In the 50 years since Martin Luther King made this speech standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, America has gone through monumental changes in the aspects of race relations. Legal segregation in any shape or form has been banned throughout the country since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and race in America is not the unbridgeable chasm it once was.
Despite all the progress we’ve made as a nation, the legacy of discrimination is hard to shake off, and although race relations in America have changed beyond recognition, the effects of racism linger on. Cases like the recent police shooting of unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the outrage over Miss America (who happens to be of Indian heritage) not living up the expectation of being the “girl next door”, remind us how far we must go to achieve Dr. King’s dream. With his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King threw out a challenge to America, and it seems that the work of the civil-rights era is far from over.
The goal of the civil rights movement has changed, and now it falls to different hands and people of all ethnicity, and as an Asian-American living in the US, I ask myself how Dr. King and the civil rights movement has affected my life, and in what ways has his dream become mine?
Most people don’t see me, an Asian-American, as being a stakeholder in pursuit of racial equality. Socioeconomically, Asian-Americans have made great progress over the last 50 years. So much so that nowadays, we’ve become America’s poster child for being the “model minority”, especially by obtuse talk-show hosts who are out to debunk the concept of white privilege.
However, we rarely have a voice in the discourse of race and race relations in America. Turn on any talk shows, political discussions or news on TV, and you can clearly see the evidence of this void. Yet, as an Asian-America, I am keenly aware of and have been affected by the dynamics of race in this country – in the world.
Growing up in Texas in the 80’s during the mass migration from Southeast Asia, we were all labeled as being “Chinese”, regardless of our ethnicity. There was very little knowledge about Korea, aside from hearing about someone’s grandfather who served in the Korean War. Although there were occasional stereotype and misnomer, I can’t say that I’ve experienced any traumatic recount of racism.
Then again, if I had, it would never have been discussed in our family. Being an immigrant to this country, it was understood that we were perpetual guests in America; therefore, not being entitled to the same rights as the whites.
Of course, there were always the occasional covert examples of prejudice that were more subtle, joke that I needed to “lighten up about,” and “not take so seriously”. Sadly, I’ve repeated these jokes myself, like referring an Afro-American friend of mine being late as being on CPT (color people time), as those who experience racism tend to internalize their experience and deflect it upon others, and hearing racist jokes and comments for years, especially as a child, I, like many other people of color, have come to believe that they were true.
As a teenager, I was focused on fitting in, and especially as an Asian teenager in a school full of white kids, I didn’t want to speak up or make waves even if my peers’ remarks and jokes were off-color. I didn’t understand that these supposed “jokes” were just another propagation of spreading not only negative stereotypes about a group of people but also a way to justify marginalizing and dehumanizing minorities.
Humor often becomes a covert way of masking deeply laden societal and often personal sentiments. Under the shroud of humor, people have license to propagate stereotypes, racist rhetoric, and ultimately becomes a catharsis for people’s internalized prejudices by enabling them to express negative attitudes in a socially acceptable manner.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I arrived in New York City, the bastion of multiculturalism, that I understood the dynamics of racism. It didn’t come in the form of police harassment or being followed by a salesperson in upscale department stores, but more so in subtle form of constantly being questioned whether I was the rightful owner of the exclusive membership and credit cards. Of course, the off colored humor ensued; something I could never quite get away from, and in the absence of Black or Jewish colleagues and friends, so did the derogatory comments.
However, I didn’t understand the detrimental effects of racism until I moved to Europe. It seemed as if as I’d stepped back in time to the 80’s. Even then, I’d never experienced such discrimination and bigotry as I have in Germany. Perhaps, I was impervious to the racism that my mother and the elders in my family had experienced because I was too young to understand back then, but the racism I experienced in Europe was as overt as it could be!
As if the constant barrage of derogatory comments about foreigners and immigrants weren’t offensive enough, hardly a day would go by without seeing an article in a national newspaper siting a certain ethnic minority group as a cause of all societal problems. The targets would differ depending on the country: Algerians in France, Turkish in Germany, Moroccans in Italy, etc, but the message was always the same.
Being an Asian-American, I understood that to some degree, I was not the target of their malignment. However, I was stunned by the brazenness of the comments, as an instructor in a German class once asked one of the young Turkish students in a classroom full of people whether he spent the weekend smoking pot all day, or as a stranger on a subway ranted about how much she detested foreigners. I couldn’t believe that they were able to express their bigotry and contempt so readily and so freely.
Aside from the daily dose of degradation, I also witnessed firsthand, hardships and discrimination most ethnic minorities in Europe face: an Iranian friend of mine who was denied housing because she was Muslim; a Nigerian PhD student who graduated from a prestigious German university only to return to her home country as she couldn’t find a job anywhere in Europe, and the list goes on.
The systematic effect of racism was hard to escape, and I was not impervious to racial discrimination. Even with a decade of work experience, I was denied a job as an English teacher, as the manager of the language institute forthrightly told me that no one in Germany would want to learn English from an Asian.
It’s difficult for most people, including friends and family, to understand my outrage when I hear about innocent young Black men being shot down by police or all Muslims being portrayed as terrorists. However, our diverse stories as Asians, Latinos, Muslims, and African-Americans are simply different branches on a tree with shared roots.
I, as an Asian American may not be fighting for voting rights or right to same education, but I am continually speaking up and speaking out against the great injustices I have witnessed over the course of my life, and sadly that continues today. I owe it to the people I’ve met in my life who have experienced racism, and I owe it to Dr. King.