Give Racism a Chance

This is the text of my TEDxSpokane talk that I recently delivered. In light of the protests and events taking place across our country now, I thought it would be appropriate to share. When the video is available, I will be posting it here.

In November of 2013, I did an interview with Travel & Leisure Magazine about the city where I live, Portland, OR because it was being profiled for a piece called “America’s Best Cities for Hipsters.”

It’s definitely something that we’re known for – and if you’re not familiar with the term, it generally refers to someone who enjoys things like beards, artisan foods and coffee, beer, thick glasses, bicycles, TED talks, and certain types of music. They like to be seen as progressive and independent thinkers, unique.

In other words, being a hipster is defined by actions and attitude. But the ironic thing is that because the term has such negative connotations, no one admits to being a hipster. People shy away from the label even if they embody the characteristics or behaviors of it. They often believe that they’re the exception.

But that’s natural, isn’t it? We often avoid uncomfortable conversations or labels, sometimes to the point where we pretend that they aren’t applicable even when the shoe fits.

In our society, we’ve demonized the “R Word” so much so, that people pretend it doesn’t exist in our communities, and certainly not in our government, education, or other public spaces. That word, and problem, is racism.

A recent public poll found that only 6% of whites in the United States believed racism to be a very serious problem. On the other hand, most of people of color report experiencing racial discrimination in their lives.

According to a recent Gallup Survey on Black-White Relations, seven of ten whites believe blacks are treated equally in their communities; eight in ten say blacks receive equal educational opportunities, and 83 percent say blacks receive equal housing opportunities. Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police in their areas.

But when you look at the data, it’s appallingly clear that this isn’t the case.

A major national study revealed that people with “white sounding names” are 50% more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same. First time arrests for black youth have an incarceration rate that is 48 times higher than white youth, even when all other factors of the crime are identical. In fact, the average black male has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetime.

To explain these staggering statistics either you believe that most of all people of color are naturally criminally inclined, have a poor work ethic, have bad credit, and terrible at education, or you believe that we have a systemic wide problem across our political, legal, education, financial and health sectors. Either way, it confirms the existence of prevalent racism.

Now, I like to believe the best in people and I don’t think most are intentionally racist. We have done some extraordinary things in the past few decades to make our society more equitable, but we’re not quite there yet. Our discomfort with talking about race and being afraid of the label can often make things worse.

I’ll give you some examples.

Last month, I met a woman who told me that she wasn’t attracted to Asians. No worries, I said, I’m not attracted to racists.

Of course, that woman’s reaction was one of surprise. “I’m not a racist!” she exclaimed. “I’m not a racist but I just don’t date Asians.”

Now, what I find interesting is that not everyone would agree that her comment as racist. She, in fact, felt that it was a perfectly natural comment even though what she was doing was presenting over 100 completely different ethnicities and cultures as monolithic , as if every person from all of these groups shared superficial qualities that would make it possible for her to form an emotional connection. That’s called prejudice, prejudice based on race. Which is the essence of racism.

And let’s face it, nothing good follows the statement “I’m not a racist but.” The very existence of that phrase is proof of enough that we still have racial issues plaguing our society. I don’t think she was being intentionally racist, she was merely embodying the characteristics of racism – probably from internalizing the bias that the media and society projects about romance, sexuality, and race.

But I think some of the biggest problems with racism comes from a systemic level, especially because our government tries so hard to conceal it. If anyone is uncomfortable with talking about race in a realistic way, it’s the public sector.

Just last week, there was a report of a police officer assaulting a black teenager in his own home. He was entering the house through a side door and when a neighbor saw that, they called the police. The police entered, asked what he was doing in the house. The boy told them that he lived there. The officer looked at the family portraits on the wall, told the young man that he was lying, then pepper sprayed him in the eyes to the point where he required emergency medical attention. You see, he was living with a white foster family so they didn’t believe him.

And I’ve been fighting my own case of racial misunderstanding with the government as well.

For the last five years, I’ve been fighting a case against the U.S Patent and Trademark Office over the right to register my band’s name. They believe that my band’s name, The Slants, is disparaging to Asian Americans. They came to this conclusion because our band is actually comprised of all Asian Americans.

In their mind, people are more likely to think of a racial slur than any other possible definition for the word Slant because of our ethnicity. In the name of fighting racism, they are denying me a right based on my race.

What’s interesting is that “slant” was never considered to be a racial slur against Asians until an Asian applied. Almost 800 applications have gone before them and not once did they even bring it up.

In the last five years of fighting this case, they have not consulted any Asian American organizations, leaders, or experts on racial relations. Not one. Because in their minds, these white attorneys clearly thought they understood what racism actually looks like to Asians.

When a Governor-commissioned board of Asian American leaders from Oregon wrote them asking about this, the Trademark Office simply responded that they were “committed to diversity and that Asian Americans worked in the office.”

Despite what some people think, racial awareness and understanding does not come through osmosis. Simply having a person of color in the building doesn’t mean you will automatically understand their life experiences.

Ironically, the Trademark Office believes they are doing the right thing. They are being offended on my behalf, they believe that they know what is appropriate for Asian Americans. So much so, that they can throw out the thousands of pages of evidence submitted by the Asian American community. That’s the power of privilege. For them, that’s the luxury of being blind to the reality that while our law system might be in equal in name, the actual practice is much different.

It turns out, this law has been affecting minorities for almost 70 years now. And it’s just one of many examples of how pretending racism is nonexistent actually hurts people. For example, Florida’s constitution still has a law embedded in it designed to exclude Asians from owning real estate. When a measure was on the ballot to remove it, Floridians voted to keep it! And this happens all the time: voters approve measures that uphold systems in place that discriminate based on race or that ignore the historical bias that has created a severely unequal playing field.

Part of the problem is that we have different perspectives on the issue.

Here’s where the big difference is on how racism in this country is viewed. Whites tend to say, “Look how far we’ve come when it comes to race- we’ve abolished slavery, we passed the Civil RIghts Act of 1964 and Title IX, we’ve elected a black president!” Things are so much better now than they used to be. In other words, it’s a look backwards.

On the other hand, people of color point out major disparities – the typical white family has 20 times the net worth of the typical black family, and 18 times that of the typical Latino family, light-skinned immigrants earn 17% more than dark-skinned ones, and so on. We say, we’ve got a long way to go before we even have equal opportunities. We say, think of what our world would be like without this major problems in equity! In other words, it’s a look forwards.

For people of color, like me, fighting racism has to do with survival. We can’t hide from it or ignore it, it affects everything from access to education and health, to getting a job or a mortgage. It affects us in a way that it doesn’t typically affect white families. That’s not to say that whites are bad or racists, they just don’t have the same kind of direct experience so it usually doesn’t even come to mind as a major social problem in the same way.

And much of this is on a government level where they don’t have the capacity or incentive to make decisions in a way that takes that minority experience into account.

Sometimes, we get accused of playing “the race card,” as if people of color are incapable of reasoning and a consideration of the facts; when it comes to major events or issues and that we must rely on some kind of trump move to gain sympathy. But even if it were real, what kind of progress does it make?

What about when the card of denial is played, when people ignore that race is a major a factor in incidents like Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and the vast disparities in our society?

Why is that we you never hear about whites playing the race card when they claim an incident reverse racism? Why is it that the media reports “black on black” crime but you never hear about white on white crime, even though it is four times higher?

We hear things like “we elected a black president,” as if that event was the magic eraser to wipe away all of the racial problems in our country in one fell swoop.

That would be like saying that in 1932, we elected a president with a physical disability, so we should stop building ramps and having reserved handicap spaces because that’s reverse discrimination against the able-bodied.

Of course, having one person in an elected office does not dismantle systemic oppression that has been built in over centuries. Women have been elected and appointed as heads of state in China, India, and Pakistan yet somehow you don’t see people clamoring to pronounce the end of sexism in those countries.

We need to stop treating the everyday experiences of millions of people like a relic of a bygone era. Racism as a major problem does not live in the past, like polio or smallpox. It permeates nearly every aspect of our society. We need to give it a chance to exist so that we can treat it like the disease it.

By pretending the problem doesn’t exist, we perpetuate its existence. We need to get the idea that only racists and bigots can be prejudiced or biased out of our head. Racism isn’t just burning crosses and white hoods. Racist actions don’t have to fit a stereotype of what racism in order for to discriminate. Denying the existence of it or refusing to talk about it in a meaningful manner is upholding a racist system. It’s a form of racism whether it is intentional and conscious or not.

Like any disease, we need to treat the root causes and bring more awareness. As a society, we’ve been so worried about accusations of racism, that we’ve been ignoring the actual realities of it. The symptoms are there, we can’t go on ignoring them.

We can change this pattern, we have an opportunity to develop equity and justice into a practice rather than an afterthought. Begin by having an uncomfortable conversation about race, begin by giving racism a chance.

Only then, can we change the future for our kids.

Only then can we really make progress to defeating it  and making news like this history

Delivered on October 13, 2014 at TEDxSpokane

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3 thoughts on “Give Racism a Chance

  1. Trademark Office simply responded that they were “committed to diversity and that Asian Americans worked in the office.” {Then they said “Some our best friends are Asian Americans. Really. They are.” Then they looked away for a while and got quiet.}

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