White People As Experts in Non-White Area/Ethnic/Cultural Studies
In the wake of this morning’s “discussion” of racism on my Facebook page, I keep returning to biyuti’s post of hypothetical questions for white people in which she asked:
For those deeply and truly concerned about being anti-racist and checking their shit…
How prepared and comfortable are you with the notion that even if you do everything right, some PoC/non-white/Indigenous people will never trust, like, or love you? That some may always hate your whiteness and all the privilege that comes with it?
Are you prepared to not travel to non-white countries if there isn’t a good, ethical way to do so?
Are you prepared to stop doing yoga, stop getting tattoos and other body mods, etc.?
If you are doing area studies of non-white ares (i.e., Asian studies, etc.) are you prepared to change your major? Career?
Are you really able and willing to accept that some spaces will never be for you and that you are unwelcome there?
I wonder… (but seriously, these question are rhetorical)
And as a result, I am looking for commentary by people of color, particularly people of color with a background in non-white area/ethnic/cultural studies about the presence of white students and scholars in these fields. I would ask white people in these fields to take a back seat and allow people of color to speak about their own experiences unhindered by having to continually justify their remarks.
This is actually not a new question for me, but something that has come up in certain other areas in my life. One example is, and this should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, cookbooks. One of the major areas of interest I have in the culinary arts is that of regional and ethnic cuisines. I often find myself at a loss to explain why it is that so many regional and ethnic cookbooks that feature the cuisines of predominantly non-white cultures are written by white authors. To be sure, many of these authors have lived in the regions from which the cuisines originated for many years, but I find myself somewhat troubled that there seem to be comparatively few cookbooks available that are actually produced by the people of that culture.
One prime example that comes to mind is Diana Kennedy, who is famously regarded as a foremost authority on Mexican cuisine. Diana Kennedy, as you might guess, is white, a native of England, although she lived in Mexico for a very long time. She moved there in 1957, and has spent upwards of 45 years travelling in Mexico and researching the cuisine. She published her first cookbook in 1972, one of the authors encouraged by Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to spread knowledge of ethnic cuisines. Kennedy, I note, is a recipient of the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor awarded by the government of Mexico to foreigners, so presumably she is held in fairly high regard by Mexicans, themselves.
I think of Diana Kennedy, because my cousin, who thought it appropriate to take me to task today for identifying as a person of color, and who holds a graduate degree in Latin American Studies, also derided my recipe for guacamole because I do not include jalapeños or serranos. I only recently began to make guacamole, and as with all ethnic dishes, before i attempted it, I spent at least a modicum of effort on researching what makes an authentic guacamole. Authenticity of cuisine is very important to me, as I wish to eat regional dishes as close to what one might experience when embedded in that culture as possible. I have often said that I travel vicariously via my kitchen, since I cannot afford to travel in person.
However, guacamole has become so thoroughly and widely adopted by Usamerican white culture, that the only information I could find was from Wikipedia, which simply states in unattributed fashion:
Well, looking through my available ingredients at the time, and trusting my culinary instincts and experience, I came up with the following:
2 Haas avocados
2 Tbsp. chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1 shallot, minced finely
juice of one lime (about 2 Tbsp.)
1 Tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
2 cloves of garlic, minced finely
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
…and debuted my creation to rave reviews wherever it has been served. I do not include chile pepper, because I prefer to think of guacamole as a contrast to the heat of chiles, rather that a vehicle for them. But after my cousin’s criticism, I went looking for something that could possibly be described as an “authentic” recipe. The only thing I could find was Diana Kennedy’s, which includes not only chiles, but the following note:
I first came across this recipe in Mexico in 1957, and it seems to be a classic. The perfect guacamole has to be made in a molcajete, a volcanic-rock mortar and pestle, because the flavors intensify when the ingredients are crushed. If you don’t have one, blend the onion, chile, cilantro, and salt, then mash in the avocados just to a rough texture.
Presumably, in 1957, guacamole had yet to penetrate the Usamerican consciousness, and any recipe encountered by Kennedy during her travels in Mexico during that period would have to be regarded as having a reasonably fit pedigree. As you can see, the inclusion of olive oil packed sun-dried tomatoes may or may not be authentic, and shallots are probably not native to the Americas, but then, neither are cilantro, onion, garlic, or lime, all of which I think we can agree are staples of Mexican cuisine. So, the only ingredients commonly used in guacamole that we can imagine could possibly have been part of a truly authentic recipe are avocados, chilies, tomatoes, and salt. It is possible some member of the genus Allium existed in the Americas that might have substituted for modern day cultivated onions and/or garlic.
My cousin, also saw fit to criticise my spelling of “chili”, instead of “chile”. As far as I am aware, both spellings are considered acceptable in Usamerican English, and frankly, in the past I have usually used “chili” as shorthand for “chile con carne” and “chile” for the actual peppers. The word derives from Nahuatl, and the commonly accepted representation in the Latin alphabet of the original word is “chilli”. “Chile”, by contrast, is the Spanish language representation. Tell me, then, which is more “proper”?
So, now that you have a little background as to why I have a bug up my ass today, I would appreciate it if you could offer any commentary on the appropriateness of white people as experts in the non-white area/ethnic/cultural studies, or point me in the direction thereof. I don’t really intend to use any of this as ammunition against anyone, least of all my cousin, who, although I may be a little annoyed with her, doesn’t have a bone of bad intent anywhere in her constitution (and yes, I know…intent is not magic). It’s just that all of this has brought to mind the sense of unease I have about the very idea that white people can be thought of as having knowledge comparable to non-whites about their own non-white cultures.
Again, I am, as I have repeatedly stated, a person of (half)Asian color, a person of mixed white and non-white racial origin, raised in a primarily white-influenced culture, a person who has benefitted from the white privilege granted to half of my family, a person who also sometimes benefits from conditional passing-for-white privilege, but I, too, am a person of color. I, too, have real experiences of racism in my life, many of which I do not discuss with the white side of my family, if for no other reason than that they do not seem to really believe me, do not seem to really be able to grasp the reality of what it is like to live as an outsider in your own society, and react defensively to any suggestion that not only they, but we all, are , even if not always, still at times, complicit with racist aspects of our society. Yes, even me.
I think of my cousin’s degrees in Latin American Studies, and I think to myself, how many Latino, Chicano, or Hispanic students did not have the advantages she has had in life? How many could have been a voice for their own people in her place? How did systemic, institutionalised, and structural racism inform the process by which she came to be a degreed expert in this field? Certainly, there must be a valid role for white people in these fields, somewhere, but how can we possibly make the claim that people of those cultures ought not to receive preference? This also touches upon things I have been saying lately about the unseemly reverence often granted to “objectivity” is sociological discussions, which is usually a hedge by, in the Hegelian dialectic, the “Same” to assert claims of superiority of an objective viewpoint against the supposedly too-subjective viewpoint of the “Other”. This is a strikingly familiar refrain to those of us who have a visceral experience of systemic oppression.
I do not claim to be an authority on Filipino culture, “Asian” culture (such as it is), or the experiences of non-white people in general; after all, I am not a product of academe, and I make no secret of that fact, either. But, where I do not possess expert knowledge, I instead possess personal knowledge, meager though it may be. Who is a white “expert” to tell me the value of my experiences as a half-Filipina, no matter how intimately they may know me?
Why do I feel like I have to justify my identity as a person of color to white people? Why do I feel like I have to continually point out that it is not my DNA that marks me as a person of color, but the fact that white people’s perceptions of me sometimes, often, change, once it is made clear to them that I am in fact, not entirely white, and that my experiences of racism are valid and mine to relate? It’s amazing, the way the veil of conditional privilege is withdrawn so quickly, so suddenly.
I’ll tell you something, though—the fact that I am a trans woman means that at times in my life, I have been privy to what men say about women when they think there are no women around, but the fact that I am half Filipina also means that I have also been privy to what white people say when they think there are no people of color around. Curiously, men usually have the courtesy to forgo continuing to bad mouth women when they discover one in their midst, but white people? Nah…white people almost always take the unexpected objections of a person they mistook for white as an opportunity to attempt to justify their own ignorance of the real issues of racism.
You might also, as a sidebar, be interested to see my response to biyuti’s post, as well as her response to that.