It rarely occurs to me in what kind of situation I am actually in. This summer will be the tenth year, ten whole years since I have been part of my current friend group. It has been 3,650 days, and yet I only need two hands to count how many times we have talked about it. “Can we talk a bit about last week’s racist incident?” is a type of comment which is, frankly speaking, unknown throughout our monthly gatherings together.
This will probably sound like a strange phenomenon to you, my dear reader. Especially when I mention that I am of full Chinese descent. I see and experience racism almost on a daily basis; it touches me, influences me and, and as painful as it is, to this day is part of my identity.
So how am I to explain that my friends and I hardly ever talk about it? We’ve known each other for a decade, share everything with each other and, when together, basically form a small army of twenty. Yet the subject of racism rarely pops up in our conversations. Why? Do I not want to talk about it? Maybe they won’t feel like talking about it? Or is our group simply too unbalanced and unsuitable to be able to discuss something like this on a frequent basis… After all, only one tablespoon of “Asian” goes within the micro melting pot filled with nineteen other tablespoons of “white”.
enough is enough
The current situation has been gnawing at me for a while now. With the COVID-19 crisis undeniably worsening the already existing situation, it is globally known what kind of effect this pandemic has had on Western Asians like myself over the past year. Racism and discrimination against our community has never been more prominent. We are being bullied and humiliated, verbally abused and attacked, and the massacre shooting in Atlanta in March confirmed the worst: we are being murdered.
We are the victims of racism, discrimination and xenophobia; it is a serious situation that is clearly present, no longer can these issues be ignored. At least, that is what I thought. As a matter of fact, my nineteen white friends (and myself) have managed to prove the contrary: the aforementioned heartbreaking events have hardly received any of the attention they really deserved from us as a group. This is the harsh reality, it cannot be put in other words, but who is to blame?
What do I contribute?
I, the only Asian and also non-Western immigrant in a group of twenty white friends. Am I the problem? Is it because I do not like to talk about racism myself and therefore leave out the topic in conversations? My first thought: not a chance. A good friend of mine (from the friend group I just mentioned) and I recently started talking about these thoughts and feelings of mine. Out of this conversation, we quickly concluded that I do in fact talk about racism with other friend groups, contrary to this specific group.
The most significant difference which then occurred to me, was that those friend groups consist entirely of people from a non-Western background, just like me. This can mean one of two things. Option one: my friends of colour are more inclined to talk about racism than my white friends. Or option two: I, myself, tend to talk more about racism with my friends of color rather than with my white friends.
Knowing myself thoroughly, and being aware of the fact that this subject and everything surrounding it is of great importance to me, I was quick to lean towards option one. The option which puts my white friends in a position of being at fault. After all, I am aware of how driven I am to have conversations about such topics, no matter who the conversation would be with. I would not want to do anything more than highlighting such societal injustices, especially with white people. In my eyes it is essential that, when one is in a position such as mine, their position as the only person of colour in a group of white people is used in a positive way that contributes to the creation and increase of awareness. Maybe in this way, they will be able to get more insight on what marginalised cultures such as mine go through on a daily basis. In addition to that, I also believe it is of utmost importance to have their perspectives and opinions (as a more privileged group) be heard besides my own.
And still, it seems as though my efforts have barely borne fruit .
What is their contribution?
Is the cause all on me, or do my friends, too, carry some of the fault? After all, there are countless reasons I could think of, for why they would not have the same kind of personal motivation to talk about racism as I do. The most obvious one being that they are not part of a marginalized minority themselves. They will never fully understand the racism that I myself go through daily. Factually speaking, it is not a phenomenon that they have to bother themselves with; they are white, and their own environment is too. Based on these findings, it is easy to conclude that they simply do not have to pay any attention to racism. But do I, by saying this, underestimate my friends? Do I perhaps view this, ironically enough, as too much of a black and white situation? Since when does ‘being white’ correlate to having apathy towards those who do suffer from racism? Is having personally experienced something a prerequisite for being able to show understanding and empathy?
Again, it is not that we never talk about racism. Sometimes the topic does pop up. But frankly, these will be one-on-one conversations between me and a select few from this friend group, where I usually initiate the conversation. But why do they not happen within the group, when we are together? Why are topics related to racism never standard topics of our conversations, like those related to alcohol and drugs are? To me it feels like such a waste, since the small amount of thought exchanges on such topics that did take place ended up being very fruitful conversations and opportunities, where both my conversation partner and I ended up gaining new knowledge and insights. Imagine what could happen if a whole bunch of different souls would participate.
Evil-doer, reveal yourself
I suspect that actually both parties are at fault. In the first few paragraphs of this column, I portrayed myself as some sort of guru who would fight at every possible front in the battle against the injustices of racism. On the contrary, however, this column has actually highlighted my fragility, fears and flaws when it comes to complex situations like these. I am speaking from the heart when I claim that my intrinsic motivations and good intentions are there. Nevertheless, I think that the actual executions of such motivations were hindered because I had always assumed that the majority of people did not feel the need for these well-intended actions. This assumption has led to an underlying fear of being seen as ‘Dennis, the foreigner who always wants to ruin the good mood by talking about racism’. In other words, I fear that my friends will view me as a headache, which has led my will to speak up to be hindered.
I feel as though I am a stain on a white wall.
I do, however, believe that this fear is not a creation of my mind alone. It is, in the end, a fact that my friends tend to avoid sensitive topics like racism when hanging out with a larger number of people. I believe that this is because many of them have forgotten who I actually am: a Dutch person of colour, not a white person. Every now and then, some still tell me that they find me more Dutch than Chinese. This is extremely harmful for me. I understand that they do not have any ill intentions, but such statements may bear considerably negative consequences. I am, in fact, of the opinion that the misidentification of a person of colour can lead to the elimination of motives to speak about topics such as racism, which I myself desperately want to talk about. I believe I am no longer viewed as someone who has to deal with racism on a daily basis, but as someone who, just like them, experiences little to none of it.
This would not be a classic opinion piece if I did not express my own thoughts and preferences. That is why I would like to end with some criteria to cross off, for the readers who feel as though they can relate to this sentiment:
If you were to find yourself in the same position as I am, do not sell your friends and loved ones short, especially if you have known them for such a long time as I have mine; do not immediately assume that they will not educate themselves or show any interests in topics related to racism, just because they are not regularly experiencing it themselves. Even if they do not end up educating themselves, be upfront and honest with them. After all, do not forget that racism can be heard and seen by everyone. No one can escape it. It may not apply to everyone, but many do actually strive for awareness and are willing to learn more about racism and all that comes with it. As the only person of color in such a group, do not be scared to speak out about racism, nor be scared to bring up the subject whenever you feel the need to.
Again, do not just assume that they will immediately disregard your thoughts or even hold you responsible for ‘ruining the mood’. Instead, give them the chance to feel invited to take part in such sensitive conversations. Many people are actually eager to talk about it, but will often shy away from initiating the conversation; they fear that they, as a white person, will not be able to provide enough valuable insights.
dear white wall
For the readers who see themselves as the ‘white friend’ or ‘ally’ in this scenario: it might appear to be something obvious, but that could not be farther from the truth; it is of utmost importance to remember that sole person of color in your group of friends will always and forever be exactly that: a person of color. How differently you might personally view it, however you identify that person, or however that person identifies themselves, a person of color in modern-day society will always feel the relentless consequences of unjustifiable racism, discrimination and xenophobia. So stay conscious of the way you identify this person, as it does not always correspond to how they identify themselves. This can be incredibly hurtful.
Do not blindly include the person in question in your white bubble and stay aware that they undoubtedly deem these topics very important to give frequent attention to, even if you yourself do not. One simple question, one simple comment, or even one simple expression of interest and concern is enough to make your loved ones feel included and, more importantly, loved. It makes a world of difference in a world where differences should be embraced.
That is what we strive for.
The writer of this column is Dennis Huang (1999), born and raised in Amsterdam, a student with passion who strives for a more inclusive society in which everyone is free of the bounds of racism and discrimination. His first step to do so is by publishing this piece as a proud columnist for Asian Raisins, in which he gives his personal perspectives on discussing racism within friend groups.