I’m not white. And sometimes it’s easier to live in ignorance of the idea.
It started off simple. My professor handed me someone else’s paper.
Well, it wasn’t that simple. I realized the faux pas, and took at as another honest mistake, and looked around for the right girl. The other Asian female in the class. Honestly, I caught myself thinking, “Hah, my friends back home are going to find this hilarious.” Why? I go to a school that is far less racially diverse than the state – let alone the high school – I went to. But I thought it a small mistake. It’s 8AM chem lab, everyone was up and about away from their lab benches, it was bound to happen.
Before I could catch her, my professor immediately realized his mistake and began to apologize profusely. After he finished returning papers, he came to my lab bench. Very flustered, he starts, “I wanted to apologize again–“
“It’s okay!” I said sincerely. It’s a lecture, (with small lab size) class, I’d always been told I’d be known as a number in lecture halls.
“No, no it’s not okay! I’m disgusted with myself and I am very ashamed.” This is so genuine to hear, something different.
He continues, “You’re a person.” I know…though in retrospect, he seems to be insinuating “…opposed to just a race.”
“I know who you are.” Good to know, considering the large size of the lecture for this lab.
“I do try to get to know my students, and I have to be completely honesty, I have this preconceived idea of what Asians look like, and I am not proud of that.” I stand there speechless and wide eyed…I am too grateful and in shock to respond.
“Do you forgive me?” “Yes, I do. Thank you.”
He came back a few more times in the lab period to make sure we were on good terms, and that he was truly sorry and acknowledged his mistake. It was on my mind for the rest of the lab; I couldn’t quite pin what was so stunning about what he said. By the end I realized it, and told him,
“I wanted to say thank you. I know it’s my reality as a minority but nobody has ever been that honest with me about my race and stereotypes. Let’s be honest, I’ve been Asian and a minority for seventeen years, and no one has ever been that honest.”
My professor pretended to be shocked that I’m “only seventeen?! You’re a child!” but we left on good, if not better, terms.
You see, at least recently, I’ve resented the idea of attaching myself to some sort of “culture” that I know I don’t have. I know it’s expected, it’s been ingrained in American culture, but I like to think that each person can exist in spite of it: for me, Asian-American culture, petite stereotypes, female stereotypes…any of it. I’m not a fan of that system, of “top-down”, label-to-application induction of personality, or ideas. Call me a mutt, call me a jigsaw, but it had made far more sense to me to keep taking in what I do experience, what I am exposed to, than to apply myself to what I’m “supposed” to do or be.
The university I attend is two-thirds Caucasian, and come on, it’s no secret – not to me, not to the university, not to society. My theology class – two days after my chemistry lab – we hold a formal debate on if “racism is [or is not] still a problem in twenty-first century America”. In qualification, we are required to sign up for the pro, con, and judge team once each for our three semester debates, so some students on the team arguing that racism isn’t a problem, did not believe the position.
It was argued, however, that there is proof that America is a post-racial society because of large events like Obama’s two elections, the improvement in racial diversity in universities and government, in higher education there have been movements towards highlighting racial diversity…
…but hearing these arguments, ideas and manifestations of racism, racial stereotypes passed down, even – or especially – in the world of high education, keeps passing on these stigmas and concepts to future generations. Throughout all levels of education – and society – acts or “counteracts” or racial judgement are evident and are active currents in our lives.
It was a huge lesson to me. It was a wake up, a reminder to my reality – that I’m living well in the context of it, from the inside looking out, opposed to what the outside looking in imposes on people.