Another Perspective on Race

by Jennifer Chon | 11/23/98 6:00am

As long as I can remember, exceptionalism has been the rule in my family. My parents struggled, against much resistance, to inculcate in me a strong sense of difference. At 10 years of age, the subject of contention was sleepovers. At 15, curfews. And still now, at 21 years of age, the sense of filial obligation is a constant in my life and in the conversations I have with my parents, particularly when we disagree. Faced with the difficult task of sustaining a close relationship with my parents from thousands of miles away, I've had to confront the schizophrenia (no, I'm not nuts) and sense of loss resulting from dislocation. Above all, what never ceases to amaze me is the increasing cognizance I have of difference.

I realize that I'm more expressive and a little more critical in Korean and louder and crasser in English. When I go back home on breaks, wherever home may be, New York or Los Angeles, east or west, I slide back into familial relationships and my native tongue with the ease of a child recovering toys from her childhood. Only then am I acutely aware of loss -- the loss of fluency of thought in the language of home for the language of academic "success," and the loss of silent respect and comfortable deference for the ability to be "assertive, opinionated, strong-minded" -- the ability to not be drowned out, but heard. I could easily articulate Hegel's theory of the dialectic, but I have trouble communicating to my grandmother, my second mother from birth, what educational opportunity has meant in my life and why it's so important to me to dedicate my life to give others the same opportunity. I find myself thinking in English and struggling to find the appropriate words to translate into Korean. Often, nonsense results. In many ways I feel as though I've traded in my soul for the "success" that others covet.

When I hear seemingly apolitical soundbites like "model" or "advantaged" as applied to Asian-Americans, I have to cringe. While I realize that it's unrealistic to expect everyone I encounter to have a nuanced understanding of the Asian-American historical experience, I would hope that at a place like Dartmouth, the human tendency to oversimplify the complexity of individual experience would not apply. I would never deny that I've been blessed with wonderfully generous parents whose first priority was giving me access to what they thought was "success," but I have to laugh at those who choose to believe that this "success" has not been attained at great loss, either to my parents or me.

Yet I encounter this crude simplicity of thought everywhere -- in social relationships, with professors, on off-terms, during internships. This summer, at a program I attended at Berkeley, I had to explain to friends (black and white) on several occasions why I chose to be a history and African/African-American studies major. They found it dubious that I, as an Asian woman, could find any aspect of the black American experience germane to my own. One would only have to study recent American history to realize that around the turn of the century, W.E.B. Dubois envisioned a pan-racial, pan-ethnic movement by colonized people of color around the world for freedom, which had ideological significance in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. One would have to have only a modicum of respect for the complexity of history to understand that the study of African America, for me, is a way to make sense of a society that has always deconstructed and reconstructed race in almost whimsical fashion.

One would only have to ask, but choose to listen.

This spring, when I interned at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City, I had to struggle every day, in my own small way, to broaden the discourse surrounding affirmative action and employment discrimination to include Asian-Americans -- to persuade the most dedicated and brilliant civil rights litigators in the country, who seemed comfortable defining disadvantage in the narrowest of ways. And still at Dartmouth -- perennially at Dartmouth, it seems -- such difficulties are aggravated by annoyances that I've come to take for granted: the fact that campus discussions involving race and identity very rarely include Asians or the fact that no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to secure a lunch date with a prominent leader in the African-American community, even in my capacity as the Asian-American administrative intern. I can't escape this nagging feeling that if I were president of La Alianza and a little darker, the story would read entirely differently.

In the wake of the recent "racial" incidents, Dartmouth's ethnic community is once again faced with the difficult task of redefining the vocabulary of racial identity to be more inclusive of its diverse membership -- those who are biracial, those who aren't traditionally "disadvantaged," those who are "whiter" or those who are part of the gay minority community. Asian-Americans are similarly faced with a difficult task: wedging our way into this ambiguously defined "community" so that Asian and Pacific American interests can be represented in the dialogue.

If anything, we should learn that the language we take for granted is fraught with a host of meanings; as "ghetto" means infinitely more to some than a chosen "lifestyle" that's been commercialized for popular culture and mainstream musical tastes, terms like "minority" and "person of color" are double-edged for some groups. Like most of the vocabulary that aims to simplify human experience to qualifiers, words like these don't communicate precise meanings as much as they convey the hypocrisy of ideas. Although I believe that in every way possible I am a person of color, there are others who have serious doubts. In my final year at Dartmouth, I haven't completely given up on the hope that, for once, Dartmouth would not only pay lip service to the idea of "community," but recognize and respect every individual experience.

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