Racism and Ignorance
Last week, members of the youth group spent 5 days in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Our host was Youth with a Mission, a great parachurch missions organization. Our team was paired with a youth group from the high desert region of San Bernadino County. It was apparent they're not exposed to many Asians. On one outing, I was placed with four teenagers (all white) from their church. I tried on some sunglasses and a girl commented that I look like Jackie Chan. I jumped onto a wall. A guy said it was just like Jackie Chan. I asked if they knew other Asians that I could be compared with. Oh sure they responded - we know Bruce Lee.
In another instance, it was early evening and I was watching a group of our kids on the other side of the street. A black man (who turned out to be quite drunk) passed me jabbering in fake Chinese - "ching chong ding doing". Pushing aside my flashes of rage fantasy, I replied as graciously as I could - "You have a nice evening". "Oh you speak English" he replied. "Only on Tuesdays" I told him. He stopped and we had a nice conversation about life and Lebron James' disappearing act in the NBA finals.
The last incident of racism didn't involve me. As we were leaving Glide Memorial Church after breakfast, a black man directed a comment towards our group - "stay white and privileged". I was trailing the group and he likely didn't know I was with them otherwise he probably wouldn't have said it so loud. I told the kids later what he said and asked them if they knew what it meant. They took it as racist but I wonder if they were aware how privileged they were being white. I say that with some awareness that I am privileged as well. However, it does take seeing the underprivileged or having something taken away to realize how much we have been given. Racism and ignorance are not the same. And it might be helpful to say ignorance breeds racism but in the end racism (and stereotyping) is really assumptions made on partial truths. They're not completely false, they're just not completely true. And the racist component is being unable to distinguish which is which.