- Posted August 18, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Everyday racism: Your stories
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A few months ago, my friend and I were on our way back from the PE locker rooms to the orchestra room for lunch. The gym is attached to the main school building physically but no covered hallway connects the two. Only a three-minute trek across a concrete parking lot bridged the gap. Getting to the gym from the main school building and vice versa on a rainy day involved an impromptu shower.
May in Seattle sees little rain and bright, balmy days that grow longer and longer. You can feel the spring slowly give way to summer—khakis and long tees giving way to booty shorts and dress-code violating spaghetti straps, open-toed sandals instead of running shoes and sneakers. Everywhere I go, people talking excitedly about summer plans and vacation and sandy beaches and the nice 60-degree weather we’re having (come on, we’re Seattleites). As the kids rushed out the locker room doors, I picked up slivers of conversation around me: “Any summer plans?” “Hawaii.” “Where are you guys going?” “Costa Rica.” “Can you believe it? 60 degrees!” “I know, I’m melting over here!”
And then, above all that noise, just as we were about to enter the main building, I hear this.
“You want some riiiiiiiiiice?”
I look around and my eyes land on two Hispanic boys snickering ahead of us, pants sagging halfway to the ground and with oversized headphones draped in inconvenient positions around their necks.
“You want some riiiiiiiiiiiiiice?”
“F*** off,” I reply. Not the most elegant reply, in hindsight.
“You want some riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice, Ching Chong?”
At this point, I would give up three weeks in a Cancun bungalow to send these two losers to the hospital.
Fast-forward about two weeks. Our middle school does a weird thing when state testing rolls around, also in May. There are two testing sessions for the 8th graders; the 8th graders are corralled into the lunchroom (which we call the MUR-Multi-Use Room), the doors guarded by teachers wielding laptops as riot shields. Half the kids, last names starting from A through M, test on day one; the rest on day two. I tested on day two. Once inside the MUR, our backpacks thrown haphazardly by the lunch tables, the huge projector screen descended from the ceiling, the lights switched off, and Akeelah and the Bee began.
Akeelah is a black girl trying to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her struggle to achieve this goal, against all odds, is made difficult by her main rival, Dylan. Dylan is Asian, the typical haughty know-it-all, his father being the ultimate beat-machine. In one scene, Akeelah spies the father-son duo, the father standing before a shameful Dylan, admonishing him for almost losing a game of Scrabble to that “little black girl”. Over the course of the movie, Dylan’s oppressive father keeps him from hanging out with Akeelah’s friends, sits icily in the audience as other contestants spell out their words, and threatens Dylan about getting silver again. At the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Now let’s focus on Akeelah.
Akeelah ditches school and drops her homework simply because it’s too easy for her, not because she doesn’t know how to do it or because gang violence prevents her from finishing her homework. Akeelah has an older brother out on the streets, one of his shady friends at first pulling up to Akeelah and asking her what she’s doing with that box in her hand. Later, surprisingly, he forces Akeelah’s brother to help her study her flashcards. Akeelah’s best friend, Javier, is a Hispanic boy in Los Angeles living in an affluent neighborhood, going to one of the best schools in the LA region (at least in the movie, anyway). Akeelah went to Stanford for one of her first competitions and completely shattered the expectations of the all the affluent, snooty competitors there. Dr. Larrabee, Akeelah’s coach, makes Akeelah speak with proper grammar during their lessons. No “ain’t”, no double negatives—no “ghetto talk”, as he puts it. The two girls who bully Akeelah in the beginning of the movie later turn out to be some of her biggest supporters; her entire school, shamed for being underperforming and then later becoming a huge success story, thanks to Akeelah’s inspiring success at the National Bee. It’s a great movie for the overcoming of stereotypes. How a black girl, with a single mother, in a gang neighborhood of LA, can become national champion.
But as I sat in the audience, surrounded by my classmates, and looking up at that huge projector screen, I didn’t find myself laughing at many of the jokes. Looking around, at my predominantly Asian group of friends, I saw them look away when Dylan’s father came onscreen. It struck a chord.
The movie was great, in my opinion. I completely agree with the movie’s message, and I appreciated how Akeelah took the racial stereotypes we typically see in African Americans and tore them apart in her tiny, tiny hands. But at our expense.
Meanwhile, in the real world, our school has a very strict “no loitering” policy. Administrators regularly patrol the hall during class, looking for any suspicious persons hanging around and asking if they have a hall pass. “Where are you supposed to be, gentlemen/ladies,” they ask, and if they don’t procure a hall pass, detention it is. But the strange thing was, on only a few occasions did the admin actually stop one of us Asian kids from hanging out in the halls. Once, I walked around the school twelve times, and passed by a total of fourteen staff members. Never once was I flagged down. I doubt an African American could ever reach that high score.
Every teacher and every administrator, every principal and every superintendent is required by law to give every child an equal opportunity. So why is it that my equal opportunity is twelve laps around my campus while one of my classmates only gets halfway down a hall before the sirens go off? Am I inherently better than an African American child? Or a Mexican one? Kids are much smarter than most give them credit for. Look at me. I’m penning this right now, and I’m not even in high school. We pick up on stuff like this. It’s kind of a big deal when an Asian kid strolls by you when you’re being escorted into the principal’s office. The crazy DUI guy that’s speeding down the road, leaving burn marks on the ground while you get written off for a broken taillight. You get angry. And you take it out on us.
I’m an American-born Chinese. Not a “fob”. I don’t speak “Asian”, I don’t get perfect grades, and my parents don’t beat me. I don’t have an “Asian accent”, my eyes aren’t squinty, and my name is not “Ching Chong Ding Dong”.
I know that I don’t face the challenges of being multi-ethnic, black, or Hispanic. I know that I’m sheltered, about 75% of my friends being Asian, affluent, and very knowledgeable. The other 25% are the same, sans the first criterion. But I also know that every rose has its thorn, and the real world has a huge stab just waiting for me. I’m shunned by other minorities, because I seem like I have it all; good grades, opportunities, money, freedom, a stable household. I’m the closest to “white” as a non-white can get.
There’s little inter-minority dialogue today. Most rhetoric made by hotshot politicians direct us towards the broad idea of racism or simply passes over its existence altogether. Even within the discriminated minorities, there is resentment towards others. I myself am not immune to it; each time another person at my school makes another squinty-eyed symbol at me or yells at me in fake Chinese, a similarly offensive term rises to my lips. Like the kid who yelled the “You want some rice” crap at me. And how it’s okay to but the most stereotypical Asian of all time into a movie on a black girl taking on America’s stereotypes. It’s a positive feedback loop that has a big negative impact. Where’s our melting pot, our harmony, when every single ingredient clashes?