“Go back to – KUNG FU!”
The rest of the statement was unintelligible over the roar of the white minivan’s engine. On Wednesday evening, three student-aged white guys peeled out of the Hicks parking lot onto Academy Street and yelled racial slurs at us. Initially too stunned to realize what had just happened, we stood on the sidewalk in shock. It was the first explicitly racist encounter for either one of us, and for it to happen right on campus, our supposed home away from home, intensified our anger and distress.
Dazed. Distracted. Disbelief. These words don’t even begin to describe the range of emotions that both of us have gone through. Reporting the incident only made it worse, because that was the most that we could do, but we did not actually accomplish anything or feel a sense of justice. We both knew that we were going to encounter this sort of deliberate racism eventually, but we had no idea how we would actually react. We weren’t expecting this to affect us to such a degree that we would not be able to focus on anything other than what was shouted on the street.
The reactions of others tend to be sympathetic or awkward, if only because they are not sure how else to respond. Hearing others say, “You’re acting like a victim” or “Just ignore them” or “Don’t be distracted from what’s important,” however well-intentioned, trivializes the significance of our reactions and how this has impacted us. This is an important issue. It is impossible to anticipate the extent to which one will be affected by such blatant racism until it is experienced firsthand – and for the majority of this campus, that will never happen. This is not to say that there have not been certain people who have helped us; however, most responses have only added to our frustration. Sympathy and empathy are not absolutely necessary, but we take comfort in the fact that others are able to have some understanding, even though they may never have racial slurs aimed towards them.
It is also important to address the naïve presuppositions that pervade the campus in everyday conversation. Questions like, “Where are you from?” that do not in fact refer to where we grew up but instead our ethnic background, or from a highly respected, intelligent, and worldly professor asking a Korean student, “Do you speak Chinese?” seem harmless prima facie. However, these questions further perpetuate white privilege and the idea that minorities are not truly Americans. As innocent as these questions may appear, they challenge American identity, a sense of self, and imply that certain people, based solely on appearance, will always be outsiders. While it may seem that this type of ignorance in no way compares to the isolated racist harassment we experienced on Wednesday evening, it is still a part of the bigger problem of race relations in society, partly because it happens so regularly and also because it often goes unrecognized.
As minorities, we’re well aware that racism is something that we’ll encounter again. Our first experience with blatant racism happened within the confines of the K Bubble, a place that many see as impenetrable, but it is important to acknowledge that the everyday ignorance that we experience on campus, however inexplicit it may seem to the uncritical eye, is just as detrimental to racial progress.
Note: This article was printed in the campus newspaper, The Index, on April 28th, 2005.