Monday, November 2, 2009

the burden of representation

The burden of representation is the idea that scarcity of a group charges its members to be representatives for the entire group. This is the calculus of stereotypes. For race, it works like this: Most Asian people in movies have accents and know karate; so, for some non-Asian who isn’t regularly around a lot of Asian people (which is a lot of America), when they see me on the street, they think I’ll have an accent, or that I know karate. These are stereotypes; they are wrong; and let me make this clear: they do not come from an ounce of truth. I do not have an accent, and I don’t know karate (but I know crrr-azy, you better ask somebody).

The burden of representation is clearly problematic, but the culprits are hard to identify. Is it the audience’s fault for not being able to differentiate between a fictional character and a real person? Or, is it the filmmaker, or author’s, or whomever’s fault for not challenging their audiences with a[stereo]typical presentations? Or is it both?

In bicycling, I often run red lights. For me, I believe this has something to do with the awareness of energy expenditure as a bicyclists in motion, not wanting to halt sweet rolling momentum, along with a liberating (albeit outlaw) culture that accompanies bicycling and encourages one to feel exempt from the rules of the road that govern other users—bicyclists existing somewhere between pedestrians and drivers.

While I am not alone in red-light running, I have been confronted by both bicyclists and drivers who object to the practice. Drivers say, "You bicyclists are lawbreakers." Bicyclists say, "You represent bicyclists badly. Drivers see you, and they think all bicyclists are lawbreakers.” This is the burden of representation within transportation identity. Because bicyclists in LA are a minority, we are expected to be diplomats for our community.

Although this logic has not stopped me from running red lights—indeed, as a representative, I believe it is my duty to make non-bicyclists envious that I can run the light—I do feel other burdens of representation—to smile and laugh and look as if I am enjoying myself when I ride. This is not to say that I don’t actually enjoy riding, but that I am not a chronically smiling person. And sometimes, when I am pushing a heavy load up a steep hill, I would rather not have to masque my exhaustion with an expression of joyful exuberance.

Still, I wax on a mischievous grin when crossing intersections, and I do my best to pant and wag my tongue, dog-like, when I am tired, because even a tired dog looks happy. Fun! Fun! Fun! Smile, smile, smile and be happy. But it’s semi-idiotic that I’ve succumbed to this burden. No one looks at a car out of gas and thinks, “Drivers are impotent,” and most people don’t automatically conclude, when they hear about fatal car pile-ups, “Drivers are psychopathic.”

It’s not fair that minorities have to be hyper-conscious of how they behave so that people won’t get the wrong idea about who they are. My friends bought me a shirt that I love to wear. It says, “I suck at math.” It is a distinctly Asian American shirt, for an Asian person to wear in order to actively dispel the stereotype that Asians are good at math. (Aside: this shirt is meaningless in Hawaii, where Asians are normal. Irvine, too.)

But, when I wear this shirt, it is a lie because I am good at math; in fact, I was a math major. Sometimes I tell people this, and they act as if I’ve confessed, as if I’ve affirmed the stereotype. No, I tell them, I am sorry; you have missed the point. I am not good at math because I am Asian. They are two separate things. Most Asian people, and there are a lot of them in the world, suck at math just like you.

The insidiousness of racism, manifested in the burden of representation, forces me to think twice before being proud of my talent. And that is a real consequence of systems where one group is normal, and another is not—that we are inhibited from being proud of a thing we do well, either because we aren’t supposed to, or because we don’t want to.

So, I say to you drivers, don’t think ill of bicyclists because I run a red light. And I say to you frowning bicyclists, don’t think ill of me because I represent you poorly. Rather, be proud for me that I am good at running red lights.


david said...


i'm not proud of you for running red lights.

the problem with disregarding traffic laws that all users of the road are beholden to is this: if you don't have to obey, then why do I?

If you aren't a rational actor, then why should I treat you like one.

Bicyclists clamor for equal standing on the street, and become rabid when motorists even hint that they don't belong on the street.

if you don't stop at red lights. then why should a car? cars stopping and starting use more gas as well. it'd be fun for a car driver to flippantly obey traffic signals whenever it was convenient.

i agree, that minorities unfairly carry the burden of representation.

however, that doesn't justify them breaking laws out of convenience.

i honestly feel that if you don't obey the traffic laws, you have no right for motorists to respect your right to use the road. it's something we all sign up for, whether we know it or not, when we get on the road.

thems the rules.

ELE said...

it's true that some bicyclists are law breakers. some bicyclists are bad at running red lights. but it's unfair for people to peg these bicyclists as all bicyclists.

furthermore, to blindly obey laws BECAUSE they are law isn't rational. the development of laws doesn't always consider the needs of all subjects, just like waiting at red lights doesn't always make sense for bicyclists. that's why new laws are beginning to only require bicyclists to stop when necessary.

Ramona said...

you suck at math! oh wait...

thanks for this honest post. i ran a lot of red lights in LA, mostly because it does no one any harm if it's done well. the law is there to protect people from one another, and the difference between a car and a bicycle running a red light is that the car is travelling faster, can do more damage, takes up more space, and the driver doesn't have enough time to check that their actions are safe.

sure, bikes run lights or stop signs and mis-judge, then the cyclist suffers the consequences. but when a car does that, they kill people, walking away a little dazed.

now i'm in europe, where the laws as well as the social norms are completely different. in holland, if a car and a cyclist have an accident, it is automatically the car drivers fault. there's hardly any signage, and the only lights are on very busy streets. it seems like a free-for-all. but actually, people just check before they enter an intersection, and there are very few accidents because people are responsible for themselves.

jonatgree said...

one other thing, lights and stop signs are not designed for bicycling, they are designed for car use. bicyclists can accelerate/stop much more quickly and are much more maneuverable than cars. that's why we can regularly run lights/stop signs with physical impunity. sorry, to all you law-biding, respectable folks, but that's my rationalization.