A woman from Texas started speaking to me the other night. She started by wedging herself in between the wall and me and asking me if the bar we were at had any dessert. I pointed her to the food page of the English menu, copies of which we both had, and told her it doesn’t look like there was any. Disappointed, she started telling me how excited she was to be leaving in five days. I said it was a shame she didn’t have a better time in Beijing. We chatted a bit more, and then she said it.
“Your English is really good.”
There was a moment of confusion, as I questioned myself whether I had heard her properly. “Sorry?” I asked her, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
“Your English – it’s really good.”
“Oh, thanks, well, I’m American, so I would hope it is.”
And that’s all I said to her about that. She then asked where I was from and I went through the whole spiel. We talked a bit about the US, my time in Beijing, her time in Beijing, why she didn’t like it.
She seemed not the least bit embarrassed. She definitely didn’t apologize. Here I was, speaking to her in fluent English, using my standard American (slightly southern) accent, and she can’t even figure out that I must be American. I mean, I don’t know for sure why she didn’t pick up on that, but I think it’s because I’m not white.
What does it take? If an American accent and normal American conversational skills are not enough, would geographical knowledge of the US help? Like, when she said she was from Texas, I knew where it was and how hot it gets there.
And you know what? This wasn’t even the first time it’s happened to me.
A lot of people are racist. You probably are too in some way. I know I’ve caught myself a few times. Racism manifests itself in surprising forms. Our biases come out unexpectedly: during conversations, while we’re out walking, in the choices we make. Our collective understanding of racism is still incomplete and imperfect, while we struggle, both individually and as a society, to know what it’s like to be part of or not part of a racial minority and how racism can affect all of us.
For a long time, I was blissfully unaware of the covert racism that had affected me my whole life. The first couple of times when a white person remarked on my excellent English, I said something similar to what I told the Texan. Indeed, I was taken aback at first, but then I just laughed it off and attributed it to that individual’s own stupidity. Then I thought of all the wittier replies I could’ve said, such as: “OMG, I was just thinking that about your English too!” or “Would you say I speak as well as a native?” or “Yeah, I think it’s better than yours.”
But it’s more than stupidity. When your brain is too stupid to realize that someone who walks like an American and talks like an American is probably an American – you’ve clearly got a mental block preventing you from drawing the obvious conclusion. I’ve come to realize that that mental block is racism. Somewhere deep down, these people still link “American” with “white,” even though non-white people make up 25% of the US population and will soon make up a majority.
This particular example of racism was quite minor, and the level of personal offense caused was pretty low. However, given that it’s such a simple thing, surely it would be pretty easy for the offender to be less offensive. I don’t blame anyone for assuming that I am Chinese, given how I’m ethnically Chinese and I’m in China (usually). But after we’ve already been talking for a while, surely – SURELY – you would change your assumption. You might not be ready to at first, which I could understand too. You might even ask me: “Hey, are you from the US?” And I’ll just be like, “Why, yes, North Carolina in fact!”
But while I’m not personally offended by it, I do feel deeply about it. I’m outraged that there are still white Americans who do not see non-white Americans as Americans, and I’m worried about the societal repercussions this kind of thinking can bring. I think it can be dangerous. I won’t go into how here because it’s not the point of this post and I think it is pretty obvious by just looking at the current racial problems in the US. Disturbingly, some people claim that racism is dead. But it’s actually alive and well.