Last week I joined the challenge to talk about race by wondering Why Aren’t People Talking to Me? This week I write about seeing (and hearing).
Long ago in college, I talked about ethnicity with Duncan, a tall skinny White guy with a large Adam’s apple and black rimmed glasses, and George, a tall skinny Chinese guy with a large Adam’s apple and silver rimmed glasses. Duncan said he considered me to be Chinese-American, and George to be Chinese.
Since George and I were both American citizens, I didn’t understand why Duncan wanted to make the distinction until he said that because I was outspoken, gregarious, and majoring in counseling psychology, I was “Americanized.” Because George was quiet, shy, introverted and majoring in engineering, he was authentically Chinese.
“I think that’s a racist point of view.” I told Duncan, immediately confirming his judgment about my outspokenness.
He protested, “I’m not racist—really I’m not!”
“Look, I lived in China for a year,” I said, “And there were people who act like me as well as people who act like George. Just because I don’t fit the stereotype doesn’t mean I’m any less Chinese than George.”
George was silent. Trying to rectify the rudeness of talking about him in front of his face, I asked, “Why do you think you’re stereotypically Chinese? Do you think it’s who you are or because of other influences?”
“Oh culture, for sure,” George said. He told us about being chased home almost every day from school by White bullies, how his house was egged and toilet papered repeatedly. Disappearing into the stereotype was how he survived his toxic middle class suburb.
That led to me relaying how I felt invisible at fraternity parties—I perceived I wasn’t looked at and rejected, but never seen at all. Duncan cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, “Can I ask you an embarrassing question?”
“Sure.” I said.
“Do you think Chinese girls are pretty?”
“Do you think Chinese girls are ugly?”
I was taken aback. “Some of them. . .why, don’t you?”
He looked up, “No. . . I don’t.”
“You don’t think they’re pretty?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“You don’t think they’re ugly?”
He shook his head again. ”I don’t think they’re anything–you all look the same to me.”
I stared at him. George remained silent.
“But I’m not racist, really I’m not!” Duncan said.
Back in my dorm, looking for sympathy, I relayed the whole conversation to Erica, my African-American roommate and best friend.
“Welcome to the real world,” she said.
Later, I separately told two White girlfriends the story and had two disturbingly identical conversations. Both protested, “But I think you’re really pretty!”
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m pretty or ugly!” I stormed. “I’d rather be ugly and be seen!”
And my friends confessed, “You know, I think you’re really pretty. But I’ve never thought of Asian men as handsome or ugly.”
I was too chicken to say to their faces what I later heatedly discussed with Erica. If all humankind is created in the image of God, then all ethnicities and races must reflect God’s beauty. The inability to either see or distinguish beauty in any ethnic group felt like racism, pure and simple.
Yet research shows that stereotyping helps us sort through the magnitude of unfamiliar stimuli the world offers. Our brains stereotype so we can make sense of the world. The ability to stereotype is part of the way God created our minds.
So perhaps the problem isn’t about stereotyping or finding the unfamiliar foreign and uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s about our hearts and attitudes. Jesus and the prophets warn that when our hearts are calloused and our minds closed we will see but not perceive, hear but not understand, and ultimately miss out on receiving forgiveness and healing.
It’s a spiritual discipline to look and look and look some more until we finally perceive distinctions and beauty in all people. To sit on our hands, stay in the room, zip our lips and listen until we can finally understand the heart of our neighbor.
Despite how their attitudes annoyed me, Duncan and my White girlfriends’ willingness to engage with honesty was a step towards all of us seeing and hearing in a way we never had before.
How else can we soften our hearts and open our minds?