Recent uproars about asking the above questions have many pundits labelling this type of persistent questioning by whites: racism. My experience tells me that this will probably be followed up by a variety of reactions from whites: a.) Deciding to never ask this type of question again for fear of being publically humiliated or expelled b.) Offering a litany of deepfelt apologies to BIPOC followed up by expressions of deep shame and guilt for having once again unconsciously ‘wounding’ or ‘re-traumatizing’ them. c.) Or if the white reaction is one of anger, possibly a more defensive stance of: “This is just another example of the ‘woke’ left forcing us all to once again be politically correct!” Sound all too familiar?
However, what’s missing is a much deeper exploration of not only what occurred, but the possibilities of what this scenario could offer in terms of understanding the context and impact of what happened. I was recently at a luncheon with friends and a Chinese American classmate, Tony from high school, shared with all of us, “I hate it when white people ask me where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Immediately, one of the white women, Sharon, in the group yelled out, “I would never do that! How really ignorant of some people!” As I watched what transpired, I was reminded of how familiar her response was to me: Whites immediately rushing to disassociate themselves from ‘those people’ by labelling them as ‘ignorant’, making it all about how they feel, or trying to ‘define’ what occurred based on some author they had read or workshop they had attended. All, of which to make what occurred, ‘sense’ to them. In other words, so they can remain in control (from the neck up).
I shared with Sharon that she could ask Tony why he shared what he did or asking him to share more of what he meant. In other words, coming from a place of curiosity, such as how those type of questions affected him, angered him, hurt him or were familiar. The entire table was shocked hearing what was missing in their reactions to Tony. I would like to propose that is exactly was is missing with most of our discourses regarding discrimination and diversity issues: the lack of curiosity or self-reflection, not noticing the intent and impact of each others’ communications, not taking responsibility or willing to change.
On a much larger context, I would like European Americans to think about why they only ask BIPOC these types of questions (including those below) and not other whites. Is it because BIPOC aren’t white and therefore are considered the ‘other’, ‘aliens’, ‘immigrants’, those who are ‘different’ from real Americans like themselves? Here is an additional list of ‘othering’ towards BIPOC:
- Where did you learn to speak such good English?
- You’re so articulate.
- You’re a credit to your people.
- Wow, you actually went to college? Which one?
- What are you? No, what are you really?
- Looks of surprise when BIPOC actually know the answer.
- Facial expressions that tell you: What are you doing here?
We are all different. What brings us together or divides us, is the value we place on those differences. –Virginia Wolfe