In America, there are people from many different racial/ethnic backgrounds. And out of these differences, a particular group often has benefits, powers, privileges that those outside their group do not share. The privileged group may or may not be aware of these advantages and even if they are aware of them, they may not actively choose to exploit them but nevertheless, they have access to assets that those outside their group cannot attain. (Click here if you have no idea what I’m talking about – it’s an excellent introduction to the topic.)
In terms of race, this is most often talked about as White privilege.
And that’s a big can of worms but there it is, I said it, I went there.
But that’s not the only kind of racial privilege that exists in America.
I grew up in Hawaii where Asians are the majority racial group (link). As an Asian-American, that means I grew up being the advantaged group.
Among other things, this means that:
- When giving me my receipt at Safeway, the cashier would say, “thank you, Mr. Ajimine” instead of just “thank you” like they do in the mainland (and this after they said, “thank you, Mr. Anderson” to the person in front of me).
- Likewise in school (K-12-college), my teachers/professors knew how to pronounce my name without asking.
- In local magazines and publications (the Honolulu Weeklyfor example) it was easy to find stories by and about (as well as pictures of) people who looked like me.
- Although I went to a private school where it didn’t happen (at least I never heard of it happening), I knew of a practice at other schools known as Kill Haole Day. On this day (usually the last day of the school year) white students were taunted and sometimes assaulted by the non-White students. White kids not coming to school on that day was not a rare occurrence.
- The butt of racial jokes were usually white – the Portuguese, for example, were a common target of racist jokes.
Those are just a few examples but basically, what that adds up to is that I grew up never having to think about my racial identity because there were examples all around who looked like me, talked like me, and behaved like me. I never had to worry about fitting in or standing out. And it pains me to admit this but in cases of blatant racism like Kill Haole Day and White jokes, I didn’t really think about them. In fact, I laughed about it with my friends and didn’t think it was a problem because that’s what it is to be a member of the privileged group. I had the luxury of remaining blissfully unaware and unconcerned about the effects of my actions because I and those around me were not the ones affected.
In college (University of Hawaii) I took a Political Science class where the professor spent a few weeks talking about issues of race and racism. Looking back on that time, I honestly can’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember the professor talking about how even though Hawaii is very diverse racially, there were still problems of racism that were unjust and needed to be dealt with. But I didn’t understand what he was getting at. My thought was, “hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Why can’t everyone just behave like us and think like us and talk like us? Then everybody would just get along.” What I didn’t realize then was that I was able to say “us” because I was in the “us” group and it was those outside my group I wished would change and fall in line and not make a fuss. Because it’s far easier to want another group to change than to change yourself or your own group.
And then I moved to the mainland and the shoe was on the other foot.
Now I’m the one that feels the pressure (intentional or not – sometimes subtle, sometimes not) to conform to the norms of the dominant group so that they can feel comfortable.
And I suppose that’s messed up enough as it is but here’s the other thing.
Because I grew up with privilege growing up in Hawaii, I have little to no experience of what it’s like to be the other – the one without privilege. And so not only was I one who had perpetrated acts of racism on others in the past (I remember learning white jokes, laughing at them, then telling them to others), I am now someone who lacks empathy when it comes to race even now that I’m in the mainland and am part of the minority group. And by that, what I mean is because I used to be the one with my boot in the face of the other, I don’t know what it’s like to have a boot in my own face. And so even when the boot is there kicking out my teeth, sometimes I don’t feel it.
That’s a poor metaphor because how could I not feel a beat down like that? Maybe because racism is not always so stark? Or is it? One of the things I’ve learned from men and women of color in the mainland is that when you grow up with constant reminders of your marginalization and your otherness, when you grow up in an atmosphere where you’re always under pressure to conform to some impossible “norm,” then when you bump up against privilege (personal or institutional), you’re aware of it immediately. But if you don’t grow up with those experiences, they can be hard to recognize later in life and this is part of why it’s hard for me to recognize. And it helps me understand why it’s often so hard for Whites to recognize and talk about White privilege.
Maybe a metaphor would help here.
When doctors learn to read x-rays, their teacher puts a film up on the illuminator and asks the students to point out what the image is showing them. As this process begins, the students just see white splotches on a black background. They can recognize structures like bones and maybe organs but that’s all they see. Then the instructor puts his finger on one of the splotches and says, do you see anything there? And the students say no because that grey bit looks exactly like the grey bit next to it.
As their training progresses, they keep looking at x-ray films and they begin to get better at identifying normal grey bits from diseased or cancerous grey bits. After a while, it becomes second nature and so when they’re with a patient discussing their x-ray results, they can point confidently at something they see in the image – something that the patient doesn’t see at all. I think that’s kind of what it’s like to learn to see racism for someone who didn’t grow up experiencing it.
Or let’s look at this from the other end. Imagine growing up in a household where both your parents were expert radiologists and so you grew up looking at x-rays. If this was your upbringing and you decided to become a doctor, when you went through your training and got to the bit where your fellow students were learning to read x-rays, you’d already be able to see what the instructor was trying to point out because you grew up with that skill whereas the other students just see splotches. It would be easy for you to spot abnormalities because you grew up recognizing them.
Unfortunately, unlike this metaphorical hypothetical, when it comes to race, growing up with an awareness of it (because you’re in it, because you’re of it) is a disadvantage, not an advantage because unlike the students trying to learn to read x-ray films, those who can’t detect instances of racism aren’t striving to learn to recognize it – a difficult process that takes months, years, maybe lifetimes.
And when it comes to racial reconciliation and advocating for justice, learning to see is only the first step. And as difficult as that step is, it may actually be the easiest because once you see, the next step is figuring out what to do about it.
Honestly, for myself, I’m still learning how to see. You’d think it’d be easier for me to recognize since I’m now an Asian-American in the mainland and so I’m sort of surrounded by it. But for me, it’s still hard to see even when it’s right there in my face. For example, a few months ago when I was working at a temp job at a copier company, the guy I’m working with asks me, “where are you from?”1 and I say, “Hawaii.” He responds, “Hawaii? But you don’t look Hawaiian.” I explain to him that I was born and raised in Hawaii but no, I myself am not Hawaiian. Then he asks, “okay, so where are your parents from?” And I tell him that they were born in Hawaii as well. So he asks again, “all right, so where were they from?” Of course by then I realized what he was asking me and so I finally said, “I’m Okinawan.” And he says, “oh, well why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
I’d venture to guess that some of my mainland Asian-American friends are reading that and groaning. They probably knew where my co-worker was going from the very first question because they’ve heard that question asked that way throughout their lives. Me? It took me a while to figure it out and even after the incident I just thought to myself, “hmm, that was odd.” And it seemed merely “odd” because that was a new experience for me. But friends who grew up with that kind of ignorance probably have a different reaction.
Think of it this way. Say you’re sitting in an airplane on a long flight. You get settled in and then you feel a bump from behind you. You don’t think much of it because you figure that’s just the person behind you getting situated. But then the bumping continues and continues and continues because maybe there’s a fidgety kid with an inattentive parent behind you. The bumping drives you crazy and even when you ask the parent to ask their kid to stop, the bumps continue all the way to your destination.
Now say you get on a connecting flight. Again, you find your seat and are glad to see that the kid is no longer behind you. But if the new person behind you accidentally hits your seat, your frustration level spikes immediately and even if that’s the only bump of the entire trip, you still have a general sense of unease just anticipating another jostling.
Imagine growing up with a lifetime of bumps. Often inadvertent, sometimes purposeful, but still there – bump after bump after bump. Imagine always feeling the sense of anxiety that the passenger felt on that second flight. Imagine feeling that all the time. Imagine living with the expectation of being bumped – knowing that it will come, sometimes subtle, sometimes direct and sharp and full of spite.
I didn’t grow up being bumped. I was the one who did the bumping – sometimes unknowingly, sometimes with full knowledge of what I was doing. And I never felt compelled to stop other people from bumping because it didn’t seem like a big deal. Because what’s wrong with bumping someone – telling one small white joke even when there’s a white person around? For me it’s just the one joke but for that person it may be one more in a series of bumps that they’ve had to endure throughout their life.
And now I’m the one being bumped. But I just sat down in this seat and there have only been a few kicks from behind. I don’t have that sense of anxiety or expectation of one who’s been bumped their entire lives. Even worse, like the person who can’t read x-rays well, I don’t recognize it when those around me are being bumped and so it’s hard to step in and to help stop it. Even when a friend gets bumped and asks me, “did you just feel that?” Sometimes I have to say, “sorry, I didn’t.” They’ve got their finger on the cancer on the film right in front of me and I can’t see it. I can’t feel it.
And that breaks my heart.
And so I’m trying to see. I’m trying to feel. I’m trying to learn.
But it’s hard.
But it’s vitally important because I can’t fight a disease if I can’t see it.
Because the bumping has to stop.
1 Asking an Asian the question, “where are you from?” isn’t a problem if you just want to know where the person may have moved from. It’s when the question is asked as a way to identify ethnicity, that’s problematic. For example, in the story I shared above, if my co-worker had been satisfied with my answer, “Hawaii,” that would have been fine. But that answer wasn’t good enough for him because he was really asking about my ethnicity. In that way, his question, “where are you from,” shows that just because I’m Asian, he thinks that I’m not American. His follow up question, “where are your parents from?” verifies this.