Monday, February 9, 2015

A conversation about race

I had a short talk with an friend of ours who is a foreign student (by coincidence, she is from the same city as our daughter) at one of our fine Southern universities.  She told me that she and her fellow Chinese students are somewhat less than happy with their treatment by the school.  I was puzzled and even a little astonished: political correctness and diversity are well-established in the US university system, so the idea that the school administrators and faculty wouldn't trip over themselves to make foreign students feel completely welcome was hard to believe.

In a cautious manner, I probed a little deeper.  WHAT was the school doing... or not doing?  How was it failing?  She explained to me that the school is not being outright abusive or discriminatory, but rather... oblivious.  Here we have students who are heavily outnumbered by their white peers and, indeed, are visiting a strange country.  The university, however, has made little effort to recognize that this can make them feel isolated and unsupported.

As we talked, it seemed to me that the problem lies in how white people deal with - are PROGRAMMED to deal with - people of other races.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, speech at Washington, DC, August 28, 1963
For the past sixty years, this is, I think, how white people in our country have been taught to view race.  In effect, we are taught to ignore it.  "I don't see a black / Latino / Asian / &c. person: I see simply a PERSON."* 

While this is miles ahead of indulging in negative stereotypes, it fails to recognize that race can be central to how people see themselves and certainly how they experience the world.  Our friend agreed that this is a pretty accurate statement of the problem: it's not hostility or even indifference to her and her fellow Chinese students, but simply ignoring that they are, in fact, Chinese**.

I admit that I'm not entirely sure how to deal with this sort of problem.  I offered the opinion to our friend that race is tricky to deal with for white people as we get conflicting signals about what is expected from us, and making a misstep can have some pretty nasty consequences.  However, we will HAVE to figure it out because, as our friend said, our daughter will very likely have to deal with it.


(*) For a very stark example of this problem in the adoption community, I refer the reader to this excerpt from "Adopted: The Movie" in which Korean adoptee Lynne Connor discusses how her mother absolutely refused to admit, much less discuss, her identity as a Korean woman.

(**) Our friend has cousins who were born here in the United States.  She related a story that I've discussed before: "No, no: where are you FROM?"

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