by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
As mentioned by countless writers who dare to venture into the dangerous territory of race and ethnicity, racism is a tricky animal. There are moments when racism stares one right in the face, begging to be confronted via the most obvious of responses, then there are moments when racism hides in the shadows, only to be perceived by the most observant, sometimes the victim alone. Yet what is to be done when considering racism when it has literally crossed borders, cultures, and history? Does it become a new species?
I was faced with this difficult question just last week. On Wednesday, I walked into our teachers’ lounge/meeting room to ask if anyone knew of any Asian restaurants in the city. This inquiry, by the way, is not completely out of left field. Brazil has a large and thriving Asian population, composed primarily of Japanese immigrants and their descendants, in addition to smaller Chinese, Indian, and Thai communities, and many cities in the region in which I live happen to have restaurants that serve Asian food or some Brazilian-Asian fusion dishes. The dialogue that followed, however, was far more out of left field than my request:
Brazilian Teacher (male, white, 25): “Yeah, there is a Chinese restaurant downtown. They have yakissoba and sushi.
Me: Oh ok. I thought yakissoba was Japanese, no?
BT: Meh, Japanese, Chinese, same thing, right?
Proceeds to do the “Miley Cyrus” (also known as “a derogatory gesture that involves using one’s index, and sometimes middle, fingers to stretch the skin around his or her eyes horizontally, in order to make one’s eyes appear like those of people who are of Asian descent”…just in case anyone was lost). Laughs hysterically.
Me: Takes a deep breath in order to remain composed. Um, no. They have some things in common, sure, but to say they are the same is not exactly correct. I mean the culture is different, the language is different… sometimes the foods have similar origin, but are still different . . .
BT: Yeah, but Korean, Japanese, Chinese…they all look alike right?!?!? “Miley Cyrus,” proceeds to laugh again.
Me: Disgusted. No, they don’t actually. Some people may have similar features because there was a lot of mixing going on in Asia for generations…(so flustered at this point, because I am thinking of thousands of years of civilization, and how exactly to explain that to someone in 30 seconds), but there ARE differences. It’s like if I said everyone from Spain, Portugal, and Italy look JUST alike and are all the same just because the majority of people are white. I mean people are different!
BT: All the same! “Miley Cyrus,”AGAIN
Towards the end, I decided to return to the original subject to preemptively extinguish a potential fight.
Me: Ok, whatever. Where is the restaurant?
So by this point, clearly I was fuming. But after the fact, I began to reflect on the exchange. Was I being overly sensitive? Did I miss something in my Brazilian history lesson about it being socially acceptable to derisively mimic people with Asian ancestry in public places? Was I being a “typical American” (read: over-reacting to the tiniest of issues)?
At first, I thought maybe so. I had carried around my own country’s baggage of sullied race relations and unpacked it in another place. I was analyzing the situation through the gray lenses of the United States and our racial past. But then I considered something that had a simple answer, but not exactly the easiest of solutions:
Is racism culturally relative?