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How Can White Americans Be Free?

The default belief that the white experience is a neutral and objective one hurts both white and American culture.

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INTERVIEWER: The jail scene in “Shoplifting From American Apparel” is one of the only moments in your work where the ethnicity of characters is prominently noted. Would you say your characters live in a post-racial world?

LIN: No. I think that’s just a personal preference, because I don’t want to write about racism. Or those other things mentioned earlier. If I put in a character’s race, some readers would assume, like, “Oh his problems are because he’s being discriminated against.” Or, “He doesn’t know his racial/cultural identity, he’s confused about his racial/ cultural identity, which is why he is sad or confused.” To me, their problems are the same as any person’s who is not in a war or working two jobs to survive.

To Lin, we (brown people) are lesser beings — not inherently so, of course — but because the burden of our struggle has exhausted its brave and noble warriors so fully, it prevents them from considering existential issues and experiencing the real, larger life that white people are living. But this is an excuse meant to justify Lin’s own desire for artistic and philosophical universality, which both feel threatened by the specificity of his race. Lin wants to reach defaultness for himself while making sure we continue to think of other brown people as outside of objective consciousness and continue to see whites as the default authors of philosophical thought. He is afraid of the power of The Default and so reinforces it lest it undermine the power of his own work.

Sadly, Lin has failed to see that  he is an Asian-American man and somehow –  somehow – his mind has managed to ponder “big ideas.” If Lin is an Asian-American man and Lin manages to ask, “How do I know if the universe is meaningless?” his own existence disproves his theory. And his theory proves the existence of The Default.

Sometimes, when I’m developing screenplays, I subconsciously give them a white male lead — that’s my inner Lin, and it shows how deep The Default has invaded my mind. Even brown people have made their interior internal voice white in so many ways. Our yearning for legitimacy is so deep, we erase ourselves from the inside.

Lin’s reasoning demonstrates the empathetic liberal’s way of reinforcing The Default, but he is only continuing the cycle that the  interviewer began. We expect artists of color to address race or we’ll ask why they don’t. White artists are never asked why they aren’t addressing their experience of race in their work. We don’t have the same expectations of white artists because, of course, they are raceless. We assume that if race is not specified and a specific identity is not discussed, then the identity is white.

In some places, the white default is blindingly obvious, like newspapers. Even in California, where white people are not a majority of the population, the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle both continue to specify race almost exclusively when an individual is non-white. No race specified? Must be a regular person! A white person.

This is the same thinking that white conservatives use when they feel like a “minority”group is just looking out for its own interests. Or when analysts say things like, “Without blacks and Hispanics, the majority of Americans voted for Romney.” The assumption is that white voters, white politicians, white pundits are more real and are the only ones who can present objective solutions and analyses, since they are not burdened by self-interest. Another example: My black father, who has a Ph.D. in European history, was frequently asked if he was able to teach European history “objectively.”

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