BY NERISSA RUJANAVECH
Published January 28, 2009
A few days ago while walking down Washington Street to the public library, I noticed two young black men coming down the sidewalk toward me. I hoped they would make room for me on the narrow, snow-lined sidewalk. As we squeezed by each other, one of them muttered something and I heard the word “China-woman.” I was a little bit stunned, but kept walking. When I didn’t respond, they shouted at me and laughed as I hurried away.
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It’s been several years since I’ve been the target of a racist joke or remark. I grew up in Missouri and have heard some pretty nasty things over the years — “go back to China” is one that I’ve heard many times (I am not Chinese). And yet when people talked about racism at my high school, discrimination against Asian-Americans was never mentioned. Discussions on racism always focused on tensions between whites and blacks, which in some ways made sense to me because the racial, social and economic injustices suffered by blacks were much more prevalent in my community. I was made to feel that I was worrying about pebbles while boulders were being hurled. And admittedly, being an African-American in my community was much more difficult than being an Asian-American.
But when I went to California for my undergraduate studies, I discovered the issue of racism is not really about which minority group suffers more. Slavery was a horrendous crime, but so was the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Is it really constructive to attempt to rank injustice? Racism is still racism, no matter how big or small, no matter to whom it is directed toward.
The incident on Washington troubles me not only because of the racist remark but because of who said it to me. In Missouri, the people who said racist things to me were white, and as a result I’ve always felt a sort of kinship with other minorities. Other minorities know what I’ve gone through — they know what it’s like to be stamped with stereotypes. I felt the two black men who called me “China-woman” should know better and should know how demeaning it is to be subject to racism. Did they use a slur against me because they’ve never thought of racism as something that happens to other minorities? Or did they just not care?
It’s been several years since I’ve lived in the Midwest. It’s no longer the ‘80s or ‘90s, Michigan isn’t Missouri, and the United States is much more diverse than it used to be. But I’m curious as to whether conversations about race in Michigan are still only focused on tensions between whites and blacks. I hope not, because so many other issues of minority identity are beginning to work their way into our national consciousness — gay rights, for example. I think more dialogue about all forms of discrimination is necessary.
Not surprisingly, President Obama’s election has meant a lot to me. Finally, we have a national leader who understands what it’s like to be a minority in America and who’s not afraid to have conversations on tough issues like race or religion. And while Obama campaigned to bring change to America, he can’t change this country on his own. Getting beyond the destructiveness of racism is something that we all have to work on together. This is change that I want to believe that America is capable of, racist remarks from anyone have no place in this era of hope.