Jeon: Racism’s Raw Truth

by The Dartmouth | 10/20/15 7:20pm

I still remember the sinking feeling in my gut, promptly replaced by a simmering rage, when a pedestrian in the Pennsylvania suburbs — where my family had moved to from South Korea — hurled an ethnic slur at me. Then there was the time when my parents, unskilled in spoken English, remained shocked in silence as a homeowner launched a racist tirade against them for accidentally driving through his frontyard. Throughout high school, whenever I volunteered at a community tutoring center for children, several children mocked me by slanting their eyes with their fingers.

Even after entering college, racist behaviors have continued to bedevil me. Once at Logan Airport, I encountered a Dunkin’ Donuts employee who proceeded to address me as “Korea,” despite my explicit request to call me by my name. While on my government foreign study program in London, I was accosted by a trio of British men lewdly commenting on my Asian features. I had never felt so genuinely endangered and humiliated in my life, and without my classmates’ help to leave the scene, I would have dissolved into tears.

These indignities, though relatively few and far between, have been just frequent enough to stay seared in my memory. In all cases, I can recall how my initial bewilderment would morph into fury and dismay, as I fully grasped the message after being caught off guard by a stray jeer. I almost always blamed myself for being too mortified to deliver any crushing comebacks.

Wealthy and educated Americans, removed from the grit of everyday discrimination, seem inclined to think racism no longer exists in the proverbial melting pot — a 2013 Gallup poll found that only 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites thought discrimination caused black Americans’ social disadvantages. The invocations of a “post-racial” or “colorblind” American society overlook the sobering truth that racism persists, not only through significant socioeconomic disparities but also through ostensibly trivial interactions such as those described above.

Contrary to Rousseau’s assertion that a child’s mind resembles a blank slate without bias, recent research has concluded that even six-month-old infants can discern differences in skin color by demonstrating that they stare much longer at pictures of faces of a race different from their parents’. In another experiment, scholars distributed blue shirts to half of the four-and five-year-olds at a preschool and red shirts to the other half, instructing them to wear the respective shirts for three weeks. Crucially, teachers never talked about the shirt colors or grouped the kids by the colors. These children, however, expressed positive views about their own color group and unfavorable ones regarding the out-group when asked about their intelligence and niceness, among other traits. The scholars ascribe this result to children’s propensity to develop in-group preferences, primarily on the basis of highly visible attributes.

This propensity contrasts with other studies showing that many white parents take an abstract, colorblind approach to teaching their children about equality and rarely make direct mentions of race. Meanwhile, minority parents tend to discuss race and ethnicity more regularly with their children. Scholars contend that this colorblind philosophy enables white children in particular to form misguided opinions about other races and to think of themselves as fundamentally different from non-white peoples in habits and characteristics. Some research has also suggested the presence of “developmental windows” in which children’s perceptions of race are most malleable, pegging the maximum age around first grade, with minimal effects by third grade.

After each episode of casual racism, I often wondered exactly how I should have responded to the perpetrators, especially if they were mere tykes like the kids who delighted in imitating my eyes. It was most astonishing when children, so innocent that they did not recognize my hurt, threw around racist epithets. Is it best to shout back crude, racist remarks of my own, to smile graciously to make them ashamed by my forgiveness or to argue cogently to refute the culprit’s views?

In hindsight, I realize that the most effective rejoinder to a racist comment depends on the situation. In London last fall, considering how drunk and potentially belligerent the men were, I would have been better off avoiding direct confrontation. In the cases of children and even some adults making seemingly harmless utterances, however, I now believe I should have conveyed in plain speech just how hurtful their actions were.

It is frustrating to explain how immoral and inaccurate racism is — a basic principle in any free and just society. But using racist attacks in revenge would only further degrade both parties. Turning the other cheek would pour salt in the wound and leave it to fester. Based on the research I have mentioned, I am nursing a careful hope that the next time I come face-to-face with a nonchalantly racist teenager, I will be able to verbalize the damage inflicted by their actions. The rest — whether the offender changes her mind — is not under my control, but my part in defying racism, one person and one conversation at a time, will have been done.