Curiosity neccesary to understand race

The world would be a better place if we could ask about race without fear of being branded a racist.

Race in the United States – we don’t know what to do with it. Many choose to “not see it,” others choose to deny that it exists at all. Then there are those who stoutly affirm that race exists and that it needs to be treated with respect.

Those three ways of handling race all have something in common. They all come from the belief that the issue of race can tear this country apart if it is not dealt with properly. For example, people who deny race believe that race issues will simply disappear when people stop making a fuss about it.

As a Vietnamese-American woman in the United States, even I have had trouble handling race. Growing up, I hated that others saw race where I did not. I was taunted with childhood rhymes about Chinese and Japanese eyes when I simply wanted to be seen as any other kid who indulged in Disney’s afternoon cartoons and PBS. I was much happier when people did not make a big deal about race. So, I did my best to be like all the other kids.

Then came the day when my best friend remarked to me, “Quynh, you’re my white friend in an Asian body.” I itched all over with that remark; I was just itching to be able to show my “Asian side” without weirding her out. Caught in a double bind, I struggled with how to be perceived as “normal” while showing my heritage. It’s a careful, fine line to walk.

I learned the most about race and ethnicity by being in an interracial relationship. I quickly learned that, regardless of my minority status, I too can make boneheaded stereotypes. Take, for example, an early conversation I had with my life partner, Jeff.

“Hey Jeff, your parents own a lot of guns, have deer heads mounted on their walls and the rotting truck out in the front. Do they vote Republican?” (I was kind of working off of what I knew about white culture from the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour.”)

“No, they’ve always voted Democrat. My dad’s in a union and his parents vote Democrat too.” Jeff seemed bemused that I had stereotyped his family.

I felt like one of those people who had the nerve to ask me, “Do Asian people always eat with chopsticks?” only to receive a very simple answer that exposed stereotyping.

From numerous exchanges on race with Jeff, I’ve learned some important things. When I’m on the receiving end of a shy question on race/ethnicity, I’ve learned to be very gracious and gentle with my response. When I’m on the giving end of a question, I think very carefully about how I word it and where the question’s coming from.

Most, if not all, anxiety about race and ethnicity is based in ignorance. Ignorance about other cultures, ignorance on how to treat people from other cultures, ignorance about cultural norms Ö it makes one yearn for a single, universally adopted cultural norm that everyone abides to.

But as I have learned from experience, and from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” having just one culture as the norm and using that as a basis of judgment squelches the beauty of appreciating other cultures.

Regardless of one’s viewpoint on race, something we can all agree on is that the world would be a better place if we could ask about race/ethnicity without fear of being branded a racist. Let the questions begin.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]