Ferguson & Staten Island: Can We Learn From The Chinese?

When I moved to China seven years ago I was candidly perplexed by the whole state of race relations in the United States. As a then-53 year-old white male I knew I had the benefit of viewing the issues of race and gender from the most advantageous and privileged position, but I, like many others I knew, really wanted to understand the obvious discontent among so many in the African-American community. I accepted as fact that racism still existed but struggled to understand why.

After just a short time in China, however, I understood. I got it.

Not because of how the Chinese treated me. I am and always will be a foreigner in China. But that is different than being a victim of racism. The Chinese, to their credit, aren’t culturally inclined to make racist distinctions. You are Chinese or you are not Chinese; but you are not smart or ignorant; honest or dishonest; good or evil; civilized or uncivilized, simply because of how you look, who your ancestors were, or how much money you have.

I got it because of how I saw other Westerners act toward the Chinese for whom I have gained such deep respect.

Most of the events and behaviors I am referring to were not openly hostile or malicious. They were not overt expressions of ill will or cruel intent. In fact, they were often actions that were entirely unintentional.

There was, nonetheless, an obvious pattern of presumption that began to emerge. And it was often negative. Whether it had to do with civility, competency, honesty, or morality, there was all too often an apparent presumption of Western superiority and it often flowed from an unwillingness to understand Chinese behavior through a Chinese cultural lens.

My father often advised, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes.” And yet I see it every day. I see foreigners passing judgment without any recognition that they are the foreigners.   They are the ones wearing the foreign shoes. “We are guests in their country,” I often want to yell at the Westerner angry at some less fortunate and perhaps less educated Chinese person doing something they find offensive. Or not doing exactly what they want them to do simply because they don’t understand our foreign language – no matter how loudly we speak it.

I finally realized that it is this lack of openness to cultural context that is really at the heart of racism, bigotry, and discrimination. What is discrimination, after all, but presumption acted upon – presumption expressed through behavior?

Over time, simple presumptions become ingrained in a worldview that hardens into intolerance and inflexibility. And that, of course, leads to frustration, which only reinforces the presumption and the negative behavior it inevitably leads to. The negative presumption continues, and the offending party can’t understand why.

And now there is Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. Many believe recent events will start a healthy dialogue about race relations in America. It is a dialogue we should have. But, I fear, a dialogue we won’t have.

And here’s why. As a 60 year-old white man I feel – for right or for wrong – that any discussion about race relations in America is off limits to me. It’s a no-win discussion. I’m not entitled to any opinion other than self-condemnation.

And because many white Americans really don’t get it. It’s not that they don’t want to. Or even that they’re afraid to. They just don’t.

And both are true, in my humble opinion, because we’re looking for racism in all the wrong places. We’re looking for it on the sidewalks of dark streets. We’re looking for it in the statistics of who is killing who and whether or not white policemen really felt threatened enough that they were justified in using lethal force against unarmed black men. We’re looking for it in college admissions and relevant but largely unhelpful statistics on the gender and ethnic makeup of the high tech workplace.

And we look in these places because we’re deductive reasoners. Cause and effect. We want to explain everything. This is what’s happening and I know the reason why. And if I’m right you must be wrong.   Right and wrong cannot occupy the same place on the linear path of deductive logic.

In this case, however, I think it’s too late for deductive logic. I think we should take a page from the Chinese and look at the issue more holistically, more inductively. The yin and yang of black and white relations, if you’ll excuse the exaggerated metaphor, is out of balance. The facts are the facts. Racism exists. And white people are afraid to talk about it.

And how would my Chinese colleagues go about resolving this problem?

I suspect they would start with a cup of tea. And they would avoid inflammatory words and judgments of guilt. They would spend little effort trying to reach agreement and would devote their energies toward establishing, over time, relationships of mutual obligation. Obligation does not require homogeneity of culture or appearance. It doesn’t even require agreement.

It does, however, require trust. And trust cannot be established by one party or the other. It can only be established concurrently, through a mutual effort to stand down; to make ourselves vulnerable; to leave our judgments, however justified deductively, behind us. In short, to set our deductive fascination with process and all of the cause and effect, fault, and blame that come with it, aside.

In the end what the Chinese have taught me is that we don’t have to overcome our differences. We must merely view them through the lens of mutual obligation and the respect for cultural context that it ultimately requires.

We’re not going to have the deductive dialogue that everyone knows is overdue. Let’s stop trying. African-Americans know what they know. White Americans can’t know what they don’t know. And that’s okay; IF, and it’s a big if, we work, first and foremost, on building our relationship rather than debating the cause and effect of how we got to where we are.

For better race relations we need to stand back from the brink of deductive reasoning and understand that there is no 'same'; there is only trust.
For better race relations we need to stand back from the brink of deductive reasoning and understand that there is no deductive reason; there is only trust.

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Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.