On the ‘friend argument’, or why you shouldn’t use your one token minority friend to let yourself off the hook
Once upon a time, I didn’t think Alexandra Wallace's rant on 'Asians in the Library' was totally racist. I thought it was only partly. I didn’t mind her comment about ‘Asians talking loud on their cellphones in the library’ or ‘the hordes of Asian’ part. I had thought, ‘well, I’ve seen people do that too, so there was so truth to it, eh.’
It was the part where she said ‘Ching Chong Ching Chong' that really got me. That got me offended - not only did it have a long history of being extremely racist, it brought up bad memories for me.
Once upon a time, I had to survive active neo-nazism in the neighborhood I grew up in, I had teachers humiliating me in front of the whole class for my slight accent, and I had gotten through racist bullying at school. Racist jokes, the ‘all Asians look the same’ thing, yellowface, misrepresentation of Asians in the media - those were small things, ignorable things. I thought I had survived ‘real racism’ because it can’t get worse than kids in the neighborhood throwing snowballs at my grandparents while yelling ‘Ching Chong Ching Chong' despite their (Chinese) pleas.
I wonder if I ever became the ‘Well I have a Chinese friend and she doesn’t think -this-and-that- is racist' friend. I certainly uttered the line myself. I’m Chinese and I don’t find this offensive.
I have a Korean friend who could care less for Asian representation in the media, but would punch anyone who pulls their eyes back to make the infamous ‘chinky’ eyes. I have friends who don’t mind Asian jokes much, but despise men with Asian fetishes and will cuss them out in public, having suffered through one too many sexual harassment incidents. Conversely, my mother thinks men with Asian fetishes are funny and harmless, if pitiful, but will always bring up the Vincent Chin case as why we should never trust Americans.
A long time ago, I was a little kid, I was with my grandparents, playing in the snow, when neighborhood kids threw snowballs at us. I cried, my grandmother yelled at them to stop - in Chinese-, but all they did was laugh and mocked her language and continue throwing snowballs. To this day, I cannot hear Ching Chong Ching Chong without remembering that day; I do not have words to explain the rage I have for the fucking awful phrase. But I do have friends who is able to shrug it off.
(I cannot and will not. I respect myself and my grandparents too much to just forget about it. And I want make sure no kid will ever experience what I had.)
As I grew up and became a media junkie and aspired to be a writer, though, I became more aware of Asian representation in the media, and how it got erased, misrepresentated, or whitewashed and yellowfaced. I grew tired of it all, I remembered how I yearned for Asian American characters when I was younger, and media representation became a big thing for me as well. People will disagree with me on this point, and fine, let them.
But see, the thing is, I realized that not everyone has the same experience of racism. Some, fortunately, rarely ever encounter it. Some encounter the worse of it. Some who were lucky to grow up in inclusive, tolerant neighborhood would be just plain shocked when someone makes a racist joke. Some will shrug off verbally racist things because hey, at least it’s not landing them in the hospital.
All Asian people’s experience of racism was different, with different degrees and severity, but all experiences, all complaints were valid. All were still racism. And we should all listen whenever someone brings one up. Something might not bother one particular Asian person, might not hurt them. But it probably might hurt their friend, their parents, their siblings. We all probably have experiences that will stay with us forever.
Because, see, it all is still racism. It still hurts. It all still connects. At first it was the ‘chinky eyes’, then it was the ‘ching chong ching chong’, and unfortunately, it sometimes escalates to vandalizing my neighborhood and throwing snowball at old people. Maybe the kids who bullied me at school would never vandalize a house with racist slurs and swastikas. But the neo-nazis who did definitely didn’t have a problem with saying chink and pulling back their eyes. And maybe that’s how they started out first, too.
Pulling back your eyes is a playground thing. But it perpetuates the stereotype of small eyes, of slanted eyes, and it so prevalent it shows up whenever Hollywood casts a white actor as a Asian character and tape back their eyes and then it gets spread all across the world and little kids on playground will start doing it as well.
In the end, it all mocks a whole race of people, it stereotypes a whole group of people, it causes hurt and fear and it’s all something we could really do without.
I don’t speak for all Chinese people, especially not all Asian people. Anyone is free to disagree with me.
But your Asian friend, that friend you bring up when you say, ‘I can’t be racist, I have an Asian friend’ or ‘I have an Asian friend and they don’t think it’s offensive’ - they don’t speak for all Asian people either.
So we have conflicting declarations. There is three main ways to solve this issue. You could just stop saying/doing/supporting racist things. Or you could ignore both your friend and me and do whatever the fuck you want. Or you could ignore me and listen to your friend, because after all, they’re the ones that matter.
You can potentially insult everyone else, you could potentially really hurt someone, you trigger them, add to their misery, perpetuate racist ideas again and again, but at least, not against that one friend.
(But what happens if they ever change their views, like I had? What happens then? Would you stop for them? Or had you just really liked the idea of using that one friend for an excuse to free yourself of all responsibility of what you say and do - in which then, would you dismiss them as well?)
The person you have offended isn’t a prude or uptight or hates fun. They have gone through a different but just as valid experience as your friend, and they are as human as your friend and should be respected and listened to.
Some experiences are common and widespread. Some experiences are more rare. None happens in isolation, in a vacuum. What you say and do have consequences - if not for your friend, then for other people. And that number could be 1, could be 100, could be millions and millions of other people. Is it worth to make a joke (that really doesn’t need to be made. I promise you, your day isn’t going to go down the toilet just because you can’t say it) that could maybe hurt many people, if only because you wanted to, if only because you have that one friend who has ‘excused’ you?
And in writing this post, I speak for myself. I don’t speak for all Chinese and/or Asian people. You don’t have to listen.
But I do hope that you at least take the time to think about it.