Why Talk To Racists?

If you claim to tolerate everyone, embracing them wholeheartedly, then what do you do about intolerance, the person who espouses hatred?
06/22/2017 08:00 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s in suburban Detroit, I made a friend whose grandfather was inexplicably nasty when I went over to play catch in the backyard. I can still remember my humiliation. My friend explained that his elder had fought in World War II once we were outside. That was supposed to excuse his conduct.

I am Asian American, specifically of Chinese descent. I was back then “Oriental,” identified by a term with a vague aspersion of exoticism. My friend, like his ancestor, was white. They were mainstream, normal, the majority.

At the time, I did not understand. I thought of myself, to the regret of my grandparents, as American. I wanted to be no different than my friend, even if I was aware that our grandparents were not the same. Our exclusion was blatant and not trivial, falling along a spectrum of bias.

Since then, however, I have developed the arguments about what was wrong with the attitude of my neighbors — my friend didn’t stay my friend for that long, which regrettably happened quite a bit. My parents would not have been able to articulate the rationale for fighting back. They realized, better than I did, the dissimilarities between us and those who surrounded us in the subdivision where — we didn’t forget — we were lucky to have been able to live, but they possessed above all the American Dream, which was all about fitting in. They did not speak the language of civil rights, because they literally spoke another language. I didn’t either, because I was a child. You weren’t supposed to complain anyway. You just smiled as much as possible, and, as I was instructed, worked twice as hard as the next person.

The problem is that the angry old man framed overseas conflict in racial terms that he extended into our nation to draw lines between “us” and “them.” For him, it seemed, the enemy was Asian, the battles ongoing.

If you followed the reasoning rather than challenging it, you might point out that being mad at someone of Chinese heritage doesn’t make sense even if you accept the premise that we should be defined by our lineage. The Americans and the Chinese were allies; they were on the same side during World War II . Madame Chang Kai-Shek was a celebrity, giving speeches to rally support here, with a Southern accent thanks to her schooling in Georgia. Even if I had been of Japanese descent, born as I was in the United States, I would be an equal citizen. In historical reality, the generation like me, the “nisei,” were imprisoned nonetheless, deemed likely to be disloyal to their homeland — they were claiming a homeland that did not claim them. Blood defeated citizenship.

Over time, despite the logic, I have reconsidered. The curmudgeon likely had faced what I could not begin to comprehend: fire fights in the Pacific in which his life was at stake and witnessing his comrades’ deathes, at the hands of people who, so far as he could see, looked like me. As I was told repeatedly, we all look alike. Or he might not have. But he watched movies and was exposed to popular culture depicting the Yellow Peril, a menace to white women and democratic values. From the Viet Cong to Fu Manchu, Asians were threatening, untrustworthy, vile.

There isn’t any arguing with another person’s emotions. They feel as they feel. All of us are only angered further by those who deign to tell us how we should feel. I can imagine the situation from his perspective. When I walked into his home, I was invading his space. The reaction is not rational; it is visceral.

As I mature, I have come around. I am as committed as ever to racial justice. If I had an opportunity to travel back in time to talk again to the veteran, or if I were to encounter another version of him as could happen any moment, I would not hesitate to stand up and speak out.

These matters are not simple though. I have met more than one Asian immigrant, for example, who also does not doubt the legitimacy of ethnic nationalism. They, too, perceive the world as broken up by inherited affinities, assigning grievances to groups. At a recent event, I was taken to task by a Korean immigrant who insisted that Korean Americans who, after Pearl Harbor, distinguished themselves as the good Asians against the Japanese Americans who were the bad Asians, were amply justified, inasmuch Koreans were oppressed by Japanese, in distant lands bound by genealogy. From my research, I have learned that Chinese Americans, even those not yet formally naturalized (due to a racial bar), were eager to fight Imperial Japan on behalf of China as well as America.

Yet what has happened is that I am convinced, more than ever, of the need to reach out. I struggle to devise the means to persuade, because that requires dialogue, and typically a conversation proceeds best among those with mutual respect, who accord one another the benefit of an open mind. While a racist has already reached a conclusion, granting no dignity to those who are not their “people,” someone who is sure that he is right will not impress those who are certain he has no rights.

The issue is what could be called the progressive dilemma. If you claim to tolerate everyone, embracing them wholeheartedly, then what do you do about intolerance, the person who espouses hatred? It traps you inside a paradox. There are classic conundrums of this nature, such as the “Liar’s Paradox” — the smart-aleck who declares, “I am lying.”

It’s common. I notice many signs nowadays in shop windows that proclaim everyone is welcome inside. As much as I wish, that cannot be so. If the proprietor opens the door to the person who does not share the generous sentiment, then she has ruined that very spirit. The hostility will emanate forth. But if she shuts the door to the bigot, she has shown herself to be a hypocrite. That is how backlash begins.

I do not condone prejudice, but I am determined to engage with the prejudiced. I believe we have no other choice.

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