Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The idea that whites invented everything

A reader emailed me to ask this question:

[A fellow student] said that whites have made the most accomplishments in the world, a statement which makes me angry because he continues to insist that other races or cultures are unpleasant or inferior. What can I say to him to argue that this is not true? 

The assumption that person is making is a fairly common one. White Westerners have been at the forefront of so much technological and socio-cultural achievements in the modern world, so it follows that there must be something superior about white people. Right?

The question of whether one racial group is more or less intelligent than another is not one I'm going to get into here. While it is a relevant question to this discussion, I don't think it's necessary.

There are two other points that I find more pertinent:

(1) What is now, has not always been.

To look at the 20th Century in isolation, one might conclude that there is something superior about white people; the most powerful countries (the USSR, the USA, Germany, England, etc) were all basically white. Even looking at the preceding few centuries, before the rise of the US as the world's pre-eminent superpower, Europe dominated the world stage in terms of inventions and accomplishments.

But if look back in time a little further, the theme of European superiority is revealed for what it is: a phase. If we studied the world prior to the 15th century (the start of the colonial era) and wondered which country would eventually achieve the most linguistic and cultural dominance over the world, England would be one of the last nations you would pick. That small island off the coast of Europe had, in the scheme of things, very little going for it.

Instead, you would look at China, the Mongol Empire, and the Arabs, and think it was only a matter of time before one of them enveloped the whole world.

 For most of known human history, Northern Europe did very little of note. Countries like Iran, Ethiopia, Iraq, Cambodia, India and Peru are hardly regarded as examples of modernity today, yet they boasted relatively advanced civilizations at a time when Northern Europeans were worshiping trees and getting invaded by their more advanced and aggressive neighbours.

But civilizations rise and fall. Angkor in what is now Cambodia, and Axum in present-day Ethiopia, are just two nation-states that for whatever reason didn't last, while others nearby flourished. The earliest cities were in the Middle East, yet several thousand years later, that region has lagged behind others in its advancements. Then through the discovery of oil, several Middle Eastern nations find themselves amongst the world's wealthiest again. China was the world's largest and most advanced nation for longer than any other, far ahead of even Rome at its height. China then began to stagnate from the 15th Century onward while Europeans aggressively sought out new expansions, yet the 21st Century sees China rising again and soon to displace the US as the world's main mover-and-shaker.

Saying that "whites have made most of the accomplishments in the world" reflects a very limited short-term understanding of world history. It's like spending 5 minutes looking at the darkened sky at night, and then concluding that the sky has always been dark.

(2) The importance of opportunity

But even given my previous point, it still begs the question: why do some cultures and ethnic groups seem to be responsible for more inventions and advancements? Why do the people of North America, Europe and East Asia tend to wealthier and more advanced societies?

The best book that answers this question is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. But assuming that you're not going run straight out and read that book now, I'll break it down briefly for you.

During the colonial era, European societies had electricity, the wheel, paper, gunpowder, and many other cultural advancements. Many of the world's tribal cultures - the Australian Aborigines, for example - had nothing approaching these things. So it is frequently assumed that there is something inherently backward about either Aboriginal culture, or Aboriginal people themselves.

Now without wishing to belittle the great things that have been accomplished by Europeans, there is one clear reason why they were able to do lots of things that indigenous Australians weren't: opportunity. To independently invent something truly significant - let's say, the sailing ship - you need to have certain things available to you already. For example, you need to have knowledge of more primitive forms of boat,such as the rowboat. You also need to be around large bodies of water. It should come as no surprise that people living in deserts did not independently invent sailboats. It's not because they weren't smart enough.

The Australian Aborigines never knew the art of agriculture. This would seem like a fairly basic step in human cultural development, so why did they never learn it before the Europeans arrived?

Well, the Europeans didn't invent agriculture either. They knew how to farm because thousands of years ago, someone in the Middle East invented it, and this knowledge gradually worked its way into Europe where it was adopted. Australia, by contrast, was isolated from developments happening elsewhere, and was not possessed with suitable flora and fauna anyway.

Europe succeeded largely because it had a relatively temperate climate, and had access to the innovations developed in other parts of the world.

Another important point to remember is this: European countries became so powerful in the colonial era because they decided to invade other countries. They were obviously not alone in this activity. But contrast that with China. China was the most advanced and most powerful nation in the world for thousands of years, yet at the time when European powers were looking for new territories to exploit, China decided it was content with what it already had. Had China really wanted to conquer the world, it probably could have.

Power and dominance throughout human history has not come merely through being smart. People and nations became powerful because they had not just the means, but the desire to kill, conquer and enslave those who stood in their way. Was this noble, a sign of greater civilization? It depends on your perspective. It is notable that when Japan became a colonial power from the late 19th century onwards, they were guilty of activities that we now quite rightly regard as barbaric. Yet they were really just doing what the Europeans had been doing for centuries.

Australian TV's White Australia Policy


Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Malay supremacy" in action

Membership prices of a certain golf club in Kuala Lumpur:

3 RM (Malaysian Ringgit) is worth about US$1.

Affirmative action policies based on the idea of Ketuanan Melayu (“Malay Supremacy”) have been in effect since the New Economic Policy of 1971. The NEP was designed to lift the economic status of poor Malays, but the real beneficiary are wealthy Malays. The approach has clearly filtered down to the private sector as well.

(Cross posted at Brown Pundits)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

“Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.”

Ok, so let’s just say you are watching a basketball game. The game is dominated by a young man who was a virtual unknown a week ago, yet has suddenly exploded on the scene as an exciting emerging talent. He leads his previously struggling team to victory with an extraordinary 38-point game.

Which is your immediate reaction:

(a) Appreciate the skill and talent of the young star to inspire his team to the win?
(b) Grumble because you support the team that he helped defeat? 
(c) Shrug, change the channel and watch something else?
(d) Get on twitter and make a joke about how due to his race, you think the player’s penis is probably quite small?

If you answered (a),( b) or (c), you are probably a normal and well-adjusted human being. Answer (d) and you might have cause to wonder: Why did my mind go there? It’s a basketball game. It doesn’t really have anything to do with penises.

If you answered (d), you are probably Jason Whitlock from Fox Sports, who today apologised for his offensive tweet.

Now, since Twitter is the world's premier forum for idiots to express their every idiotic waking thought to the world, I tend to forgo commenting on racist tweets. Gosh, someone tweeted something stupid and offensive? I'm amazed. Who would have ever imagined such a thing could happen on a medium on which the two most commonly-used words are probably "OMG" and "LOL"?

But I thought this deserved further comment for a couple of reasons.

First, why are so many people obsessed with Asian men's junk? As I've mentioned before on this blog, the vagaries of internet search engines mean that a disturbing proportion of the views I get everyday are people googling "Asian cock" or "is Ken Jeong's penis real?" (And yes, it's rather saddening to be the go-to blog for people who have nothing better to do but obsess over Ken Jeong's tiny genitalia. But I digress.)

But I understand why someone who watched The Hangover would have some fascination with Ken Jeong's tackle. But it's less clear perhaps why someone like Jason Whitlock thought to make an Asian-dick-joke after watching Jeremy Lin torch the Lakers for 38 points. It's also less clear why he thought it was funny. Or why he thought the world needed to hear yet another Asian-dick-joke at all.

Don't get me wrong, I’m quite open to humour based on ethnic stereotypes. Yes, such jokes can often be extremely offensive, but within the right context and with sufficient level of wit, they can be extremely funny. I admit: I’ve certainly made my share of Asian-dick jokes in my time, often about myself. A Chinese-Indonesian close friend of mine once quipped about me, after hearing me sing, "He has the soul of a black man but the genitals of a Chinaman". Come on, admit it, that's some funny shit.

The problem is that within a form of humour that by its very nature dances around the borders of what is racially offensive and inappropriate, not everyone is clever enough to tell an ethnic-stereotype-joke that is funny and witty enough to transcend its inherent uncomfortableness.

And the context around which the joke is told can go some way to making it more acceptable or less. If Jeremy Lin was caught making a sex tape, or made Ken Jeong-style nude cameos in films, it might be somewhat understandable (and sadly inevitable) that someone is going to dredge up the small-penis stereotype in a joke. But when a basketballer who happens to be Asian-American scores 38 points in a game, I’m not sure why the first thoughts of someone like Jason Whitlock appear to be all about the sex he thinks Jeremy Lin is going to be getting, post-game (which is unlikely to happen anyway if Lin’s very public religious beliefs are any indication), but also about the dimensions of Lin’s genitalia in such a situation.

Just think on that for a second: if you watch someone produce a fantastic basketball performance and immediately start thinking about how big his penis is, that's probably something you need to sort out with your therapist.

See also:

The Asian penis in popular culture

"Tim Tam from Vietnam". Or, how NOT to make jokes about Asians.

Race, IQ and penis size

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Eating styles (@ Peril Magazine)

New post up over at Peril, the Asian-Australian online arts and culture mag. This one is about the various ways we stuff things into our gobs.

FINGERSPROS: Get “up close and personal” with your food, which helps negotiate tricky things like bones and gristle. Save on washing up. Gain cred points with SWPL types by showing you reject the stifling traditional bourgeois Western notions of table etiquette in favour of more “authentic” developing world ways.
CONS: Is possibly a health risk if you don’t wash your hands. Difficult to eat things that are too hot or cold, and is almost impossible to eat soupy dishes unless you have something carby to sop it up with. Also tends to result in your hand smelling like curry (or whatever) for the rest of the day. Tricky if you suddenly have to do something different during the meal, such as answer your phone. Also, people outside your culture may one day ask you why you don’t use your left hand for eating, which means you have to come up with a tactful way of saying that you use it to clean your ass.

Full post here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

J-Lin has a career night

Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin does it for all those frustrated Asian ballers out there. 25 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists to help the struggling Knicks beat the Nets at Madison Square Garden. Can he keep that form going? He'll need to work on his jump-shooting if he hopes to, but his penetration and point guard play looks extremely promising. He looks at least good enough to carve out a solid career in the NBA after his debut season was mostly spent bouncing around in the development league after graduating from Harvard. (Harvard, people!)

Here's some much shorter highlights if you don't feel like watching the full 15 minutes.

UPDATE (8th Feb):

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Lin went on and bested that performance the very next game. Given his first start, he repaid the faith with 28 points, 8 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals. Here he is against Utah:

Friday, February 3, 2012

"He looks good for an Asian."

A reader emailed me this question:

What do u think when ppl say things like, "he/she looks good for an Asian/black person"? Do u think it's offensive? It's like many ppl ive met in the usa think that whites look better than others, and some would say "you are pretty for a (black) girl". Why is this? I don't think they are racist. Just strongly favoring the Caucasian look. Which can't be helped and isn't their fault...but I find it sad and kind of disturbing.

This is a pretty common thing. I've heard these sorts of comments made about various races.
And yes, of course that's offensive. It doesn't mean they hate blacks/Asians/whatever, but they clearly have a perspective (whether conscious or not) that whites are naturally more attractive than others. The person saying might think it's a compliment, but it's an extremely backhanded one.
When someone says, for example:
"You are pretty for a black girl",
they are effectively saying:
"I believe black women are instrinsically quite ugly. However, you are not like the rest of them; you are actually quite pretty. Mind you, you are probably not as pretty as most white women, because white women are intrinsically prettier than black women. But, as that ugly race of black women go, you are one of the better ones."
So, no, it's not really a compliment.

I don't really have any problem with someone thinking such things - we all have our own preferences, after all - but to say it out loud not only makes the person look ignorant, but will probably offend people too.

The problem with "he/she looks good for an Asian/black person" -type comments is that it assumes some sort of objective measure of physical attractiveness. While good looks can be objectively measured to a certain extent, a significant element of what we find attractive is culturally defined. Which is to say, influenced by cultural values and prevailing trends. Some examples would be South Asians preferring light skin or black dudes liking women with "thick" figures". The ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding for women, or the practice of blackening women's teeth in medieval Japan, are examples of standards of beauty that exist in a specific context but seem downright bizarre today.

And the other extremely important aspect to attraction is of course personal taste. Two men growing up in the same cultural circumstances can have very different preferences. One may like brunettes, the other redheads. One may like curvy, busty women, the other may prefer a small and thin figure.

So to say that someone is or isn't attractive is not as straightforward as some might think. While it might be possible to speak on behalf of what you think other people might agree on, ultimately we can only speak of our personal opinions.

And even if the person who said "You are pretty for a black girl", instead said something more correct like, "I don't normally find black girls that attractive, but I find you to be very pretty", he would still sound like a bit of a jerk.

So if someone is good-looking and you need to comment on it, perhaps it's best to do so without the qualifier.  Stick with the "he's good looking" and leave out the "... for an Asian" part. It will just highlight your ignorance.

To paraphrase the theme song of an 80s sitcom:

"... the world don't move to the beat of just one drum... what might be hot to you may not be hot to some."

Ant egg omelette, Chiang Mai

Found these amongst the food stalls that appear each evening outside Huay Kaew Plaza in Chiang Mai. Red-ant eggs are a delicacy in northern Thailand and neighbouring Laos.

These look innocuous enough...
 The finished product...
 Ant attack! So that would be a cooked baby ant amidst the eggs, which are mostly pale in colour. There was greyish stuff in there as well but I couldn't really work out what that was.
Taste-wise, I'll first admit that I'm not the best person to evaluate this kind of food. I don't normally eat meat, and the ant eggs gave the omelette a somewhat meaty flavour. So not to my taste, but I didn't really expect it to be and I bought it mostly out of curiosity. It wasn't terrible though.