In the Moment: Racism and Our Reactions

by Guest Contributor Tara, originally published at Bias Cut


I think the Universe has been testing me lately.

Over the last several months, I’ve been confronted with some pretty blatantly racist statements about Asian folks, and each moment has been pretty intense in a lot of ways.

While I was in Puerto Rico, my friends and I were at a restaurant, and started passing around our old college IDs to giggle at. Mine is a picture of me as a babydyke with short and spiky hair. The waiter (a young white guy) came over and and asked if we were passing around our fake IDs (which was funny, because all of us ranged in age from 25 to 37). I said that we were passing around our college IDs, and I suppose in an attempt to be friendly, he asked to see them. I passed mine over and he said something that I didn’t quite catch because it was noisy.

A little bit later during the dinner, I said to Anna, “I can’t believe our waiter thought we were under 21!” Anna said, “Um, I can’t believe the Asian comment that he made!” I asked her what he said, and she told me that when I had handed him my ID, he said, “Did you steal your ID from some Asian kid?”

Horrifyingly, the waiter heard us and came back over to the table. “Yeah, I asked her if she stole her ID from some Asian kid.” Anna asked, “Does that mean that you don’t think she looks Asian?” He answered no. “Well, I am,” I snapped at him. He then continued to stick his foot further in his mouth and explain that the ID did, in fact, look like something I stole.

More recently, I was at a party where some people were taking pictures. Someone mentioned that their friend looked like they were squinting in the picture. And then, the Asian jokes started. One guy clasped his hands together, bowed, and imitated an Asian accent. Later, they started talking about ping pong, and someone said something about Koreans being really good at ping pong. Then, another person wondered if it was the Chinese or the Koreans that were good at ping pong. Someone else said, horrified, that they didn’t believe athletic ability was tied to race. Someone else replied that no really, Asians really were good at ping pong! All of them were white.

In those situations, I didn’t say anything. You see, I have this deer-in-the-headlights reaction when I hear something racist that people, especially strangers, say. I’m one of those people who prefers to analyze something to death before responding. I like to choose my words carefully, which makes it extremely difficult to think fast enough about what response I want to have in those moments. And I inevitably leave those interactions feeling guilty, like I’m not fierce enough or smart enough to have said something.

I’ve found that I’ve had the most success around talking to folks about racism when I have a personal relationship with them, and can therefore approach the situation at a later date when I’ve had a chance to think about the comment or action. Plus, I feel that I am personally more skilled at approaching conversations from a “this hurt me, and this is why” standpoint versus a “fuck you, and this is why” standpoint.

But the other thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how other people react to the stories after the fact. Whenever I retell the stories, they are almost immediately followed by the question, “So what did you do/say?” And when the answer is “nothing,” I feel obligated to justify my silence to them, and leave the interaction feeling even more guilty about my non-reaction.

So, the questions I’ve been asking myself lately are:

1. Why is it that so many people react to racist stories with a question about how you did or didn’t react to that situation in the moment and what that question is really about;

2. What kinds of expectations white folks have around POC’s reactions to racism and why;

3. How it further marginalizes POC when we internalize those expectations; and

4. What, if any, responsibility do I have to myself and my community to speak up in those moments, especially given that I often pass as white and therefore am witness to some of the racist things that white folks say when they think they are only amongst white folks.

These questions are all weighing pretty heavily on me right now.