Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cultural Differences: Between Friends

Recently, I was waxing nostalgic with a childhood friend about the moment she realized I wasn't white. We were in eighth grade, monopolizing the phone as tweens do, when she had her epiphany. "You never noticed even when I don't speak English to my parents?" I asked, genuinely surprised. "Well, I guess I never thought about it," she said. "Vietnamese just sounds like quack quack quack to me." Those were really old, good days, pre-race consciousness, when we just talked about Animaniacs and laughed all the time.

Now, friendships are fraught with complications like dating, wealth-consciousness, and race. The race landmines can be awkward and mostly harmless as this Facebook message from an acquaintance:
you'd be so proud of my current asianness. i just made authentic pho soup.”
(She’d also declared herself an “honorary Asian” over spring rolls when I saw her last month. It’s awkward, because it sounds like a lunch special could stand in for all refugee, assimilation, and minority experiences.) The landmines can also be as scathing as someone (our generation, my race, and just last week) suggesting that my dating someone who isn't Asian is a failure of character and a personal betrayal. That person and I may never speak again.

It’s common for majority-folks to disclaim, “It's impossible for me to put myself in your shoes, and experience what you must feel every day.” I disagree. Most people have had at least one searing experience with alienation - perhaps as a woman in a male-dominated field or as the fat kid in a skinny school. Many people, though, use it as a card to win some unspoken victimization contest, rather than as a foundation for understanding.

Once, a girlfriend and I got into a serious email exchange after two nights out: one where I’d gotten us on the list at Verve (she was one of the few white people there and decided to leave) and the other when she’d invited me to East Andrews (I was one of the few people of color, and didn't enjoy the 80s rock cover band). We both said some things after drinking some things, I think. Sober, she wrote, “It makes me angry that people of other races assume that I’ve never been discriminated against when they discriminate more against me than I ever have or will against them. Since I’m white, that’s what they expect from me.” There are two kinds of discrimination here, and both must exist simultaneously to exist at all. Conversely, if one goes, the other evaporates, too.

It can be done. First, minorities have to acknowledge that white friends are trying and missteps don’t constitute racism; this way, we can all get on the same team. (That’s one of the two twin racisms.)

Second, majorities have to stop being defensive to the point of killing discussion before it starts. Out of frustration, some people refuse to discuss cultural or racial differences at all, because they feel that acknowledging them gives prejudice power. But like anger or addiction, we can't get rid of something we don't acknowledge.

Thirdly, never argue against each other. Argue for understanding. Trust that you want to understand your friend as much as she wants to understand you, even –especially- when the conversation starts out uncomfortably. These exchanges rarely come up casually, and when they do, no one wants to lose a friend over it. About these landmines, she wrote, “It makes me angry that I can cause pain and pour salt into this wound every time I open my mouth without even knowing it.” When any of us don’t know, it’s because we're all reluctant to educate each other. I wrote her, “I know your heart enough to refuse to believe that you would choose to continue to cause pain unknowingly.”

We grew closer in these days of emails than we had in years of nights out. Difference is often where the beauty of friendship lies.


  1. Ivy, thanks so much for this.

    Coming to the US, having heard about racism and studied varied forms of intercultural differences or differences between minority groups in the US, I realized the first time that I AM in a minority group (sort of). Funny.... I never thought about it that way. Maybe not by color, but my style, my face and my accent tell every service guy at Kroger's that I am obviously not American. In various instances I collided with American mentality and culture(including people being pissed off because I didn't understand how my actions are interpreted)and the thing with American dating-practices I have still not understood because it is just strange to me.

    Surely, I just see myself as a foreigner who happens to be here. I would not equate myself with a minority and their struggles and experiences - because they are not mine. Probably my being European is also regarded as more positive. But what I felt was I am obviously different and people treat me differently and I definitely am puzzled about this whole white-black-yellow-brown thing that is going on in the US. One example:

    A friend of mine pointed out that I "was white" and he "was not" and, hypothetically speaking, his family would not accept a white western gf. I was shocked. I never perceived myself as "white". Yes, I see that you are of a different skin color, or not (I dont perceive Asians as colored, sry), but I do not care about the "social colored" that goes along with your appearance.
    So when I said, "hey.... aren't you being racist now? Because you just said just because I am white and from the West (I think "Western" is equated with American, which I am not and differ from in many respects) your parents would never accept me. They dont even know me." What I got was a total explosion of how I could use the r-word and that I know nothing at all and this has nothing to do with racism. The rest of the conversation was dead.

    Well, apparently some people are allowed to be racist and some not. This throws me off. (I am glad you turned to that point in your blog.)

    Of course I try to be conscious about people and I would never be insensitive on purpose but growing up in an environment were this topic is not as strong as in the US, surely not having the same historical legacy, having academic friends that were all overly-tolerant, I felt so angry and powerless in this situation. I am expected to be culture & color-conscious (which I am) and trying to avoid any missteps but then I get blatantly such a discriminating sentence and am expected to take like a "that's the way it is" statement. I don't think I deserve that, especially since I am not even American - I am not part of this society. In my naivity I thought everyone is valuable and hey, your color and religion doesnt matter to me. But from my partyl outsider, partly insider perspective I noticed that race and color is very important here and that I as a person will be interpreted in this race-color-frame whether belong here or not. I cant do anything about it.
    Now I feel even more insecure than before as this still puzzles me.

  2. Hey Orangeblossom,
    Sorry to hear about this misunderstanding with your friend. Maybe there were other incidents that color (pun not intended!) your memory of this argument, but I'm not sure why you thought your friend was racist in this instance. I'm not surprised that you were shocked that his family would feel that way about interracial dating, because that sucks. But if he merely told you that his family is in fact racist, why does that make HIM racist? Hopefully, you can still talk to each other, and maybe direct the conversation to find out why his family feels that way; it might be a good experience for you as someone learning about America.

    That's great if you don't care what color or race someone is, but if, for example, you don't even acknowledge that I am colored and that that influences my experience as an American, how can we ever talk openly about that significant part of my life and get past the chitchat toward deeper friendship?

    Hope it gets less puzzling for you. -Ivy

  3. That was a good blog. I got a chuckle when your friend declared herself honorary Asian over spring rolls. If that was the case many Vietnamese whose spring rolls I have tasted would not have cut it.

    I also liked the pre race days of your youth. My kids are like that right now and I do all I can to shield them from ignorant comments and also to explain to them as best that I can when they hear Grandmother say something. They use words like African about a classmate from Kenya instead of just black or my friend is from Puerto Rico instead of just Mexican. I like the way my kids see the world of race, they see it as something that is an important part of their friend but not the whole of their friends.

    I am happy that you have found love and sorry for comments that are made by our family, they can be pretty stupid sometimes. At least with them in all their ignorance there is no beating around the bush. They are racist and they know it and they let you know it. But it is all part of you the racism of our family but also the closeness and richness of our family. The acceptance of you even if they do not agree with you is part of the beauty of being in a huge extended family. They may not like your choice of dates but they will feed both of you and submit you to the same bad advice about life. Enjoy it will you can and I will hopefully get this damn cookbook out before Christmas.


  4. Dear Cousin, may your children take the best of our elders' world, yours and mine, and theirs. Did you see this earlier post about family:

  5. Great stuff. It's a shame that racism exists, but I fear as long as people hold onto their cultural heritages (which is important), it will persist. There are two types of people in this world: smart folks and idiots (of ALL races). The smart folks will want to learn about other cultures, experience them, and share their own. The idiots will choose to fear what's different, and lash out with prejudice (sp?).

    I love the comment about "missteps". I try to combat racism with humor, as I jokingly dub myself at times an "equal-opportunity hater". If I'm with a minority friend, I might poke fun at his culture, feeling that I'm enough in the "inner circle" to do it (sort of like a black person calling another black person the N-word without it being offensive). While I don't think any of my friends are easily offended, I just don't know; I may have caused some serious hurt. I would hope the friends are good enough to tell me if I pissed them off. Makes one think, indeed.

    Anyway, best quote about racism (paraphrased) from Dennis Miller: "Racism is very stupid. Why hate someone based on the color of his skin when, if you really get to know him, you can find so many other reasons to hate him."

    Sorry for all the hate on the love blog. Cheers!



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