We All Make Our Own Paper Tigers: Amy Chua and Why ‘Culture’ Doesn’t Displace ‘Race’ the Way You Think It Does
Last week, I did a post on Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua’s upcoming book, in which she claims to have determined which American subcultures are superior, and therefore which are inferior. A problem that I had with the book (or to be more precise, Chua and her publisher’s advance detailing of the book) is that it seemed clear to me that Chua is largely using “culture” as a stand-in for race. Not surprisingly, this has gotten a fair amount of pushback. Brandon Berg probably summed up this criticism best and most succinctly (as opposed to Vikram, who I believe missed my point entirely):
You say that by “culture” she really means “race,” but the examples you give suggest otherwise… The upshot of this book will be that culture explains everything. If genes are mentioned at all, it will be only to dismiss the idea that genetic differences explain why some subpopulations are more successful than others.
And, true enough, in their early released material Chua and her husband and co-author and husband Jeb Rubenfeld do use the word culture repetitively, and are very careful to avoid the word race whenever possible. Despite this, I’m going to double down on my initial claim; furthermore, I’m going to go one step further and say that the error Chua and Rubenfeld make is one made by most of us in this country whenever start talking about different ethnic American cultures.
A refrain you hear often these days is that when we talk about race in America, we’re really talking about culture. Some of this talk at the fringes is clearly racism apologetics, but most of it isn’t. (My admittedly biased favorite example of the latter remains Mike Dwyer’s musing from last September.) I believe I understand the general thrust of this argument; indeed, I think it recognizes some important truths and almost gets it right — almost, but not quite. In fact, the older I get, the more I become convinced it is actually the opposite that is true:
When we talk about ethnic culture in America, I have come to believe, we’re really just talking about race and pretending we’re not.
For over a decade, I worked with an Asian-American woman who was pretty much the sole breadwinner for her extended family. She had immigrated as a young girl with her parents, but by the time I knew her she was in her early twenties her dad was no longer around. She remains one of the brightest people I have ever met, but when she started with our firm as a receptionist her level of education was frankly atrocious. I am sure she would have excelled in high school if she had put more time into it, and I have even less doubt that had she gone to college immediately after graduation she would have flourished. Instead, she had spent most of her adult life to that point working more than forty hours a week to support her mother, her younger sisters, and (eventually) three pretty terrific kids. The whole kit and caboodle lived in a small, cheap, two-bedroom apartment at the time.
One of the things I have noticed over the years is how many people who heard this thumbnail of her story linked her circumstances to being Asian. “Oh, that’s just the way Asians culture is,” people would say. “They are supposed to care for their ancestors at their own expense — especially the first few generations of immigrants. I know a lot about Asians, you see.” My guess is that a lot of people reading this are already busy inside of their heads finding their own links between my co-worker’s story and what they know about “Asian culture.”
As you may have already guessed, I bring up this story because it is almost the exact mirror image of Amy Chua’s personal story. The moral of Chua’s story (according to Chua, at least) is the vital importance of being a helicopter parent. Chua’s missive dictates that parents sacrifice everything in order to assure the highest possible social standing of their offspring. That might well mean working seventy hours a week to ensure that your child goes to the right private pre-school, as well as guaranteeing tutors, tennis coaches, and piano or violin lessons. (And I mean violin or piano; the right kind of people do not send their children to guitar or saxophone lessons.) That the child might wish to have other pursuits is immaterial, because the parent knows what is best in the long term. This, too, is what we all know Asian culture dictates.
Add to those stories the tale of Jeremy “Linsanity” Lin, the NBA star whose upper-middle class and Taiwanese-born Palo Alto mother let him spend all of his time free time playing basketball at the local YMCA. Shirley Lin did this despite strong criticism from other mothers in the community, simply because it was what her son loved doing. Jeremy eventually received a basketball scholarship to Harvard, and after graduation won a walk-on spot on his hometown Golden State Warriors before becoming a star for the NY Knicks. The story of Shirley and Jeremy Lin is also taken pretty universally as the “what Asian cultures do.” Another example of “what Asian Cultures do” is famed martial arts expert and movie star Bruce Lee, who, despite his parents’ wealth, spent most of his teenaged days in Hong Kong on the streets getting into trouble, and at eighteen came to America with just $100 in his pocket, where he finally took it upon himself to enroll in and complete high school.
For those not keeping score, that brings the sum total (so far) of what We All Know About Asian Culture to: Children sacrificing college to take care of their elders so those elders don’t have to work, except when those elders force their children to devote their entire childhood to getting into the right college, but making exceptions for those Asian elders that let their kids follow unrealistic dreams, assuming of course that they aren’t really pretty un-parent-y and their kids have to learn how to succeed on their own grit and gumption. And of course, I assume if we want to we can Google other successful Asian Americans and add a whole slough of other, different ways which we can all pretend to be definitively emblematic of what “we know about Asian culture.”
What I find fascinating about our collective reaction to Chua’s parenting style is this: Were I to think of one American subculture that best describes being those who are upper-middle class, scrambling to get their kids into the “right” pre-schools, forcing violin and tennis lessons “because it’s the kind of thing that the right kind of people do,” and just generally trying their damnedest to break into the old-money set, the subculture I think of isn’t Chinese Americans. It’s the tony, artsy, upper-middle class Manhattanite set, of which Chua and Rubenfeld are each firmly ensconced members. It is the kind of people who Caitlin Flannigan has spent an entire career vapidly assuming represent the cutting edge of vast national societal trends. When I look at the Chinese Americans I know in Portland, or Seattle, or Salt Lake, their lives have as little in common with Chua’s as the Jews I know from those same cities have in common with Rubenfeld.
That we tend to look at Chua — and Lin, and Lee, and my unnamed co-worker — and say for each of them despite their obvious disparate diversity, “that’s just what Chinese and/or Asian Americans are like” actually says more about us than it does Chinese and/or Asian Americans.
And what it says about us isn’t particularly flattering.
One of the things we all know about African American culture is its unhealthy reliance on illegal drugs — especially crack cocaine.
In the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, crack was an epidemic that ran rampant through the African American community. The drug helped black Americans’ propensity to live a gangster-lifestyle flourish. As a generation of African American crack-babies was born, it coupled with the growing single-mother status amongst black parents to ensure a self-inflicted poverty of black culture. Even Whitney Houston, a talented celebrity who had the world at her feet, just couldn’t control herself and became a crack head.
This is all quite common knowledge. The problem, however, is that, like our judgments of Asian-American parenting, much of what is contained within this “common knowledge” is our own personal baggage.
It is true that blacks were hit harder by crack cocaine at one point in time, especially in economically depressed parts of large American urban areas. Since then, however, much of the crack problem has moved to rural areas. According to government statistics, whites actually make up almost 80% of all these rural crack users. What’s more, whites have long overtaken blacks as the primary users in urban areas by a wide margin that’s growing. Despite this, we all know that the use (and abuse) of crack cocaine is a part of “black culture.” Also despite this, I have never once heard of crack being a characteristic of “white culture.” Similarly, young male whites, Asians and even Jews all have a tendency to be violent and stupid, and those from certain socio-economic classes sometimes form groups to commit crimes. In fact, this is true of a percentage of young males throughout all cultures in every part of the world, and always has been. For whatever reason though, we all “know” that gangs are part of black culture in a way we all know they aren’t part of white culture, Asian culture, or Jewish culture.
The whole crack baby epidemic turned out to be a myth, one that I have no doubt we all embraced largely because it said about black culture what we wanted it to say. And of course when we talk about “crack heads” we’re sort of obliged to bring up Whitney Houston (or perhaps Marion Barry); we choose to refer to the out of control crack usage of Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, and Robert Downey, Jr. as indicators of problems with “substance addiction.” We do this, of course, because being a crack head is an unfortunate part of black culture, and it’s not a part of white culture at all. That this is so is because of no reason other than we all agree to say that it is.
Even the stories we tell ourselves about black culture, single parenthood and poverty aren’t as clear-cut as we like to pretend. It is true that in the United States, blacks (as a percentage) raise more kids in single-family homes than other demographics. But that statistic’s bearing on poverty is a little murkier, and appears to be a story we like to tell ourselves to put the onus of poverty on the impoverished. If this connection was as clear as the ethnic-culture warriors like to profess, then were you to plot out the number of single parents, number of children in poverty, and users of welfare over time on a graph, those three lines would roll together in sad, discordant, ant-and-grasshopper-esque concert. But in fact, they don’t:
Or to put it another way, go back to the story of my co-worker above: A bright Asian-American who didn’t really excel in high school or go to college because she had to support her mom (her dad was no longer there) and her extended family, all of them living in a cramped apartment that seemed too small to house them all. Now go back and reread that entire scenario, but replace the phrase “Asian-American” with “African-American.”
You will find, I believe, that this exact same story has the same stickiness when applied to “black culture” as it does with “Asian culture.” What’s funny, though, is that when you do so many of the story’s plot points — poor high school performance, no college, working long hours for low wages, living in a cramped apartment, financially dependent adults — suddenly shift, and the story becomes not one of cultural strength but of cultural weakness. I‘m even willing to bet more than a few people create within their own heads a forgiving story about the absent Asian-American father (death, perhaps?) and make the absent African-American father into a deadbeat. Same facts, same story, and yet each corroborate whatever decision we’ve already made about a particular American ethnic culture.
Similarly, if Amy Chua had been born Amy Brownstone and still written her domineering-mothering book, we would have all rolled out eyes at yet another Manhattan socialite breathlessly telling all of America to be just like her and her friends. Not one of us would have said, “Wait, you want us to raise our kids the Asian way?”
And therein lies my problem with her new book on “superior cultures.” If she had talked about what I and other Portlanders could learn from the Manhattan upper crust set, I’d be game to listen. If she identified ways in which the culture of Atlanta is merging Old South conservative sensibilities with a modern cosmopolitan ways of looking at things, I’d be intrigued. If she wanted to look at how the newest generations of Salt Lake liberals were transforming the LDS and what lessons we should take away for our own communities, I would be fascinated. Instead, the “cultural” categories identified by Chua and Rubenfeld are in fact almost all ethnic descriptors. They ask me to believe that she and her children have more in common with my coworker than I do, or more than an upper-class, middle-class, or impoverished Chinese mom in Bellingham, Savannah, Ogden, or Honolulu has with her own friends, neighbors and coworkers, regardless of ethnicity. And that is bulls**t, even if we like to tell ourselves it isn’t.
The truth is that when we talk about ethic cultures in America, we have a tendency to choose which we characteristics to use to condemn a culture and which we use to forgive based on our own ethic already-existing prejudices; we are completely unaware that we are do so.
Chua and Rubenfeld rightly feel it’s all good and well for them to have their fellow Manhattanites circa 2014 judge them first and foremost as being Chinese-American or Jewish, and no skin off their back if we downgrade American blacks, Hispanics or others at the same time. Those at the top rungs always look at their perch and find it divinely ordained. They should take care to remember, however, that it wasn’t really all that long ago when their own American ethnicity would have had them branded sneaky, traitorous, and even sub-human.
I bet they wouldn’t have thought that an objective judgement of “culture.”