I was extremely excited for my two best friends to meet – one from Thailand, the other from America. Both kind, funny, and artsy girls that I loved. I was confident that they would get along immediately.
That, unfortunately, didn’t happen. Just in the first ten minutes after introductions, the Thai one said the n-word and the American became silent. I was troubled, but hesitant. This American friend of mine has, in the past, run into several conflicts with others on the topic of race, and I never really understood it. I reasoned that she was probably just too sensitive.
She asked me, did your friend actually just use that word? I nodded apologetically, please excuse her, most of us Thais aren’t aware about the issues. She doesn’t mean in that way.
The American wasn’t convinced, and I shamefully did not say anything to my Thai friend. After all, I understood her position. Can you really call a person racist if they were never taught about race? Can you blame them for ignorance?
It’s often harder to be critical to people you empathize and relate to. I’d like to say I was never racist and only ignorant, but my time at Clark has challenged me to question the claim that racism and ignorance are separate concepts, and that one is deplorable and the other excusable.
I remember what ‘teasing’ was like in kindergarten. My nickname for one of my best friends was “tia-dum” (short and black). We called the Sikh “jook” or “salapao” (little ball/ Chinese bun). It was common to pull our eyes into thin lines to make fun of those with stronger Chinese ethnicity. The Indians were stinky, and “Lao” literally was used as a synonym for “pathetic”.
I attended an international school in the middle of Bangkok, the capital city, all the way until 8th grade, and I don’t remember ever realizing the weight of these names we gave people. It was only midway through high school in 10th grade, when I studied Thailand from a foreign perspective, that I realized how incredibly messed up it all was. I stopped using the words immediately.
My path of ignorance, however, did not end. Racism, to me, didn’t seem as pressing as other issues like global warming. Even as I told myself I believed in interdependence and interconnections, I failed to see ‘racism’. I was nearsighted, but denied the use of spectacles. I was aware of the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and others alike but the word ‘racism’ still seemed more American than anything.
This all changed last semester. My roommates and I were late to the Midnight Mayhem basketball match, and we saw upset students by the doors of Kneller. I had no idea what was happening and instead walked inside, but was shocked to learn the events that have passed right before we arrived. I was shocked to know that so many students stayed on the benches. I was touched to see and hear the emotions felt by students of color. It dawned upon me then that just because I couldn’t see these things around me doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in my world too.
When the Forum on Race happened, I decided to attend even though I wasn’t quite sure how racism played out in my daily life or what it really meant for others. I told myself to respect others’ beliefs, at least hear them out, and have my mind opened. That night, as I listened to all sorts of stories in a Tilton packed with students, I finally saw how blind I have been.
What it propelled me to realize further was that America is probably not the most racist country – it’s just the one that talks about it the most. So many of us are still completely unaware of the oppression we impose on others as well as the oppression we suffer ourselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to realize some of the unconscious biases that obscured my perception. Do I feel guilty? Yes, but I also still vividly remember how the world looked and I don’t think I can feel angry at those who haven’t seen yet – at least not any time soon. Even the memories where racist attitudes have made me feel insecure look different now. The wrongfulness I accused of them were the same things I did without a second thought. I can only share with them what I learned and hope that they, one day, encounter an experience that will make them feel as well.
Right after the Forum on Race, I went to Facebook and typed a message of apology to my American friend. I apologized for not speaking up, for not understanding, for not listening, and for not admitting my blindness.
(Photo credit: author)