An Asian American on “White Math”

I’ve coined a new term—“white math.” It comes out of a response to my critique of Miss Saigon on Opine Season (and here below on my blog) by one Bob Dunning, who writes:

“It’s funny to me that the same people who had a hard time with Jon Pryce in Saigon have no problem with Lea Salonga as a French hooker in Les Mis.”

My reply:

There’s a typical white person, Bob Dunning, who believes that if white people take thousands of things that ought to belong to people of color–as in the entire history of yellow-face representations of Asians in American cinema and stage–then a person of color taking one thing evens it all up.

I call this “white math.”

There are myriad examples of white math:

The setting free of one possibly guilty black man, O.J. Simpson, is a greater outrage than all the race based arrests and false convictions of blacks and Latinos and all the systemic racial imbalances in the justice system.

The average white child gets $700 more paid for their education than the average black or Latino child. The white math equation: White student + $700 = Black/Latino student + 0.

Passing a voter ID law because there were possibly four false votes in Wisconsin is reasonable, even if it ends up disenfranchising a much greater percentage of people of color than white people. Because those four false votes are more important and count more than the thousands of people of color who will not be able to vote because of the law.

Halliburton and its shareholders make billions off a war started on false premises by a former Halliburton executive. That possibly can’t be corruption or welfare or a waste of the taxpayer’s dollars. But Reagan’s single black mother with two kids receiving food stamps of sixty bucks a week? That’s an outrage; that’s government waste. Here, under white math, sixty bucks is “greater than” (remember that old math sign?) several billion.

Whites steal a continent from your people and commit genocide on you, but you Native Americans really need to put that in the past. It’s nothing now. Zero. On the other hand, if you Native Americans want us to change the name of our sports team, that’s infringing upon our rights to free speech. That’s the real crime. A very positive number. After all, some Native Americans don’t mind the name of the Washington team. So in white math, that lesser number overrides the majority of Native Americans who do mind.[1]

According to the Supreme Court, a university can take into account an almost always white applicant being the scion of alumni or of a major donor, that is, someone who’s already had advantages that others don’t have. To admit that person because of those advantages isn’t actually giving the applicant an unfair advantage. But if we take into account how the race of a black or Latino or Native American student may actually have led to their having less advantages and opportunities, that’s clearly giving the POC student an unfair advantage.

Hard to even express the math logic in that one. I think it goes: White Positive Advantage=Zero (or perhaps a negative number). POC lack of advantage=Does not compute (imaginary number?).

A white person and a black person with similar jobs, identical salaries and assets enter a bank and ask for a loan. Statistically the white person will be more likely to receive the loan and at a lower interest than a black person. But white math tells us that these similar jobs, identical salaries and assets only appear so on paper. The equation here is simple: The white dollar is worth more than the black dollar.

White people and black people use marijuana at the same rate. And yet, if a white person uses marijuana he is less likely than a black person to be arrested for the same crime; if arrested, the white person will be less likely to go to trial then the black person; at trial, the white person will be less likely to be convicted; if convicted the average sentence of a white person will be less than the average sentence for blacks. But racism no longer exists; there can’t be any racial bias in our justice system.

So in white math, take one hundred white users and one hundred black users of marijuana. If five of these white users are arrested and ten of the black users are arrested, under white math those percentages must be equal.

I the white person have not experienced and don’t see any evidence of racism in our society. (Of course, the whole point of white racism is that it’s directed at people of color and not white people.) So that settles it. There is no racism in this country. My view overrides and negates a million accounts by people of color who attest that racism still exists in this country. One counts more than a million.[2]

This sort of white math is easy. Just saw Donald Sterling use it the other night when he told Anderson Cooper he Sterling doesn’t see racism as a problem in this country. But then Sterling’s been practicing white math for a long time. Even his tenants of color and the Justice Department know that.

White math–I could go on all day.

So yes, Bob Dunning and all you other white math experts, it is funny. Ha ha. Real funny. Just not in the way you think.

 

[1] I might be wrong on this; I haven’t done an actual poll. Daniel Snyder, why don’t we just poll all Native Americans and let them decide? You up for that? Didn’t think so. It would be too difficult to get white math into a poll of Native Americans. Unless you treat the Native Americans who agree with you Daniel Snyder under the rules of white math—as honorary white people. Then their votes could count two or three or a million times more than other Native Americans.

[2] For some of you, it may be hard to see the logical fallacy here: If you’ve never seen Beijing, that doesn’t mean Beijing doesn’t exist. Millions of other people can attest to its existence. True, most of them are Chinese. And, granted, under white math…..

 

On the Response to Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC”

On The New Yorker web page, fiction writer Junot Diaz recently published a critique of the “whiteness” of MFA programs:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/mfa-vs-poc.html   This is a shortened version of his intro to the VONA anthology, Dismantle: An Anthology of Writings from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

Some of the responses to Diaz’s intro in the comment section are reprehensible, and I’ve written this post in response to those comments:

 

“The number of ad hominem attacks here certainly give weight to Diaz’s arguments. When the person of color brings up a critique, the response is often to critique the so-called character or personality faults of the person of color–or to critique the language in which the critique is expressed (too angry, uses too many swear words, the person doesn’t have the right to make this critique because he or she is in some other way privileged, etc.). These critiques are all ways the dominant culture uses to dismiss concrete and systemic issues.

One key issue: Are the faculty in MFA programs well versed in a variety of literary traditions and thought? When I was in an English Ph.D. program I read a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka and that was it. In my MFA program I was not taught anything about the tradition of African American letters (much less about Asian American, Native American or Latino American, much less the traditions of global writing or post-colonial theory). Many of my students at VONA and other writers of color I’ve encountered also express a similar absence in their MFA training and thus, in the faculty that teach in these programs.

A second issue about the “whiteness” of MFA workshops is addressed not to individual white people, but to the literary practices and ways of thinking which are deemed standard in a white dominated society and literary world. For example, the default literary practice in American writing is that white writers do not have to identify their white characters as being white. Is this practice politically and racially neutral or is it a practice which can be examined in light of a literary and political critique? In most current MFA workshops, what would happen if such a critique were expressed? Would it be acknowledged that there are actually at least two sides–if not many more–that are addressing this practice? Or would such a critique be dismissed as too political, as “PC” and therefore not literary? And what would the response be to the student who offered up such a critique?

One exercise of power is to keep critiques of the dominant power from ever being voiced. Ad hominem attacks are one way, ignoring the existence of the critiques are another (i.e., not knowing the literary traditions and thought of people of color), and standard practices of how workshops are run are another. The motive is to keep actual debate of the issues outside the classroom or from occurring in the literary world.”

 

I know, as so many suggest, I shouldn’t be looking at comment sections. I can certainly understand the argument that it’s useless to respond to “trolls.”

Still one comment about Junot’s piece on the New Yorker blog seemed to me to voice a valid concern. Here’s the comment:

 

“This is my perspective as a white guy in the academic world….My concern is, if I try to talk about race, people’s reaction is likely to be: nice try guy, but you can’t understand the experiences of people of color. On the other hand, based on Junot Diaz’s remarks, it seems like if I choose to keep silent about matters of race the reaction is: you’re afraid to confront these issues, so you’re part of the problem. I have no doubt that it’s hard for people of color, especially when it seems like their concerns are widely ignored. But it’s hard for me too — I honestly don’t think anyone, person of color or otherwise, wants to hear my perspective on race. I’ve never felt encouraged to join that conversation.”

 

Here’s what I wrote back:

 

“I can understand how you, as “a white guy in the academic world,” might feel you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Many whites don’t think race is a pressing issue so they don’t feel the dilemma in the way you seem to. But your dilemma isn’t the same as POC in the academic world who, when they do voice their critiques about institutional practices concerning race, are met with disbelief or ad hominem attacks or derision (as shown in this commentary section).

I recall talking recently with a young white male writer who said while he knew race was an important subject, he was afraid to write about it because he was afraid of being called a “racist.” So I’m sure there are other whites–writers and academics–who feel like you, that perhaps they’re better off not engaging, remaining silent.

Conversations are, of course, two way streets. But when individuals of different races converse, that conversation doesn’t take place in a neutral, ahistorical realm. Richard Wright has indicated that white and black American are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. But one key difference is that that white description has prevailed and dominated our society and culture.

As a Japanese American, I grew up thinking I wanted to be a white person and thought it a compliment when white people told me they thought of me as a white person. I went through twenty-six years of education without really being presented anything like the black description of our social reality and history (much less a Japanese American description). I only got that education after I left English grad school. On my own.

So the thing is, when you as a white person enter a conversation about race, most likely there are many things you don’t know–about the cultures and histories of people of color, about the arguments and theories we have of our mutual history and how this society functions, about the lives of people of color. But people of color, if we have gone through your school systems, know we have to know how whites tell their histories to themselves, how they regard themselves and their racial identity (which is often–“whites don’t have a racial identity”). We have heard the white side and view of things; we can’t avoid it. We have read books about white people by white people, seen movies and television shows about white people by white people. We have listened a lot to white people. It is really hard, if not impossible, for us to be successful in this society without listening to white people–and often, listening while holding or biting our tongues.

If you are really interested in having a true conversation about race with people of color, then you should realize that historically this has been a mainly one-sided conversation. Since whites have been dominating the conversation so long, perhaps the role for you as an individual white person is, at first, simply to listen, to find out what you don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld has infamously observed, there are things we don’t know we don’t know. That is often the case when whites enter conversations with people of color about race. Whites don’t actually know how much they do not know about the lives of people of color. The only antidote to this is to be curious and listen. Listening too is part of the art of conversation.

Unfortunately, as so many of the negative responses here to Diaz’s article indicate, there’s a sizable number of whites who simply cannot hear people of color describe their experiences. That simple description of one’s life as a person of color so challenges white assumptions about our social reality that the white person cannot even entertain that the person of color may actually be telling the truth about his or her experience–as in sjdmccarthy’s comments below.

In Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, there’s a great quotation about identity. In it, Baldwin pictures a stranger walking into a village. Encountering that stranger, says Baldwin, should cause one to question one’s identity because the stranger looks at the world and herself and you differently than you, and your identity must now shift to include not just the strange, but the perspective of the stranger in your consciousness of yourself. But for that to happen, you have to listen to the stranger, you have to learn from the stranger. And that requires you, said Baldwin, to change your robes, to reconstruct your identity. Listening then is dangerous, threatening. But as Baldwin implies, necessary and life affirming.”

 

At the Stonecoast MFA program, I and Alexs Pate teach a workshop, “Writing About Race.” In it, writers examine literary and other issues that arise from writing about race. The workshop is an attempt to create a safe space for white writers and writers of color to discuss race.

I also teach at the VONA Voices Writers’ Workshop, a writers’ conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. VONA is there for writers of color to examine and discuss their work and the issues that arise from that work. It provides a space where writers of color don’t have to spend a majority of the workshop explaining their work or their lives to white writers or arguing with white writers about our right to tell our truths and lives in our own voices.

We need more of both of these spaces.