Racism and identity

I recently saw that a friend of a friend of mine was writing in a blog about her experience as a mixed race woman in America, and all of the ways in which she feels that she suffers from explicit and implicit discrimination. The impression she conveyed was that she walked around intensely aware of her skin color, and felt that others were equally aware. In her world, people looked at her as primarily a brown woman, a strange and exotic other. She talked about the emotional shock she has to go through when returning to the United States after visiting her family in Thailand, in dealing with the fact that Thai culture is so underrepresented here. There was a lot of anger, a feeling of not being accepted by the majority culture around her, and most of all, a sense of being disrespected and harmed on the basis of her ethnicity.

Whenever I hear people like her talking like this, I get really confused. I am a mixed-race person, living in the same city as her, surrounded by probably very similar people, and yet we seem to live in completely different worlds. I know that the idea of color-blindness is not in vogue, but I walk around literally entirely unaware of my skin color and feel fairly confident that almost everybody else I run into is similarly unaware of it.

I’m somebody that’s fairly attuned to social signals – I feel like if I was being slighted on the basis of my ethnicity, I would notice it – and I’m also not somebody that could remotely pass for white. So I’m left wondering… what’s going on here? How can two people have such radically different experiences of living with their ethnicities, when it seems like so many of the variables are the same?

One answer is that some of the variables that appear to be the same actually aren’t. For instance, while we’re both mixed race, we are different mixes of races. While I could pass (and have passed) for Black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or Indian, I’ve never been identified as Southeast Asian. So perhaps while Black/Hispanic/Middle Eastern/Indian people face very little racism in my town, Southeast Asians are relentlessly oppressed. Hmm, somehow that seems wrong…

Maybe a relevant difference is the social circles we surround ourselves with. From what I know of this person, she surrounds herself with people that are very concerned with social justice issues. It seems fairly plausible to me that the types of people that are very concerned with social justice are also going to be very sensitive to racial and ethnic identities, and will be much more likely to see somebody as a mixed-race person (and treat this as an important aspect of their identity). Incidentally, the few people who I’ve actually felt conscious of my skin color or ethnicity around have been exactly those people who are most vocal and passionate about their anti-racism and social justice concerns. Also, anecdotally, the people I know who most strongly emphasize feelings of personal oppression happen to surround themselves with social justice types. Of course, this doesn’t indicate the direction of causation – it could be that those that feel oppressed seek out social justice types that will affirm their feelings of being wronged.

Another possibility to explain the difference in perceptions is that one of us is just wrong. Maybe the oppression and constant discrimination and other-ing is actually in my Southeast Asian friend-of-friend’s head. Or maybe I’m actually being horribly oppressed and discriminated against and just don’t know it. Maybe I’m just extremely lucky and have by chance avoided all the nasty racists in my town. (If one of us is wrong, I’m betting it’s her.)

But this isn’t the only time I’ve noticed this disconnect in experiences. I’m reminded of a debate I watched a while back about sexual harassment. The actual debate itself wasn’t too interesting, but I found the Q&A period fascinating. Many different women stood up and spoke about their personal experiences of sexual harassment in their daily life, and what they said completely contradicted each other. Some women claimed that they felt sexually harassed or at risk of sexual harassment virtually always, like, walking in the middle of the day in a public area or shopping for groceries. Other women claimed that they had never been catcalled, nor sexually harassed or discriminated against because of their sex.

Keep in mind; this was a live debate, with a local audience. All of these women lived in the same area. There weren’t obvious differences in their appearances, or ages, or mannerisms, although there were significant differences in their views on sexual harassment (for obvious reasons). Also keep in mind that some of the claims being made were literally just objectively verifiable factual statements. It’s not like the disagreement was over whether others had objectifying thoughts about them because of their sex. The differences were about things like whether or not they are verbally catcalled while walking downtown. There’s got to be an actual fact about how likely the average woman is to be catcalled on a given street.

This is pretty hard to make sense of, and seems like the exact same phenomenon as what’s going on with my friend’s friend and I. People that should be living in similar worlds mentally feel like they are living in completely different worlds.

One last example: I’ve had similar experiences with my sister. She is the same race as me (shocking, I know), with basically the same amount of exposure to the non-American side of our cultural heritage, has lived in the same city as me for most of our lives, and is not too different in age from me. But she talks about a strong sense of feeling discriminated against as a brown woman, and has described experiences of oppression that seem totally foreign to me.

Perhaps a component of all of this can be explained by incentives to exaggerate. This aligns with my sense that those that think they are oppressed hang around with social justice types. A lot of social justice culture seems to be devoted to jockeying for oppression points and finding ways to appear as unprivileged as possible. In a social circle in which one can gain social brownie points by being discriminated against, you would expect a general upwards pressure on the level of exaggeration that the average person uses in describing said discrimination.

I feel like I should stop here to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that there isn’t racial and sexual discrimination in the world. There obviously is. What I’m specifically wondering about is how it is that people in little liberal college towns like mine with fairly similar racial backgrounds can have such radically different perspectives on the factual matter of the actual oppression they face. It’s especially puzzling to me given that I’m a brown person who has, as far as I can tell, never faced significant drawbacks on the basis of it, and is most of the time unaware of my skin color.

I think that this unawareness of my skin color provides a hint for explaining what might be actually going on here. Not only am I generally not aware of my skin color, but I have always felt this way. I think that there is a spectrum of natural self-identification tendencies, and a bias towards attributing perceived affronts to the most salient aspects of your identity. Let me unpack this.

It’s not exactly that I’m unaware that I’m brown (I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody showed me a picture of myself and pointed out my skin color). It’s that my brownness is a nonexistent component of the way I think about myself. As far back as I can remember, the salient features of my sense of self have been things like my way of thinking and my personality. I’ve always identified myself as mostly a mind, not a body. I even remember a few bizarre experiences where I looked in a mirror and was momentarily struck by a surreal sense of disconnect, that I happen to exist within this body that seems so obviously distinct from me.

It is also the case that when I perceive that others dislike me and don’t have any sense of why this may be, I naturally tend to assume that their dislike relates to some aspect of my mental characteristics; maybe they don’t like my style of reasoning, or my sense of humor, or some other aspect of my personality. I will almost never attribute their dislike to some physical characteristics of mine.

I perceive myself as primarily a thinker occupying a body that I don’t strongly identify with. But other people identify much more closely with their physicality (skin color, facial features, body type, sex, et cetera). It seems plausible to me that just as I perceive affronts as having to do with properties of my mind, those for whom race is a salient component of their personal identity will perceive affronts as having to do with racism, those who identify with their sex will be more likely to see them as sexism, and so on.

This idea of a spectrum of self-identification tendencies is fairly satisfying to me as an explanation of this phenomenon of radically different perceptions of the world. Two people that appear to exist in very similar social environments can have radically different perceptions of their social environments, because of differences in how they conceive of themselves and the way that this affects their framing of their interactions with others. These differing tendencies are not restricted to body-versus-mind. Some people strongly identify themselves with a profession, a cultural heritage, or a nation. Others identify with an ideology or a religion. And in general, the parts of your identity that feel most salient to you are those that will prickle most readily at perceived affronts.

This relates to the notion in psychology of internal vs external loci of control. When you fail a job interview, you blame the traffic in the morning, or the interviewer’s bias. If you had gotten the job, you would have happily praised your interviewee skills and charming smile. When your neighbor fails a job interview, you attribute it to their poor interviewee skills. That is, you place the locus of control over the outcome wherever it is convenient.

This is called the fundamental attribution error. With respect to themselves, people attribute positive outcomes to features of their own identity, and negative outcomes to features of the external world. With respect to others, they attribute positive outcomes to the external world and negative outcomes to the person’s character.

If you strongly identify as a mixed person, then you will see events in your world as being all about your mixed race. And if you identify as a mind floating about in a body, then things like your race or sex or attractiveness will seem mostly irrelevant to explaining the events in your life. This suggests a sort of self-perpetuating cycle whereby those that identify as X will perceive the world as centered around X, further entrenching the self-identification as X.

2 thoughts on “Racism and identity

  1. You’re probably biased “towards attributing perceived affronts to the most salient aspects of your identity”—a good rule of thumb.

    You mostly talked about identity features being salient “naturally” (eg: your sense of humor is more salient than your skin color, because you’re just the type of person who cares about mental characteristics more than physical ones). I agree that different orderings-of-identity-features-by-salience is a good explanation for seemingly contradictory perceptions.

    I think I’d just add that I might place less of the “blame” for that ordering on the type of brain someone has, and more of it on external causes. Because of the self-perpetuating cycle you explained, it seems even small events could have a big impact on the salience of identity features. A one-off experience of racism might have made you think about racism a bit, making you notice other potential affronts, etc., until race became a salient feature of your identity. (And maybe the salience of your mental characteristics is less a reflection of the type of brain you have, and more a reflection of a self-perpetuating cycle that began with a few people *actually* noticing and commenting on your mental features, which made you think about them more.)

    This seems right anecdotally—I also think I’m predisposed to care mostly about mental features. But for most of my life, I was unpleasantly hyper-aware of my gender, and felt it was extremely important to me. I was also exclusively interacting with religious people who were actively promoting traditional gender roles. In the four years since mostly leaving that social circle, gender has slowly but surely faded from my mental life, and now plays a small, unobtrusive role in my identity. I thought gender was naturally important to me, but it seems the salience of gender in my identity was truly just the analog of how salient it was to others around me (and when my circumstances changed there was stickiness in adjusting my perceptions accordingly, as per the cycle you mentioned).

    1. Thanks for commenting! That’s a good point. Probably a huge part of why my race feels “invisible” to me is that I grew up in a family and around people that really emphasized my mind rather than things like my race. And the most important people in my life that shared my racial identity like me *never*, as far as I recall, mentioned or seemed to frame their life experiences in terms of their race. That seems like a really good explanation for the way I perceive my skin color. I wonder how much can be actually attributed to “natural” causes, i.e. biological tendencies… seems like it would be hard to measure.

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