I’m going to take the amateur linguist in me for a spin. C.N. Le’s blog post on Asian Nation last Thursday was perceived as ridiculously offensive, even racist, by a number of White bloggers. I walked away from this post with different conclusions, perceiving no racist finger pointing, and instead a strong affirmation of the very same sentiments I occasionally experience at multicultural Buddhist retreats. In spite of heated back-and forth-comments, which have made liberal use of the terms racist, racism and white privilege, I believe further discussion is necessary. How did we come to these different conclusions from the very same words?
This rambling exegesis is an exercise in exploring how our personal experiences and biases blur our judgment. It’s important to read Le’s piece in full, but the following sentence is the one that garnered the most heat.
I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.
The different interpretations of this one sentence have diverged at the meaning of microcosm, at the interpretation of White-privileged notion and also around the context of the notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor. I’ll tackle all three, but not in that order.
In Le’s entire article, the only apparently unqualified use of the word White is in this single phrase, White-privileged notion, and it seems most readers’ divergent conclusions begin here.
The term White-privileged is completely novel to me. Its meaning is both obvious and yet elusive. Note the humble hyphen. The hyphen is the glyphic hint that White-privileged notion is not to be confused with White privileged notion, where the latter denotes a notion of people both privileged and White (among other interpretations). The hyphen tells us that this word is derived from the noun White privilege. The suffix -ed tells us that the word is an adjective derived from the base noun. For example, the word black-billed (as in black-billed magpie) denotes something with a black bill, not something that has been “billed black” or “billed and black.” Usually, the -ed suffix infers direct possession—white-tailed deer is a deer with a white tail, red-spotted newt is a newt with red spots, black-headed gull is a gull with a black head—but not always. Consider that a three-legged race is not a race with three legs, but a race where the participants compete by means of “three” legs. A narrow-minded argument is not an argument with a narrow mind, but one where the argument is made by means of a “narrow” mind. Likewise, a White-privileged notion is not a notion held by people who are both privileged and White (nor a notion of privilege that is characteristic of White folk), but instead a notion arrived at by means of White privilege.
So when other bloggers have suggested that Le was making a blanket statement about White people, their interpretation is apparently one that overlooks or fails to parse the humble yet significant hyphen. Indeed, this miscommunication is evident by at least two other blog posts which repeated this very phrase as the unhyphenated White privileged notion, thus arriving at a vastly different conclusion than what Le’s hyphen indicates. The intended meaning—a notion arrived at by means of White privilege—does not accuse all White people, not even all people who enjoy White privilege, of holding this particular notion. This latter interpretation is evidenced not only by a proper grammatical parsing, but also from what we know about Le in the broader context of his writing.
Another source of controversy was Le’s mention of a White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor. One blogger accused Le that his words are colored by his own biases, and I agree. Le’s words touched a chord that connects me and millions of other Americans based on our experiences of seeing very, very few White people in jobs of manual service in our major cities, from Los Angeles to our nation’s Capitol. Perhaps we’re more biased to notice racial inequity than White people, as after all we’re usually the ones getting the shaft. We overhear this notion explicitly articulated in off-hand comments others make on the subway, waiting in line or when we were students in class: “That’s the sort of work for [MINORITIES]!” This notion comes out of White privilege—it’s a White-privileged notion. Certainly not everyone with White privilege shares this notion. It’s evidently not the case that White people across America flee from washing dishes or pushing the mop. But when out of 50 White people at a retreat, only a single one volunteers (and follows through) to help clean up at the end, this disparity reminds us of the White-privileged notion that many White people are above such work, that it should be left to people of color.
One last miscommunication centered around the word microcosm. A microcosm is a small scale model that captures the characteristic qualities of a larger system. Le talked of a microcosm of a notion of a racial disparity in labor. He did not talk about a microcosm of society. Indeed, the very event where White participants at Deer Park Monastery left the clean up work to people of color is a perfect microcosm of the White-privileged notion where White people leave manual labor to people of color.
Arguably, I have no trouble coming to this less outrageous conclusion of Le’s words because of my personal experiences and biases. After all, like Le, I’m Asian American. I even speak Vietnamese. I have also been to Deer Park Monastery multiple times, and I have many friends, both Asian American and otherwise, who have attended all sorts of multicultural retreats there. I have much more in common with Le and the topic he’s writing about than many of the bloggers who have so harshly criticized him.
The criticism of Le’s post falls along the very same lines that, in a different context, many liberal Whites would consider to be unfair. When White bloggers paint Le’s words as racist, their arguments echo those of the Republican Senators who grilled Judge Sonia Sotomayor on her own comments on race and ethnicity. Le’s words were examined exclusively out of the context of his record as a writer and more narrowly on the point he attempted to convey in his piece.
Without talking to Le himself, we cannot actually know what he intended to write. I imagine that he might acknowledge that he could have written his blog post more clearly, especially had he known that a large number of White Buddhists were going to read it. I’ve taken apart his assertions and presuppositions, juggled his entailments and implicatures. I understand how he unreasonably set the White participants in the worst light possible. But he didn’t call them racist.
I certainly believe that our divergent understandings of Le’s words was chiefly guided by our experiences and biases. Reading the article as an Asian American who routinely blogs about race issues in the Buddhist community, I’m inclined to zone in on the complex sentiments that Le was trying to express, without losing sleep over how, say, White people might be unfairly framed. In contrast, the description of a White-privileged notion stood out so prominently to others that Le’s larger context was lost. They were able to zone in on the unjustness in his piece that resonated with them more personally than it could have with me. And it’s important to note that our biases are not determinative. There are White bloggers who defended Le and Asian bloggers who criticized him.
If there’s any conclusion to this ramble, it’s imperative that we question our own assumptions and the conclusions they lead us to, especially on a topic as sticky as race.