Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Let's Pretend We Don't Know

candidate Sharron Angle
I heard a clip this afternoon on NPR's program, Talk of the Nationof Sharron Angle, who is running for U.S. senate from Nevada, telling a group of Hispanic law students, "I don't know if all of you are Hispanic; some of you look kind of Asian."

Neal Conan, the program's host, reported that the Hispanic law-students' organization has demanded an apology; and his interlocutor, one John Ralston, columnist for a Las Vegas newspaper, characterized the remark as being incomprehensible in its meaning and intent. (I think he said, in a bewildered tone of voice, "I don't know where that was coming from.")

Here's what I wonder:

First, why are Hispanic students insulted by being told that some of them look "kind of Asian"? Is that some weird post-modern ethnic slur? What, exactly, should this woman apologise for? 

Second, is this John Ralston unaware that there are physical resemblances between some Hispanics and some Asians? Is that real-world observation now so outr√© that we are no longer able to acknowledge it? I've observed it myself, on occasion, in photographs on the internet of people who I took to be Asian but were then identified as either Hispanic or Native American (meaning persons of aboriginal origins, not just people born in America).  This woman is stating an obvious fact that, yes, probably originates with her being brought up in an area bereft of persons of one or the other ethnic persuasion.

I'm told that Asians can differentiate between various Asian nationalities. I don't know if this means that a Korean, for example, can tell by looking at another person if they are Korean or Chinese or Japanese or whatever; it might mean that, or it might only mean that they can distinguish between "us" and "them." It might only be true of some Asians, or it might not be true at all. Me, I can't really tell. I kind of get the sense that there is a  subtle physical distinction between the various nationalities, maybe something to do with the eyes, but not having a great deal of interaction with Asians, I don't really know. I do know that Margaret Cho, whose family is Korean, looks different from George Takei, whose family is Japanese, and from an old friend who is Filipino, and from a not-as-old friend whose family is Chinese. But I don't know that the distinctions I see between Margaret and George and my friends are representative of their ethnic groups. 

But I also know that all of them, together, are discernibly different from the European root-stock that I mostly interacted with growing up. And so are many of the Native Americans, mostly Lakota, and some -- not all, less than half -- of the many, many Hispanics that I see.

Growing up in New Orleans, and later in North Texas, the people I knew were almost exclusively either European or African in origin. I never learned to differentiate among other ethnic groups based on physical characteristics, and maybe that's why I can't always tell a Korean from a Mexican or a Lakota. (I have similar problems with accents: they all sound "English" to me, though I've found that most of them are not.)  Likewise, most of my friends in central Mexico tell me that they can't really tell one "Anglo" from another, and they're amazed when we say somebody looks "Italian" while somebody else looks "Irish." To my friends who grew up in places where there were no Irish or Italian communities, they're all just hueros (or gueros).

We all do this. We can all tell "us" from "them." We can't always further differentiate some "them" from some other "them." 

But I have to wonder about this reporter, who could not conceive of what a person could possibly mean when she said that some of the Hispanic law students she was looking at looked "kind of Asian." Either his own upbringing was so deep in the melting pot that he is instantly able to tell a person's ethnic origins simply by looking at them, or he was being disingenuous in order to belittle the candidate under discussion, while making himself out to be entirely sensitive, yet paradoxically undiscriminating, in matters ethnic.

My money is on the latter.

I guess things have gotten so bad in this country that even the well-known host of a popular NPR program can't find people who are able to simply report the political situation, without trying to advance their own views, and so he has to fall back on "columnists" instead of "reporters." A shame.