Featured Blog Post: Modern Racism
I spoke with seventeen year old Olivia Wong on New Year’s Eve. We agreed that it was fitting; after such a tumultuous year, it only felt right to reflect on not just 2020 but also a high schooler’s senior year and academic career thus far. 2020 was a particularly taxing year for minority groups. Black Americans and allies continued their fight for equal rights, justice, and peace. Hate crime rates against Asian Americans spiked dramatically following the COVID-19 outbreaks and nicknames like “Kung Flu” and “China Virus” gained popularity. I wanted to learn more about Olivia’s experience with racism as a Chinese American, not just in 2020, but in her life as a whole.
Olivia told me it all really started in elementary school.
“In third grade, we celebrated Chinese New Year and my mom would come in to educate the class and tell them about the lion dance, or the food, or how to use chopsticks. It was supposed to be a fun little thing, and I think she started coming in in first or second grade,” she explained.
“Those [years] were fine. And then in third grade, when she came in, I [started to] see how different I was from everyone else because I was the only Chinese girl in my entire grade. I would put on a traditional outfit, and my mom would have a traditional outfit too. We were the only ones.”
Olivia credited the teachers for making her feel welcome in the classroom setting, which consisted mostly of Caucasian students.
“They were like, ‘This is so cool! This is your tradition!’ But at that age, what was normal for me suddenly started making me feel like I was out of place. They would ogle at [the chopsticks and my outfit]. It felt like they were saying, ‘You’re special, but also, no one else is like you and you stand out.’ I think everyone had good intentions, but this separation became wider and more distinct when I got older.”
She then said that the scrutiny turned into racism in her fifth grade.
“They would do the fox eyes at me in science class, they would say ‘wing wong ching chong’ to me. One time, one of my friends sang a song that had you pull back your eyes to represent Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people. And I told them, ‘Can you not do that? It’s racist and it makes me uncomfortable.’ But then she was like, “Oh, no no no, it’s a joke.’ Later, when I told my parents, they told me that it wasn’t a normal thing and it wasn’t a joke. And then I had to talk to her. So even in elementary school, I had to deal with that kind of [treatment].
I didn’t know that I would have to face that when I was younger. I didn’t grow up with my parents warning me about racist people. So I didn’t ever expect people to do the things that they did. But my brother, one day he was running on the track and he got called a ch*nk. He became really passionate about representation and fighting against racism and educating people. My mom has also shared her own experiences and knowledge with me, and has always encouraged my brothers and I to not hesitate to learn about our history and stand up for what is right. I think that [those experiences] made me stronger and made me understand when I was older that [some] people are ignorant and don’t understand where you’re coming from, or they won’t try to understand where you’re coming from.”
I asked Olivia if she thought that racism is inherent intolerance and hate or learned behavior. She told me that she believes that hate is taught, and explained why through another story where she experienced racism firsthand.
“I’ve encountered people who follow along with the crowd or what they’re taught at a young age. Their words and actions seem to line up with their parents and/or friends, whether it’s indirect like exclusion and ignorance, or direct like spouting blatantly racist things. My understanding is that many times, it’s taught, and family is one of the direct links to things like your political party and views on race. However, there are a lot of exceptions and by no means is this the rule.””
To close off our interview on a more uplifting note, I asked Olivia if she had any words of encouragement for anyone else that is facing racism.
“You should take [racism] seriously. No one should ever treat you like that, and you have to make sure that you remember that no one should treat you like that. No matter how many times someone tries to tell you that it’s a joke, it’s not a joke. You know it’s not a joke because it’s detrimental to you and everyone else that those words or actions might affect. And don’t be afraid to speak up because one way that racism can be decreased by calling racist people out. Even if it goes terribly wrong, like if you lose a friend, or they gaslight you, you know what’s right and what’s wrong, especially when it comes to your race. You can tell them, ‘This is wrong, you should change, and this is why this is wrong.’
And I think people with these experiences should continue to educate themselves, too, on the history behind a word or immigration stories from our history in America. I think a lot of [prevention] comes from education and gaining the information that you need to educate someone. The resources are everywhere; you have books and credible websites to look at. Just stick to your gut and educate them so that another person might not need to face that same racism too.”
After speaking to Olivia, it was clear that the challenges she and many other people of color faced made her stronger, more compassionate, and more knowledgeable. Racism is more often than not a product of ignorance and can be combated by proper education and information. In a time where hate, fear, and chaos run rampant, it was inspirational to see a member of the youth so passionate about spreading help and kindness to those who may lack or need it most.