I’m pretty much the opposite of what most Americans think of as a racial minority. I’m a white girl who grew up going to a mostly-white school in suburban Connecticut.
I was raised on the belief that racial discrimination was wrong, and I acted accordingly. Of course I saw that people looked different, but I tried to treat everyone the same, without making assumptions based on what they looked like. One of my closest friends in high school was Indian (that is, her parents were from India). I even had crushes on boys from at least four different races.
But as I tried to ignore racial differences, I also ignored the different experiences of people of different races. I condemned obvious instances of racism but missed a lot of the subtle prejudices in the society around me and possibly in my own heart. The first time I considered that I might be missing something was when an Asian American friend of mine in college kept mentioning race. He’d make comments about how he felt in large groups of Asians, compared to how he felt in large groups of white people. I began to wonder: could the fact that I grew up as a majority have blinded me? If my race were something that made me different, would I consider it more important?
That question was answered for me when I moved to Asia a year ago. Now I am a minority. And I notice it.
Last year, I had pretty bad culture shock. There were a lot of things involved with it: the language, different habits, uncertainty about how to act, confusion about how to get around, sheer exhaustion and so on. But one thing that really got on my nerves was the sense that people could take one look at me and know I was foreign. It was like I had a big neon sign saying “wai guo ren” (Chinese for “foreigner”) hanging above my head.
Most people weren’t mean about it. Sometimes they were quite friendly and came up to me to practice their English. Sometimes they complimented me on my Chinese (even if I didn’t deserve it). But sometimes when I walked into a store, they would hide or run around looking for an English-speaking coworker. Sometimes they shouted “HELLO HELLO HELLO” until I acknowledged them. Sometimes small children stared at me on the subway.
Is it the same as the experience of a minority in America? No, not at all. I think it’s probably better in some ways and worse in others. On the one hand, culture shock combines with the fact that I look different to make me feel even more like an outsider. On the other hand, I think it would be harder to feel like you stood out if you were in your home country at the time.
So do I understand what it’s like to be a racial minority? Not really. I know what it’s like for me, but each person’s background and personality will make their experience different. Do I understand it better than I did two years ago? Absolutely. Am I more understanding and empathetic to those who have this kind of experience? I hope so. At the very least, I now know that race does matter. It matters because it’s part of how people experience the world and consequently a part of who we are.