Monday, September 05, 2011

"Xenophobic as hell"

While browsing through a few musician interviews the other day, I came across this slightly-relevant-to-here little statement from Anand Wilder of Yeasayer.  (Most relevant bit bolded, but the rest gives it context.)
Interviewer: What do you think of South Asian artists who have also broken into indie/mainstream music success, like Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes), M.I.A., and yourself? Is there a different responsibility or consciousness involved with being South Asian and a musician in an industry environment where there are so few?

Wilder: I love M.I.A. and Natasha Khan’s music. I would add that Das Racist engage South Asian and “brown identity issues” in the most sophisticated and hilarious manner of any contemporary artists. Truthfully, I don’t feel a burden of responsibility as a South Asian musician in an industry where there are so few. I am half Indian, so if I want, I can identify with the multitude of ridiculously talented mixed breeds out there: James Brown is part Apache, Bob Marley’s dad was white, Prince is definitely something weird. And Freddie Mercury is the greatest singer of all time, and he’s a Parsi, born in India. But, I guess you could say that those first guys I mentioned identified themselves as Black, and Freddie Mercury did everything he could to play down the whole Asian thing and is remembered as a British pop star. But then there’s still trailblazers like Tony Kanal from No Doubt and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. One could argue that those were sidemen though, and that’s what so great about Natasha Khan and M.I.A.- their brown faces are front and center.

I’m sort of halfway there. I’m not the frontman, but I’m not exactly a sideman because I do sing lead on a bunch of our songs, and I really try to put myself out there. If I wasn’t singing lead on at least a few songs I’d be really disappointed in myself. But I really think that’s enough, as far as my burden of responsibility. Indians who live in America are not a downtrodden minority. I could write a song about being brown but I would feel like I’m bitching about something that doesn’t really upset me. It’s fine as a subject for stand up comedy, and I think there are a lot of great movies about Indians growing up in America that haven’t been written yet, but it just doesn’t appeal to me as a subject for a song.

The problems facing Indians in America are what? Parents pressuring their kids to become professionals, parents valuing academics over social lives, parents pressuring their kids to marry. When you think about it in the grand scheme of things, these problems are really not that bad! I’m pretty sure Indians are America’s wealthiest ethnic group – I think if I was fully Indian, statistically I’d be a richer man! At least more educated. So the only thing holding us back from being in the spotlight is ourselves. Sure there’s probably some institutional racism out there, but I’ve been around the world, and there’s no place as open as America. Europe is an ass-backward, old school place. Everyone who wanted to do something new and interesting with their lives left Europe for America at one time or another. Don’t let all that supposed progressiveness fool you, they’re xenophobic as hell. And I love to visit India, but come on – it is a dusty, corrupt, and chaotic country, with an even more despicable gap between the rich and poor than America’s. Did I mention the dust?!

I embrace being different from your average white musician. That’s part of what I love about my band; we all have different personalities or backgrounds and we try to throw them all into the mix to create something new and interesting sounding. If I can be onstage and inspire some brown kid out there to pursue something artistic, something other than being a doctor or engineer, then I’m doing a good job. And if they want be a doctor or an engineer, good for them! Less competition for me."
As a white person, born and raised in the US, who doesn't have to face racism in either the US or Europe, perhaps I am not as qualified to talk about the openness of the US versus other countries as I might like to be. Perhaps when a Chinese friend tells me that everyone she knows talks about how they'd rather live in the US than Europe, she's just blowing glitter up my ass because I am American. She might be telling Germans they'd rather live here than the US.

I'd be interested in hearing the perspectives, if there are any out there reading, of people who come from somewhere other than Europe/the US and have lived in both Europe and the US - what do you think of Wilder's comments? Accurate or totally naive? And from any Americans reading - what's your experience of racism there? If he were half-black or half-Latino instead of half-South Asian, would he be saying something different? (I almost wrote "singing a different tune" but...ouch, that would have been a terrible pun.)

My husband and I were particularly impressed once by the story on NPR of a black American woman who moved to France. She found that as long as she spoke with an American accent, she was treated better than she was in the US, and better than she was if she spoke with a French accent. She also commented that in the US she could budge in lines and no one would challenge her if she tried to look mean, but that the French weren't having any of that. There are a couple of ways to interpret that. She preferred living in France to the US. I wish I could remember her name so I could find the NPR story.

I think we can all agree that the US has extremely serious race and immigrant problems, but my question is whether it's relatively more open toward immigrants than other countries - not whether it's open enough.  Is my Chinese friend's comment glitter up my ass, or reality?  And I'm too white-bread, middle-American, and inexperienced to figure it out myself.


  1. I'm half commenting to see what others have to say on this subject, but I'm also commenting to tell you what a good friend of mine who's black says. He just returned to the US after living here in Germany for 3yrs and says he does not miss all the stares he used to get in Germany simply because he was black. On the other hand, he never felt he was treated differentially here in Germany, which he says he's experienced back in the States on occasion.

    On the other hand, white Russian-German friends of mine tell me they experience lots of predjudice here in Germany, but when they lived in the States they didn't have that problem. So..???

    I curious to hear what others have to say.

  2. I'm curious to hear what others say about general levels of prejudice in one country vs the other, but I think racisim vastly depends on micro-location.
    Growing up in southern Georgia, the only racism I knew about was that experienced by African-Americans. So, to move to Texas where it was much better to be black than Mexican was quite a shock. I'd never heard any stereotypes about Mexicans (or everyone else from southern/central America who just gets lumped in as "mexican") And living in Asia I learned that while there are prejudices in the US and Europe against Asians (or more specific groups), Asia is an incredibly diverse region and there are a LOT of prejudices by Asians against other Asian ethnic groups. I'm sure the same is true in most regions...

    There definitely are people and cultures that in general are more xenophobic than others - disliking anything foreign rather than specific peoples or groups. But I think racism and discrimination (against a specific group) more often are linked to economic opportunities and immigration. And to proximity. Being Turkish in the US doesn't bring the same issues as it does in Germany, for example.

    I've heard the same comment from others in France, with the explanation that it's not a problem to be black and American (because you're American before anything else) but it's quite a different story when you come from Africa and are drawn into the immigration debate.

  3. As a white who can "pass"- because the persecuted minority part of me is not visible in my face (except for those who tell me my physiognomy is particularly clearly that of that minority-said after they know what I am), I can tell you that racism is different here. Worse, in my opinion, for many groups. But that's not the German state, which does a great job of being inclusive and protecting minorities. It's the German people. And before anyone starts in on me, I'm married to a German, have great German relatives and my kids are German.
    And of course France has been famous for being good to Blacks since Josephine Baker. Yet I have seen some unbelievably racist French caricatures. So- being poor and black in the US sucks. Being poor but Asian does not, I think, suck any more than being poor but white and I think may actually be better. Being a visible minority or foreigner in Europe sucks in a way that never goes away, even if one is educated and has a good job: that's the real difference between here and the US. In the US, when you are an American, you are an American. Here, when you are the German Minister of Economics and Technology, raised from your first thoughts in Germany, you are still asked how German you feel because of your physiognomy. My 2 cents.

  4. G: "Here, when you are the German Minister of Economics and Technology, raised from your first thoughts in Germany, you are still asked how German you feel because of your physiognomy."

    I have to ask: does anyone do this? Serious question. Because I've never heart anything even remotely in this direction. Do similar things apply to Cem Özdemir (also a serious question!)? (Disclosure: I've never thought about it, until now.)

  5. Sandy: Yes. Perhaps because of my background, I actually try to slog through interviews with Economics Ministers (background in Finance) and just about every interview has a question about "how he feels" and "has he faced racism" and " does he know his 'native' country" and so on. They just don't stop asking and he is really great with his answers, but, you know, the questions have been asked a 1000 times.
    I don't know about Özdemir, but since he speaks freely on the subject of Turkey and being the child of immigrants who took citizenship later(as opposed to having been adopted as an infant into a German family and having no "outlander" connections and family), I would assume it's different.

  6. The NPR piece you were thinking of is from an episode of This American Life called "Americans in Paris." Here is the link:

    This is a great post! The bit of the interview that you excerpted is really interesting and thought-provoking. It's kind of fascinating--though undeniably depressing, sad, and infuriating when you think about it--how some ethnic/racial/cultural minorities are "favored" by the (often white, especially in the western world) majority in a particular country (or even in different regions of said country).

  7. G, thanks for your quick answer. To be honest, I've had no idea that questions like these have been asked!

    It's sad, well, it's a shame that journalism indeed goes that deep, anyway.

    You're right, Cem's story a bit different.

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments, and sorry I was MIA for a bit there! Anne makes a good point about the differences in attitude even within the different regions in the US. I've heard of the within-Asia racism before too.


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