Earlier this week, a nameless woman rushed through the downpour in the streets of the Upper East Side. She was tight on time, and had a temperament to match. She had no time to waste on obstructions like the horde of churchgoers holding up foot traffic on the sidewalk. So this must be the reason why she screamed at the bystanders to “Go back to China!”
Michael Luo, an American-born New York Times editor, was one of these bystanders. Last week, he wrote an open letter to this woman, addressing her abhorrent, racist exclamation. The article has received much attention and overwhelming support from the Asian-American community, many of whom have shared startlingly similar experiences of blatant racism. Luo was one of the few victims with the conviction to channel his disbelief by sprinting up to the woman and confronting her; but he is only one of a few. The woman threatened to call the cops on him if he attempted assault, which is a comical and distastefully ironic reaction after unleashing her very own verbal assault.
It is silently understood that this woman was not Chinese or Asian, and was quite likely not a part of a minority. The woman appeared to be a well-dressed, functional member of society, possibly a mother or wife; ultimately, a normal person who looked like she belonged in Manhattan.
She was also racist. To identify her as any of these descriptions without tacking on this bit is nothing short of ignorance. The woman talked down to Luo and his family from a position of scorn. She was irrefutably racist. People may defend her inappropriate comment as a misdirected expression of frustration or a poor display of irritation — an “in the heat of the moment” unconscious reaction.
No. These people are dismissing offensive speech, and they need to understand that this is not acceptable. This woman chose to insult bystanders of her own agency and did not apologize. She became aware of the consequences of her choices the moment she chose to threaten Luo using the power of law enforcement.
She is overtly racist, and it is because she sees Asian-Americans as a collection of foreigners temporarily residing in this country rather than people who call it their home, like she does. She is racist because in her mind, she believes that immigrants are invasive country-hoppers, and therefore do not deserve a permanent niche in American society. Immigrant parents breed foreign children who do not belong, who cannot be accepted, who cannot claim her country as theirs, too. “Asia,” “oriental,” and “fobs” are antonymous to the purity of America.
I want to break down and address the depths of her racism. Beyond her overt racism, this situation exemplifies microaggressive behaviors that are hidden in people’s reactions and has even become normalized. Did she understand her passive racism, projected in her superiority despite his attempts to speak from equal ground? Or the concealed racism implied in her ability to manipulate the situation to her advantage, should figures of authority have arrived at the scene? Does this woman acknowledge her being in America as invasive to the natives who used to thrive here?
Observers who find themselves in circumstances such as this one and ignore their offensive natures, are no less racist, because ignoring this behavior is encouraging it to continue. The inability to recognize racism will allow hatred to foster like it has in this woman.
Racism does not have to look like confrontation. Racism can be the gaze that passes over you in lecture and lands on someone who doesn’t share the color of your skin. Racism is in the exclusive social circles in the high school hierarchy. Racism is in the way other children laugh and crinkle their noses in disgust at what you brought for lunch in kindergarten. Racism is asking “But where are you really from?” and ignorance when they think Chinese comes in one language. It is watching a movie where the majority of the cast is caucasian, with one token black actor and no room for Asian actors. It is ignoring skin color and saying every person is the same. It is the reason behind affirmative action in college admissions that preserves cultures as percentages. It is a Fox News reporter interviewing residents of Chinatown and expecting them to understand his language and answer his questions because he chose for them to appear on TV, and accommodate his presence like they have nothing better to do with their days. Racism is thinking cases like these are normal.
The oppressive superficiality in today’s society is deeply and incredibly saddening. Humanity’s paradox is that the same attributes creating biologically unique beings has also forged the foundations of prejudice. Because of this, self-identity is a struggle. Things like genes determining the amount of melanin pigments that will be produced in skin and the DNA that codes for the contours of a face decide a person’s social status.
Racial inequity exists, but the line between offensive antagonization and innocent communication looks thin for people who don’t know how to approach this topic. They see themselves as open-minded and willing to discuss racial issues, as long as they are not offended and do not feel uncomfortable. But talking about social issues is necessarily messy.
Thanks to this woman, we are able to have an open discussion about modern racism. I encourage you to feel uncomfortable and offended about these topics, because I’m sure the other side feels exactly the same. The key to communication is taking the time to understand each other.
Elizabeth Cao is a second-year pharmaceutical sciences major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org