Putting Racists in Perspective
I was having dinner with a female classmate. It had begun as a study session but was turning into more by virtue of our classmates having begged off at the last minute. We decided to continue over dinner and found ourselves hitting it off well. An Asian male with a white female was a rare enough combination in our little college town. Add to that the fact that she would have turned heads on her own. Before long I noticed that we had attracted the attention of three well lubricated young white men at the bar.
The friendlier I and my classmate became, the louder and ruder became their comments. My pretty companion was either oblivious or was deliberately -- and quite successfully -- ignoring them. I wanted to keep our rapport flowing and was wrestling with the impulse to walk over and confront the peanut gallery. I hated to seem like a passive milquetoast. But I also hated the thought of embroiling my classmate in an incident precipitated by my Asian face. I didn't know which would turn her off more, but I hated those three racists for placing me in that quandry.
Just as their comments were getting so loud that I felt compelled to step up to confront them, the bartender clapped two of them on the back in one of those mock-chummy gestures meant to put a good face on a bad situation. The rednecks offered up some protests but the bartender was firm in insisting that it was time for them to leave. With much grumbling and several hard stares in our direction, the three stooges paid the tab and slid off their stools. One took a slight detour from their forced march toward the door and brushed past me. "Gooklover," he hissed.
Reflexively I jumped to my feet and snarled, "Get a life, Hick." I was ready to sink my foot into his protruding gut at the next provocation.
"They're out of here." The bartender moved between us and gave the redneck a shove toward the door. "Why let these guys spoil a good thing?" He gave me a wink and a friendly pat on the back.
Looking into the bartender's avuncular face, I felt as though his words contained the wisdom I had been seeking. At that instant some important facts dawned on me. First, that racists like those guys didn't speak for American society. Second, that it would be stupid to let hateful people spoil even a moment of my life. Third, that I should be focusing all my attention on the people who mattered.
Later that night, as I went over the events of that day, I concluded that the type of relationship I would have with American society was my choice to make. I could sweat the racists and become a bitter racist myself. Or I could focus on the decent people and enjoy their friendship and sympathy. That was when I made a conscious commitment to stop giving racists the power to represent American society.
That commitment sapped most of my dread of racial encounters. Once I decided that racists don't define America, I stopped feeling as though I were somehow judged by how they react to me. I no longer felt obliged to suppress my personality for the sake of seeking approval from the kinds of people who would never give it to me in any case.
Over the next few years I came to see that racists are the real misfits of American society. They speak for no one but their own sad, warped selves. What they think of me has as much impact on my life the opinions of the ghetto kids who used to heckle me when I was a kid. I came to understand that racists react with such hatred because they feel threatened, marginalized, bypassed, despised. They seek the security of belonging to something, even if only to the race into which they were born. In essence, racism is the symptom of the alienation that such people feel from the mainstream of American society.
Having gone through this evolution in perception, I am saddened when I see fellow Asian Americans dwelling so much on the opinions of those sad misfits looking to spread around their insecurity and despair.
These days it's considered smart among young Asian Americans to be cynical and to question whether this nation's founders or the Constitution's framers really intended to foster true equality for all races or exclusively for Whites. The bottom line is that the question has been rendered moot by what has happened in the quarter millennium since. Regardless of what the framers may have really had in mind, what matters today is that, time and again, our nation has affirmed and reaffirmed racial equality as the overriding principle of American life. Even today our society doesn't embody perfect racial harmony, but there's no question that our social evolution has decisively been away from racial and cultural intolerance. Generations of Americans have committed this nation to racial equality and harmony as essential to progress and stability. Whether this nation is sincere in its commitment to racial equality is no longer open to debate. All that remains is to decide how we can best work to see that goal realized.
I urge Asian Americans not to fall into the trap I fell into of equating racists with American society. It's all too easy for us to OD on racial incidents and adopt hard shells of cynicism. But taking that low road merely perpetuates our alienation from American society. We must always remember that we have the choice of joining the racists in a race war on the margins of society or of joining with the mainstream in the high road toward racial harmony and equality.
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“Once I decided that racists don't define America, I stopped feeling as though I were somehow judged by how they react to me.”
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