When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something. —John Lewis
Instead of giving this article a catchy title, I just thought I’d keep it real with you today and just speak from my heart.
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his life’s work today, I felt that it was time to open up about what he fought against, something I’ve kept to myself for a long time: racism.
This is a sensitive subject for many people, including me, so please bear with me as I try to express how I feel the best way I know how: writing.
Please note that today’s post is not directed at any one ethnicity over another. The words that pour from my heart onto my keyboard that fills your screen today is that of one person’s experience with racism: mine.
Should you be open to learn from a place of understanding, please keep reading as I share my story as a “person of color” and my own experiences.
Growing up, I was blessed to not “see color” in other people. My little brother and I played with kids of all races in our neighborhood when we were young. I didn’t think anything of kids who had different skin colors. I just wanted to play with them. When I was young, I wasn’t made fun of racism-wise. It was mostly for being skinny and wearing glasses. My popular names? Toothpick and goggles. It wasn’t until the end of high school/early college years that I was “made aware” of racism.
TEENAGE/ YOUNG ADULT YEARS
My first boyfriend was Hispanic and I still didn’t think about the differences of our skin color. Fast forward to college. I remember a former friend of mine (who’s of Mexican ethnicity) yelling at me saying something along the lines of, “Well, at least you have a better chance of being with a white guy!” I was shocked to say the least. And I say this because I felt like dating had to do with more of a confidence and personality thing rather than a racism thing (I still believe this).
The sad part was that she didn’t realize that I was not immune to the world of racism either. At this point, I have heard “ugly chink,” attempts to speak Vietnamese by saying words like, “ching chong,” and people using their hands to pull back their eyes. I did start noticing the way people looked at me. I was even called “exotic” by an older man. Note two things though. First, I was very tan. I had been outside most of the day co-hosting an environmental river clean up. He thought I was Hawaiian because of how dark I was. And secondly, most people can’t tell what ethnicity I am so they guess. It was also during this time of my life that the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha had released. I didn’t see it nor Mulan (which was released seven years prior) until years down the road.
By this time in my life, racist remarks, the looks I’d get, the questions that I’ve been asked…I’ve heard and seen it all.
However, I want to be honest with you. As an adult, I didn’t have a problem with people when they jokingly asked if I owned a donut shop or a dry cleaning business. I didn’t even know those were Asian stereotypes! My best friend from high school (who is white) had to explain it to me. And even when I knew it, I still didn’t have an issue with it. A part of me felt like my thick skin came from my younger years of being bullied and I associated those comments with bullying instead of racism.
Because of the amount of interactions I received, I began to intentionally start conversations myself.
It’d go something like this, “Before you ask, yes. I can do my nails. No, I don’t own a donut shop or drying cleaning business. And if you must know, I’m terrible at math and I’m a great driver.”
And people would look at me funny for a second and then bust out laughing. To which I would respond, “Hey, I couldn’t even do an Asian accent if I tried! I’m just speaking the truth. Sometimes, I forget I’m Asian.”
Laughter would ensue and from that point on, I could tell whoever I was talking to felt like they were more at ease to ask about my ethnicity, religion, and/or family’s culture. To this day, when my friends and I are out at dinner and we happen to have the same bank cards, I’d tell the waiter/waitress, “The one with the Asian name is me in case you get confused on whose card is whose. Good luck with the rest!” when they return with our checks. Again, everyone at the table would laugh and I would personally feel like I’ve just brightened my server’s day.
I’m aware that everyone’s “level of tolerance” is different. However, for me personally (note, I said personally), I’m okay with those stereotypes. It didn’t bother me in the least bit.
I open conversations with jokes so people can feel comfortable in getting to know me without feeling like their questions would offend me.
What I’m not okay with is being treated like I’m not a human being.
You would think that as an adult in the 21st century, that interacting with people with hate and disrespect based on their skin color wouldn’t exist.
What makes me angry beyond belief is the whole “If you can’t speak the language, go back to your country!” phrase that racist people like the woman in the video use. No, people can speak English and just because they have an accent doesn’t mean they can’t speak English. To the woman in the video, you obviously understood her to keep a conversation going so…what’s the real issue?
Another thing that upsets me beyond measure is ignoring someone.
This goes with or without the racism card. If I’m with someone and you ignore them, but interact with me, I lose all respect for you. This happened to me personally during a conversation with six other people. The sad part is, it was with someone I thought I knew well.
Upon entering the room, this person greeted everyone, but me. No “Hey! How’s it going?” or even as much as a look in my direction. During the conversation, said person also chose not to make eye contact with me and ignored me the entire time. Yes, even when I was talking directly to this person. At one point, the tension was so high that I asked everyone in the room if there was a problem with my presence. Yes, I went there. And while I made eye contact with the others in the room, I paid close attention to this person’s mannerisms. While the clamoring was an overall ‘no,’ this person didn’t look at me, much less respond with nonverbal gestures nor their words.
That’s when I knew that it was ultimately about race.
And what a sad moment it was for both this person and myself. I was sad because this person proclaims to be a Christian. Yet the hatred towards me was very evident. Mind you, I’ve said nothing or did anything malicious to this person. Ever. And I haven’t even seen this person in months.
I was sad for me because for a second, I felt like I wasn’t a human being.
And before you say, “Well, this person could’ve had a bad day,” I have to tell you that it doesn’t matter.Even if you've had the worst day of your life, you don't treat people with disrespect. Click To Tweet
Plain and simple.
In the past, I often wondered what would happen if I was together with a white man. What would people think about me? How would I be treated? Would I even be comfortable holding hands with him in public? Those very thoughts messed with me for a long time and skewed my view on love and relationships.
Today, when I think about being married to someone of a different race and class, I think about love on a whole new level. Let’s say he’s a sweet British man who’s also a famous movie star. Instead of thinking, “Will people think I’m a gold digger?” or “Will I be ignored?” or labeled as “so-and-so’s wife” instead of “She’s Huong ::insert future husband’s last name here::, a Vietnamese-American entrepreneur who happens to be X’s wife.” My perspective is now, “How can I be the best example of what marriage/real love is all about?” and “How can I be an Asian female role model to other little girls out there who look like me?” I also know that when I’m holding his hand, I’m holding the one I adore most. I’m with my greatest blessing and he’s sees me the same. And I know us. We wouldn’t care what other people think about our love. It’s us and it’s our marriage.
Now, as someone who’s trained in emotional intelligence and has worked hard to love herself, I don’t let racists bother me. I pray for them. Ultimately, I know that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made. I also know that racism comes from a lack of understanding. And for some who don’t understand, it’s one of two things: 1) s/he truly have not asked questions (may be due to fear) to further understand or have refused to sit down and try to listen with an open heart.
For those who are wondering how to have conversations with people of a different ethnicity, here’s my advice:
- Create a safe environment for people to be open and invite someone to sit down with you. Explain to them that you would like to understand more about what they’re going through or have experienced.
- Make sure they’re okay with talking to you about it because it can be a very sensitive subject for some.
- Never assume. Ask questions…I mean, a lot of questions. Ask about their experience with racism, how they feel and what you can do for them, etc.
- Listen to understand instead of listening to reply.
- Make sure they know you’ve got their back and that you can lend an ear should they need to talk.
Friends, please note that “being colorblind” and saying, “I don’t see color.” is not the answer to racism.Doing a heart check and having conversations with each other to better understand is the answer to racism. Click To Tweet
It starts with your heart, then having conversations beginning in your own home. Listening to understand instead of listening to reply is a way to love someone on a deeper level. This goes for family, friends, and romantic relationships.
Have we improved as a nation? Some. Do we still have a long way to go? Longer than you think.
To continue to fight against racism, we must move our conversations to a deeper level in a safe environment.
I didn’t share my story to gain sympathy. I shared to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. And I shared in hopes that my experience brings awareness to what people of color (POC) go through, how some of us really feel, and that it opens your heart to what love truly means.
All humans deserve to receive love and compassion from one another no matter our skin color, class or career title.
I don’t know if racism will ever stop in my lifetime.
However, I cling to the fact that there will always be more people who love than those who hate.Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Click To Tweet
If you feel inclined, please listen to this YouTube video of Robert Kennedy informing the audience of Dr. King’s passing. Never before have I seen someone or better yet, a politician, give such an elegant and genuine speech from the heart. As a result of his speech, the city of Indianapolis, where Kennedy had announced Dr. King’s death that evening, was the only area in the country that was NOT rioting as a response to Dr. King’s death.