The Minority Report

This post is a rare personal reflection, though I am not entirely drawing on my experience but on the experiences of others as well.

There is much necessary discussion about minority groups and rights, policies affecting those who are not part of the majority. But it is also important to simply discuss what the experience of being a minority is like, not in terms of a group, but in terms of being a minority individual and on a daily basis. “Minority” can take on a variety of different meanings, as one can be an ethnic, religious, etc. minority. Sometimes minorities may not even “look like a minority,” so we must understand what the experience means. 

I am not a fan of the phenomenon of “cultural politics” or the current paradigm in which we discuss race and culture, although I am a big supporter and practitioner of diversity and cross-cultural education. I am not always a fan, either, of pitting white against nonwhites, as this often leads to very simplistic understandings of race and culture, not to mention social policies. Here are some characteristics that people may not be aware of in what it means to be a minority.

-Looking different. For those of us who are not white, the simple truth is we will stand out and not appear like the mainstream. The darker the skin color, inevitably, the more likely we are to suffer discrimination. This can happen even within ethnic groups (such as Blacks, Filipinos, and Indians), a phenomenon known as “colorism,” where lighter-skinned people are admired more than darker-skinned people. But being nonwhite in a predominantly white society is a hard thing. I am extremely critical of a monolithic, blanket definition of “white privilege,” because I do not believe all white people are the same, but this is the one aspect in which I would say it is true–if you are white-skinned, you are at a visual advantage in America. Even when one does not face discrimination, sometimes it is frustrating to be the only “yellow/brown/nonwhite” person in the room, the one that people can remember that they saw even when you don’t remember them.

It is also important to mention that transgendered or queer-identifying people may also face this issue to a great degree. For people who are not born in the right body or to the right gender, how one feels and presents to the world maybe two different things that results in great dissonance within oneself.

-Different language. This is especially predominant in immigrant communities. Some of us come from cultures where our parents grew up speaking English or from Anglophone countries, or our parents were highly educated or did advanced degrees in the United States, and this puts us at an advantage. However, there are many minority individuals who do not speak English well and have trouble integrating into American society. Sometimes schooling does not provide adequate resources for these children, and they struggle throughout their lifetimes to “catch up” and to functionally communicate with the Anglophone mainstream. Or there is another experience that is also difficult: the children of immigrants learn how to speak English fluently as a native, but their parents do not speak it. Many people will say that their parents speak to them in their native language, but they respond back in English. Yet another scenario is when these American-born children do not even speak the native language, and therefore have great difficulty communicating- and interacting with their parents and relatives. 

            We also see the challenges of being a linguistic minority in indigenous communities where people still speak their native languages, and also with many African-Americans who use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Many African-Americans discuss how they are discriminated against and misunderstood in writing workshops, job interviews, and public transactions because of their speaking patterns and even because of “sounding black” (likely a reference to a particular timbre of voice.)

            In sum, when one speaks a different language, even when one is fluent in and/or a native speaker of the dominant mainstream language, one automatically feels different. Language is perhaps one of the greatest means of connecting or disconnecting people from society.

-Different religion. This is something that is personally very significant to me. For anyone who is not Christian or Judeo-Christian, there is a very different outlook on life and way of thinking. I do not include atheists or agnostics in this group, for they were inevitably raised in- or come from a specific background. Christian concepts of sin, guilt, etc. that influence mainstream life, even in non-religious settings, are sometimes puzzling to those of us of different religious backgrounds. We are expected to concur with many ideological and philosophical paradigms, or we are assumed to be of them, and this can make it difficult to speak our minds, lest we be misunderstood. We observe different holidays, even if we enjoy celebrating secular aspects of Christian ones. Even with being People of the Book, many Jews experience being a religious minority (and the statistics certainly prove it). They have faced centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Muslims, also People of the Book, have customs and traditions that are distinctly non-Western (even though there are Muslims in Balkan Europe), such as the very visible and often controversial issue of face-covering. Growing up as a non-Christian, Hindu minority, one could feel the threat and disrespect for our religion more strongly when missionaries came to our doors. What was wrong with our faith? Although it is easy to laugh about it as an adult, these things are very difficult for a child to navigate.

            It is of note that even within a minority group in the United States there are religious minorities. Albanian Catholics, for example, are a minority group, as are Indian Christians or Sikhs. And we cannot neglect the very traditional religious communities such as the Amish or Shakers who live outside of modern life in general.

-Dietary habits. This is self-explanatory, but one’s foods, meal habits, and even ways of shopping very greatly. Many people come from traditions where they do not buy food in a supermarket, but rather from individual vendors, much like a farmers’ market. Immigrants, depending on where they live, may find it very difficult to obtain foods and ingredients from their homelands. Many cultures do not eat the standard breakfast lunch and dinner at American times, perhaps having a light or negligible breakfast or conversely a hearty meal first thing in the morning. Many cultures take a late dinner. Notably absent in most traditional immigrant cultures in the United States is a lack of processed food, or at least a disdain for it. Many immigrant communities have a strong preference for fresh vegetables and fruits and use ones that are not typically found in mainstream American culture. One of the things that adds to the richness of American culture is ethnic supermarkets, where one can find a myriad foods, ingredients, and delicacies to try. 

-Cultural spaces that belong to your own group. This might be a community center for activities your culture engages in (such as folk dancing); a non-Christian religious space such as a synagogue, mosque, or temple; a beauty parlor that caters to your type of hair; or even sub- groups in larger organizations (such as the myriad student groups on a large college campus, in a conference, or even an alumni association–i.e., women engineers).

-For immigrants, not having deep roots in the United States. Therefore, some people may not feel entirely part of the culture. Some immigrants assimilate well, and are thrilled to be American–most Cubans, for example, given the dictatorship they escaped from. Others long for their homelands, never quite feel a part of American society, follow the news back home thoroughly, missing the beauty of a red-tiled roof city on the Mediterranean, the centuries-old history that can be seen daily, the heroes who have shaped their homeland. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that there a lot of media specific to immigrant communities. We often see the big name media institutions, such as Telemundo, but there is much that flies under the radar, so to speak, and only those in the know or in particular regions would be aware of it. There are both print and online newspapers both in English and in native tongues. There is a Bollywood radio station in the Bay Area. There are many ethnic programs on local/community access TV channels. And the Internet provides a treasure trove of non-English media. 

-Different values. Russians often sneer at American smiliness, seeing it as insincere and lacking in “Russian soul.” Asians may find that American child-rearing practices too lax, uninvolved, more into image than education–hence the “tiger mother” stereotype. More conservative immigrant groups believe American women’s clothing (and values) to be too vulgar and sexual. 

            Western Europeans who come from highly socialized societies where individuals are taken care of cradle-to-grave shake their head in disbelief at our dysfunctional healthcare system and the American obsession with guns. For many Americans, living with cognitive dissonance is a part of daily life.

-One thing that is common to ALL immigrants (and that forms a significant thread of American literature) is the story of their journey. Popular programs such as the wonderful “Finding Your Roots” on PBS trace the histories of celebrities who usually have deeper roots in the United States. But there are many people who have no idea about the journeys their ancestors took. Conversely, for many of us who are first-generation US citizens, our families’ stories are very fresh: our parents came over in the 60s/70s/80s and on. It is sometimes almost comic to compare our immigration stories with the lengthy ones of Americans who have been here for decades or centuries (I can tell you the months and years of my parents’ arrivals at JFK!) 

These are just some of the ways in which those in the American mainstream can understand what it is like to be a minority/immigrant. It is true that I have not commented extensively on African-Americans or Native Americans, whose minority experiences are radically different than those of immigrants. In those two populations, I would vouch to say that it is perhaps an even more difficult experience, as they were respectively brought over against their will and had their land taken over when they had lived here for millennia. To be “minoritized” against your own choosing is indeed a tragedy, and much is being discussed and done now to make reparations for these dark deeds of history. 

             It is also important to mention that even within minority communities, there are minorities within minorities.  If you speak a Dravidian language, you are outnumbered by Indo-European language speakers in the Indian-American community.  If you are an Albanian Catholic, you are considered a minority in the Albanian community in America.  Even politically, we can see Latinos and Muslims who supported Trump.

I still believe, however, that there are many people within the white mainstream who are incredibly liberal and genuinely caring, and that America is one of the most open-minded, diverse, and amazing cultures in the world, even when it takes a lot of work to understand each other.

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.

Take Back the Right: Why Liberals Should Reclaim Common Social Institutions

My undergraduate was degree was officially in anthropology. I studied, among other things, the various institutions human beings have created for themselves, as well as various kinship ties, symbols, language, etc. These socio-cultural phenomena are as old as humankind, as old as Homo sapiens. So I must ask, why should these be the sole domains of the more conservative, Right-leaning factions of American society? Why has the right wing hijacked, so to speak, these institutions, and why don’t liberals speak up and reclaim them?

Take the institution of family, for example. Everyone comes from a family, and everyone belongs to a family, and a majority of people go on to have their own family, in whatever shape or form. Family is the oldest form of kinship ties since the advent of Homo sapiens. Throughout history, families were the basis of economic systems, and strove to maintain their continuity in order to pass on their wealth. Marriage was meant to support family ties, often uniting rivals or uniting wealth. Religious epics and tales were written about families: Cain and Abel as well as Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, or the Hindu Mahabharata (5 brothers’ fight to keep their kingdom), for example. Even larger than a family is the institution of a clan or a tribe; once again, these served a similar purpose as the family, and provided an identity to people in a given geographical area.

Somehow, however, in our extremely individualistic society, the Christian Right managed to claim the family as their rallying point. It became their domain, their political and religious motive. They managed to polarize those on the left, characterizing them as self-serving individuals outside of the institution. The liberals, in turn, began to identify family only with conservatism, with extremists, and with the oppression of women. With the advent of birth control in the 60s, many women fought for the right to enjoy their sexuality without procreation as a consequence. This was a necessary step; however, it gave more fuel to the fire for the conservatives to claim the family as their own. By linking sexual pleasure and freedom with individualism, rather than linking them with the natural human experience, sexuality was dichotomized at odds with family values—-unless, of course, one was extremely religious and expected to their numerous children.

But what of all of the family-oriented people who support a more tolerant society? The people who vote left of center, but would rather be at home with the kids instead of at the office over time? The people who are so committed to serving humanity both on a personal level through their family, and on a social level through politics, social work, activism, etc.? Just look at the Obama family: the President’s late, great mother Ann was a huge influence in his life, and she was committed to his well being, as were his grandparents who helped raise him. President Obama himself has often spoken of the importance of his own wife and children, and of the necessity of men serving their role as fathers, given his own father’s absence. Michelle Obama’s mother lives with her daughter’s family in the White House as the “First Granny” who attends to her granddaughters. The Kennedys are another such example—-a veritable clan rather than just the family, they are involved in all manner of political, social, and environmental activism. On a less grand scale, think of all the 60s activists who married and had children, and still continue today in towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Cleveland to attend city council meetings, work with disabled children, teach, or fight for clean water. It is these individuals who go unrecognized by the media and our cultural zeitgeist. We only realize they are there when they have to leave the meeting early to pick up their child from tennis practice. Let’s not forget that America’s greatest activist/“rabble-rouser”, Noam Chomsky, married his childhood sweetheart when young and they were together for 60 years before she died.

Religion is often considered the domain of the Right. We have been conditioned to associate family values with religion. We know of the (Irish) Catholic families, Mormons, Zionist Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, traditional Muslims, etc., and their large families. Somehow, as a society, we have come to believe that having a larger family equates with more commitment to a family. There could be a grain of truth in this, as it is inevitably more difficult to have a career and to raise five children than to have a career and raise two. But what of the proverbial Indian doctor and Democrat who spends all of his or her free time helping the kids with homework? The Asian-American social worker whose parents come to visit for a month at a time? The gay African-American man who takes in his sister for a while when she is going through a transition? Think of all the working parents who would love to have a much longer maternity leave, and even a paternity leave if the office will grant it, in a society that touts “family values” but does very little to foster them. This is one of the great hypocrisies of American society: it is not a child- or family-friendly culture at all. The very Republicans who seem to speak loudly about family values are the ones who do the least to foster appropriate social policies.

And then there are also quintessentially American symbols that have become associated with the Right. As a friend pointed out once, the flag is one such example. If we see a flag waving in front of somebody’s house, in America we tend to associate it with extreme patriotism, conservatism, Republicanism. Again, we have to ask why? In the tiny nation of Denmark, I saw Danish flags flying everywhere, and I doubt that the entire country is rapidly jingoistic. Flags have been in existence before the Common Era and have been used for a wide variety of purposes: battle, royalty, to represent a particular group of people, and even for prayer—-in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, I recall visiting a mountain pass decorated with hundreds of prayer flags, and in the fog, it was a very mystical experience. Flags have been used at sea, for communication across great distances (think semaphores), as banners used as a rallying point for a particular social cause. They are used as a symbol, an emblem, a visual representation of an idea that does not require words. Flags alert us to something—-fire, perhaps, or in the modern world, a particular type of e-mail! But somehow, once again, the American conservatives have claimed this basic human institution, as though they are the sole purveyors of sentiment for our country.

It is understandable that, during the post-World War II period and the 1950s, America sought to avoid all the pitfalls seen in Europe and in other parts of the world such as totalitarianism, communism, fascism, the prohibition of free speech. America was reacting to severe European nationalism, but instead, it created a ridiculous sort of nationalism of its own. Our nationalism cannot be based on fear and exclusion; nor should it be based on a foolish lack of historicity and a usurping of institutions, symbols, and phenomena that have served humans since the beginning of our existence. So let this serve as a call to liberals and those who do not lean politically to the right. Wake up, liberals! Reclaim your basic human institutions, liberals! Let’s not make “family”, “religion”, “the flag”, and other words dirty words in our vocabulary. Let us not let the silly connotations of these words created by the Right affect our own true understanding of these words that have mattered for millennia. Let us use our intelligence to attack the ignorance of the Right.