I don’t want to be a predictable feminist here or anything, but I’m fully behind the new “Yes means yes” bill passed in California. There’s this bizarre, slippery slope type argument that it will be the end of sex. We’ll be accusing innocent people of rape left and right on college campuses. It seems bizarre to me that people argue we need a vague amount of consent to enjoy or participate in sex. “What if they have to make sure the person is enjoying it the whole time?! What will happen?!” Get a grip guys. This will not be the end of sex. This will not be the end of rape. Will it help? God I hope so. At the very least it will draw attention to the subtleties of consent and motivate people to be more aware of their desires in every moment of a romantic encounter, not only at the start.
I recently came out of a relationship with a man who prided himself on independence to the point where he wouldn’t want me to take his letters to the post office. As we were wrapping things up he mentioned that I was probably codependent and it’d be good for me to be alone (this didn’t sound as harsh in person). I was in the typical post-relationship “what is wrong with me?” mindset and thought I’d give the label of codependent a try. Firstly, I’m not sure how much he knows about that label, I think he sees pain at separation as a sign of codependence. Or maybe it’s the fact I can be a homebody and if we were to “do something,” it would normally require him choosing and manifesting a plan. It could be because I understand the virtues of independence, but judge activities done with others as generally more enjoyable. What to him were warning signs, I thought as simply a part of my culture.
Here are some commonly accepted characteristic of codependency: low self-esteem, people-pleasing, poor boundaries, reactivity, caretaking, using control to feel safe, dysfunctional communication, obsession with others and/or your relationship with them, dependency on others to make you feel good about yourself, denial, problems with intimacy (unable to be close or accept need for separateness), and painful emotions as a result of shame and anxiety.
Growing up, these behaviors weren’t suspicious to me, but markers of the kind of collectivist mentality instilled in me by my Chinese father. Baba believed in acting like a unit. He was the head of a snake and we were to fall in line. Being together was seen as vastly more important than individually doing what you wanted. Pleasing him, and other elders, was my job as a younger person. I was to follow their orders and even predict what would please them before they did, like prepare coffee to have on hand if they asked. Feelings, which would hinder my ability to follow directions, were to be hidden as a sign of inner rebellion. Resisting was unsightly, unfortunate and something not to be indulged. I was in control of my attitude and therefore responsible for it leaning me towards happiness or dissatisfaction. Having a “good attitude” was part of maintaining control over our feelings. A good attitude was meant to be armor against any affliction. Powerful emotions are chinks in that protection, exposing the inability to control oneself and be invulnerable. Pleasing Baba and my mom, finding self worth in our position as part of the family was exalted. Our highest aim was to be good members of the family, to make them proud, uphold the Wong name. Putting the family before yourself was seen as the greatest attribute, a true indicator of your love, devotion and incorporation of there, and thus our, ideals.
Part of upholding the Wong name was by being a good Buddhist. As a good Buddhist you can’t ignore one of the Four Noble Truths, that attachment (which always comes with life) leads to suffering and only through realizing the impermanence of the things which we desire can we reach enlightenment and end this constant cycle of pain. This puts the responsibility for a person’s suffering squarely on their shoulders, it is not the culture or system which has to change, the pain is an inevitable part of life; you can only change how you are affected by it. In terms of our family dynamics it was subtly implied that everyone but Baba needed to work on their attachment to their ego and desires. This unenlightened attachment caused strife and conflict, if we gave it up, accepted the suffering an inevitable byproduct, we could easily compromise. The more detached from our needs and desires, the better we were truly absorbing our Buddhist lessons.
One of these lessons was we are all interconnected. There is no true “I,” no way to be independent from those who have come before you and those around you who, unseen, constantly contribute to your daily life. A person cannot succeed alone because you can’t ignore all the people who manifested the very environment in which you act. Even the bad and the good are interlocked, leaning on each other, never existing alone. This often came to mean my happiness depended on that of others’ and on the existence and actions of so many others around me. Only by ensuring the happiness of those around me could I make my own secure.
Now, as an adult, I am supposed to be independent, that’s what Western culture expects of me. My desires and actions are meant to spontaneously and originally come from me. There is no wisdom of the elders in this mindset. Codependent. I should express my emotions and desires even if they are inconvenient to the group. Expressing my feelings to my family should be more important than trying to good-naturedly go along. If I deny my feelings, hoping they go away on their own, I am not being true to myself. Codependent. Act out of familial obligation? Codependent.
It’s hard when parts of your culture in the US are closely tied to a mental disorder.
I struggle between my Chinese ideals and those of the West. Both sides are glaring in their contradictions. To the Chinese there is no way to separate yourself from your origin, neglect your role as a daughter or sister, your bloodline, your history, it is a huge part of who you are and who you should appear to those around you. In the West people remake themselves daily, they strike out on their own with no family, they have no Makers to point to in their success, they are their own person, solo. Westerners pride themselves on stories of people who were constantly being doubted by those around them, the underdog, who succeeded against all odds, even the lack of support from their loved ones.
It is hard not to feel pride in the very actions I am trying to suppress, actions I was taught make me a good Chinese daughter and sister, but which are problematic in comparison to who I am supposed to be at 25. Is this the final frontier of assimilation? Adopting your cultural ideals as signs of psychological disorders, or as boundaries to true personhood?
It is hard not to think that in China these traits would be seen as signs of good breeding rather than those of an undesirable partner. If you look for research on codependency in China you will most likely come across scores of news articles about US-China economic codependency. Clearly the epidemic of codependency hasn’t crossed the ocean quite yet. In much the way history is decided by those who write it, it’s become obvious our medical diagnosis are partly molded by the cultural values of those in control of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, we are educated not to see the possible cultural bias lurking behind the sciences. In this way we experience a type of medical imperialism, being treated for disorders defined and diagnosed by a system steeped in a Western independent mindset.
While I’d love to rack up my interpersonal issues as another byproduct of The White Man, a cultural misunderstanding or misappreciation, it will never be that simple. Both cultures have values which could lead to happiness. For instance, trying to convince my entire family we are all too codependent will never work, many of those patterns were forged as coping mechanisms or more permanently as cultural indicators. Rather than diagnosing and dismissing, I have to do the harder work. The work of re-examining behaviors, seeing which are true to me in the moment, the best in my eyes, these eyes which will always be infused with Chinese-American values.
Earlier this year, the Census published findings about the increase in Latinxs self-identifying as White. This opened up a much-needed, and still developing, conversation about who is a White Latinx, their privilege, and racism within our community. As a mathematics student, I found it useful to back up and revisit key concepts when attempting to understand a complex situation. Clarity is important because mainstream conversations about Latinidad often exclude race. The goal is to break out of US American centrism that categorizes Latinxs into a monolithic Other, and to highlight the similarities and differences in the racial hierarchies of both Latin America and the US.
Who is Latinx?
Latinx is an pan-ethnic group of US-residing descendents of Latin Americans; that is, as opposed to being descendents of Anglo Americans. For clarification, Latin America is the region colonized by Romance language speaking countries, mainly Spain and Portugal. In contrast, Anglo America is the region colonized by Great Britain, with English as the dominant language. The colonizing language has significant historical and cultural impacts in each region — enough to separate the Americas into two overarching ethnicities. Latinx is the intersection of these two, living on Anglo American soil.
Since both Latin and Anglo America were colonized by Europeans, they share a related history of African and Indigenous slavery, genocide, and mixture. Thus, both areas established similar racial hierarchies, with White, European colonizers at the top and African and Indigenous people at the bottom. Influenced by both Americas, Latinxs operate within these schemas.
‘Are White Latinxs privileged?’ and ‘Are Latinxs racist?’ aren’t the questions we should be asking. As stated above, we are descendents of a colonized region, living in a similarly colonized country, so the answer is unequivocally yes. The questions we should be asking are: Which Latinxs are privileged, and how so? How does Latin American history shape that privilege? How are the racial experiences within Latinx communities different when in the larger US context?
When Latinx = Race
The treatment of Latinx as a race in mainstream US culture is ubiquitous. It hinders us from understanding our racial identity and its relationship to the rest of the community. There are countless examples of ‘Latinx As Race’ in the media. Even when Latinxs are described correctly as an ethnicity, we’re often stacked up in comparison to monoracial groups. Amassing a multiracial group into one category is counterproductive in studies meant to highlight racial differences. This omits the racial diversity of Latin America and Latinxs themselves. In other words, these findings average out the different racial experiences into one, marginalizing Indigenous and Afro-Latinx voices.
This ‘racial averaging out’ effect is more insidious than we may imagine. Think of a Latinx, and you will likely picture a brown-skinned Mestizx, even though the racial diversity of Latin America is similar to that of Anglo America. We could have thought of an Afro-Latinx, Asian Latinx, or a White latinx, but most of us didn’t.
Mestizx, in most of Latin America, is a person of Indigenous and European ancestry. We make up the racial majority in most countries, affording us privilege by simply being the dominant group. Meanwhile, White European settlers became the majority in the US — a key distinction between Latin and Anglo American racial hierarchies. Not only is Mestizx a racial category, it’s also a socio-political standing with power and position (Spanish settlers gave rights to Mestizxs they wouldn’t extend to Black or Indigenous people). Even an Indigenous person can identify or be considered Mestizx depending on their proximity to mainstream culture. Joining the dominant mixed identity is analogous to the assimilation process in the US engulfing Native Americans and immigrants into the dominant European culture. Even though White Europeans in Latin America are awarded more privileges, they are a minority in most countries. Mestizx dominance has shaped the cultural and national identity we bring with us to the US. In short: the Latinx experience, if unchecked, will tell the story of the Mestizx. This is Mestizx privilege.
Examining the term further we see it isn’t free of privilege. In Spanish, Mestizo literally means mixed. Its use varies regionally throughout the world, but in Latin America it means strictly Indigenous and European ancestry. It’s more realistic for a term describing a mixed-majority to mean someone of Indigenous/African and European ancestry, since many Mestizxs are likely to have African ancestry. However, anti-black racism has upheld the Afro-exclusionary definition. Note the appropriation of a neutral word, as opposed to dehumanizing titles like Mulatto or Lobo for mixed-Black ancestry, as evidence of some of the privileges awarded to Mestizxs.
Mestizx cultural dominance is intertwined with racial privilege. Our genetic mixing centers us closer to whiteness, and even if we’re not quite there, it extends some of its privileges. White Latinxs, on the other hand, have racial privilege in our community much akin to US White privilege — they’re considered beautiful, desired, educated, etc. In Latin America, they’ve been awarded far greater education and economic opportunities, and this historical privilege brought to the US, along with racial privilege, affords White Latinxs positions of power and visibility. Turn on Univision and count how many White Latinxs or light-skinned Mestizxs you see versus Afro-Latinxs or Indigenous people.
Pain & Privilege
It’s confusing to think of Mestizxs having privilege because when we scale back out into the larger US culture we are stereotyped, stigmatized, and oppressed based on both our race and ethnicity. Even White Latinxs may deal with a level of oppression based solely on ethnicity. Since the privileged people within our group deal with systemic oppression in the larger US context, it follows that stereotyping and violence is magnified for Afro-Latinxs and Indigenous people. These experiences are similar to the violent racial oppression of US Blacks and Native Americans, who are often excluded in conversation about US Americans.
Many Mestizxs are quick to reject the reality of racism towards Indigenous, Black, and other Latinxs because in doing so we admit privilege. How can we be privileged when we’re stereotyped as soon as we step out of our homes? To understand our complex position we must disassociate with the idea that oppressing and being oppressed are mutually exclusive. We both endure and impose injustices based on our racial identity. As a Mestiza, I’m asking that we reflect in the ways in which we perpetuate a culture that is racist towards Afro-Latinxs and Indigenous folks. The most useful way is to acknowledge the racist history of Latin America and how it has shaped us. Here are some articles on Mestizx identity helping me understand my position:
Mestizaje and the Mexican Mestizo Self: No Hay Sangre Negra, So There is No Blackness
A long and detailed read about the history of anti-blackness in Mexican (Mestizx) identity, starting from colonial times, through the Mexican-American war, and up to modern times.
Indigenous Nationalities and the Mestizo Dilemma
A brief look at Indigenous identity in the US versus Latin America.
The Reflexivity of Pain and Privilege
On the complexities of being Mestizx in the US. As with any text on Mestizaje, be critical of its exclusion of Afro-Latinxs.
Discussing racial issues within the Latinx community is as important as talking about them in the larger US context. The distinction between race and ethnicity is key to understanding ourselves, other Latinxs, and to pushing against the stereotypes placed on us by US Americans. Talking about Latinxs without acknowledging race upholds the hierarchy established by colonialism — it upholds White and Mestizx privilege and is inherently racist towards Indigenous people and Afro-Latinxs.
While it’s important to reject frameworks established to oppress, it is necessary to employ these same concepts in order to break down the racial hierarchy, as long as we’re consistent and critical of them. If we are consistent with the distinction between race and ethnicity it becomes possible to simultaneously break down stereotypes within our community and in the larger US context.
I will never forget the day my dad told me I couldn’t play soccer with him anymore. I was getting older and there were no other girls on the field. As an 8-year old, I didn’t understand why my brothers … Continue reading