If you didn’t already know, racism isn’t just violence, hate crimes, slurs, or other forms of explicit discrimination. And for the purposes of this post, it isn’t just recognizable microaggressions either. It can operate as innocently as choosing who to sit next to, or forgetting to invite certain people to an event.
People know that exclusion is a problem. They know that diversity “matters.” But I don’t think people fully understand what exclusion looks like. It looks like self-selection. It looks like only speaking to a certain type of person in the room, and creating, whether consciously or unconsciously, cliques of power and identity. It looks like a cute facebook photo on your newsfeed with your friend and their friends of the same race and you being reminded of who their real friends are.
It looks like wanting to join an organization but showing up and realizing the entire room is mostly White. It sends a very clear message: this isn’t meant for people like you. And they’ve just lost a potential member without even knowing it. Same thing with organizations that have tables or booths. I’m reasonable. I know that diverse representation isn’t possible all or most of the time. Maybe the only two people who could table that day were both White or White-passing. That’s cool. Not all is lost. But if only they would just look at me.
That’s the thing. I’m not asking for much. Most of the time, I just want to be seen, and interacted with. I mentioned in an earlier post an instance where one of my classmates didn’t look at me so much as through me when responding to a question I had asked. I didn’t mention it then, but this isn’t an isolated incident, it’s the norm. Do you know what that’s like? Learning to become dreadful of talking to people because you’ve been looked at like half a human too many times?
I don’t think I should have to emotionally prepare myself for daily interactions, but I’ve learned that in the eyes of some people, I’m not “normal” enough to be treated normally. And by “normal,” I mean the majority. Not “foreign,” because, as I’ve mentioned before, in the American collective consciousness, Asian bodies are still perceived as foreign regardless of how long the individual has been in the United States, and regardless of whether or not they were born here.
It’s common for me to be ignored by wait staff at restaurants because they more often than not are looking to other people at the table to answer questions such as, “And what would you like to drink?” Even though it’s just a matter of preference in liquids, they always look to me last. Countless times I’d look up to answer only to realize they are asking my male or closer-to-white friends first.
So why is there such a reluctance to interact with me? And why, when people do have to interact with me, are they so uncomfortable with it that they can rarely make engaged or direct eye contact?
My guess is that these people neither grew up in a place where it was common to have friends who looked from different them, nor saw enough representation in the media or elsewhere of people unfamiliar to them.
Unlike me, when these people (for instance, the sorority girls in my classes) interact with me, they’re not viewing me as a potential friend. I was raised to be open to and to look at everyone like we could be friends. A real, invite-over-to-my-place, type of friend. Which is why it still boggles me to some extent, regardless of how well I know the history, sociology, or psychology behind it, how some people can just mark certain types of people off, or worse, hate them on sight.
So when I got to university, that’s when it really sunk in: white girls are not like Lizzie McGuire. If they couldn’t even look into my eyes when they answered my question about the homework, then they’re definitely not interested in being any type of friendly, much less consider me a potential Lalaine.
But this behavior isn’t exclusive to white people. I remember being a first-year in college and thinking, “Oh my god, I need color, and now,” only to quickly realize that a lot of these other people of color came from either really white communities or ones with predominantly their own race. It wasn’t like I could go up to and become friends with this Black or Latinx person. Sure, I could have a conversation with them, but I can see it in their eyes, too, that there’s no interest in interacting beyond this or a couple more instances. Because in their minds, why would they? If they’ve never had an Asian friend, why would they think to make one? To consider me someone they could become close to.
And this is true of every group. There are tons of Asian people who hang out exclusively with Asian people, Black people with Black people, Latinx with Latinx, and so on. Historically, we’ve stuck with our own communities. There’s nothing wrong with this. Especially when our communities provide comfort, safety, support, and solidarity. But for me, this is extremely lonely and limiting. That means everyone expects me to only be with other Asians. And if these other Asians have only ever hung out with other Asians, then we don’t exactly share the same world views. That’s an entire aspect of my life I can’t share with them. A whole chapter of understanding, humor, and humanity we don’t have in common. Because we simply don’t have the same experiences and background knowledge.
So I spent the entirety of my college career either searching or carving out diverse spaces for myself. (Don’t worry, I found them.)
After that earlier post went up, my old roommate and good friend messaged me and we had a really enlightening conversation about race relations. And for the record, she is White and beautiful and kind and brilliant and I love her dearly.
She was telling me about her experiences meeting her partner’s friends. She’s from a small suburb of Austin and her partner’s from Houston. This is how a section of the conversation between us went:
Her: When I see and meet [my partner]’s friends from all different ethnicities (mostly in the same class, but not all) it’s neat to me because it’s still a bit of a shock. It wasn’t until I came to UT and experienced a greater level of diversity than I was used to that I really realized what I’d been missing out on.
Me: For him, it’s normal, right?
Her: Exactly. They’re just people. For me, they’re “diverse people.” And I’m working through that.
Me: [My partner] said the same thing you did. He came from College Station and so this was a lot more diversity than he’s used to. Wow, I never knew that about you. What a realization. Huh. Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s actually really validating.
Her: Yeah, man. I always try to be aware of my biases and perceptions. And it’s hard.
I’m really grateful we had that conversation. Because I had always known in the back of my mind that some people would be able to talk to me yet never even consider in their minds to become more than acquaintances. And what my friend shared with me helped me understand how that could be.
Which reminds me of something I had learned in my Psychology of Literature class. Researchers did an experiment to see which would improve racial attitudes more: 15 minutes of interaction with people of a different race, or reading/watching stories with people of a different race in them. To my surprise, it was the latter that was more effective in changing people’s attitudes. Which means 1) representation in media, text, art, etc. really does matter and 2) simply being friends with people of a different race doesn’t necessarily mean your views of that race changes. Of course, this is only one study, and an old one at that, but combined with some reflection of my own life experiences, I gotta say that it’s sadly believable.
I mean, there are lots of people who married Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. people and are still very, very prejudiced. It’s because their spouses didn’t change their cognitive schemas (mental representations, beliefs) of these marginalized groups; they morphed their spouses to fit into them. And viewed them as an exception, a special circumstance. Which is why the whole “but I have Black friends” thing isn’t an excuse. Trust me, people would be able to tell if you really have Black friends.
It’s the same way I can tell after 17 seconds of interaction whether someone’s used to real diversity or open-minded/hearted. The way they interact with all kinds of people is with comfort, not fear, or reservation, or some well-intentioned yet race blind way to overcompensate for that nervousness. And you can bet they look at people in the eyes.
Which is, again, all I ever really ask for.
The internet calls out a lot of ways we’re treating each other wrong, and rightly so. The media spotlights violence, schools and businesses stress for diversity and inclusion, and Austin even has undoing racism workshops. It sounds like this huge endeavor, to be a better person in an increasingly diverse world, to learn about history and present workings that negatively affect so many marginalized groups of people so we can understand more and do better. It seems like a lot of work because it is- important work.
But in your journey of understanding, advocacy, activism, or just trying to be a better person, don’t forget that simply making eye-contact with someone different, having a genuinely engaging conversation with them, or taking that step with them from acquaintance to friend, is an extremely powerful and meaningful first step. Change, big and small, begins with empathy. You cannot truly care for and do good for another human being if you do not first know who they are, and you do that simply by viewing and treating them as if they were a new friend- with kindness and a desire to understand- because who knows, they might become one of your best. And the catalyst for a lifetime of growth.