Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Safe Prejudice

By Matt Cutugno

We can't say we are truly equal until everyone is treated the same.

Many in America pride themselves for being part of the most culturally and ethnically diverse society in history.  The election of Barack Obama seems to have highlighted and justified that pride as our new President is the very embodiment of our nation’s diversity.

Prejudice has no place in any society, but a multicultural one can be especially susceptible to preconceived notions about individuals and groups.  There are so many of us so different, there is the temptation to think in terms of “us” and “them.” I believe Americans, over the years, have worked honestly to identify and understand the dynamics of prejudice, act in response to it, and even legislate against it.

So it is particularly upsetting to me when I see attitudes against prejudice applied selectively, when I notice prejudice against one group of Americans roundly (and rightly) condemned, and then witness its continued existence against another group.

I view prejudice against Asian Americans as a kind of “safe” prejudice.  In work places and social gatherings, I have heard casual comments (from people who should know better) that reveal subtle bigotry toward Asians.  Stereotypes regarding them are too common: the bespectacled math-wiz; the hard working dry cleaner or green grocer, the cyber-geek, the over-protective Asian mom.  We still find comedians who joke that Asians eat the strangest foods, or that they make terrible drivers, or that they struggle with pronouncing certain English words.

Most infamously, a few years back, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell made fun of the accents of Chinese in a kind of sing-song mockery that she thought was amusing.  Would Ms. O’Donnell, a noted liberal, have mocked an African American’s speech pattern, or a stereotypical gay person’s way of acting or talking?  Begrudgingly, she apologized, but if you read her subsequent comments on her website, her apology was faint hearted and insincere.

Perhaps what makes Asian Americans particularly susceptible to safe prejudice is the quiet dignity with which many of them carry themselves.  Once gently (or not so gently) kidded, even perhaps to the point of being made fun of, Asians are likely to shrug it off.  Other minority groups are, in my opinion, not so easy to forgive.  This, in part, is what makes Asian Americans a safe target.

In response to this entire discussion, one might ask me “where is your sense of humor?” I would say I have one and I always keep it handy and if, in our diverse America, all groups are equal fair recipients of such “kidding,” I would not be offering this opinion.

It is imperative that we get past any idea that some prejudices are okay, that they are “safe.” Finally, a society that treats Asian Americans with any lack of respect is not so free and enlightened after all, and hasn’t earned the right to feel proud.

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