What is racism? Who are the racists?


Similar to most Chinese people, I do not have clear understanding of racism until I came to the States. Like most Asian countries, China is more of a homogeneous  nation. More than 94 percents of the population, which is 1.2 billion, are Han Chinese. Officially recognized 55 minority ethnicities in China, however, we are all Yellow in a western general sense. So, since I start to make friends in kindergarten, I have had no idea of race and everyone just looks the same. In my sense at that moment, race is more like where you from, instead of what kind of person you are. Even if after I met foreigners from different countries, including whites and blacks, that thought still held. They are all similar to me, but from different places. So when I started to know the ideas of racism and racists, I just did not understand why people would think that way. And even when I asked my parents or teachers, they had no better understanding than me. But a visit to US during my sophomore year in high school gave me a lesson in what racism is.

I remember the first time I came to States, and I went to the Universal Studio at Los Angels. We are a group of students from my high school lead by our teachers and local guides. There is a show named Water World (related to the film Water World, and it is a good one). It is a pool front show and water will accidentally split to the audience. So I bought a rain coat from a nearby shop, from a African-American salesman in particular. With the coat on, I went to my seat. A white old lady sat next to me and asked me where I got the rain coat. With my poor English at that time, I simply said: “I brought it from a black in the shop over there” with my finger pointing the direction.  I thought the sentence I constructed is pretty concise and understandable. However, while I was satisfying with this well-done small English conversation, the old lady just turned mad and started to lecture me. She was speaking so fast that I could hardly understand everything, especially with my poor English at that time. Clearly she is offended, that is what I thought, but I did not know why. The conversation ended with her words “You are such a racist.” I had nothing to response her, as I can hardly argue with someone in English. Then the show started, but I have no mood for that anymore. Later on, when we travel around, the local guides started to convince us that there are areas we should not visit and be cautious when interact with random African-American people. That was my first impression of racist thinking, indeed.

(I remember this is a photo about no hate can perfectly describe my situation at that moment, but I can not find it right now. I will post it when I see it.)

Who is the racist? I am the racist? How could I become a racist with no idea of racism? Recalling this story now, I somehow have a feeling that the old lady is more racist than me at that specific moment. But who knows? After years in States, I recognized that people are really serious about this problem and sometimes they are just over-sensitive about it. Is that a good thing? I do not think so. But is it is a thing you just need to be serous about? Maybe. I consider this seriousness is from the culture, as in other countries, the “Black” is only a color.

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11 thoughts on “What is racism? Who are the racists?

  1. This was a great topic to write about for this post. I appreciated hearing your story about your encounter with the lady. It is interesting that she became so angry at you for what you said. In reality, you did not actually say anything bad about this man. You didn’t express hate, condescension, or disgust. You simply tried to find the best visual description of the man who sold you the poncho. Unfortunately, our country has a horrible history with racism. In the past, a simple description could be very hurtful. Without understanding a person’s intention, it is easy to believe the worst. But in an effort to avoid hurting others, it is important to be aware of how we speak. We often forget about the power of words.

  2. I think the lady was pretty intolerant. I mean, obviously, you were a foreigner. Sorry you had to go through that. But the reality is there: in a racist society like the USA, any actions, any words, any facial expressions, any connotations, are seen through the prism of race.

    Someone may balk at my description of our society as racist. I mean that it is built with and around ideas about essential categories of race, not that we practice legal segregation like we did through slavery and the Jim Crow period. Although the legal systems is still recreating racial inequalities.

  3. Ok, but now let me push back. I don’t believe you about China not having racism. I mean, I believe that 95% identify as Han. But, to me, ALL societies stratify, sub-divide, on some lines. So what is it in China? What are the categories that create stereotypes? Region? Rural-Urban? Socio-economic status (given the rapid rise in incomes, this must have produced new categories of people)? Party or non-party affiliated?

    For all of America’s open sores of race, maybe we get credit for putting them out there. We can’t or don’t hide our history. Are you “hiding” something about China?

    • I did not say that there is no racism in China. Like we discussed in your office, there are lots of inequalities in China, including race-related fields. However, like I mentioned above, there is limited common understanding of racism and people tend to not talk about it in general. (Seem like people usually don’t talk about gender inequality). What I am more interested in is that which is a better way off. Should people be extremely sensitive about this topic like States, or just do not care too much about it like China.

  4. This is a very interesting topic for a post. Growing up in the US, I have always been aware of what racism is because it is just a part of our culture (not saying that a lot of people are racist, more meaning that racism has played a large part in the country’s history). It seems to me that you really just had a misunderstanding with the woman because you had no idea what you were saying was not “politically correct”. This serves as a good lesson for anyone entering a new culture, whether it is moving there or just going for a vacation. We need to keep these cultural differences in perspective.

  5. I had similar incident when I was in France. I forgot my wallet in a restaurant. The waiter at out table was of African origins. So later when I came back to the restaurant with my cousin, we had to describe the waiter’s appearance to the manager in order to figure out whether he had seen the wallet after we left. My cousin started describing the waiter in every way possible, but did not mention his skin color, which in my opinion was the easiest thing to do, since he was the only waiter of that particular color. Worth noting that she, my cousin, has lived in France for quite a while. Eventually, as couple of minutes successfully passed, she managed to describe waiters appearance to the manager and we found my wallet.

    I actually thought the way my cousin avoided mentioning waiter’s skin color was just excessively over-tolerant, and perhaps might have actually been more racist than just straight up telling that our waiter was black. People with black skin color are just as tough as we, white and the rest, are, and they certainly are not gonna have a mental breakdown if you state their skin color out loud without any negative intent, but just for the sole purpose of saving everyone’s time.
    What do you think?

      • He was the only black waiter in the restaurant that shift. So “tall, curly hair, and weight” would have been extra

  6. I am more sensitive to this issue than you are. I want the US to be a less racist society. And I think part of that is to deprogram ourselves in the ways we are socialized to “see” race. Ideally, as I said in class, being White or Black, and so on is ONE factor of a person, but not always the most critical. Similarly, the idea that “American” means euro-Caucasian will not be automatic.

    To me, not ALWAYS going to race as the first defining feature is a small step that way. At the same time, to go out of one’s way to never mention it is the same problem in inverse “color” if you like, like a negative of a photograph. To never discuss race, as some White liberals may think is the right approach, also essentializes race.

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