Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflecting on a Racial Rant

When I was on my first summer urban project back in 1988, just after my first year of grad school, I told an African-American friend who was wearing a headscarf that she looked like Aunt Jemima.  She gazed directly in my eyes and said, “It’s because I love you Kathy that I will forgive you for that extremely offensive comment.” 

I can’t remember what I said in response—I hope I apologized.  But I remember not even knowing why I had offended.  When I confessed what happened to a couple other African-American friends who’d known me a lot longer, they both said she had been extremely gracious (which I knew) and filled me in.

Last week, James Choung, the director of InterVarsity’s Asian-American Ministry sent out a video as InterVarsity’s official response to UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s Youtube race rant against Asians in the library. Because I tend to be completely out of it much of the time (just ask my kids—extends to my clothing, my humor, my music taste, as well as current events), I didn’t realize there had been a youtube race rant until I got James’s video response in my inbox.

I watched his video, but didn’t watch Alexandra's video because I was rushed and frankly, I didn’t want to get mad.

But then when colleagues asked me what I thought we should do, I realized it wasn’t very good to watch a response and have no idea what incited it. Click here for Alexandra Wallace’s youtube video. Click here for James Choung's response.

After watching both videos again (James’s made a lot more sense the second time around), I called my girls over and asked if they’d like to see the videos. I wanted to expose them to what’s happening in the wider world, raise James’ concepts of Biblical justice AND reconciliation, and show them yet again how easy it is to make big internet mistakes. The version we watched of Alexandra's video (which I think has been taken down now) had over 6 million hits.

When we were done, they both said, “Well that’s offensive!” They didn’t say much about James’s video, but they did get how Alexandra had just ruined her life by doing something she thought was funny but others found deeply insulting.

Because my kids are bi-racial, I always wonder what’s happening within them around ethnicity, knowing that I will never really understand what that feels like. Perhaps I encouraged a schizophrenic identity when I asked, “Does your White side feel something different from your Chinese side?”

Ling shook her head, “Both sides are offended—what she said was just wrong!”

Ling’s right. What Alexandra said was wrong, and we all should raise objections no matter what our race or ethnicity. Given the outpouring of youtube videos in response, it’s heartening to see how so many have. It’s even more heartening to see how many Asians have responded with videos of their own.

The year before I went on that urban project, I served on a task force to revamp the Northwestern undergraduate experience.   Asians weren’t even on the radar of the administration as an ethnic group. As a student representative on the race relations committee, I asked why we weren’t looking at ethnic relations outside the Black/White issue. The committee chair admitted it was a huge oversight, but we only had time to really look into Black and White relations, and would make a recommendation to look at other ethnic groups after the task force was over. 

I didn’t even push back—I got it!  Northwestern had recruited a 10% Black student body, the only Big 10 school to do so, and we wanted that to work out.  There just wasn't much energy for the "model minority" and Latinos were so off the screen that I never even thought my Mexican or Colombian friends were anything but White.

But the problem with Asians not being recognized as a minority ethnic group, was that unlike my Latino friends, we couldn't pass as White.  Therefore, folks could thoughtlessly say all sorts of hurtful things about us and not even think they were being racist—and when I say folks, I mean people of all ethnic backgrounds. And because culturally it felt inappropriate to shame the other, or threaten the friendship, much of the time, I, and my fellow Asians didn’t push back.

Seeing hundreds of young Asians use their voices in humorous, often profane Youtube ways, makes me feel we’ve come a long way baby. . .

But yet. . .

Over the past several months, I’ve been interviewing colleagues about their experiences around multiethnicity in an effort to help the Graduate/Faculty Ministry to move forward. It’s been a wonderful process, really encouraging. But what’s very very clear, is that anyone who’s been in this game at all has made mistakes. . . often a lot of them. . . including me.

Over the years, I have managed to say ignorant, hurtful and misguided things to every ethnic group out there, often with the best intentions.  My Aunt Jemima comment is only one of many examples.

In my case, as well as the cases of so many colleagues I interviewed, there was someone, a friend, a colleague, a partner, who was willing to say “It’s because I love you that. . . “ Without the grace and space of these friends who were willing to mentor, challenge and guide, none of us would have gotten anywhere. The temptation would have been to hide and give up.

In American culture, race is such a loaded concept, filled with real human experiences of pain, shame and humiliation, all imbedded within a politically correct culture. And I know that culture well. 

When I wanted to study the interracial friendships of Whites, Asians, Blacks and Latinos for my doctoral dissertation, and even had started collecting data on all four groups, an advisor told me off the record that I was committing academic suicide by studying Blacks and Latinos—that I could study Asians because I was Asian, that everyone could study Whites, but that it wasn’t safe to study any ethnic groups I didn’t belong to.

I had felt that lack of safety. Despite years of enjoying very close African American friends, despite participating in and even directing several summer urban projects that focused on racial reconciliation, when I walked into the Black Students Association to survey students, I felt the wall of their suspicion. Observing my Chinese face, these students didn’t know I might be a “good gal,” or that I loved and was loved by many from their ethnic background, or that my passion was racial reconciliation. They saw no reason to trust me, and frankly, no reason to cooperate. And there were no words I could say that would quickly build a bridge between us.

I feel sad for Alexandra Wallace who’s received death threats and withdrawn from school. She’s apologized at least twice, but her youtube video lives on, even if her original post doesn't. How do you apologize to 6 million people who’ve watched you parody the Chinese language and insult Asian families? How do you build bridges when your words unleashed a tsunami of destruction, mostly for your own life? How does Alexandra experience the reconciliation that James, in his video, holds out as a hope for her? Jesus will forgive her, but will the rest of the world?

Thank God my friends and partners were willing to stick with me despite my mistakes. And I pray that God will bring Alexandra some Asian friends who will enter a conversation with, “It’s because I love you that. . .”

What are your thoughts on race?  How do you teach your children about our fragmented society?  What have been your experiences of "foot in mouth" or marginalization?


gr8god said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gr8god said...

[removed the previous version of this to try to reformat]

heard about the alexandra wallace video and was both annoyed and grieved. i don't think she deserves the death threats (who does?), but honestly, i don't feel terrible that she's reaping some consequences from this very public, very offensive foolishness. the bad thing for her is that this could come back to haunt her for decades. i hope it won't. i don't think anyone's youthful stupidity should limit their options for the rest of their life, possibly excepting violent crime.

as for my own thoughts on race, you can read bunches of them on our family blog. a sample:

ruminations on reparations and racial justice

this is the way our world ends?

a dream that must come true

my favorite, however, was one recently written by my daughter n, a first year student at rice in houston. it can be found here.