Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Ask Who I Am, Not What"

The other day, a student sent me a link to a story about a video called, “10 Reasons I don’t want to be an Asian.” The college student who made the video aired his offensive views casually and plainly, as if he were telling how he learned to play violin or how he got interested in electrical engineering.
Only when there was an outcry did the student recant, a little. He said he was only joking. Later, he said he was sorry. In an era when schools, parents and communities place an enormous emphasis on multi-culturalism, intercultural exchange and Teaching Peace, the racism and ignorance and meanness of this student’s “joke” make far less sense than if it had happened a hundred years ago.
I know some teen-aged students from China who are attending high school in the United States. Most of them have made strong ties to some of the other Chinese students, and some have good friendships with international students from other countries. Only a few have made friends with the local native-English speaking population. Most wish they could. They sit in the cafeteria surrounded by groups of teenagers, sitting and talking with each other. They don’t know how to join. Many are lonely. (Yet,
they said right away that they are happy to "be Asian!")
This morning I heard a radio article about a project called, “The Race Card Project.” People are invited to submit a six word response to the question, “What are your thoughts about race?”
The Project has collected thousands of beautiful, fascinating, disturbing, funny, thoughtful, sad and ridiculous statements. I saw:

    • “When will we see just people?”
    • “No English. Standardized Assessment. No chance.”
    • “No, where are you actually from?”
    • “I see myself in the Other.”
    • “Ignoring race doesn’t make it disappear.”
    • “You see me as I’m NOT”
    • “Don’t assume anything about me. Please.”
    • “Black shoots black not in news.”
    • “White people continually justify minority deaths.”
    • “Color doesn’t explain or excuse failure.”

         and on and on. . .

How many of us think we know something about someone just by looking at them? How often do I think that because someone is a woman, or a man, or wearing certain clothes or has this kind of hair or that ethnicity, or even that expression on their faces,  that I know something about who they are.
I think I can tell something about people even before I speak with them and then I call myself open-minded?
What does it take to end racism? sexism? ageism? all identity-isms? One of the Race Cards read, “Ask Who I Am, Not What.” That sounds like where I/we need to start. I/We could make a difference to someone today by reaching past an assumption that I already know anything about him/her.  If I/we want to know who someone is, I/we need to show an interest in finding out about that someone, and not box their answers into categories about women, men, Chinese, black, Hispanic, gay, old, or young.
The local high school students don’t always turn around and include the lonely new international students. The neighbors who have lived on the block for ten years don’t always know the names or personalities of the neighbor who moved in last year. The strangers on the train with you are busy with their own concerns.
It’s not always easy to reach out and get to know other people. It is worth the time, to me, to you, to them. 

  I welcome feedback from anyone who has ever felt more like a what than a who, from anyone who can help extend the conversation.