Whiteness as default

I’m guessing that a two-minute video produced a student homecoming committee was not meant to appear in The New York Times in this way. And yet, in 2020, here we are again: Still discussing race as it exists in America, and grappling with the realities of our racial condition from one decade to the next.

This isn’t a criticism of the University of Wisconsin or of its actions, simply because I believe that the there’s little left to be said and other people are saying it better than I can. I do believe that everybody involved in the situation had good intentions and acknowledge that missing out all the people of color from a university video celebrating the campus is a terrible, bad, and inaccurate thing to do. (As one commenter on YouTube pointed out, it’s like creating a documentary about D-Day and only including the Canadians.)

Instead, I’m discussing two observations we can draw from the video: First, nobody noticed the whiteness and thought it was a problem until after the video was published and students of color noticed and complained. Second, the university’s follow-up video was a feature on students of color and their achievements on the university.

Nobody noticed it was so white

That the video was published only featuring white students means we can reasonably conclude that nobody thought this was a serious enough problem during the video’s editing and production. (The Times article notes that Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, had been filmed; they simply weren’t included in the final cut.)

It signifies the unfortunate reality of race in America: Whiteness is seen as the default and standard, for the presence of an all-white group of people of any kind does not arise any suspicions or signify any alarm bells.

We would probably not say the same if the video — or theatre casting, or stage performance, or any other media production — were all Black, all Latinx, all Asian American, all South Asian or, more expansively, all people of color; nor would we probably be so insensitive if the characters featured were all visibly masculine or feminine.

This is a sign of the white supremacy that race theorists describe in the United States. White people are not a racial category in and of itself, but rather the default category from where the “other” races are drawn. An all-white video for homecoming arises no suspicions at all. Whiteness is the null value for race in the United States.

The burden of correcting white people’s mistakes… again disproportionally falls upon people of color

When the problems were finally identified and students of color began to speak up, the university’s response was a series of statements acknowledging and apologizing and promising to improve, as well as a video of students of color each stating their achievements and aspirations at the university.

It is difficult to watch because it is such a painful and poignant reminder that the mistakes of white people on race become obligations placed upon people of color. It necessarily becomes the work of people of color: to actually fix these problems, and to resolve the guilt of the white people who committed the source mistakes so that they can get to problem solving.

Neither are ideal or acceptable, but are necessarily evils that many people of color face every day just to move on with their lives. These students are, as the video insists, doctors and researchers and practitioners and musicians and artists and more. But their very presence and the video’s very existence also belies the contradiction and their unalterable identity: They are people of color and they are there, stating their name and work, because we have to continually make the case for our own existence.

We can never be just scholars. We can never be just Badgers, or just Wildcats, or just Americans. We will always be that, and more.

All good stories begin in a bar

Today, I shocked an editor at work with my stories of drinking while under 21. I told her I had lived outside of the US. Then I realized how incredible that moment was.

She was the first person who saw me and didn’t assume I was from somewhere other than the United States. She met me, read my Asian American body and projected “Yeah, American.”

All my life, I’ve been defending my American-ness from the othering that afflicts Asian Americans. Like so many of my brothers and sisters, I’m often repeatedly questioned about where I’m from, when I got the US, if I’m a US citizen. A few times, it’s gotten as far as people asking me what East Asian city I want to work in after graduation.

If I’m in a good mood and the conversation’s been easygoing, I dismiss the questions. But often I’m annoyed by this questioning and call it out for its underlying racism — after all, I’m an American citizen as much as anyone else. And I’ll admit I have spun a lie in circumstances where the questioner has no right or need to know the truth, just so I can frame a story that specifically denies him the ability to code me as non-American.

But this moment was the first time that the reverse has happened — I presented as Asian American and was read as an American. It was the first time that someone had saw my body and coded me as an American like everybody else around me. And that means so much.

Race matters

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Arrested for sitting down at a Starbucks in Philadephia. Detained for attending a campus tour in Colorado. Gun pointed after he took the Mentos he bought in Southern California. Kicked out of a shopping mall in Chicago. Detained by police for not waving at a woman when leaving an Airbnb property in Southern California. Accused of stealing in St. Louis.

These incidents, which occurred and were subsequently reported only in the last few days, are a familiar reality for millions of people living in the United States. These are independent events, but they are not isolated incidents. Instead, all these news stories — and those events experiences by people in racial minorities but not reported — are all connected by a similar theme of white anxiety.

It’s not a coincidence that all the people who suffered aren’t white. In Philadephia, the two men arrested while waiting for their friend at Starbucks were black. In Colorado, the teenagers on the tour of Colorado State University were Native American. In Southern California, the man threatened by an off-duty police officer at gunpoint for picking up the Mentos he bought wasn’t identified in terms of race, but I’m presuming the name “Jose Arreola” isn’t white; the women leaving an Airbnb, detained by multiple police cars and a helicopter that was later called off, were black. In Chicago, the teenagers kicked out of Water Tower Place, a shopping mall on the Magnificent Mile, were black. In St. Louis, the three teenage friends stopped when leaving Nordstrom Rack after having made a purchase were black.

But what’s missing from the stories being reported across here is how authority and power in society are being wielded to police the actions of these minorities. In all these cases, it was a person in a law enforcement capacity — either a police officer or security personnel — who became involved. Such interactions taint the image of the police and other people in positions of authority among minority communities, which in turn leads to a distrust in law enforcement personnel, as Vox has reported.

In all of these cases, I might it unimaginable to believe the police would have been called if the people of color were replaced by white people. To say this is not a race issue but rather a series of incidents that have merely been elevated to national attention because of the races of the people involved is to attempt to ignore the reality that race permeated these incidents long before journalists got wind of the story.

Earlier this academic quarter, I had to put up my takeaways from a number of readings for a class populated by a mix of engineering and social sciences majors. The readings themselves were about businesses and activist entrepreneurship, but I zeroed in on a few sentences mentioned in the story and put up one sentence in big letters: “If your story doesn’t mention race, it’s incomplete.”

I don’t think I’ve ever put up a more impactful or uncomfortable series of words on that board.