About a year ago, I met this kid named Bob (pseudo-name) at my local church. This is when I had just moved to a small, racially homogeneous town. Bob was white. He was in his early twenties. Our introductory conversation, where we shook hands and exchanged names, would prove to be our first and last normal interaction.
On our second interaction, we, along with another kid, somehow get into a conversation about whether Asians could sport cornrows in their hair (Don’t ask me how we get on this topic). I mention that I’ve seen several Asians with cornrows before and that some of them looked ok. Bob responds, “Well, Asians just look weird anyway.” It was one of those statements that are so absurd that you automatically sense sarcasm… or so I thought. He then gave me a sideways glance, looking at me from the corners of his eyes, and flashing a really dumb grin (hereafter, I will call this “the dumb look”). The other kid and I exchange looks that say, “Huh? What did he just say?” Without words, it is understood that we do not want to turn an awkward statement into an awkward moment, so we continue with the conversation.
Interaction number three. I went out on a date with this one girl at church. This girl was good friends with Bob. At church, I am sitting with this girl when Bob approaches us. After some brief chit chat, Bob nudges the girl with his elbow and says, “So why are you going out with this Asian guy?” Again, it seems to be one of those comments where humor is found in the absurdity. And again, he gives me “the dumb look.” So, we all have a good, awkward chuckle.
The problem with the above two interactions is what often occurs with apparently facetious statements about race. Because race has become a sensitive topic in America, it is difficult to state one’s negative opinions of another race. To get around this, racial commentary is delivered with a clever punch line (not that either of the above comments had any real punch line, but they were obviously meant to be humorous). Humor and wit serve as a mask for people’s hatred or prejudices. And incidentally it is hard to combat it because voicing objection to such speech is viewed as ultra-sensitive.
But let’s keep things in perspective. If a racial comment is made in jest, I will treat it as any other comment made in the same manner—I will laugh. But--and this is a big but--the joke has to be relevant, good-natured, and diplomatically delivered. And so logically, just like any other joke, the context and content must be appropriate; if I don’t know you well enough or if you just made fun of my momma, then maybe I will get a little sensitive.
Continuing with my interactions with Bob, numbers four to about a dozen. The weeks go by and I see Bob at church or at some church function pretty much once or twice a week. However, we never have any real conversations. Without exception, when the kid sees me in the hallway or when I enter the room, he shouts out, “Hey, it’s the Asian kid!” or “Hey, the Asian guy is here!” And every time he says this, he has “the dumb look,” and it’s always in front of several other people. Because of the joking manner in which he says this, and the fact that we always have an audience, not to mention the fact that what he is saying is not in any way false (Well, whaddya know, I am the Asian guy!), it is difficult to ever call him out and risk looking like the uptight minority kid. I don’t want to make a scene, especially for something that is meant to be a joke, at least in Bob’s mind. I should also probably mention that most people who hear his comments have no positive or negative reaction. Most of them are expressionless like they don’t know what hit them. Some of them grin or laugh, and some who are possibly a little more socially aware give Bob a raised eyebrow. There are a couple of times where I respond with something like, “Hey, look it’s another white guy.” That’s actually when the onlookers would laugh the most. But in no way do I ever smile back or humor the kid. I think most onlookers would agree that I looked a little bothered.
Interspersed between the constant “Hey, it’s the Asian guy” comments, are a couple of other more notable comments. However, each instance is nowhere egregious enough for me to call him out. There is at least one time he says, “Oh, who invited the Asian guy?” But again, it was in conjunction with “the dumb look.” And there is another time where he mentions something about Asians and ping pong; a pretty harmless comment, but combined with everything else, I am becoming very irritated. I start to see that he doesn’t think of me as a normal human being. He only sees me as some kind of talking point, like I am a walking target for racial commentary.
There is a swirl of emotions that run through me when I am constantly pointed out as the Asian guy. I mean, it is already quite apparent that I look physically different from everyone else around me; is there really any reason to point out the obvious? Is there really any reason to make me feel any more different than I already do? “Hey everyone. Look at me! My name is Jang, and I’m from a different planet!”
After about six months of this, I tell my brother about Bob. I tell him that the next stupid thing Bob says, I’m going to punch the dude in the stomach. I am pretty set on doing this. For the life of me, I cannot think of a way to handle this in a civil manner. It is one of those things where I thought commonsense would not get through this kid’s thick skull. I thought that all my puzzled looks and snappy responses back to him would have finally made him realize that what he was saying was rude and racist. I am fully convinced that a beat-down is the only way to get this kid to understand. But my brother talks some sense into me. He tells me that as soon as word got out of what I had done, the neighborhood would label me as the minority thug. Not to mention that this kid would probably call the police on me—“angry Asian man gone berserk!”
So another month goes by and nothing changes. Then the final interaction... or should I say confrontation?
I go to a pool party at someone’s house. When I arrive, there are probably 15 or so people playing volleyball in the pool. Bob is there, too. As soon as I enter the water, Bob says the usual, “Oh, when did the Asian guy get here?” I let it slide once again. We play volleyball for about 10 minutes. And then Bob passes me the ball. As he does this, he calls out, “Hey, little Asian man!”
Ooooh, man… no he didn’t! That was IT! I've had enough of this kid. This comment put me over the top. And while I know the first comment six months ago was already over the top, this one really does it for me because he didn’t have a joking tone. And more than anything else, now he is getting dangerously close to calling me a racial epithet. This Bob character is not any bigger or stronger than I, by even a little bit. If anything, I am probably taller than he is. So for him to call me “little” is not for endearing purposes, and is more likely based on the stereotype that Asians are smaller. I am so furious at this point. But I manage to calmly take myself out of the game. I go over to the hot tub, and mull over what has just happened and what is about to happen. I sit in the hot tub almost incapacitated with anger. To the two other people in the hot tub, I say, as I point over to Bob, “You see that kid over there? Well, the next stupid thing that kid says, I’m gon’ smack him in the face.” Both of them are a little confused and ask what was up. I briefly explain the situation but they have no idea what I am talking about. Unfortunately, now that I have witnesses I feel forced to make good on my word.
So, eventually, just as expected, Bob enters the hot tub. A bunch of others also follow him. So there are probably up to ten people in there. I sit there just hoping, and knowing, that this kid is going to say something stupid. And within a few minutes, he does. He says, “Hey, Jang. What’s it like being Asian? You must like Asian food. Do you like it more than American food?” I methodically get up from my seat, stand in the middle of the hot tub, and announce for all to hear, “Ok, I want everybody to witness this!”
At this point, according to witnesses who told me afterward, my New Yawk accent is in full effect. I slowly walk over to Bob. I put my face to probably a foot away from his face. I point my finger at his eyes, and I yell, “WATCH YO’ MOUTH!” He responds in disbelief, “Are you serious?” I answer, “Yeah, I’m serious!” I continue in full volume, “Ever since I met you, all you been talking about is me being Asian. Talk about something else!” I turn around and face the crowd, and ask, “Everyone’s heard it, right? Everyone’s heard him say this stuff, right?” I couldn’t get an Amen if I were a preacher. In fact, everyone has their heads down, trying to avoid eye contact. Bob responds with, “Um, I was just joking. I talk like that to all my black friends and Mexican friends.” A couple of his friends support him on this by saying that they joke the same way, and acknowledge that Bob is just that kind of guy—“That’s the way he is, dude.” I yell back in Bob’s face, “Yo, but I ain’t yo’ friend!” He says, “Sorry, dude.” Now, while all of this is going on, Bob never removes the stupid grin off his face. So I say, “Well, if you’re sorry, then wipe that smile off your face!” I continue, “So, the next stupid thing you say, I’m gon’ smack you! I’m gon’ smack you in the face.” And I’m not sure what Bob was thinking but he responds, “Well, why don’t you smack me right now?”
I had a split second decision to make. Do I get the satisfaction of hitting this dude, in front of all these people who have no idea why I’m mad, and then get labeled the super sensitive Asian guy and the thug of the town? Or do I stay calm and salvage any respect that I have left with these kids? The repercussions of hitting someone and getting into a brawl in the middle of a hot tub, at none other than a church activity, just does not seem worth it to me. So I chicken out. I return to my seat, and I say exasperatingly, “Whatever, man” as I roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders.
For a few seconds everyone just sits there. Someone in the group makes a poor but noble attempt at breaking the awkward silence by asking me, “Hey, so where are you from?” Although it feels like one of those cheesy moments in a Mormon Church commercial that encourage you to embrace those who are different, I don’t want to make things more awkward by not answering, so I say, “New York.” Then the inevitable follow-up question is, “Where in NY?” I reluctantly say, “The Bronx.” I know what everyone was thinking at this point—“Oh, that’s why this guy is so violent….”
So after a little more awkward chit chat, Bob leaves the hot tub. He appears to be feeling very dumb and out of place. He just stands outside of the hot tub for like 20 minutes, looking at his phone, and pretending to be preoccupied with a thought. Eventually, he says, “Well, bye everyone.” Then he leaves.
Even while I was in the middle of my tirade I was feeling regret for handling the situation like I had. Now, I am feeling embarrassment.
The next morning I receive a call from an unknown phone. I don’t answer. It calls back another two times. I assume it is Bob. I still don’t answer. A few hours later I receive a text message. It is a 4 page text from Bob. I don’t remember the content very well, but it says something like, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that it bothered you. I thought I was able to joke like that because we were friends and because you’re unique. And blah blah blah.” It is sincere. Naïve, but sincere. And I know that he is making a real effort to make amends, and I can’t take that away from him. So I reply with a text, stating that his apology is accepted and that one day I will sit down and explain to him why his actions were inappropriate.
Unfortunately, that day did not ever happen. Many months have gone by since the incident, and other than an acknowledging head nod whenever we happen to make eye contact, we don’t ever interact. I know I may have missed a great opportunity to educate someone, but honestly, I just wanted to let the whole thing go. And I almost feel like there was no need for any sensitivity training, because Bob ended up calming down in all respects. He was a pretty obnoxious guy overall, but after the incident, I have not heard a peep out of him. At least when I am in the room, he is completely reserved, and it almost seems like he has gone into a hermit shell. Is it because of me? I don’t know. But I can guarantee you he will think twice before making another so-called joke.