Talking about race: MLK holiday an opportunity
Special to The Times
When it comes to talking about race, many of us don't do a very good job. Unless you're U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, most people have the good sense to know what not to say.
Lott apologized several times for his insensitive statements in support of Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign, but he never once demonstrated that he understood how to talk about race at all. It's not an easy thing to do. It has taken me my whole life to learn, and I'm still learning.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should try to voice how race and cultural diversity matter in our own lives. We should tell stories, ask questions, talk to our families about race and dedicate at least part of the day to understanding at least one thing about someone else from another culture or a different ethnicity than our own — from something as simple as how to say "hello" in another language to something as complex as the cultural difference in a multiracial family or mixed-race neighborhood.
I have two stories to tell about race and even though I'm a University of Washington professor, neither of the stories comes from the classroom.
In 1974, I was visiting my uncle in Washington, D.C. On our day of sightseeing, we drove to Alexandria, Va., where my uncle parked the car several blocks from the historic center of town.
As we started walking, a black kid about 10 or 11 years old saw us and started following us. After a few seconds, he walked alongside, looked at us, and asked if we were Chinese.
I'm very defensive about this question. When I was growing up, such a question was always followed by some racist punch line such as a kid slanting the corners of his eyes up and down while chanting, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees," or trying to speak fake Chinese, or doing fake kung fu, or calling me Charlie Chan or Bruce Lee.
After a long pause and never breaking stride, I sighed and said, "Yes." He was delighted and called over four of his friends who were younger and announced, "They're Chinese."
I became even more defensive. My uncle and I gave each other a look. I started preparing my response. Since I'm a teacher, I considered being instructive and educating the kids in order to correct their misconceptions about Chinese. I thought about ignoring him when he did the predictable taunt. I wanted to say that we weren't Chinese at all.
The kid wanted to know my name, so I gave in and told him. His name was James and he was really excited and told me that the owner of the grocery store on the corner was also a Wong. "You have to meet him," James said and started to lead the way. The other kids formed a ring around us. They were all smiling.
I didn't want to continue this conversation with these kids, nor did I want to meet a grocery store owner named Mr. Wong. James started to quicken his pace toward the corner grocery store and turned and said to my uncle and me, "Fi-dee! Fi-dee!" I asked my uncle if the kid just said the phrase "hurry up" in Cantonese. James nodded and pointed to the grocery store.
We followed. Inside, James rushed to the back of the store to get Mr. Wong. He led him, hand in hand, to the front and introduced us to him. He pointed to me and said, "His name is Wong, too!" I laughed and asked Mr. Wong if he'd been teaching the kids Chinese. He told me that when they'd come into his store, he'd give them free candy if they'd learn to speak some Chinese.
James introduced us to Mr. Wong's wife and two children. My uncle and I could tell these neighborhood kids loved Mr. Wong and his family. He knew all their names. They touched Mr. Wong and hugged him as if they were members of the same family. The smallest black kid held onto the fabric of Mr. Wong's pant leg while he spoke to us. It was obvious they loved being in the store. They loved learning Chinese for candy and, on that hot summer day, we were all offered free ice-cream bars. Good business and good neighbor.
Mr. Wong's simple gesture to the kids in his neighborhood amazes me more today than it did 30 years ago. These days, there are diversity experts and consultants to help us understand cultural difference. I've been in workshops where people role play different racial points of view, work through conflict, practice cultural sensitivity and learn to be more culturally literate.
I can imagine Mr. Wong being told of these workshops and asking people what it is that they don't know and why don't you know more about each other. Be a friend, he might say. There were no bars on the windows of his store. Sometimes, cultural understanding is as easy as talking to the one you love.
When my wife, Erin, and I were first together, I used to ask her, "What do you think we look like to other people?" As a professor, I should be able to put a label on what or who we are in the most visible sense — an interracial couple — and think through the answer from an academic point of view.
I remember Erin replying, "We look good together. People can see that we're a couple and that we're in love."
I thought to ignore the racial difference and see what Erin described was a naïve answer, but I know she wanted me to accept her reasoning first, then move to something more complex. I took that step and told myself that I couldn't know what every person thinks when they see the two of us. Was I afraid of showing our interracial difference in public; or showing affection in public? Or, were the two tied together? "Ah-hah," I thought to myself, "I'm a mess."
Avoiding the issue, I changed subjects. "I'm older than you are."
"Yes, I know," she answered, tired of the same observation and a little impatient, because we'd had this conversation many times before.
I wanted reassurance, but it was the same reassurance she had given me before, so I changed subjects again. "I'm Chinese — "
" — and I'm not. I'm Irish."
"I mean, do we make visual sense as a couple?" I know she was thinking, "How did you ever become a professor?" Or was I thinking that?
"Are we talking about race or age? Which one are you insecure about?"
I'm insecure about both. Sometimes Erin can't see what I see when we're out in public or at least it doesn't bother her the way it bothers me. When we're standing together in a store, waiting to be helped, the salesperson will sometimes say, "Which one of you was next?" I wonder if the difference they see between us is race or age. As I ponder the question, Erin always answers before I do and says, "We're together."
The salesperson then says, "Oh," and I start analyzing that answer.
"Which one are you insecure about?" Erin repeated. "You have youth and beauty," I said. My conversations with her were highly repetitive, but she put up with it, especially if I was going to compliment her.
These days, our conversations are different. We're new parents. Our son, Peter, is almost 4 months old.
"He's got your pale skin and your long eyelashes," I tell Erin. "I think his eyes will be somewhere between my brown eyes and your greenish gray eyes." I'm trying to phrase the real question I want to ask. "Do you think he looks Chinese?" I ask. There might have been a more sophisticated way of phrasing that one. "Maybe around the eyes?" Am I as dumb as I sound? "Maybe he'll look more Chinese later." Yes, I'm an idiot.
Erin is watching me talk. "Have any of your relatives asked these questions?"
"His smile lights up the room like yours," I add, trying to recover.
Erin lets me change the subject. "He's probably inherited your marvelous ability to flirt."
"I don't flirt."
She laughs. "Yes, you do."
"Chinese people say our son is lucky because he was born in the Year of the Horse."
"So your father, your aunts and uncles have not said a thing about whether Peter looks Chinese or not?"
"That's good, isn't it?" Erin asks. "They're just happy for you and for us." Erin is right, of course. I need time to think things through, so I revert to our earlier conversation. "You're confusing my good manners and friendliness with flirting." That's a minefield too, so quickly avoiding that issue, I say, "I thought we were talking about race."
"You were talking about race. I'm talking about you." She taps my chest with her finger. "There is a difference, you know."
"How do you mean?"
"I mean, I like your difference. If that means I like that you're Chinese, then that's what it means. But, I love you — who you are."
"Can you separate it — me from my race?"
"Who are you to me?" She didn't wait for my answer before asking another question. "What do you think I see, when I look at you?" "You see the man who loves you?" Safe answer. "You see that we are alike, we think alike, we've had some of the same life experiences, we're both writers and teachers, and we love each other."
She nods, but wants me to say more. I feel like I'm on the Dr. Phil show.
I add, "I feel safe with you."
"That isn't about race at all, is it?" Erin doesn't wait for an answer. "When we're all looking into the mirror together as a family, we'll see parts of all the families we've been a part of. It's more than blood and race and nationality and stories about your Chinese mother and father and the Irish side of my family. It's also about your personal history. Those are good stories. Tell them when the time comes. Stories about family instead of instructional stories about race and identity will make Peter whole."
It's good to know that she's right.
Shawn Wong is author of the novels "Homebase" and "American Knees."