I'm Done with Ignoring a Little Harmless Racism Between Friends

"Can I say something kind of racist?" REALLY???
Publish date:
July 28, 2016
racism, friends, asian american, that's racist!, Chinese American, casual racism

I am the type of person that people feel really comfortable talking to.

Not just talking to, but at times, confessing to. People who I've known for only a short amount of time will let it all hang out with me — their failed relationships, the pain of their childhood, how they murdered that guy (and it sucked).

I don't know if it's because I'm a good listener or if it's just my face. While I do have a pretty smashing resting bitch face, if I'm engaged in conversation with a person, I'll give you all I have — eye contact, all my ears, the full spa package. I don't like phoning things in (unless we're on the phone).

People tend to drop their guard around me. Sometimes the guard completely disappears. As does taste. I almost always know that something "special" is coming when people get that sly, naughty look in their eye and lower their tone a bit. Suddenly things become conspiratorial, and I brace myself.

"Can I say something kind of racist?"



OK, I will admit that in my teens and early 20s, I'd go along with it. I'd play the part of the "chill," "understanding" Asian who didn't take herself too seriously. I did this so white people I wanted to be friends with would like me. GOD FORBID I was the Chinese girl who couldn't take a joke about Chinese people!

This was legitimately a fear of mine, and the ugliness I tolerated and let come out of my mouth in the name of self-preservation makes me want to build a time machine to rescue my younger self from herself. Plus I just want a time machine because then I'd go into the future and be captain of the USS Pizza Cat.

As time wore on, I became less tolerant. While I'd still say, "Sure, go ahead," I wouldn't add anything to the story, I wouldn't play along. I'd smile, I'd listen, I'd say, "No, no, it's fine! I can laugh about these things!"

Then I stopped laughing. I'd still give permission, but I'd sit in silence. The silence turned to anger, frustration, pain, disgust. Then I stopped giving permission. I stopped tolerating people who asked for permission.

I've reached the point where I'm done.

Any little bit of hate or racism cannot be tolerated anymore. The slope is too slippery. No more permission can be given. We're standing on the precipice of a swirling cauldron of normalized hate, and those little "permissions" add spice to the stew.

I recently found myself in a situation with a person, a friend, where two decisions lay before: Grant permission for some not-so-casual racism, something that would feel like an act of violence against myself, or say NO.

My flesh crawled a little when I recognized that look in her eyes. I really hoped she was just going to tell me that she farted.

"Can I say something kind of racist? About Chinese people? But it's really funny!"

Oh! It's FUNNY?! Then lay it on me with a side of soy sauce!

I looked hard at this person, this person who had shared so much laughter and so many intimate conversations with me. In the moment, my stomach churned with a mix of anger, disappointment, and betrayal. Not just toward her, but toward myself.

Had something in me led us to this point? Had I said or done things in the past that somehow hinted that I would be OK with "Chinese racist" talk?

The seconds ticked by and she looked at me with an eager smile, chomping at the bit to tell me a story that she no doubt enjoyed telling. That would give her pleasure, because she hoped it would give me pleasure. Hidden in a callous, tone-deaf story was the glimmer of friendship.

And then I pitied her.


She cocked her head. "No, what?"

According to the natural rhythm of our exchange, she should have asked the question, I should have said "Yes, and…" and she then would deliver the story and punchline. 1-2-3. Boom, boom, boom. Classic comedy structure.

"No. I don't want to hear it."

And with that our conversation came to a halt. She was embarrassed, nervous, hurt.


I explained to her that it hurt me that she would ask me such a question, that it made me feel like a character, not a human, in her eyes. My natural default is to soothe a person, make them feel better, so I had to make a conscious effort to not veer off into "I'm sorry, you're OK, don't worry…" territory.

I didn't want her to feel better. I wanted both of us to simmer in the discomfort.

She apologized profusely, I thought she might cry.

We were able to move on in our conversation, though I knew full well that in every awkward silence we were both wondering what the other was experiencing and thinking about THE QUESTION.

I don't hate my friend; I don't hate that she thought it would be OK to talk to me like that. Hating her would cause me pain, and frankly, as her friend, I am a party to the way she talks to me. I'm not saying that it's OK that she asked such a stupid question, or that it's my fault, but I hope that a new way of thinking can come out of it.

We need more smart, conscientious people, not more injured, ignorant people.

I'm a rather clumsy racial "educator," so I'm not going to sit here and hold myself up as an example. I've often been accused of being too understanding, and not having the guts to show my rage, really hammer home to a person why they are being an asshole.

I can only share how I am, and how I best handle difficult situations. Though, yes, I am angry, and I am DONE with "understanding" and "forgiving," I also think of the lessons I've been taught by the strong people of color in my life. In the days when I was figuring out what my Chinese-American identity meant to me, I stepped in it A LOT.

But I was fortunate that my blunders, the insensitivity I displayed, was not always met with flat-out fury. I wasn't just written off, though at times I felt like I deserved it.

The most constructive lessons came out of letting me be uncomfortable, be humiliated, but also being shown a way out of that self-loathing to something better, something more positive for everybody.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that it's never about me. It's never about my rage. It's about what can come out of that rage and be something that changes a person for the better.

While a part of me was tempted let my friend have it — yell and scream and call her names — I just wanted the moment to be distilled for her as a touchstone to move forward.

Maybe when she thinks of doing something in the same vein, that memory will pop up, make her cringe, and she'll rethink her words or actions?

I want her to remember the moment for her, not for me.

Saying NO is a relatively new thing for me. I feel empowered, I feel better about myself, but I also feel a new sense of responsibility. Not just to myself and the authenticity of my identity, but also to how my words land and resonate.

I am over being "chill" about the racism that acquaintances or friends think is OK to sprinkle into interactions. I have no interest in a little harmless absolution between friends.

But as your friend, I will pay you the respect of calling you out, the way I was called out by friends in the past. It can be an awful experience, like getting caught in your first lie as a child (the sting of that moment has made me incredibly fearful of lying for my entire life, no joke), but I think it can be of value.

If you are the person I hope you are, I trust you are, you'll change from this — do better in the future.

If you can't see beyond yourself, and can only focus on the pleasure of your own bigotry, then I'll mourn you and move on.

I'm done making you feel comfortable.