Editor’s Note: The following excerpt was anonymously submitted and animated by Empathize This, an online portal where people can tell their own stories about how prejudice and hardship affect their lives.
I was at a retreat for a women’s volunteer organization – this organization works primarily with girls, but it was an event where adult leaders were invited from the entire region. Adult volunteers were there from several counties.
I was the only Asian woman there.
There are many non-caucasians in the organization, but there weren’t any at this retreat. They all looked white to me – but I’m not fool enough to claim to know for sure of anyone being white through and through. To my quick assessment of the room, I was still the only person who was Asian.
I had a wonderful time at the retreat. I didn’t feel out of place and certainly felt welcomed by everybody there. Truly, truly, these were incredible women and they were all great volunteers. We taught each other new things, discussed organizational changes, and planed regional events. It was nice to be part of this group of women.
But then there was this one moment. I have been processing “the moment” for a while now, and I’m not sure how I should have handled it.
I wish I could remember exactly what the conversation was. I wish I could remember why I even laughed after that first joke, but I think I did because it wasn’t a joke completely out of the blue. It followed the course of the conversation so I didn’t think it was strange. It was the following two or three jokes that didn’t sit right with me.
It started when someone told a “Confucius say,” joke.
For the uninitiated, it’s usually some clever turn of phrase in broken, English. For example: “Confucius say man who cut self while shaving lose face.”
I laughed the first time. And then the next one was said – in that broken English and fake Chinese accent. And the next one. I can’t remember if there was a fourth.
What I remember is how it made me feel.
Offended isn’t the right word. It feels too strong. I wasn’t “offended”. But I instantly felt that I did not belong, that I was not part of them. That I wasn’t white…and they were oblivious about what those jokes might mean to me.
When I told my friends, the reactions I got from my white friends were starkly different from my non-white friends.
My white husband said, “are you looking for something to be upset about?”
My white best friend said, “I never think of you as non-white. I just think of you as a person.”
Well yes, I am a person. But I am a person who happens to be Chinese, who felt awkward and non-existent when they told those jokes.
It’s not like I can change the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes or the history of my people. That too is part of my personhood, but the jokers seemed to not notice. And when you don’t acknowledge that part of me, it becomes okay to make jokes about Asians in front of me, and then accuse me of getting upset over “nothing”.
My friend who is African American scolded me for not stopping them in the moment. He said I should have made them stop making those jokes and reminded them that I was Chinese. That I should have said the jokes were offensive. He scolded me for having laughed at the first joke. That it made me complicit and that I’ve somehow done a disservice to all the people in the organization and society as a whole.
But it took me days to even put a word to my experience. It took me days to understand it in any way and to put it into context for myself. I know I wasn’t ready right then to say a single word about it. It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centered on the Caucasian experience. “Not seeing color” means defaulting to the societal standard, which is white. They are saying that they treat everyone as white people – instead of as people who have racial differences, who live different lives because of those differences. This is why saying Asian jokes is okay in their mind. They’re not treating me as a person. They’re treating me as a white person.
If I had spoken up and shamed these women, my newly made friends, told them that their jokes were racist, what exactly would have happened? Would it have made a difference, would they try to understand why it was problematic? Or would they all react the same way as my best friend and husband, and think that I’m over-reacting, being too sensitive?
I wish I had a nice neat bow to finish up this little essay but I don’t. I don’t think I can figure all this out in one little essay. For my part, I think I’ll try to say something next time. I’m not sure what I will say. There is only one thing I know for sure.
There will be a next time.