Post-Racist Society is not Post-Racial Society

“So what don’t you like about America?”

I was standing in the middle of a brightly-lit African arts and crafts boutique, surrounded by boldly-colored garments, jewelry, furniture and musical instruments, a little bit awestruck and very much intrigued. The only other person in the store was an African-American old lady with big eyes and a grey-tinted afro, sitting comfortably behind the counter. In front of her sat an assorted collection of essential oils and waxed cloths. She asked me this question quite matter-of-factly, taking off her thin-framed glasses and setting them down gently, then briskly running her fingers through her hair.

So I told her:

I don’t like how people are segregated. I don’t like how being or looking like a certain type of person (white, black, yellow, brown, man, woman…) dictates how you’re expected to behave, and how falling outside of the boundaries of a stereotype puts you at risk of losing an identity. I don’t like how we’re scared to understand ourselves and celebrate others, how it’s easier to compromise your sense of self than to sacrifice your sense of belonging. I don’t like how we don’t like each other.

I grew up in America and I moved to China when I was ten. My parents are Chinese, (and so am I), but I’ve always considered myself American as well. My family has done an incredible job of providing me with a comfortable, privileged childhood, one of blissful naivety and oblivion to socioeconomic struggle - which is, in many ways, the fulfillment of an immigrant’s dream. My teenage years in China, on the other hand, taught me about where I truly come from - why I look and think the way I do, why hard work and determination flows in the blood of my culture, and the simple fact that there are many, many people on this Earth that desperately need the things I already have.

When I moved back to America this summer, I wasn’t really expecting what I was going to find. I slowly realized that this was not the America I had left behind - it was no longer the small, family-friendly city in the Northeast where people smiled warmly as they walked past you on the sidewalk, or the 200-student private elementary school filled with children of doctors and professors. Now, as an adult, I’ve begun to notice the ugly and the ignorant. I’m realizing how deeply the Anglo-centric, ‘white-male on top’ mentality is engrained in many minds - the privileged America is blind to other cultures, ethnicities, races and beliefs, because it has everything it needs and exemplifies a self-important ‘model’ society. I’m also realizing how profoundly this disturbs and saddens me.

I’m going to use examples of Duke’s Yik Yak, the internet underbelly of college consciousness, to illustrate. Here are a couple posts that I take to be notably offensive:

“If you drop your phone in water try putting it in rice overnight. The rice will attract Asians that will come fix your phone for you.”

“The moment an Asian kid sees you studying and tells you ‘dude what are you doing, it’s a Friday night’ is the moment when you know you are doing college wrong.”

The first received 80 up-votes and the second received 148. In response to the second post, a user replied, “Your racism isn’t funny”; another user replied, “his ‘racism’ is very funny actually”.

There are students in my dorm that call my hall ‘Chinatown’ because the demographic is primarily Asian (non-Chinese for the most part, actually.) Last night, the girls next door had some friends over and my roommate came in at two in the morning with a particularly uncomfortable look on her face, saying, “Why the hell are there so many Asians here?” The other day, I overheard a conversation in the common room that went something like, “Why would I want to learn about other countries if everyone except for the peasants already speak English? Why would I ever want to learn about peasants?” followed by sarcastic chuckling and agreeing smirks. I’ve also had a group of boys tell me that they like ‘Asian girls who act White - basically like Geishas.’

At home in China, I’ve never really had to think about myself as an ‘Asian.’ But now, all of a sudden, I find myself trying to grasp to the concept of what being ‘Asian’ means in the eyes of others - smart, maybe; but also anti-social, naive, simple, and in general, belonging to a segregated racial group that does not and cannot just intermix with the rest of a White American community. The feeling is unsettling and foreign. I don’t feel like others are particularly interested in understanding what being Asian means to me; they’re perfectly comfortable with what little they already know. And I think that this is often why racism manifests - stereotypes are convenient. Arrogance is convenient.

My initial reaction to all of this is the easy way out: I don’t want to be Asian. Or rather, I don’t want others to see me by my race; because to me, I’m so much more than the color of my skin. I don’t want to be associated with ‘that Asian mob’ or be seen as ‘an Asian nerd’. I don’t want my heritage to hinder my personal freedom. But on the other hand, I remind myself that I absolute love being Chinese, and that I will never, ever be anything more or less than Chinese. I miss everything about China - the food, the language, the people, the incessant bustle and the comfort of familiarity. I miss knowing exactly where I come from, and knowing that I share the same sense of pride, love and insecurity as the people around me. I miss feeling at home.

So there we go - there’s an inherent paradox between who we are, and who we want to be in the eyes of others. We want to celebrate our colors, but we don’t want others to see us by our colors. We don’t want to be mistreated, misunderstood or discriminated against, but we don’t want to forget our roots. And it’s hard to hold this crack in our identities, because we’re often not what we appear to be, and we’re terrified that our differences will hurt us. Sometimes, we’re so desperate to abolish racism that we want to abolish race in general, and just pretend that everyone is simply race-blind and race-less. But like racism itself, we do this out of desire for comfort and convenience.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in the America where ‘all men are created equal’ , we can’t forget that ‘equal’ is not synonymous to ‘identical’. The first step to true freedom is accepting that we do come from different places and have grown up in different families, that we are unknowledgeable about cultures that are not our own, that we do not look the same, and most importantly, that all this is perfectly okay. A post-racist society is not a post-racial society.

I live for the conversations like the one I had with the old lady in the African boutique - ones where we can talk about discomfort and misunderstanding, where we can share differences and think about the why and the how, where often the best answer is that there is no answer. But as an attempt to make things just a little bit better, I urge you to celebrate heritage - embrace your identity, but more importantly, embrace the identities of others. When you see someone, don’t pretend that they’re not Asian/Black/White/Multi-Racial/Whatever-They-Are, don’t pretend that they’re exactly like you, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Look them in the eye and love them for their color. Love them for where they’re from and what they believe in, learn what their race means to them, not just what it means to you. Give them the respect and the support to feel comfortable in their skin, because the only way to move on from inequality is to honor and appreciate the things that make us different from one another.

By: Gypsy Brown