white people only

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.”

“I’m American.”

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?

29 thoughts on “Desensitized to Racism

  1. Just read your blog… I believe that racism still exists. There are people who throw racist remarks around, and times when some people fail to know the definition of “American.” It’s like they don’t realize that America is made up of different ethnicities. I’m just so used to racism that sometimes I fail to realize that someone is being racist. I think some people think that it is okay now to throw racist remarks, or say something racist, and sometimes they don’t know enough of the world. And that annoys be because EVERYONE should understand that people who lives in America are AMERICANS.

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    1. That is what I mean by being desensitized to racism. We’re so used to racism that we fail to realize it. Thank you for your response.

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  2. Those are really good thoughts. My children are half Hmong and half Mien. Every time we attend a family function it would be here comes the half Miens (if we were attending on the Hmong side) and here comes the half Hmongs (if attending the Mien side). I would get offended but not say anything. One day my oldest son who was about three at the time said, “Mom, I’m not half and half, I’m just Dylan!”… And I thought yes you are, you are Dylan! When school forms are sent home to be filled out, I make another box and put American and check it. My children are teaching me things that I should have taught them.

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    1. I’ve heard this situation many times before too. Usually when the family gets like that it is a bigger issue than mixraces (i really don’t think they care, they just blame other things on that)…like, how you got to that point and all the other things that you’ve done to disappoint them. If they don’t even accept your kids then they will probably take it to the grave.

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    2. I’m sorry that you have to experience that within families. Your children should not be going through this. Through their innocence, kids are the ones who teach us things we have forgotten or need to be taught.

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  3. I don’t think we have become sensitized to racism but we have become sensitized to prejudice and ignorance. They assume the wrong things and ask the wrong questions. Most people who ask me about my nationality and get American for an answer usually apologize and ask for my ethnic background instead. One time a lady try to cover herself but made the coversation even more offensive. She said she assumed I wasn’t American because I had an asian accent. OMG!!! I knew she meant a “thick” asian accent. I have been accused of having an accent… Canadian accent!!! I worked at a call center (where people can’t judge me by how I look) and the callers thought we were located in Canada because of my accent. The state I live in borders Canada and I live in the northern part of the state. When I visit the South, they think my sister and I are from Canada.

    The lady had originally silently judged me by my look and then voiced that she judged me by my speaking skills. But like your experience, her words threw me off. Didn’t realize her prejudice until after she had walked away. I do believe that for outright prejudice, we have become sensitized to it. But racism, hate, that I don’t think we are sensitize too. I remember the first time an elderly lady shut her door in our face while trick-or-treating. Before she did, she said she didn’t like our kind. I was 10 years old, my younger siblings were 5 & 6. My mom was asked us what happen because she was standing on the sidewalk. I told my mom that the old lady said she didn’t like Hmongs.

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    1. “American,” I like that. Next time someone ask me my nationality, I will just say “American,” instead of having to give a whole long explanation. 🙂 Thanks!

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      1. Technically speaking, when someone speaks of nationality, it is the what country/nation you belong to or are a citizen of. So, if you’re an American citizen, of course your nationality would be American. That is what many racist Americans do not understand.

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    2. I agree with what you said. People assume the wrong things and ask the wrong questions portrays ignorance and prejudices. But could that lead to racism? It’s a rhetoric question, you don’t have to answer.

      Your example of the woman the lady closing the door to your family trick-or-treating is blatant racism. And to do that to kids. SMH.

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  4. Racism isn’t as overt as it used to be because laws and dramatic events have permanently changed our society. I would think that a better word for it Would Be, “ignorance” – people fear what they don’t know. As a child, I was was lucky to grow up in an area without racism and the only black people I ever saw were professional football players at the stadium. But, there were a lot of Hmong around too.

    I did experience ignorance/racism when I was in college though. And same race-on-race racism. It was the worse experience of my life. It’s normal to treat people of different races a certain way out of respect but, you also have to treat them equally.

    For example, one time someone said, “how do you talk to a hmong person.” This really bothered me because I was a local and had lived here for over 20yrs and someone is talking to me like I just moved here from China.

    I wanted to say, “uhm…you talk to them like how you would talk to a Catholic person, iguess.” (Yes! I am a very controversial person)

    Then there were these other people who thought that I didn’t know how to speak English well because I behave too much like an Asian/Hmong person and would sometimes mix my English with Hmong. They would over-think everything which really offended me because they acted on their thoughts with no regard to my feelings. It caused me a lot of loss and permanent damage. I feel that they didn’t get to know me the right way they don’t deserve to know me now.

    I lived my whole life in America but my parents are the oldest of our nationality here. This treatment towards me was mostly to cover-up the guilt for what these people had done onto me. They try to justify it with reasons that little children would use with this and that. At no point did I ever give them any reason to treat me this way either.

    In the end, treat everyone equally. And, don’t try to be so respectful..they’ll understand..and you’ll just get confused.

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  5. That was one big racist experience you went through. I have never gone through something that serious, but I get asked all the time about where I am from. Last week, my college academic advisor even asked me where I am from. I mean, even professionals are racist, it makes me sick. I would think that they would educated enough to know that America has all types of people living in it, just because someone looks different does not mean they are not from America.

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    1. I like to believe that people ask because their curious. Maybe we could be a foreigner or maybe not. I think it’s okay to ask. However, it is a different thing when someone tells you that you are not or should not be what you say you are. We get to identify ourselves however we want.

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  6. The example image is clearly a racist sign but to ask someone what their nationality/ethnicity is, is not. I can understand that it might be rude to ask in a check-out line or somewhere where it would feel uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean it’s racist. The word racism has been misconstrued over time to include all types of prejudice, ignorance, and anything else any minority wants to throw in.

    I’ve asked other people their nationality and they’ve asked about mine. I’m curious and maybe they’re curious but that doesn’t make us racist. Personally, I’ve had more Asians ask me about my ethnicity than any other race. And, the racism I’ve experienced, none of those people have ever asked what my race is. They’ve only made fun of my features, the culture they think I am, the language they think I speak, and physical actions stating they do not want an Asian around, but they have never asked what my race is, and it’s because they don’t care about the race. They just don’t like those who don’t look like them.

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    1. I agree with you. Asking about one’s identity/ethnicity/race does not make it racist. We are curious and do it all the time. But telling a person of color who lives in America and identifies as an American that she cannot be “American” is racist.

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      1. You’re right. It’s wrong of her to think you’re not American but I think by that point she was already pissed that you made it so difficult for her to ask what your ethnicity was. You probably hoping she’d turn around and agree with you but that would mean she wouldn’t get the answer she was looking for…which was simply to know your ethnicity.

        Also, you were throwing your belief/understanding of what American means to you, on her. Did you ask her first what her definition of an American was? I bet she probably doesn’t think a Native Indian is American. She probably doesn’t even know what the definition is but she’s not alone. A lot of people don’t see minorities as Americans, and it’s not just a white thing. That person could have been black, Hispanic, Korean, or some other white European person and you would probably answer differently to them. I kind of wonder if you were prejudice against a white American asking you.

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        1. My answer to her were not because she is White. If anyone ask me for my nationality, I say “American;” my ethnicity, I say “Hmong (and mind you, I did tell her I’m Hmong from the US at one point);” and where I’m from, I say I’m from here; where I was born, Thailand. This implication that a person of color cannot be American, even if it is her belief, is a form of microaggression.

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