Philosophy

I figured this is a good time to respond to some of the criticisms and concerns that were raised by the visitors to this site.

Firstly, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t mean this site to be some sort of a political arena. The bottom-line is that I thought it was a funny idea, but it ended up opening some interesting discussions. Some people felt that this site would promote racism, or that the site itself is racist. Others felt quite the opposite. I was very surprised to receive many emails with encouraging words from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people. In some ways, I was expecting to upset many of them.

Why do I think this is funny? Here is a long explanation. We are all afraid of unfamiliar things, and we all have things we are unfamiliar with. This is part of human nature. We cannot accuse others of being unfamiliar with certain things. I have a friend who once admitted to me that, when she was first getting to know me, she felt uncomfortable and somewhat afraid of me. She told me that she grew up in a suburb where there were only Caucasians. Apparently I was the first Asian person that she got to know. I appreciated her honesty. I came to this country when I was 16. I went to an ordinary American high school for my junior and senior years. At first, I had great difficulties telling Caucasians apart. One day in my PE class, after about half an hour into the class, my teacher suddenly approached me and said, “Who are you? You are not my student.” Apparently I had followed a wrong teacher. Both of the PE teachers had blonde hair and mustaches, and I could not tell them apart. If I see them now, I’m sure I would say to myself, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Eskimos have a few dozen names for different states of snow (though someone told me recently that this is a myth). I’m sure most of us will not be able to tell the difference between one name and another. I once had a Caucasian hairdresser who toldme that he worked for a Japanese hair salon in New York for a long time. He looked at my hair and correctly guessed which region of Japan my parents were from. The more familiar you become with something, the more distinctions you can make. Just because I am an Asian, does not automatically mean that I can tell the difference among Asians better. After all, I grew up being surrounded by virtually 100% Japanese people.

In the US, publicly admitting that you cannot tell Asians apart, comes across sounding racist or prejudiced. But deep down, most people feel that. In other words, you feel it, but you are not allowed to admit it. For many people, this feeling has been subconsciously suppressed for a long time. But with this site, knowing that it was created by an Asian man, these people finally felt safe to admit what they had been feeling. It’s this release that makes this site funny for these people.

On the opposite end, we have people who have always believed that they can tell Asians apart no problem. They typically have certain preconceptions about how each nationality looks. For instance, there are people who think that any Asian who is fashionably dressed is Japanese. This probably comes from the media which frequently covers the modern Japanese culture, but not so much of China or Korea. Most people’s perception of Chinese, for instance, may be what you see in “Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon.” The problem here is that these people would see a fashionable Asian, without confirming it in any way, assumes they are right, and end up affirming their own convictions. This is also a form of prejudice, and for many of them, the test on this site made them realize how wrong they were. This humbling experience was quite funny for some of them.

Much of racism is complicated by the fear of being called a racist. Not being able to admit one’s own unfamiliarity ends up prolonging the problem. I have several friends who are gay, but I must admit that I still do not feel completely comfortable with homosexuality. Morally and intellectually, I have nothing whatsoever against homosexuality, but I am simply not familiar with it. This naturally makes me a little uncomfortable with gay people. I do make efforts to familiarize myself with gay culture whenever possible, like going to a gay parade and dancing among topless gay men. But beyond that I do not feel guilty about my discomfort. I openly admit it.

In my life, every time I came across something that I felt uncomfortable with, I pushed myself to be more comfortable with it. Even for something as silly as Dr. Pepper, which I thought was disgusting when I first tasted it, I would force myself to drink it over and over again until I understood why some people liked it. Now I love Dr. Pepper and I can’t understand why I ever thought it was disgusting.

I personally separate prejudice from hate. The two are very different things for me. We all have prejudices; no one is completely free of them. Prejudice works unconsciously. Hate on the other hand is a conscious act, and therefore is not seen to be a problem by the haters. Prejudice is a matter of degree. In this sense, we are all racists. Denying this would perpetuate the problem forever. Only by recognizing the problem, can it ever be solved. This goes for everything else: sex, age, nationality, religion, etc..

Once when I was visiting a friend of mine, as I was waiting for him to buzz me in at the front door of his building, a nosy lady asked me, “Where are you delivering it to?” I happened to be holding a plastic bag, and apparently she thought that I was a Chinese food delivery man. This is an example of prejudice. She has a preconception, working at a subconscious level, that told her that an Asian man holding a plastic bag is a delivery boy. I’m sure she did not intend to offend me. And, I am sure that if I had asked her if she was a racist, she would have replied no. Similar things happen when you hear words like “doctor” or “lawyer”; many people imagine a man, not a woman, from which many female doctors and lawyers suffer. I feel that it is important to be able to openly admit my own prejudices, so that I can do something about it. If I say I’m not a racist or sexist, this act of saying it, would superficially give me the satisfaction of integrity, and I will do less to deal with the problem. We are all so blind to our own shortcomings.

But hate, on the other hand, is a very different problem. It is actually not a problem for the haters. They love to hate. This becomes a social problem. My stance on this issue has always been to ignore them. Here is a quote from John Cage, the composer, that I’ve always admired and agreed with:

“My notion of how to proceed in a society to bring change is not to protest the thing that is evil, but rather to let it die its own death. … I think that protests about these things, contrary to what has been said, will give it the kind of life that a fire is given when you fan it, and that it would be best to ignore it, put your attention elsewhere, take actions of another kind of positive nature, rather than to continue to give life to the negative by negating it.”

Changing the subject slightly: some people have argued that the act of labeling people is inherently racist. I’d like to explain my position on that.

If you would trace the cause of prejudice to its primal elements, you will find yourself looking into our own language. Language is a very powerful tool, and as with anything else that is powerful, it can be powerful in a good way or in a bad way. “Labeling” is an act of giving a word to an entity. What this entity is, is a big question of the modern philosophy. We see similarities and differences in the world around us. Not just in people, but even in abstract concepts. Without seeing similarities or differences, we cannot use language. For instance, a book and a pencil are different. So, we have different words for them. But if you think about it, they are not all that different. Both are made out of trees. For some space aliens who have never seen books or pencils, they may just look like some “junks” that they have no interest in distinguishing. How about books and magazines? You may find some people on this earth who would not care about the distinctions and call them both “books”. So, whether something is given a word or not is determined by similarities and differences that we perceive. If we saw absolutely no differences in the whole world, we would not have any languages. But these differences are not absolute. In the end, all differences that we perceive are interpretive, that is, they are only in our heads. After all, everything in this world is made out of quarks or super-strings, or whatever the smallest unit of all matters is.

Language is a very powerful, convenient tool. We use it because it allows us to do what we do. There is nothing in the language itself that is good or evil. Whether you see enough difference to give something a word is a matter of practicality, not of morality. I received two contrasting messages from hate-racists. One said that all Asians are the same dirty scums. Another thankful of the difference because he is Japanese, and he hates Koreans and Chinese. One wants distinction and the other doesn’t. It does not matter in the end whether you “label” something or not. Promoting or banning the “labels” would not stop these haters from hating. By the same token, for those who love Asia and Asian cultures, to see small distinctions is a sign of their love and respect for the cultures. And in other situations, to see no difference can also be a sign of love and respect. If one feels that the act of “labeling” itself has something that inherently promotes prejudice, then one would have to stop using language altogether.

Language however does have a tendency to lead us into prejudice, and, because of this, some may feel that the way to get around it, is to manipulate the language itself. But this does not in the end solve the source of the problem. Even if it were possible to delete the words describing different races from the memories of all human beings, those who are prejudiced will simply manifest their prejudices in some other ways or elsewhere. Manipulating the language will not change human beings fundamentally.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that AllLookSame.com is ultimately a joke, but is at the same time a celebration of the similarities and the differences among Asians. And, to that I’m drinking Tsingtao, a Korean beer (or is it Chinese? Well, whatever.).

Dyske Suematsu
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