Last October in conjunction with Ace Week, Japanese Ace Activist Tomo did a video-a-day project, and in part three of her collaboration with Daiya they talk about how identity formation is so crucial to humans because not belonging to a group was (and still is) a matter of life and death. Daiya pointed out that people who find themselves in the majority most of the time are bamboozled by all this vocabulary and jargon we throw around and wonder why we “have pronouns” or even need a label in the first place because they’ve never gone through this process of needing to search for an identity; they could just use the one society handed to them.
And I thought, “Yeah, that would be pretty hypocritical, to devote all this time and energy to discerning this minority of a minority identity and then expect other people to understand it while still holding on to an unexamined majority identity on something else with huge social consequences like race.”
It’s one thing to intellectually know something, but it’s another thing to actually experientially know it, you know? The thing that brought me from theory to reality was going to Swedish School. Swedish was my third classroom language, and I just kept expecting it to be hard. After Japanese, Mandarin, and even German, there were so many cultural nuances I had to learn and remember and adapt to. I would ask my Swedish teachers those kinds of questions, like “I would say it this way, but would that be polite in Sweden?” and get blank stares, like of course that was the way to say it, what other way would there even be? We would get those little cultural blurbs that come with introductory language classes, and I wouldn’t think much about not finding them particularly noteworthy, because we were using textbooks for immigrants to Sweden instead of for English-speakers as had been my experience so far. It wasn’t until there started being items and in particular foods that I had until that point only known as “that thing” or “those cookies” that the penny dropped for me: this isn’t hard because it’s the culture you were already raised with, dummy.
The language opened up doors I didn’t even know had been closed. My elders began recounting stories to me, reciting phrases the adults used to say but they weren’t allowed to know the meaning of and looking to me for answers that I unfortunately can’t give them. It’s a weird position to be in, an uncomfortable position, a sad position. But I also recognize it as a valuable experience to have had. It is a visceral reminder to me, aha, here is the price that was paid for my Whiteness.
I am no expert on antiracism or social justice or what have you and do not intend to give the impression that I am one. All I know is that part of the work of antiracism for people of “caucasian descent” living in North America is dismantling capital-W Whiteness, because it is the construct people of color are racialized against and we are the only ones who can do so. If this is not you, or you are already walking this path, you are excused from this post (although of course welcome to stay if you like). When you’re in a community as white-and-North-American as the asexual one, I think it’s only fair to point out that it’s sauce for the goose to expect that we devote at least a little of our hyperanalytic navel-gazing powers to reckoning with racial identity if we’re going to expect people to sit through our overly-complicated vocabulary lesson.
And here’s what I reckon: we can neither have a welcoming space under the asexual and aromantic umbrellas nor realize our potential as a group until we recognize and reject the insidious trappings of Whiteness.
Race as a concept is one of coalition, and while I’m mostly positive on coalitions, let’s not forget it’s a tool that be used for good or ill. It rolls up a whole bunch of people who essentially just look similar or come from an arbitrarily defined region of the world and flattens them to be in some immeasurable and unobservable way “the same.” While this can be a strategy for organizing and amplifying the voices of communities that might otherwise be too small to be heard, it also tends to homogenize those voices. Just to take a recent example, you don’t even need to be on book twitter to see how many people are making book lists supposedly for Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month that don’t have any PI (or even South/Southeast Asian) representation in them.
Whiteness asks us to go one step further and look at the world as an exclusive “us” vs. an inferior and scary “them.” It promised our ancestors economic prosperity and tolerance through identification and conformity with the oppressor class, and then held onto that economic power tooth and nail using the privilege our ancestors acquired for us to make us complicit in all the oppression necessary for this power structure to exist regardless of whether they or we directly got our hands dirty and regardless of whether it is actually in the interest of our ethnic/economic subgroup.
This instinct to shut up, blend in, and bank on expanding “normality” to include us is the same one that asserts marriage “equality” is the pinnacle of the “gay rights” movement. It’s the one that insists none of us are trying to destroy gender roles, we just want to be able to pick which one we’re going to conform to. It’s the one that says to those of us further out on the fringes to “wait our turn” or fails to see us at all. At this point, I feel like many if not most aces and aros have figured out at least theoretically that respectability is not a good strategy for activism on the issues that matter to us, but I am not confident we as a community have connected the dots on where we got it from.
One of the big deals at Swedish School is semla day, on which you get to eat delicious almond and cream buns because Sweden is a country with a Cake Calendar. Semlor, originally limited to Fat Tuesday, have completely outgrown their origins and become a seriously big deal for what seems to be the entirety of Lent. Being such a big deal, I wondered why my Swedish-American classmates (not me; we’ve already established my cluelessness, I think :P) had never heard of them, and I found out that the semla didn’t exist in its modern form until the early 20th century; that is to say, after most of our ancestors had already left.
That tends to be the case for immigrant communities, that they end up preserving language and “tradition” as they were when they left, even after their countries of origin have innovated and changed; two good examples are American English and Québécois French. Over time, though, they can’t help but diverge, to evolve in their own directions in response to their own concerns. Or, to be specific, finding out all this stuff doesn’t make me Swedish. It doesn’t really even change who I am; it just gives me words to talk about it and a frame to put it in, which is an experience I have been blessed to have had more than once.
I don’t know you, and I can’t say how such a journey would go for you. Maybe you have a very strong sense of your cultural roots and belong to Whiteness only by default (although, recall, I did excuse you all earlier); maybe you’re an original WASP who has their family tree documented back to the Mayflower and Whiteness was built around you; maybe the information is just lost to the sands of time. I am certainly not advocating an “ancestry test” that plays into scientific racist ideas of “blood quanta” and can’t tell you anything about your heritage anyway. But I think it’s a question worth asking.
How can we consciously live our values if we leave them as unexamined assumptions? How can we respect other cultures if we can’t even articulate our own? How can we change for the better if we don’t know where we’re starting? How can we create the freedom to be our authentic selves we claim to want if we can’t even engage with the diversity in our own community?
My great-grandfather forbade his descendants from learning Swedish, but I did it anyway because he was wrong. We are poorer for every story we lose to Whiteness, and we are poorer for every story Whiteness in turn tries to stamp out. For my own part at least, I don’t intend to let it.
My journey has been greatly facilitated by access to a heritage language that is healthy and robust, and I’m more than happy to help track down resources for anyone who would like to do the same, but not everyone is lucky enough to have that opportunity. Especially for my fellow North Americans, consider learning about and supporting an indigenous language revitalization initiative.