Growing up I was regularly heckled by Latino and Black kids. They had impressive repertoires of comically ugly racial slurs. I heckled them back. Sometimes I was provoked into fights, mainly just to show that I wasn’t a pussy. I wasn’t really bothered by their slurs. I saw them as meaningless noise coming from dead end kids. What they said to me mattered about as much as dogs barking.
The first time I heard a slur from a White was in the lecture hall of the very first class of my college career. The hall was crowded. Two white male students were looking for a seat. One pointed to two empty seats next to me. The other made a face and said loudly, “Forget it. I’m not sitting next to a jap.” I was stunned, too stunned even to react. I had never expected that kind of racism in college, nor to feel so wounded. After that incident, I began responding with anger and some hateful words of my own. I encountered only about a dozen such incidents in college, but they left a deeper impression on me than the hundreds of incidents in junior high and high school.
Why was I affected so much more by racial slurs from Whites? I spent a lot of time on that question. I concluded it was because I subconsciously took Whites, especially those in college, to be the embodiment of American society. Their slurs seemed like intimations of America’s inner voice. It was disturbing to think that I would encounter such racial hostility from the people among whom I would have to seek prosperity and fulfillment. Racist encounters with Whites felt like blanket rejections by American society.
I developed a dread of such encounters. It wasn’t that I was afraid of racists. Boyhood encounters had taught me that racists are coyotes who make their verbal assaults from a safe distance or under the cover of anonymity. They were rarely the type to seek out physical encounters. What I really dreaded was being confronted with more evidence that American society scorned and rejected me as alien. I found myself toning down my personality to avoid such incidents. By the time I finished college, I had been transformed from a brash egoist to a low-key nice guy. I told myself that I was just maturing.
In reality what I had achieved wasn’t so much a transformation as a repression of my personality. From time to time I would explode over some trivial encounter. All my repressed rage at what I perceived to be the deep-seated racism of American society would be unleashed against random people who set me off by being disrespectful, rude, loud, careless, etc. Mouths would drop open, eyes would fill with fear as the soft-spoken Asian kid would suddenly transform into a diabolically articulate madman whose eyes flashed with hints of imminent bodily harm. At times like that I was the original Hulk. And I liked it.
Fortunately, I was undergoing another kind of change. I was discovering that some Whites didn’t seem racist. As a kid my contact with Whites had been limited to teachers and classmates. I interacted with them on a casual, arms-length basis, but my close friends had been Asian. In college I had daily interactions with Whites and became friends with some. I dated a couple. Even so, I didn’t see their friendliness as reflective of American society but as exceptions to the rule. Toward Whites in general I harbored suspicions of deeply-ingrained racist attitudes of the kind I had gleaned from racial encounters and negative media portrayals of Asian people.
It took a series of encounters with strangers to make me question my assumptions.
One was a man who picked me up one night by the side of a remote country road after my car ran out of gas. He then drive me to a gas station and back to my car.
One was a woman who found my wallet in a parking lot and drove a half hour to return it.
Another man saw my car stuck in the shoulder of a mountain road on a rainy day and took the trouble to winch it out.
A young couple offered to share their tent with me one late afternoon on a high ridge because they worried that I wouldn’t make it back down to the trailhead before nightfall.
All were white. My Asian face didn’t keep them from extending all the kindness and sympathy one could expect of a fellow human being. In their shoes would I have shown the same kindness?
These kinds of incidents forced me to question my assumptions about American society. Who embodied it, the racists or the good samaritans?
I wrestled with that question for years. Each racist encounter pushed me back toward my original assumptions. Each positive encounter made me question them. The incessant tug-of-war between the optimistic and the pessimistic view of American society added a schizoid component to my life. One day I was the beatific philosopher-king embracing the limitless possibilities of American life. The next day I was the bitter cynic railing against the ingrained racism of American society.
In my early twenties I had an epiphany. More precisely, I was forced to make a choice.
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.