Part 2: Entitlement, Resentment, and Objectification
In the first post on anti-Asian bias in the South, I explored the problems that confront all racial minorities in a race-based social system like the one we have inherited and perpetuated in the South. In short, no degree of achievement or exceptionalism, real or perceived, can shield any group from racism’s harmful or even deadly consequences.
We like to think that money solves all of life’s problems. We also flout the truism that knowledge is power. In the absence of structural bias (i.e., for White folks), there is some truth to these assertions. When confronted, however, with a society that was not built by people of your background, nor built for people of your background, all it takes is a toxic cocktail of entitlement, resentment, and objectification to obliterate your money and knowledge, no matter how formidable either may appear to be. The Atlanta murders of last week bear this out in the most tragic terms.
Entitlement, if you will allow me to get political for a moment, is not Social Security. That’s actually a program that’s paid into and then collected by the same individuals, and is closer to a federal insurance program for old age and disability than it is to something liberals hand out like candy at Halloween to bratty constituents.
No, entitlement is the belief that certain of life’s advantages are reserved for you and people like you. The United States was founded on entitlement. The United States snatched up land pursuant to the most entitled concept I learned in history class: Manifest Destiny. Entitlement is why our country reaches from the East Coast to the West Coast; we felt we were entitled to it, even destined to rule over it. And with 45 White male presidents and overwhelmingly White male governance over the course of the past 250 years (if we round up), it is impossible to speak about this destiny, this entitlement, without labeling it squarely as a White male phenomenon.
And unlike the economic benefits, the feeling of being entitled has trickled down to middle-class, working class, and even impoverished White men. Especially for southern Whites, the social construct of racism has acted as a pacifier whenever life gets tough–“at least I’m not one of those people.” For White men, this entitlement means not being overtly excluded or barred from any social gathering or public organization, not having to fear law enforcement nor to generally expect unfair treatment while living one’s life–pretty basic stuff, but it gains a premium status when you understand that others don’t receive the same treatment.
Sometimes, though, a crazy thing happens. Some of those other people, the ones you are supposed to feel superior to, can become more prosperous than you. They can afford luxuries that you can’t, or have a degree of autonomy that you don’t. They become educated at a level beyond yours, develop skills beyond what you learned, and figure out how to work the system for their own gain.
This phenomenon is something that upwardly mobile Blacks have confronted for generations as part of the “uppity” characterization. While this is more well-known as a racist reaction to Blacks, it’s not ignored when someone of another background or marginalized status excels. As much as they may expect for the gays or the Asians, or another group, to swoop into the neighborhood and do well for themselves, to many of the White folks, it’s still “their” neighborhood. If Asians are doing well, under this way of thinking, it’s because of the services they agree to perform for the White community.
It’s not a far leap from centering oneself in society to becoming resentful of people who aren’t at the center but who appear wealthier or more fulfilled. Once you convince yourself of the cosmic rightness of your entitlement, the process of elimination quickly removes most other possible reactions to their good fortune.
Objectification goes hand-in-hand with this self-centering mindset. Seeing a group of people as “them” is, from a grammatical standpoint, a literal process of objectification. Asians have suffered disproportionately in this respect. As far back as Marco Polo, Asians have been framed by Whites as the ultimate “them,” the very definition of exotic. To the extent that Asians have pursued specific lanes to gain a financial foothold in the U.S., they have played into this perception. From the massage parlors and spas that were targeted in last week’s attacks, to the restaurant industry, to academia and the professional world, it is not incorrect to say that there are a series of templates that many Asian families have followed for generations.
The whole setup becomes excruciating in its self-reinforcement. The intersection of culture and tradition on one side and stereotype and prejudice on the other is a crystalline objectification of an entire continent of people.
I realize that I have painted in broad strokes above. There are many Asians and Whites that do not fall into the parameters of the narrative presented here. However, I have overheard enough conversations among Whites, and other non-Asians, in my life to know whereof I speak. I have had a few relatively close Asian friends (I’m a bit of a hermit, ergo the “relatively”) and have read a number of essays over the years detailing various Asian viewpoints, and have endeavored to keep my assumptions to an absolute minimum above, knowing the limits of my expertise in representing that perspective.
The tone this week has been significantly more somber than usual, and I promise I will get back to grits and such. What happened last week, right in my backyard, was too close to ignore, though. My desire was to make some sense of the senseless, in order to further the conversation about making our way back from this terrible place.
As a segue back to the more customary tone of this space, I will spend the final post this week detailing my own individual experiences, growing up as an unSoutherner trying to understand Asian cultures with a scarcity of inputs.