I joke a lot about my race. My father is Chinese. My mother is American. I like to say that I had a unique upbringing – that I was raised on tofu and grits. Or, since I am a blood descendant of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, I like to joke that I am a Chinese red neck. I joke about how smart Asians are and how, since I am only half-Asian, I am just smart enough to realize that I am not very smart.
Why the jokes? They are jokes that have developed over the years as preemptive strikes against my insecurity at being a racial minority.
I first heard the word “chink” when I was standing outside my elementary school on my first day of kindergarten. I didn’t know what it meant only that it was something bad and that, by extension, I was something bad.
Slurs like chink and “squinty eyes” and various others hardly defined my youth but they were always there and always to be feared, reminders that I really wasn’t part of white America.
Compounding the problem, however, was the reality that I wasn’t part of Chinese America either. I remember going to China for the first time when I was in fourth grade thinking, ahhh, ok, now I am going to go someplace where I will just blend right in. Not so much. The Chinese kids on the street stared at me and looked at me and I knew right away that they saw me as more white than Chinese.
Throughout my adult life, probably because I’ve joked so much about my race, my white friends joke with me about it too. There isn’t any maliciousness behind it – they just play off of my own jokes.
But there are things that hurt. A family member who looked at our youngest daughter saying she looked like Chairman Mao. Hello? Would you say a white kid looked like Hitler?
But I say nothing and my very white wife says nothing. We say nothing because it isn’t polite and because matters of race are sensitive and we don’t want to rock the boat and because it just isn’t done.
After Barack Obama’s speech today, however, it is ok. It is ok to talk about these deeply conflicting emotions and concerns and fears and hurts I have about my own race. And my case is so tiny and miniscule compared to what black Americans experience on a daily basis. I know but a tiny shadow of a shadow of a racism that black American endure.
Sen. Clinton was wrong when she said a speech wasn’t an accomplishment. Today’s speech, like King’s “I have a dream” speech is an accomplishment. It is a speech that opens a healthy dialogue about race by acknowledging the racial realities that exist today.
People may not like what Obama had to say but he spoke the truth even if that truth offends. The key thing, however, is that Obama did not end his speech in despair. His speech was one of hope, of saying that things are better now and that matters of race need not be unspeakable problems. And that is an accomplishment.