During a workshop on diversity, the facilitator put everyone into groups and asked us to discuss our most recent experience of racism. Everyone in my group was stumped. We could not think of a time when we felt someone was being racist towards us.
I thought out loud to the group, “Maybe we can’t think of a situation or experience because it happens so much that we have become desensitized to it.”
Most nodded their heads in agreement. But as I said this, my conversation in line at the grocery store came to mind. And I shared it with the group.
I was in the check out line when the White woman behind me complimented me on the Hmong bag I bought from the New Year almost 3 years ago.
“That’s a nice ethnic bag!” she exclaimed.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“So, where are you from?” she proceeded to ask.
“I’m from […], but just moved here about 2 years ago.”
“No, I’m not asking where you live. I’m asking what nationality you are.”
The lady paused, looked me over, and said, “Honey, you can’t be American. You’re not White.”
I was blown away by her comment and looked at her blankly, trying to form words to reply back to her.
But I am American, I thought to myself. Even though I wasn’t born in the US, I have lived here almost all of my life. I am a naturalized American citizen. How can I not be American? Are White people the only ones privileged enough to claim to be “American?”
“So, what country are you from?”
I replied that I am Hmong from the United States. That did not satisfy her.
As I’m paying the cashier, the lady says to me, “Young lady, you need to be proud of where you come from. Don’t say that you’re American when I can clearly see that you’re not.”
I didn’t reply, grabbed my cart, and went outside.
Am I proud of my history? Am I proud of being Hmong? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t claim to be American as well. And who is to say those of us who are yellow, brown, black, green, or blue cannot be American? What defines America? And why do many people, especially White people, believe that only the Whites can be American?
Several years ago, I was hooked on this MMO called “Perfect World International.” As always, people are interested in where you live or what your race/ethnicity is. I joined a group during a quest and this man from Italy started a conversation with me. He asked what my race is. I told him I am Asian. He asked what country I am from. I told him I’m from the US. He then proceeded to tell me that I am not Asian as I claim. For me to be Asian, I need to be from an Asian country. Since I am from The US, I am considered American. WOW, really! A White American doesn’t consider me American and an Italian man doesn’t consider me Asian, but American.
I have come across so many people being racist—blatantly or unknowingly—that sometimes I question if they know they’re being racist. And because it happens so often that sometimes I do not realize it is racist until afterwards. Is there such a thing as being desensitized to racism because we are exposed almost daily to racism?
In my group during the diversity workshop, I was the only one who came up with an example of racism (after much thinking). Maybe the other participants were too shy to share or were afraid of offending others with their stories, I don’t know. Or is it that racism no longer exists in this oh-so-wonderful country of the USA that no one has any experience to share?