This is a guest post for swpd by Izumi Bayani, who writes of himself, "I identify as a straight male who is 100% Japanese and 100% White and I am 25% deaf. Izumi is my middle name and Bayani is a word in Tagalog and Persian for 'Heroes of the people' and 'the Word' respectively."
The other day at work, one of my co-workers who identifies as a white woman (and implicitly straight and able) asks me "what are you?" I fend this question off, but eventually I reveal that my father is a white guy who was born and raised in Illinois and my mother was born and raised in Japan. As I fend off more predictable qualifying questions that focus on what makes me different ("yes I can speak it, yes we eat sushi at home sometimes," etc.), questions that consequentially ignore my whiteness, my co-worker finally ends her line of questioning with, "I wish I was ethnic."
This wasn't the first or the last time I've heard someone say this, and I don't think I have ever experienced anyone other than a white person say it. Most people of color don't have any reason to say it.
I remember when I first heard someone wish they were ethnic as a kid, and I was blown away. Based on my experiences, I couldn't understand why anyone who had it so good being normal, blending in, would want to give that away and become singled out, picked on, and labeled an Other.
I think what most white people mean when they say they want to be "ethnic" is that they want culture. In turn, this implies that white people think they don't have culture. So I started to try and identify what white culture is, and it is really, really difficult to even begin. I think that’s because I'm a victim of its invisibility. Although I live in America and see, feel, and experience white culture on a daily basis, I still can't define it. At the same time, I don't feel like I'm included in this culture because I am of mixed race.
This invisibility of culture in America leaves some white people feeling empty. And many conclude that since their family doesn't eat with chopsticks or take their shoes off at the door, it's a boring family. But the fact that they don't specify, "I wish I was Japanese," and instead say "ethnic," tells me that really it's "I wish I was anything but white."
I think what really puts me off when I hear this common white wish is how it's loaded with privilege. White people don't have the first damn clue what people from "other" cultures go through in the United States. They just want the "cool stuff" without recognizing the daily strain of being an Other. Statements such as "I wish I was ethnic" make it painfully obvious how unaware this culture is to the experiences of those who don't fit.
"I wish I was ethnic" makes me feel like I'm at a museum, where people walk by and go, "How cool is that? Can you imagine getting A's in school all the time?" "I wish I was ethnic" has such a voyeuristic feel to it.
In addition, I think it's reflective of white people's relative freedom to define themselves as individuals, to come up with their own identity. When I reveal that I am Japanese (read: Asian), I feel like who I am to other people are the stereotypes associated with it. When I see a Black man on campus, I have to fight off the assumption that he plays football or basketball. When I see a Latina, I fight off the assumption that she's a mother. When I see a white person, I don't think twice, which gives them the opportunity to be who they are, since there aren't any assumptions that I make right off the bat. So really, only white people can say "I wish I was ethnic" and have it make sense.
I was just wondering, am I way off base here? Am I looking too much into this? It'd be great to have some outside input.