If Someone Says You’ve Hurt Them, Believe Them

Six years ago, I messed up.

In 2014 I started grad school. I went to the first school event for new students and told another student an anecdote about my study abroad in China in 2000. I told the story exactly as I always had — and I used a bad Chinese accent and broken English to imitate a man I met in Beijing.

I want to say unequivocally, I was wrong. Also, I truly did not know I was wrong. If I had known, of course I would have never done it.

So why did I think it was okay? Because my entire life’s experience up to that point had taught me that it was.

I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, then my Chinese friends would have told me so. I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, John Hughes wouldn’t have made fun of Long Duk Dong, the Chinese exchange student character, in the film Sixteen Candles.

This was before comic Hari Kondabolu made a movie called The Problem With Apu explaining why The Simpsons’ Kwik-E Mart owner is hurtful to South Asians. I assumed Apu was fine because the white people I grew up with thought he was funny — and my Indian and Pakistani friends never said anything either.

So, how did I react when a fellow student called me to task for my tasteless impression? Unfortunately, the wrong way.

I didn’t listen. I felt attacked. I told her that I had lots of Chinese friends and a degree in East Asian studies and blah blah blah, I did nothing wrong.

In my head, I wasn’t trying to make fun of the man in China. I was trying to recount the incident as it happened, the same way I use a British accent when I tell stories about my time in London. I think that’s why I didn’t listen.

What I didn’t realize is that white people make fun of Asians and their accents and grammar enough that, no matter your intent, as a white person you probably just shouldn’t do it.

Regardless of my intent, imitating an accent propped up stereotypes of Asians to anyone who heard me doing it. Imitating a British accent doesn’t have the same effect.

After I made a second blunder — and did not listen again — the other student told our professor what I did. Not listening to the other student compounded how much I hurt her.

After the professor talked to me, I realized I had to change the way I thought. I began actively and intentionally learning what I could about race so I could become a better person.

There are several lessons here. For white people, don’t assume that your life experience to date in America has taught you what you need to know about race. It probably hasn’t, even if you have non-white friends.

If a person of color says you said something hurtful, try to understand their point of view. There’s probably something you need to learn, and it might be a long learning process. Some things take time and experience to really sink in.

I find it helpful to consume media by people of color to better understand their point of view. I like comics like W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, shows like Dear White People, lots of fiction books by authors of color, and websites like TheRoot.com. It’s a lot easier to do your learning when you aren’t the one who screwed up and got called on it.

Even if mistakes come from well-meaning ignorance, like mine did, we all still have a responsibility to learn and change so we can continue moving toward social justice.

More articles by:

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach