Shall we begin?
Last week, a Korean co-worker visited NYC for the first time. “OMG how was it?” I asked, expecting pornographic descriptions of food. “It was scary,” he stammered. He’d run into gun-strapping gangsters late at night. One yelled, “Mother f*cka! Gimme your money!” My co-worker threatened to call the police so they left him alone eventually, but not before his first, distinct impression of black people had been formed.
The good news? My co-worker felt comfortable enough to talk about his fear openly. It gave me the opportunity to console him and to remind him that not all black people carry guns and steal your money. Now, more than ever, facts like these need to be spelled out. Conversations must be held with compassion. What if my co-worker had spoken to someone who reinforced his nascent stereotype? What if this continued over the years? Could he end up agreeing with the Charlottesville Nazis?
Anything is possible. But before trying to understand where someone else could be misled, let’s start with ourselves. How does racism begin? If we can’t identify it, how can we fight it?
Fresh Off The Boat
I grew up with mildly racist parents. Exsqueeeeze me…mildly?
When my parents first arrived in America, they bought the ugliest house they could find and tried to rent it. Most people didn’t want to live in a scene from The Shining, so they attracted prospects with low cost + cash only. Many of the tenants were black or latinos who ended up not paying their rent. My parents developed a prejudice based on their limited experiences. They weren’t painting KKK on my bedroom ceiling, but they weren’t eager for me to date a black guy either. Thankfully, the same parents gave me the chance to see more of the world and make my own informed decisions. Nowadays, I’m all about affirmative action. 😉
My first memory of meeting someone black was in the 3rd grade. His name was Tyrell Brown. I remember his scrumptiously thick lips, resting on his choco-caramel skin, forever pouted. The boys loved his playground skills and the girls, everything else.
One day, he happened to tie his shoes next to me. I bore a hole into the back of his skull, willing him to notice me. When he looked up, I blushed, all cheeks. “Girl, your eyes are tiny!” he shook his head and laughed. Though rejection’s a b*tch, I didn’t have the sense that “all people who look like Tyrell are jerks.” Maybe all boys in general are jerks, but that’s another story. The point is, had I gone home and told my parents what had happened, had they said some racist things, this belief might have taken root and spread into my adulthood.
We all have varying degrees of prejudice based on nature and nurture. For example, many Koreans believe all Indians and Africans are poor and starving. My dark skinned friend gets stopped in the street by ajummas (old ladies) who give him food, regardless of how nicely he’s dressed or how many shopping bags he’s carrying. I also have a model-esque friend from Cameroon whose students call her “Black Monster”. She reported this to her school, but little has been done to rectify the situation. Whether it’s misplaced pity or outright violence, racism comes in many degrees, all of which undermine human dignity and common decency.
Have you ever met a racist baby? No, of course not. All they do is cry, poop, eat. They’re not plotting Charlottesvilles. So if we’re not born racist, then we must be taught such things. Hate, anger, and negativity are acquired. I struggle with all three. It takes conscious effort to grow into a decent human being.
Let’s not forget about mental health. To hate anyone so much you’d drive a car into a crowd…would an emotionally stable person do such a thing? Mental illness can be hidden in plain sight. Sometimes it manifests as racism. Check out the Oompa Loompa defecating the Iron Throne.
I Am Privileged
Interestingly, I met my first “All Lives Matter” proponent outside the US. She argued the Black Lives Matter movement was counterproductive and based largely on emotion, not facts. She and I could not reach any middle ground during our discussion and we ended the conversation quickly. “I’m angry now,” she shook her head, frustrated. I stayed silent, knowing any further response would fuel the fire.
Yet all was not lost. I asked if she’d be interested in speaking with someone from an African American perspective. She agreed. I connected her with a friend from the States who kindly offered to chat. “Listen with your hearts,” I encouraged them both. Sadly, that conversation didn’t last long as well and both parties felt defeated. When asked what went wrong, my friend from the States hit me with a powerful sentence, “She doesn’t recognize white privilege.”
Thuurrrr it is. How can we prevent events like Charlottesville, if we can’t even recognize our own bias?
So allow me to declare now for the record: I AM PRIVILEGED.
I’m writing about racism from the safety of my home. I don’t need to worry about my life or liberty being threatened on a daily basis. If I have kids (unlikely), I don’t have to give them talks about the dangers of hoodies. I don’t lose loved ones based on how they look on a regular basis. I don’t have to ‘educate’ people who hate people like me. I don’t have to control my temper when these crimes continue to occur. I can post on social media about how f*cked up the world is, and then go about my day.
THIS IS PRIVILEGE.
It’s OK to be privileged. What’s NOT OK is staying silent. As long as as our hearts beat, we have a moral responsibility to say something. If we don’t understand why something is happening, let’s google the sh*t out of it. Let’s speak to people face to face. It will be challenging and sometimes downright nasty. But standing up for what’s right is one of the only things remaining between us and integrity.
What can we do? We can teach each other about MLK, Katherine Johnson, Nelson Mandela. We can empathize with the suffering of our neighbors and offer support. We can try to understand how systemic racism is, fail, try again, and keep trying until one day, future generations will shake their heads and say “ Wow, how could they have been so mean?”
Remember: we are not our fathers nor do their teachings define us.
Like Heather Heyer’s mom said at her eulogy, “you tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her.”