In Australia, I often hear people say, “(White) Australia is a very tolerant society. It’s more tolerant than most places.” I hear it from both whites and (assimilated) people of color alike. I'm sure you hear this too about other white-majority countries. When people say this, I sometimes wonder who they’re comparing white culture to. Are they comparing Australia to developing countries and the like, where social upheavals often result in whole ethnic groups targeting other ethnic groups for killings, or to countries which have a high level of ethnic homogeneity, like Japan or Korea? I feel as though they are saying, “At least those things don’t happen here, because we are a tolerant and multiracial/ethnic/cultural society.”
Either way, the underlying message is that white-majority countries are superior because they are more 'tolerant' than countries populated by poc. Those who claim that their country is more 'tolerant' seem to be saying that white-majority groups are open to having pocs joining them, but poc groups like to self-segregate and be homogenous. Either way, it looks as though white culture is superior because its members are more tolerant (i.e. less racist/prejudiced), and poc culture is inferior because its members are less tolerant (i.e. more racist/prejudiced).
I struggled with this idea. I look around, and on the surface white people making this claim seemed to be right. But, something about it bugged me.
You see, I try very hard to understand white culture in Australia in order to integrate. I have to. I live in a white majority country, so I can’t escape it. I go into white spaces and feel uncomfortable. So I’ve spent years trying to overcome this discomfort. I have read race blogs for months on end, gotten my head straight about race issues, dealt with my own internalized racism, learnt how to identify and deflect ignorant questions/statements, and so on and so forth. To say that I have expended a lot of effort on all of this is probably an understatement.
These days, my efforts are finally paying off. Lately, I feel as though I have finally learnt how to ‘code-switch’ into white Australian culture (though mainly middle class, as that’s the people I associate with, mostly through work). By this I mean, I am now better at talking and acting like a white Australian. My code-switching skills are far from perfect, but they’ve significantly decreased my discomfort in white spaces. It actually feels very weird to consciously notice yourself go through the process of ‘assimilation’ by learning to code-switch. Suddenly things are so much easier.
And I am such a great learner (/sarcasm) that I’ve even caught myself looking at another Asian who looked uncomfortable in a white space and thinking, “She really needs to just go get some confidence and get over herself.” Of course, a second after, I said to those thoughts: “Shut the eff up. You remember how it felt don’t ya? How uncomfortable it was? Now go talk to her and help her feel at ease. That’s your job as someone who has integrated and can now play ‘host’, not hers.” But it’s hard not to forget that she’s there. It takes conscious effort.
Now, what about when white people go into poc spaces or poc-populated countries? Do they expend this much effort into integrating? As far as I know, most of them just feel uncomfortable and avoid it. Recently I heard one white friend who was living in an Asian country say, “It’s really hard at the workplace because they speak in their own language a lot instead of in English. And I just can’t get used to the culture.”
“Yeah, it would be,” I said. “It’s fine for the short term, but you might not want to do it for the long term. Integrating into the culture there is indeed difficult.”
It was as though I was trying to assure him that, yes, I understand that the people and place are not as multicultural as white-majority countries which take in many immigrants. That’s why white people don’t feel comfortable there. It’s hard.
Then I heard a record scratch.
Scraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatch! Wait a sec. I speak English. I’ve spent my entire life learning how to code-switch cultures at a highly-skilled, sophisticated level to integrate. In fact, it’s expected of me to do this. And yet, only now do I feel more integrated. (This is not to say that there aren’t white people who have tried to reach out to me. There have been and I am grateful to them. But I’m sure it’s the same with the Asians who know my white friend.) But this white guy hasn’t learnt the local language. He’s only spent a short period of time in the country compared to the time I spent trying to integrate into Australia…Well, no wonder he can’t integrate. What was I thinking?
Did I then turn around and tell the guy off? Of course not. He’s a friend who is having a hard time. I know what he’s going through. So, okay, I didn’t tell him off, but I must confess that I couldn’t resist pointing out that I have a hard time too in Australia.
So, I’m thinking -- white culture appears ‘open’ and ‘tolerant’ not because white people are naturally more open, tolerant, and therefore superior, but because poc are doing a bulk of the work trying to assimilate and code-switch, thus making it easier for white people to accept us and mingle with us.
It's similar to when Western men say that they are less sexist compared to men in Asian countries because they don’t hoot at women or harass them as they walk down the street. They say this as though Western men are inherently less sexist. They like taking credit for this. However, they forget that they have come to this point thanks to the work of many feminists who have fought to force men to be less sexist. Women did a bulk of the work to make men act less sexist.
Likewise, white people for the most part are not doing all that much to help pocs assimilate. And then, some of those who go to other, non-white countries complain when their relatively minimal efforts to fit in don’t pay off quickly. In both cases, white people seem unaware of what pocs go through in the assimilation process, while poc are relatively aware of white people -- aware of both what they go through in the ‘assimilation’ process, and of the pressures they put on us when we’re going through that process. So, maybe white people seem more tolerant because a lot of poc work hard to assimilate, which then makes it easier for white people to think that they're more tolerant.