Thursday, April 29, 2010

take credit for being ‘tolerant’ when pocs do a bulk of the work to assimilate

This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics, who writes of herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."

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.


  1. Well, gosh yeah, there's also that word, tolerate. We don't tolerate things that are good, do we? It's more like endure.
    I tolerate a sore throat and get to the grocery store anyway, or I tolerate lack of sleep to raise my child. But I don't like those things.
    So what are we saying when we are so darn tolerant? That we are so magnanimous as to endure people of color and their cultures? Nice.

  2. Thanks for sharing and for the great analysis! this definitely struck a chord with me - I'm a Chinese-American who has work incredibly hard to assimilate since I moved to the US at age 11. It's very difficult when I travel to countries in Asia and see white people show disdain for the culture and complain that they feel so uncomfortable there being looked at by all the locals. Even friends of mine have said this to me without realizing that I had to go through the same process but was not able to just leave the country whenever I wished. Especially when they usually go to tourist areas where plenty of English is spoken. So in a way, these POC are having to adapt to Western language even in their own countries, which is not appreciated by the white tourists. The analogy with sexism was head on!

  3. I hate the whhole tolerate thing too. South Park did a great episode about it too. Tolerate neans you put up with even though it annoys you. So white people hide their annoyance towards people of colour.

  4. I think the prominence of the word 'tolerance' instead of 'acceptance' is one huge collective Freudian slip on the part of White people. But it's sadly accurate.

  5. Agreed with Rochelle. The word "tolerance" isn't enough. It suggests grudgingly putting up with something because we're being forced to. And that could be the root of the problem.

    Also, just wanted to add that a lot of white-majority countries who extoll their "tolerance" are doing so in comparison to other white majority countries. Ie: in Canada, we like to talk about how much more multicultural and tolerant we are than Americans, or British or other European countries. As if that lets us off the hook for our own racism.

  6. The only people who brag about how tolerant and multiracial their white dominated society is are white people. No non white person in these societies would say that. So you end up with scenarios where some British white guy is ragging on the US for being racist while ignoring the racism in his own backyard.

  7. I hate the word tolerate used in these instances as well. In the education setting it is used with embarrassing frequency. There isn't a semester that goes by where I don't find myself explaining to another adult who is either a teacher or will be a teacher soon, professing proudly about how we should be "tolerant" of our students' differences (where "differences" is code for "departures from whiteness").

    It sucks that anyone should have to adjust him/herself to fit into as many standard white practices and mannerisms as he/she can to be taken more seriously in white spaces (read: not just so he or she can communicate and have minor needs met, as in whites in non-English or native language speaking countries). It's an asshole thing to do to people to not accept them for who they are. And it's even more "asshole" to pat oneself on the back after putting up with the non-white person being his non-white self. Wow, what an enlightened person you must be to allow people to be themselves in your presence! Give yourself a big gold star for it!

    Sorry - rant.

    Anyway, I think what's especially disturbing isn't just the implication that other cultures aren't "tolerant" but rather that WP seem to see every other culture as "everyone is alike" (and opposite of white) and we WP are a race of individuals.

  8. "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."

    That sentence sums up the entire post for me. Of course they're tolerant of us - when we assimilate, we're acting JUST like them. Why wouldn't they like that? We're becoming "normal." We fit into their nice little boxes now, even though our "packaging" is different.

    It confirms everything they already suspected - POCs can assimilate to be 'normal enough' to them, see how TOLERANT white culture is? But OTHER cultures are too difficult for white people to assimilate to, therefore, to be avoided.

    I hate the pressure to assimilate because no matter how "white" I act, they will never see me as an American. So what's the point? In some vague part of themselves, they'll always see me as a foreign gook.

  9. Reading this made me reflect on the irony that the more successfully POC do the work to assimilate and blend in, the less visible all that work is to us majority folks. I can "see" the work (and sympathize) with it better when the person is still struggling with it. Hmmm.

    When I'm speaking with someone from another country and we are struggling to communicate because I'm having trouble with the person's accent (or vice versa), I'll often say something like: "I appreciate that we are speaking in my language. Your English is much better than my Korean." I have been working to make myself conscious of language imperialism and language privilege.

    I think it is harder for me generally to "see" cultural privilege. Sometimes I've gotten close enough to a person to learn more about their struggles, but if there are no accent cues, it is pretty hard for me to recognize the "work" a more casual acquaintance is doing to fit in.

    Thanks for posting. Thought-provoking.

  10. This is an excellent and eye opening post -- thanks for sharing.

    I'm going to echo previous comments to add that I agree that the implications of the word tolerate are pretty ugly. Same goes for assimilate. Definitely speaks to the aversive racism of "white middle class" equaling the "default setting" in the minds of a majority of non-PoC's.

  11. What does it mean to assimilate?

    Hey IzumiBayani, thanks for asking. In this case I mean 'assimilate' ("become similar to one's environment" to the extent that your parent's cultural/linguistic influence is lost or diluted) or 'code-switch' (switching cultural behavior at will to suite the environment). Not sure what the 'real' definition is, but that's how I'm using it here.

    re 'tolerate' - yeah, the problematic choice of word goes without saying, eh ;)

  12. (ps. With 'assimilate', sometimes it also means that people absorb and take on the values of the dominant culture, including the internalizing of racism - hence you get pocs who agree that white majority countries are much more tolerant and that racism is limited to the few ignorant idiots.)

  13. I do understand the necessity in code switching...but why is assimilation (as defined by the author: to become similar to one's environment to the extent that your parent's cultural/linguistic influence is lost or diluted)necessary?

  14. Is assimilating considered a negative thing? Positive? Just a thing?

  15. How about this?

    I'll assimilate when you get your

    ass to emulate me.

  16. Australians are constantly being congratulated by our politicians and media for being such a tolerant and welcoming place for migrants and other cultures. Which is true to a certain extent. But this self-congratulating can also have the ironic effect of fostering INtolerance.

    This is how it works: because Australians are always being told how incredibly kind and tolerant they are towards migrants, some start to act like they have been doing migrants a favour. So if a non-white person has the gall to pipe up about inequality or discrimination, you will hear a chorus of entitled white folks tut-tutting words to the effect: "But we are tolerant here - therefore if you aren't happy, you are just being too demanding."

    Or "We are tolerant here - therefore if you're not happy, you'd best go somewhere else and see if they are as tolerant as we are."

  17. I don't have a good answer for why "assimilating" as fromthetropics defines it is necessary, but there are definite benefits. The grad students in my department who have an asian accent often get low teaching evaluations. I've heard my white peers express how they "just can't" understand a heavy asian accent compared to a heavy russian accent.

    What occurred to me too reflecting on a trip to Europe with my boyfriend was how different he and I were on the trip. I tried my best to not stand out, to blend in, and he just didn't care. He used English all the time and I would use the native language if it meant that I could fake for short moments of contact that I was a native. I pointed out this difference to him and he thinks it's just because of the way we grew up or personality, but I think it's more than that. I've been trying to assimilate, seem less ethnic for most of my life where he's never had a need to do that.

    fromthetropics, I think you expressed nicely what made me uncomfortable about a friend's comments about her recent 4 months spent in Asia: the sentiment that she couldn't settle permanently there or the "just speak English" attitude she had even if she were at an academic institute where English was used.

  18. Alright. I'm not quite understanding what the sentiment is that is being expressed here about 'assimilate' nor am I clear whether it's being directed at me or just a general query. Nevertheless, what I mean in this post is that it takes a lot of energy to become similar to one's environment whether or not it involves code-switching. The main point I'm making is that it takes a lot of energy. And often it is an effort that is invisible to both members of the dominant culture and even to the poc involved.

    Assimilating in terms of losing parent's linguistic ability, etc - I'm not really touching on that here, and it's not really fair to say whether that is good or bad. In some cases it just happens due to circumstances (e.g. lack of exposure to parent's culture). In other cases it happens because the child (or even parents) reject their 'cultural origins' (in quotes to avoid essentialising cultures) because it is seen as inferior to the dominant culture. Sometimes this goes as far as internalizing the cultural hierarchies (ie. racism)...there's just too many factors to consider.

    For me, as long as you don't internalize the cultural hierarchies and thus participate in racism, then the cultural change that takes place in an individual due to the influence of the dominant culture is 'just is'. No good or bad attached to it.

    I'm mixed myself and I'm not gonna go around feeling guilty for being 'Westernized' or speaking English as my first language. But I do have to hold myself accountable when I enact or even think racist stuff myself (as I wrote in the OP).

    Is that sort of what you guys are trying to get at?

  19. Yes! I've been thinking about this for a long time! Its true what the post says about white people patting themselves on the back for being tolerant. And it is true Australia, United States and Canada do pat themselves on the back by constantly say "we are the most diverse country in the world because we are a nation of immigrants and no other country (usually POC majority countries) are not as diverse as we are."

    White Americans always refer to tolerance when talking about rights of immigrants while tolerating discrimination against them when immigration is not a mainstream, national issue ie the recent passage of immigration law in Arizona, wink, wink. Tolerance and diversity is used to push aside the long history and current presence of racism in American society. Whenever people of color face obstacles in United States that has the face of institutionalized and societal racism written all over it (look at how much racism Obama faces in a near daily basis from right wing and so called leftist who act as though racism is truly a thing of past and not in the here and now), White Americans will quickly dismiss their and their friend' racism with words such as "tolerance," "diversity," "political correctness," etc to prove racism does not exist in American society when it does. Its just that White Americans do not want to recognize it because it will involve them confronting the elephant in the room.

    As one commentator said tolerance does appear over and over again in university classes and programs. For all times professors in university classes may boast about tolerance and respect for students' view, professors and school faculty are quick to become tight lip and even quiet students of color who seek to educate their white classmates or campus in general about non white knowledge of world history, non white knowledge of feminism, consequences of colonialism, cultural identity, globalization, racism, etc. Heaven forbidden if Malcom X, Franz Fanon or other authors who found interest in liberation theology and their writings are recited by students at on campus diversity training workshops than you'll see the praise for tolerance in white majority campuses and society drop. As the author said you can assimilate to white society but white people are reluctant and do not to do the same in non white society.

    Thank you for the post!

  20. When I encounter this self-congratulatory "we're so tolerant around here" meme (though admittedly people usually are cunning enough to steer clear of the word "tolerant"), it's always in a white milieu and almost always comes from white people themselves. But the implicit comparison I intuit isn't white culture vs. POC or developing-country culture -- instead, it's progressive, middle class white culture vs. those "other" whites. My European friends love to gloat about how Europe is more "multicultural" and "forward-thinking" than, pshaw, America and, within America, San Francisco Swarthmore grads might target similar remarks at Mississippi marines.

    I though fromthetropics's post was very insightful and just had one question (to which I'm interested in any/all responses): should white people try to "help pocs assimilate"? If so, what would that entail? It seems objectionable to presume that any POC or foreigner you encounter has a desire to emulate and adopt mainstream white customs, mannerisms, affect, etc. Fromthetropics, back when you were first attempting to adapt to Australia, are there particular things you wish white people had done differently?

  21. On "Tolerance" - while it is often (well, almost always!) a synonym for 'to put up with' - isn't that almost the point? That person x may well think person y (or culture y) is stupid/wrong etc, in a democratic country they must tolerate it, because they themselves are probably being tolerated by someone else? I think the problem comes when it's held up as being this great thing, as opposed to be just the most basic step towards living with other people.

    As Rochelle said, it's a bit of Freudian slip to use Tolerance instead of Acceptance. And even acceptance isn't as good as respect. So maybe there's a continuum? Tolerance < acceptance < respect?

  22. In Canada when people talk about comparative tolerance, it's usually compared to the USA. As a teenager I had a job working in a store owned by a Pakistani couple, and they told me how much more comfortable they were in Toronto than in the United States. Either they themselves, or some of their family members had tried to settle in the US first, but just found it too hostile.

    In elementary and highschool, when we learn about Canada's cultural identity, immigration, and multiculturalism, we're taught that Canadian culture should be thought of as a "mosaic", a model that is explicitly contrasted with the American "melting pot." Our text books tell us that, unlike the USA, Canada does not expect newcomers to assimilate, but to "integrate".

    So when Canadians talk about being "tolerant" it's not in contrast to majority POC countries, but in contrast to the USA.

    Which is problematic for it's own reasons. It's such an easy way for white Canadians to feel better about ourselves to look next door and say, "I'm glad we don't have problems like that" *pat ourselves on the back*, while ignoring and erasing all the racist stuff that goes on in our own back yard.

    Also, when issues about race relations are framed in terms of cultural differences and "tolerance", it seems to focus attention on relations between white Canadians and newer Canadian immigrant populations, and overlooks the challenges faced by black Canadians and Aboriginals.

    Another thing about the "we're a tolerant society" meme is that it just papers over the huge swath of the white population that isn't. Growing up in Toronto, as a white Canadian who directly benefited from the policy of multiculturalism (by attending a publicly-funded Ukrainian-Catholic elementary school), I was naive about people's attitudes and shocked when I found out that there were white Canadians, and more than a few of them, who manage to find reasons to resent multiculturalism (largely ineffective though it is at actually encouraging equality) and want to assert a white identity for Canada.

    On the topic of white people assimilating to POC societies, I wonder is there a blurred line between assimilating and "going native"/appropriating that exists for white people but not POC?

  23. 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.

    I think there's other explanations too. A lot of white Torontonians are proud of our "multicultural" status, our ethnic enclaves and neighbourhoods, the high number of different languages spoken in the city, different cultural festivals, etc. The presence of difference.

    There's definitely still a sense of superiority we get from that attitude. And I think part of it is that it allows us to be tourists in other cultures in our own city, which is convenient and fun for us.

  24. Aan said,

    >> "And it is true Australia, United States and Canada do pat themselves on the back by constantly say 'we are the most diverse country in the world because we are a nation of immigrants...'"

    And also there's the irony in the statement itself: we are not entirely nations of immigrants! Heh, we can't even be ridiculously self-congratulatory without being racist.


    The conversation seems to be all over the place, so I will just throw this out there randomly:

    Assimilation is, above all, a survival mechanism. (Totally IMHO) Like most survival mechanisms, it has good points and bad points at the same time. So I guess, FTT, I disagree with you about how it just "is", and one can make it good or bad. I think that the fact that assimilation necessarily entails the loss of one's original culture at least some of the time is negative. Perhaps not on an individual level, but when the whole group assimilates, there is a definite loss. Exhibit A: Irish-Americans, the lords and masters of assimilation, and what miserable facsimile passes for the American idea of "Irish" today.

    But I mean, it's a survival mechanism. Individual persons wouldn't do it if they didn't benefit. And I certainly can't deny that I benefit greatly from previous generations of Irish-Americans assimilating. So please don't take this as personal criticism; more like a drive to change a culture that mandates assimilation for safety.

    Fantastic OP, by the way.

  25. Perhaps not on an individual level, but when the whole group assimilates, there is a definite loss.

    @Actually, I fully agree with you, so you don't need to disagree with me ;) What I mean by 'just is' is that we shouldn't judge the individual who has already 'assimilated' and 'lost' their cultural origin. As in, the individual is not bad or negative, or any less than those who haven't assimilated. This is something that can be a sore point for second generation migrants who feel neither mainstream society nor their parent's cultural society (not sure what to call it!) accepts them.

    But yes, there are definitely 'losses' which sometimes people are fine with, but can sometimes cause painful cultural gaps between parents/grandparents and the second generation migrants. But it all really depends on the family.

    But if there aren't problems like this, and they haven't internalized racism, then I really don't see a problem with cultures changing. The Chinese Indonesians in Indonesia on the most part don't speak Chinese. But that's okay because now many of them have a hybrid identity: 'Chinese Indonesian'. Heck, the Anglos in America aren't 'English' anymore, but is that a problem? They now have a new identity as (white) American don't they? Cultures changing is not a problem in and of itself because cultures change anyway. That's what I meant. In that sense, cultural change (whether on an individual or societal scale) just 'is'. But sometimes the 'losses' do become a problem particularly when you're not part of the dominant/privileged paradigm in the host country. So if it causes problems, then yeah, it's bad.

    should white people try to "help pocs assimilate"?

    Uh, no. But it would be nice if they help us integrate.

    Fromthetropics, back when you were first attempting to adapt to Australia, are there particular things you wish white people had done differently?

    Uh, for starters, don't talk about how 'tolerant' their society is. Specifically, when a poc talks about racism, don't try to set them straight by talking about how 'tolerant' it is compared to other countries. That sure would help.

    Other practical things: Understand that it's daunting being in a white space, so try talking to the poc. Say 'Hi'. As simple as that sounds, it makes a huge difference to have your presence acknowledged. Seriously, say "Hi, how's it going?" Make conversation. Invite them for coffee/meal. If you're going for coffee with your officemates, invite the poc to come along. Be inclusive. Invite them more than once if they say no the first time. Recently some of my office mates did this and even though I didn't join for various reasons - busy, or when I went to the cafe afterwards the seats were all taken and their friends were all white, so I found it too daunting to squeeze my way through and join, so I sat at another table with my pocs friends. BUT I still REALLY appreciated that they asked. And it gave me the courage to want to try and talk more to them, and try sitting with them next time.

    Or, if the pocs seem to stick together in the office, go out of your comfort zone and try to talk to them. Two white office mates did that today as I sat in the cafe with my poc friends and we totally appreciated it. (Not sure if this will work in other places.)

  26. (cont'd)
    Btw, one of them (white) came (and he went on and on about postcolonialism) and I told him that I often hear Aussies say that it's a 'tolerant' society. And he said, "Oh. Bull. It's racist alright." Then he left and the second white guy came and sat with us. A similar topic came up and this guy tried to tell us that Australia is said to be the most diverse country in the world in terms of number of nationalities of immigrants. I kept quiet about it. Wasn't ready to talk more :p Plus, he's really nice otherwise.

    (apologies for the minute details, but it only just happened today, so it's fresh in my mind)

  27. Excellent post and topic! In my neck of the woods (Pacific Northwest), I regularly hear students talk about the great diversity of the Seattle area, never mentioning that it's like 75% white, which, as FTT's post mentions, makes it pretty easy for white folks to be accepting of the various PoC populations; there just ain't that many of any particular non-white group.

    @Smudge re: "And even acceptance isn't as good as respect. So maybe there's a continuum? Tolerance < acceptance < respect?" (and the whole "tolerance" thread)

    The word "tolerance" does mean acceptance and respect. The verb "tolerate" is what has the clearer connection to "put up with" (though it also means "to allow to exist"), but "tolerance" has meant the opposite of "bigotry" for most of its life as a word. It's not the most common use today, but in my gigantic Oxford dictionary the third definition says, in part, "freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others." That's why the Southern Poverty Law Center continues to call its educational outreach "The Tolerance Project" despite so many people complaining about the association with the other definition which we use to describe ability to withstand pain or something bothersome. "Tolerant" really is the right word to describe a country or culture that is welcoming and accepting of difference based on that definition--but I'm not sure that it really applies to white culture.

  28. I really really appreciate this post. I think that a lot of talk about privilege and what it looks like has stayed a little bit abstract and difficult to imagine so I just really feel like this post flicked a light switch in my mind. Thank you. It's clear that you're absolutely right and now seems so obvious.

  29. About WP reaching out to POC (per fromthetropics's comments), this is something I have heard from other POC too. I used to worry that it would make POC feel uncomfortable if I made a special effort to be friendly like "Hi, I see you are a POC, let me show how friendly I am," which is, actually, a real issue, but the other choice is to fail to welcome people and fail to acknowledge how uncomfortable it is to feel like an outsider. So I've learned that reaching out is best, even if you get brushed off.

    On tolerance, first I didn't go after the point because I totally agree with the OP that white folks bragging about how tolerant they are is offensive and ignorant. I didn't want to distract from the main point. And appreciating people for what they are is certainly a lot better than tolerance. But since the topic has come up . . .

    Tolerance has its place: it is how we get along and live together when we really don't agree with each other. I was thinking about this the other day because of an exchange between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim homosexual man: she was saying that her religion (which is important to her) says homosexuality is wrong, but she had an interpretation of the Koran that said it is wrong to punish homosexuals (it is between a person and God), and he was saying he wanted to live in harmony and appreciation with Muslims even though he obviously isn't happy with people saying that he is immoral, and he certainly doesn't want Muslim (or conservative Christian) doctrine controlling his rights. That's tolerance (on both sides of this story). Acknowledging the humanity of other people and wanting to live in harmony even in the face of very real and deep differences about values that just don't permit full acceptance and appreciation.

  30. I agree with calling assimilation a survival mechanism. I don't see it in terms of everyone needing it to survive, but it depends on what one feels he or she needs. An example on a MUCH smaller scale (not a comparison I assure you) is when I lived in a Spanish-speaking area of my city, and chose to speak Spanish to make communication easier. I did NOT want to be seen as "one of those" white girls with a dumb sounding American accent either. I made such an effort to use not only the language but the accent, just to avoid the stinging insult of being accused of speaking Spanish like an American. The similarities here are that I was more accepted as a "real" member of my community for it. I was less noticeable and didn't have to deal with being "different" everywhere I went. When I'd get around my English-speaking friends, they thought I was being fake or acting like a wannabe. The major difference here is that I'm white, and my culture is dominant. I, got to choose to speak Spanish and I didn't have to give anything up to do it.

    I also think assimilation occurs to many people as well, without their being entirely aware until after it happens, when things seem out of balance. Like, "why did I start speaking with a New York accent after spending a week in New York?"

    I definitely understand it's a struggle for someone assimilating whether they're doing it intentionally or not. It takes a lot of energy to toggle back and forth between who one is when he or she is alone or in good company, and who one HAS to be in order to accomplish something or have a need met.

    At the same time, I see it costing people who thwart assimilation a lot as well. There is a guy at my b/f's business who wears dashikis to work. Everyone else wears suits and ties every day. When people first see him they're thrown off by the fact that he's not wearing a suit. Then, of course, whatever stereotypes they have about men who wear dashikis come in. This man is very well respected in his field because of his record and because people know him well now, but he thwarts assimilation on purpose to maintain who he is, He has had to prove himself to do that. Whenever he meets someone new, he has to do it all over again.

    Hey, no big deal, right? Just wear a suit and tie and everyone will leave you alone. (I frequently hear this logic "make it easy on yourself" when it's really just making it easy for people to be dicks with a reason). So yeah, it's a really shitty line to have to walk. You either assimilate and it costs you. Or you don't assimilate...and it costs you.

  31. The assimilation vs. integration discussion is really interesting, and a good example of the two-edged sword that PoC have to fight against in white-majority countries. It seems like there's pressure coming from two directions: on the one hand, there's the expectation that new Americans/Aussies/what have you and their children will gradually become "more white" until they fit in with the dominant culture, but on the other hand PoC are getting constant reminders from WP that they are "other" and will never be "white enough". Seems to me like the latter pressure comes mostly from overtly racist people, while the former, just as insidious, is more likely to be found among supposedly liberal-minded WP.

  32. Victoria Said...

    " (I frequently hear this logic "make it easy on yourself" when it's really just making it easy for people to be dicks with a reason). So yeah, it's a really shitty line to have to walk. You either assimilate and it costs you. Or you don't assimilate...and it costs you. "

    This is it. This is why I'm detached when I'm in situations where I'm often the only person of color.

  33. Fromthetropics, back when you were first attempting to adapt to Australia, are there particular things you wish white people had done differently?

    Just wondering. What do other pocs wish white people would do when you find yourself in a white space (regardless of whether you're overseas born, or native born)?

    Also, do pocs who are born and raised in white majority countries (native born) ever feel as though you do things to 'make things easy' for the 'white guy'? Or take a deep breath and put on an extra confident attitude once you walk in? I've also heard many black commenters talk of code-switching behavior or language - are you ever aware of the effort you expend (or does it come so naturally that you don't think twice about it)? Are there white people for whom you don't have to do this?

  34. @olderwoman, I'm a WM so take this or leave this, but I think part of the answer to your dilemma is making the effort to be observant. If you're reaching out to someone just because they look "not American" (or not whatever-white-dominated-nationality) then that's really problematic, especially when it turns out their grandparents were born here. But if you've observed the individual person struggling to find something, having trouble communicating while asking for help from someone else, etc..?

  35. @riche: I've talked to quite a few African Americans about this, and it isn't just people from other countries who feel like outsiders in "White" environments. I was really thinking mostly of Black people when I wrote, although the point applies to all other groups, too. "When in doubt, reach out" is what I think is the best principle, even though, as I said, sometimes the response will be a brush off. You do want to pay attention to the other person's reactions, and not annoy them with unwanted attention.

  36. island girl in a land w/o seaMay 1, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    Just wondering. What do other pocs wish white people would do when you find yourself in a white space (regardless of whether you're overseas born, or native born)?

    i would be so thrilled if white people would meet me halfway. this necessitates risk-taking on their part -- such as owning up to the idea that they may not know as much as they think about other cultures, nations and the experiences of POC.

    as from the tropic wrote, code-switching is *very* tiring. i chafe at having to figure out which part of myself to put forward in a given situation. there are big parts of myself that don't often emerge in the course of interactions with many white people -- and i like to think that these parts of myself are just as interesting and valuable as the part of me that knows how to appear assimilated. if a white person really wanted to reach out, he or she would have to make an effort to engage with my pinay-ness and my immigrant-ness. if the white people around me really wanted to "be nice" they would give me a break from having to code switch and meet me somewhere in the middle of the space we occupy.

  37. Whew! This post's title alone hit a nerve with me. Not only do people of color do the most work in assimilating, but generally have to work harder.

    POCs also get the hardest, grimiest work for the least amount of pay and benefits. I read that there's not that much difference in long term income of a white guy with a HS diploma compared with a black guy with a college degree. Not sure if that's true, but if so, it's pretty tragic and makes all the talk about tolerance a cruel joke.

  38. fromthetropics said

    "Also, do pocs who are born and raised in white majority countries (native born) ever feel as though you do things to 'make things easy' for the 'white guy'? Or take a deep breath and put on an extra confident attitude once you walk in? I've also heard many black commenters talk of code-switching behavior or language - are you ever aware of the effort you expend (or does it come so naturally that you don't think twice about it)? Are there white people for whom you don't have to do this?"

    I used to go out of my way to be reassuring, but I quit it. Every worthy relationship requires equal effort on both parts. Usually after meeting some of my white peers I know that most of them have already dismissed me entirely or attached particular stereotypes to me without actually trying to get to know me. If my personality makes a white person uncomfortable because they can't put me into a box, that's their problem not mine.

    Code switching had actually become almost second nature and it would kick in the minute I walked out the door. I still do it from time to time if i feel that a situation warrants it, but try to stop myself when I do realize that I'm doing it during the day. Being detached helps although its exhausting.

  39. @caribelle - What do you mean by 'being detached'? Coz, if it's an easier option, then I might try it.

  40. This is probably slightly off-topic, but on assimilation, when white people move to majority-POC countries; yeah, most of them don't bother.
    I'm a white woman, and I've been living in Taiwan for the past year, and hopefully for the next few; most of the foreigners I know are here to study Chinese, because most people I know I met through school, but I know a bunch of older white guys who have been here for three, five, ten years and still haven't bothered to learn to speak Chinese properly. The thing is, eighty percent of my classmates are Asian, so whatever happens I'm nearly always in a non-white majority, and a lot of white people find that extremely uncomfortable. I have a whole rant about white people here in Taiwan, because I'm frequently extremely ashamed of their actions, but that would be too long.
    All this to say : yes. White people expect POC to assimilate. But that can't be demanded of them in a foreign country, oh no. The worst thing is that here, obviously we'll always be instantly recognizable as foreigners, because Taiwanese society is still very homogeneous, but that's just an easy way out :(

  41. @ fromthetropics

    I can best describe it as being distant and having blatant boundaries. I've been told that I come off guarded, but I'm fine with that. The distance helps to keep the microaggressions at a minimum.

  42. Nice post - it's making me think a lot about how my wife and I are treated differently as immigrants here in Europe.

    I guess there is a useful split between tolerance and acceptance - tolerance says that it doesn't matter what you think, it matters how you act. Not really appropriate for racial issues (insert thoughtcrime caveat here), but still pretty useful in other areas.


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