Anti-indifference: on being Asian-American abroad

I spent a summer in Serbia studying abroad. And Since coming home, I try to keep up with news from the region now and then. Lately, one of the news outlets, Balkan Insight, has been full of stories about Trump and people’s opinions of him in the region. While he has his condemners, he also has a lot of support. (See this for a representation of the situation: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bosnian-capital-split-by-us-election-support-rallies-10-24-2016)

But there was one article that made an impression more than any other. Titled, “How Teens in the Balkans are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News”, it explains how poorer teenagers are creating fake pro-Trump websites with false articles. They are trying to attract Trump supporters and make money from the site visits. The article explains that these teenagers really don’t care about the outcome of the election; they just want to make money. Their indifference to Trump is evidence, and in that, there indifference to the very problematic racism and xenophobia Trump has been perpetuating. This practice of fake news hasn’t been unique to the Balkan region, but it hits home because of the demographic it represents: teenagers who are ignorant and consequently indifferent about the social issues Trump is involved with.

This demographic was familiar to me, from my time abroad. I interacted with a lot of these teenagers, at restaurants, when going out, and in other such places. There was one interaction that happened over and over again. And it was because I am a brown-skinned Indian-American girl. It went more or less like this:

Some guy: “So, where are you from?”

Me: “America” or “the States”

Guy: looks a little surprised…”Okay, but where are you actually from?”

Me: “America” a little more emphatically

Here, some guys would leave it at that. But others kept going.

Guy: smirking a little “No you’re not, where are you really from?”

and/or

Guy: “Okay sure, but what is the other place you are from?”

This was the point I usually started giving in.

Me: “Okay, well my parents are Indian, but I was born in America.”

Guy: “Aha!”

And then, having gotten the answer they wanted, they would proceed to conceptualize me as this stereotypical Indian girl. I got questions about my “colorful culture”, my “cool skin”, whether or not the other Indian-American girl in our group was my twin sister, and so on. And I would just try to work my way out from that conversation and just forget about it. But what was happening was, in pushing for an answer to their question besides just “American”, and by my conceding it, they all to easily stuck to their current frames of who I am by what I look like.

How could I have challenged these frames? Rosalind Chou discussed this at length in her final chapter of Asian American Sexual Politics. She suggests counter-frames, a strategy of offering alternative perspectives to the hegemonic white racial frame. She explains that counter-frames are useful on the personal, ground level, even though they don’t directly tackle any structural issues. In my case, counter-frames could have been established with just a little more explanation, or a little more effort put into the conversation. I could have explained the uniqueness of my racial identity and shared my non-hegemonic white perspective.

So, why was I so against continuing any of these conversations? I’m sure part of it was just instinct, avoiding arguments or serious conversations in foreign countries strangers without the best English skills. But I don’t buy that entirely. A considerable part of avoiding the conversation was the belief that “I shouldn’t have to explain”. It should not be our responsibility to explain our system of racial identity to them anymore than they should do the work to learn about it themselves.

This belief is a common argument against Chou’s call to action, brought up several times in our class discussion but also outside of class in day-to-day conversations. Why are we stuck with the responsibility of instilling counter-frames? People of color or some other minority say they are exhausted from all this explanation all the time, and it makes sense why they don’t see it fair.

But, in light of the news stories, like the one about teenagers in the Balkans making pro-Trump websites, and in light of my own experiences in Serbia, I personally think I should have overcome that belief a little bit more.

Of course, I need a disclaimer here. Growing up, I had the privilege of rarely being shamed for my racial identity. I was often sheltered by other members of the Indian-American community, and when I was not, I at least found plenty who were accepting and embracing of it. I didn’t have the experiences that so many others have had. People who have spent most of their lives having to explain, whether their race or sexuality or something, people who are truly exhausted from the explanation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I assume there are other like me, who were privileged enough to not be exhausted from explaining. Rather than “I’m so done explaining”, my stance is much more of an “I ought to not want to explain.”

And yes, maybe I ought to hate it. But in order to be productive, I, and any others who have been similarly lucky thus far, could be so much more productive if we try to let go of that attitude. This attitude adjustment, while not necessarily fair, is imperative. The teenagers I would have those short-lived interactions with are those same teenagers who made the websites. Those teenagers embodied a certain indifference to racial issues that don’t affect them. But when they talk to me, giving me the opportunity to instill the smallest of a counter frame, they were instead met with more indifference, showing in my escaping the conversation rather than trying to explain anything. And indifference plus indifference is just unproductive.

So, my argument is to those who say, “I ought to not have to explain”, when saying it purely out of what we believe should be fair. This collective effect of this attitude is a giant missed opportunity. And reading about those teenagers in the Balkans made me realize what I was helping to continue, by missing those opportunities. I wish I had taken on a responsibility to explain a little bit more. And certainly next time, I want to meet their indifference with something else, maybe even something compelling and eye-opening.

 

 

See the article about fake pro-Trump websites here: https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/how-macedonia-became-a-global-hub-for-pro-trump-misinfo?utm_term=.wk7nkg5vB#.abQxVKwDa

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s