Living in Oklahoma, it didn't take long for me to hear about the racist song that was posted online featuring frat boys from the University of Oklahoma. As soon as I heard, my first thought was how anybody could be that ignorant?
As a non-white person, I still don't get why the amount of melanin you have in your skin actually matters. I was so upset when I thought about any black person who had to listen to the words said on that tape. I flashed back to the first time an elementary school kid pulled their eyelids back to a slant and yelled, "Look at me, I'm a chink!" Afterwards, fits of giggles and "Do it again!" filled the air. Everyone thought it was the funniest thing on planet Earth. Everyone, but me. I just sat there in stunned silence, wondering what I was supposed to say back. I was about 7 years old then and didn't know it, but that single act would change my perspective on myself for years to come. Was being Chinese a joke? Was my race something to ridicule?
Photo courtesy of Anna Eldridge
Growing up in an all-white family, I honestly never really thought about racism until I ran smack into it at school. I, of course, had never seen my older siblings being taunted for being Caucasian. My town in Oklahoma is basically all white, so when I was first singled out on the playground, I didn't know what to do or how to react. All I remember feeling was anger at first and then confusion. It began happening more frequently, with people telling ignorant jokes about how Chinese people got their names by dropping a box of silverware down the stairs, how all of our eyes are little tiny slits on our faces ("How do you see?") and how we are all destined to be mathematicians or nail salon girls. Even some of my best friends would say these things to me. It never dawned on them that they were being racist to me. It never crossed their minds at all, because to them I was "practically white" because I grew up in a Caucasian home. They would tell me that their comments were about the other Asians, not me.
So at first, whenever anyone ever said anything racist to me I would quickly get defensive and snap back at them angrily. I soon realized however, that it didn't help me in any way, shape or form, because the people saying ugly things were looking for that reaction. So then I thought maybe I should just joke right along with everybody and then it wouldn't hurt so much. I would make racial jokes about myself, because I thought people would accept me more that way. But the exact opposite happened. Turns out it hurt a lot more actually, because then everyone and their mother thought continual racial comments were OK. After my attempt to be a comedian passed, I began to just ignore everyone and just let the water roll off my back. Soon the comments said to me didn't sting as much as before. I knew that the students and even the teachers who said those things to me didn't fully comprehend the effect their white-centric words had on me. I had a reached a point where I knew what they said wasn't going to define me.
I also made a promise to myself that I was going to study super hard so I could leave Oklahoma when I graduated high school. I would go out of state for college. Go somewhere more diverse, where perhaps racism wasn't so pervasive. I compiled my list of colleges to consider, and my hope was to end up in a place where racist comments would be in my past. I've been reading and watching all the news about the SAE scandal with Oklahoma being showcased as what's wrong with racism in the U.S. But all I have to do is read the thousands of comments posted to any article on this topic, and I realize that it's a national problem. The sad reality I have to face is that wherever I go, there will always be a group of white people who will never feel I am their equal simply because my eyes look different and my skin is more tan.
I used to think that location mattered when it came to racism. That if I left Oklahoma, then I would be leaving racism behind. But the events of this last week have shown me that's a lie. Racism isn't in a map; it's in people.
Photo courtesy of Anna Eldridge
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