Integrity and an Open Mind
Here I am, trying to move past my white-bread mindset, in hope of being able to listen with an open mind to the perspectives of people of color. At the same time, I think of Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true, and thou canst not be false to any man” and I wonder: how do I keep an open mind and my integrity, knowing how deeply flawed my “honest” reactions may be?
I faced this quandry when a friend of Korean heritage (I’ll call her Chang-sook) told me about a disturbing aspect of her experience in my city’s schools. As a substitute art teacher, she’d expected her students would challenge her authority. But she did not anticipate what felt like a barrage of ethnic insults, from “ching chang chong” gibberish and eye-stretching into slits, to remarks such as “go eat pork fried rice” and “konnichiwa ” said with a sneer.
What bothered her more than the behavior itself was the absence of sanctions. In just one school, the principal took unequivocal action: the student who called her “chink” was immediately suspended, and allowed back only after a satisfactory apology. But at a different school, the student who called her “a slant-eyed bitch” got a mere talking to. As did another who made a veiled threat about having a knife in his pocket.
Out of frustration, Chang-sook compiled a list of 18 questions to which she would not respond to questions such as “Do you eat with chopsticks?” “Were you born here?” “Are you Japanese or Chinese?” She gave out the list in her classes, but her strategy backfired. The taunts escalated.
Fed up, my teacher friend took her complaints to the school system’s human resources office where, to her disappointment, she was met with inaction and “kids will be kids” dismissiveness.
Out of frustration, she wrote a letter to the local newspaper. The editor turned her complaint into a feature article, highlighting her dismay that most of the taunts came from Black male students who, she felt, ought to know better. The newspaper’s next issue printed a two-page spread of students’ “You’re the racist!” letters.
We met for coffee to talk over her upsetting experience, and Chang-sook acknowledged right off that her don’t-ask-me list was a big mistake. That misstep aside, however, she was sure that speaking out as she had done was justified.
To get some perspective on her account, I pictured it from another angle. Let’s say that a Jewish teacher’s students pepper him with “What kind of a name is that?” “Are you Arab, Jewish, or what?” “Were you born here?” “Why do you wear those little caps on the back of your head?” “Do you know Hollywood bigwigs?” “What do you think about Israel?”
And what if they were to call the teacher a kike?
As a former teacher, familiar with behavior control strategies, I found myself wondering: couldn’t Chang-sook have responded to her students’ stereotyped questions with pedagogical counter questions? How about, for instance: “No, I’m not Japanese or Chinese. How many other Asian countries can you name? If you can come up with five other Asian nationalities, I’ll tell you where I’m from.”
I offered this strategic alternative, but Chang-sook would have none of it. She’d seen a wrong and would not stand for it. Our conversation got heated and perked up the ears of nearby latte-drinkers.
Then she told me that several Asian-American parents had privately thanked her for speaking out. They told her that their children were frequently harassed, with no consequences to the harassers. So I had to acknowledge that there was a serious problem, one that needed a whistleblower — someone like outspoken Chan-sook.
By the time we left the coffee shop, I had offered, if it came to a discrimination hearing, to testify on her behalf.
In retrospect, I can see that my “what if ” caveats had clouded my ability to see a wrong that needed righting. My temporizing was like a fog that takes time to dissipate.
On another occasion, I managed to quickly grasp the distress provoked by a speaker’s remark at a National Writers Union program I’d organized. The guest presenter, a children’s book editor who was white, told the assembled audience that she welcomed multicultural submissions, “but only if they’re good.” One African American audience member was so outraged by the comment that she wrote a letter to the publishing company president. Her complaint was to no avail: the CEO responded by assuring her of his editor’s good intentions. This time, I had enough racial awareness to back up the union member. I contacted the guest speaker herself to make clear why an African American writer might be insulted by the editor’s suggestion that she might deliberately submit an inferior manuscript, hoping to get “a pass.”
I could “see through the fog” as well, when a white colleague posted a story on the Web about an African immigrant, emphasizing the blackness of his body in a way that some readers considered racist. I knew of my friend’s committed relationship to her city’s Sudanese community and did not think her racist. But I managed to explain to her why her wording could offend others.
Yet I did not immediately sign on when my union took a stand supporting re-trial for Black Power radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. I knew that Black men are often set up, especially if they’ve exposed police misconduct, as he had done. But I’m a journalist: I need evidence.
So I read both the prosecution’s case and the defense’s: both were murky. The one clarity I had was that the prosecutors used Abu-Jamal’s political views during the penalty phase of his trial to argue that that he should be put to death. At the time, I saw the core issue as freedom of expression: I added my name to the union’s statement supporting retrial on that basis. Today, I would sign on as a death penalty opponent, my eyes having been opened to pervasive inequities, racial and otherwise, in death penalty sentencing.
But I can still see only so far. A small incident made me realize how narrow my vision still is. I was asked to be on a panel discussing a Black writer’s short stories. To help audience members who might not have read the stories being discussed, I composed plot summaries to hand out. The author had done the same, so we used hers as handouts.
But later, when I compared our two versions, I was humbled. Mine had viewed each storyline as racial, while the author described her themes more broadly — as human dilemmas.
I’m reminded of what African American scholar W.E.B. Dubois called the Negro’s “double vision” — the sense of seeing yourself as American, but also as someone white people view with pity and disdain, leaving you longing for a single vision of a true self. I, too, yearn for a truer self, as I struggle, not with double vision, but with partial sight.
It’s not easy, peering through white fog.