk-youth?

Ultimately, whether you live in a place where you are a citizen, or whether you are an immigrant, there seems to be the same level of helplessness. This helplessness is felt more by the oppressed than by the majorities. There is a crisis in our country, and we need to implement education and reform. Can we do this by changing minds, one at a time, a Sisyphusian task, or by top down governmental action, with strict enforcement? The thing that is certain is that we must take positive actions, no matter how futile they seem.

As the president said last week, “America needs to do some soul searching.” Are we a nation where inequality is perpetuated generation to generation? Or are we a land of opportunity, open to all? We should strive for the latter, whether or not it feels like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill.

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