Putting Racists in Their Place
rowing 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.
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“Their slurs seemed like intimations of America's inner voice.”
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