Speak up alongside people of color, not for them

Race is complicated—that goes without saying. Anyone, especially people of color, who just read the first sentence, knows that race can affect everything, from how the cashier looks at you when you order a cup of coffee to making a good impression for a job interview. 

I grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey mostly comprised of predominantly white, upper-class families with more right-leaning views than left. I’m of Korean descent and, despite being one of the few Asian people in my high school, this fact didn’t bother me. Then I came to Emerson.

Coming to a college campus that was more diverse grew my awareness of the many issues that come with being a person of color. That awareness largely came from Emerson students’ passion for racial justice. Most of the time, that passion is admirable and should be championed. However, a work incident at the Equipment Distribution Center from last semester made me realize how that “passion” for racial justice can get out of hand. 

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One day, a young student came in to reserve an audio recorder for the next day. One of my coworkers, who is a Chinese international student, handled his request. When the student arrived the next day to pick up his audio recorder, he found out that his reservation didn’t go through. My colleagues told me the student was upset and tried to find the international student he had talked to the day before, specifically referring to him as a student “who doesn’t speak English well.” 

When my co-workers and I heard about this while in our gear closet, we found his words to be a little racist. I decided to handle the situation to see what he was like for myself. When I finally found the white student, he instantly asked if I was the Chinese international student he had met the day before. I was thrown off a bit since I really don’t look like my Chinese co-worker, except that we both were wearing a Red Sox cap as the student pointed out. Although I thought he was just giving an excuse, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

The more the student tried to defend himself, the more I noticed the characteristics in his voice and body language—he stuttered a bit, had trouble speaking words, and came off as a little socially awkward. His character put something into perspective for me: This kid didn’t mean to be offensive. He was just never exposed to a diverse community. He didn’t know what to avoid saying. He was just a young student experiencing the real world like everyone else was in college.

Basically, he was me. It was at that moment when I learned the difference between racism and racial insensitivity.

When I came back from interacting with the student, I told my coworkers that we had overreacted and that it wasn’t a huge deal—nevertheless, one of my white co-workers called him names—a “dumb white boy,” to be exact. I didn’t expect this huge of a reaction to come from him, considering the fact that it should’ve been me who took offense, not a white person. In reality, he had never even met the student in the first place. When we had another conversation weeks later after the incident, he still went off on insulting the student. I told him repeatedly that it was nothing and he still felt like he had to defend me by insulting a kid he never met. Frankly, my white co-worker’s anger was over the line.

Racism is the embracement of biased stereotypes and the hatred of people of color. This socially awkward student was not fully innocent, but I don’t think it’s fair to call him a racist. 

I know this school prides itself on diversity, inclusivity, and a passion for racial equality. But some students, especially those of Caucasian descent, don’t understand that there needs to be a limit on that passion. Yes, it’s great that my white peers are using their privilege to help further justice for people of color like me and promote equal opportunities for all.

But I, and a myriad of other people of color, don’t feel comfortable with white people feeling obligated to get offended for me when someone mentions something about my race. To me, when white students act this way, it feels like they’re ignoring how I want to be treated. Even more importantly, it makes me feel like my co-worker is a stereotypical social justice warrior who in reality doesn’t understand the complexity of race. 

In this day and age, I don’t want to serve as another example for white people to get upset over if some random person mistakes me for Chinese. To me, that anger is more racist than my interaction with the student at the EDC. I’m not some excuse to promote some white person’s “wokeness.” I’m not a cliché so that they can get retweets for a hashtag they use on Twitter. To me, that’s just another example of white people utilizing their privilege over other people of color.

So if you’re a white person reading this, think about this when you’re with a person of color: If you and your non-white friend encounter someone who may have said something racially insensitive, let your friend speak their mind first.

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