Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Assimilation: Understanding The Need To Belong

Breeze posted a video of a dark-skinned man who had is eyes permanently changed to a bright ice blue. He had an eye lightening surgery. The video sparked quite a controversy on his Facebook timeline. The thread quickly turned into a discussion about black people trying to look more like white people and the heavy cost of assimilation. Note that the surgery isn’t approved within the United States, and the subject in the video had to fly to India to have the procedure done. Also note that he’ll probably have to have several followup procedures during his lifetime all of which place him at risk of damaging or completely destroying his eyesight. As someone who would kill to have perfect vision I had to ask, what motivation would be so strong as to make someone want to take that sort of risk?

Assimilation is the process by which members of a subculture grow to be more and more like the dominate culture over time. This includes religious practices, fashion, music, grooming, entertainment, and on and on and on, a million little choices that we make each day, most of which are never commented upon. And as much as we'd like to be unique individuals free to make our choices, we have built into us the need to fit in with the people around us. It is our primary survival strategy and is a large part of what makes us a social species. Assimilation is an inevitable and natural part of being human. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. As much as we want to believe that we’re not deeply influenced by the people around us we’re all subject to our ancestral heritage to live cooperatively in groups. When the culture that a group pushes an impossible standard of beauty upon us, one that the only a risky elective surgery and  thousands of dollars can correct, we know that something has gone terribly wrong. It doesn't take a whole lot of deep thinking to recognize the error. One look at the man’s face in the video and you know immediately and instinctively that something about this isn’t right. But what exactly about it is wrong?

Black culture influences white culture in much the same way that white standards of beauty have clearly influenced this man to want to change his eye color. White artists have taken from black artists too many times to count. Many  white women have had surgery to have a booty that can twerk like Niki Minaj, but we don’t consider this assimilation so much as cultural thievery. The reason for this is the power dynamic involved. Often when white cultural norms are pushed off on black people it’s not just because black people find it preferable to look and sound more white, it can often be a necessity to be granted access into more influential social circles. It may be cute for a white guy to talk black, but an irreversible black dialect can be seen as a lack of education despite that fact that he can be Ph.D. Nobel laureate in behavioral economics.

Some of our best ideas come from other people. It’s why we have built civilizations, to share our resources and knowledge with each other in a way this is mutually beneficial. When we gained the capability of passing on our collective experience to one another through writing, we made the greatest leap in the cultural evolution of our species. Its why the poorest kid on skid row has better health outcomes than the king and queen of England did a few centuries ago. We should all be in favor of taking the best ideas from among us and spreading them as widely as possible, but sometimes the choices about what is preferable isn’t about advancing our standard of living, it’s more about preference, choosing one way of doing things from may different equal choices simply because the majority has already made that choice dominate. It’s not about which is better it’s simply and maintaining the status quo.

I can imagine having a different eye color. It has crossed my mind from time to time to change my eye color with contacts, but never an unreliable surgery to change my eye color to something that doesn't begin to look natural. Why is the idea of brown eyes made to seem inferior? A case can be made that the subject in the video was running away from his African heritage, but I can’t fully buy into that for one major reason. He’s not simply running from his roots, he’s running toward something, another culture who've for whatever reason failed to find his eyes to be creepy as fuck and as disturbing as a zombie on The Walking Dead. Who are the people he’s surrounded himself with who find his new eye color attractive? I think they are as much to blame for influencing him to make such a bad choice as any self-hate he might harbor.

There is a certain devaluing of our heritage that comes from the dominate culture. We don’t favor the African aesthetic as those who come from other cultures do. It’s a shame. I think it’s a form of cultural subjugation. African standards of beauty are not placed on the same level as European ones in American culture that is kind of crazy since such a large portion of us have African heritage. Something is wrong about that. Those who would aspire to the African aesthetic are seen as counter-cultural. When I think about the two cultures having some parity in America, it’s almost laughably hard to imagine it. We just don’t see African skin, hair, and eyes as beautiful in our culture.

What is it that could make that change in our lifetime? I’m not sure, but it does need to be acknowledged as a problem before we can find solutions. Our tendency toward European standards of beauty is so deeply ingrained as to be an unconscious part of how we think of ourselves. We should make an effort to think about why we like the things that we like. It doesn’t hurt to talk about it with some intelligence even if in the end we disagree. We first need to move from the blame game and refrain from pointing fingers the individuals who have accepted the dominate culture and realize that we all shoulder some responsibility for the choices we make. We don’t make choices for them, but we influence the reasons they were motivated to make those choices. For some of us, it would never have occurred to us to want to change our eye color. We might call ourselves strong defenders of African culture, but how much of a choice was it for us not to be influenced in the first place? It wasn’t really up to you to choose what it is you really like nor don’t like. And the same can be said of the dark skinned guy who has the freakishly bright eyes from some surgery he got in India. And yet paradoxically we can still say he made a poor choice because of the risk to his wellbeing for an unrealistic European aesthetic.

I have to acknowledge my biases. I happen to be one of those people who find the African aesthetic very attractive. I love dark skin and soulful dark brown eyes. I like thick full lips, wide noses and full hips. When I look back on the men I’ve dated over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency toward men whose African features are well pronounced and who have a strong identification with black American culture. I have found myself at odds with the dominate culture because many would say that they prefer lighter skin. I’m dumbfounded at the behavior of some people classifying people within our community into social strata based on how light they are. I mean everyone is entitled to enjoy whatever it is they enjoy, but I get offended when their preferences are transformed into a moral social order. If black is bad, then the lighter is better. I’ve seen people who act on this bias far too often, especially in the south, for it to be a mistaken observation.

Assimilation happens within the gay community as well. When I think about how many times I’ve performed masculinity to make myself feel like I fit in I'm a little ashamed to see now that I don’t even think about it anymore. I just do it reflexively. We all want to fit in. And while code-switching isn’t as serious as an elective surgery to change your appearance, the point is why do we want to assimilate in the first place? And in the end, is it someone else desire masquerading as those of our own?

As ashamed as I might be that butch it up so reflexively at times I love that it’s so easy and natural for me to do. Why do I like that? Is it simply the culture pushing their preferences off on me? And if so, how bad can it be if I’m perfectly happy doing it? I suppose it would be bad even if it makes me feel good if it contributes to the destruction of a subculture filled with people who would have difficulty changing who they are to fit in. If someone who is feminine, likes being feminine, has people around him who like feminine dudes, and he couldn’t be masculine even if he tried, then it would be a shame if he found himself having to change his ways to make himself feel comfortable around friends if the dominate culture was constantly telling him that there’s something wrong with him. And for many people this is exactly what is happening.

When I think about nerd culture and how many a nerd has tried to be one of the cool kids, I think of assimilation working in reverse. Being cool isn’t something that comes naturally to most nerds. When I was young, I would often see one the nerds who have some physical attractiveness make it in the with he cool kids for a little while, but eventually he would find that he missed the way he used to dress and behave. It’s not that he would feel oppressed, but simply they’re not allowed to be themselves. They end up resenting the people around them for not accepting them for who they are, and nobody wins.

What’s interesting about nerd culture is that people have seemingly moved towards accepting many of the mainstays of nerd culture. The role playing and trading card games that were once ridiculed are becoming part of the mainstream, and the comic books that the nerds would hide from the cool kids in school are now accepted with open arms. What was once seen as a niche form of entertainment is regularly mass produced and sold to the masses in movie theaters around the world. And while we could argue that this isn’t really nerd culture but  rather a mainstream bastardization of it, there seems to have been a shift away for nerds being marginalized as much as when I was young.

So in the end, I think there can be success stories of assimilation. I’m an advocate for full self-expression in whatever form it may take. I can understand the desire to change as I’m currently in a weight management program, in part, to be more attractive to the mainstream concept of beauty. I know that in the process of losing weight I’ve had to come to love myself as I am now and to be honest with myself about how much change is actually possible for my body. I have to enjoy the exercise that I’m doing, and the food that I’m eating, or I’m never going to stick with it over the long haul. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the process just as much as the results. I hope that those who go through radical surgeries to change their appearance can say the same about their transformation. And that for those of us who see it from the outside I hope we can learn something about how our desire to fit in can influence our decisions.

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