Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How I became Infected

When I was little I did not really know what racism was. It was around, it always is but you don't really get it until you see it yourself. As a child I heard all the jokes about the Gypsies being lazy thieves but yet really good singers and dancers. The Saami were claimed to be drunks. It was not really real to me because I had never knowingly met a member of either Finnish minority. That is because in reality no one looks like the exaggerated caricatures shown on TV.

Then I moved out of my sheltered life and into the United States. I moved from a country practically oblivious of the implications and evils of their racist attitudes to one very conscious of them. I was taught about the civil rights movement and became not only an admirer of Martin Luther King and of Rosa Parks but of the underground rail road and all the people who had stood up for that was right even at the cost of their own lives. I became emotionally involved with history of the civil rights movement and became emotional when confronted by injustices of any kind. I felt that to stand by and let something like that happen was wrong. I bristled when ever my parents or anyone said anything negative about someone based on looks, race or nation of origin.

I also became friends with people of varied back grounds. I was in ESL so I became closer and could identify better with other immigrant children than the people at large regardless of actual ethnic origin. The thought of hate groups like the KKK wanting to hurt my friends was horrifying to me.

I was happy when I went after my first year of school to ESL summer school. It was like school with all the bad boring parts removed. I expected everyone to be nice. There was only one other white person in my class besides me but he was a boy and so I wanted nothing to do with him. The definite majority was the Vietnamese girls. There was about four of them but they seemed like more because they spoke Vietnamese together separating themselves, loud, boisterous and confident in their numbers. They played a game I did not understand and was not invited to join, not that it occurred to me, they seemed so insulated. There seemed to be a leader and her second, little kid gangs always have leaders and a hierarchy, like chickens. The leader had long hair and her second had very short hair. They seemed very tall and pretty to me, but I do not know if that was reality or an image borne from their confidence, self assurance and popularity.

I got along with other girls in the class and other classes just fine. The Somalese girls I took the bus with were nice and so was the Korean girl who was both in my class and on my bus, she was quiet but nice.

Then one day in class I changed my seat. Our seats were not assigned. I just wanted a change. One seat was differently made than mine and I wanted to sit in it so I moved. Unfortunately that seat was in the second to back seat of the Vietnamese row. I sat down behind the short haired girl and right in front of another girl from a different country. After a while of enjoying this novel seat the short haired girl turned around.
"You can't sit here you are not Asian." she said. I felt shocked and confused.
"But she is not Vietnamese." I said indicating the girl behind me.
"But she is Asian." she replied. I felt confused I did not understand. I mean I did, I had been bullied all my life. I could not deny I was not Asian. I felt heat on my face and my brain was not working so I moved back to my old seat. I was upset, humiliated and did not understand for a long time that I had been a victim of racism. I did not know it could happen to me. I did not really get it until years later that it did not matter who was really the majority what mattered was who was the majority at the moment. Being discriminated does not make someone a more understanding person and less likely to repeat it, it makes you more likely to repeat it.

Racism is an infection that is passed from person to person. Not only from discriminating father to discriminating son by example but from racist to victim. Making the victim scared and hateful. It was years after this my heart rate stopped going up when I was alone in a room with Asian girls and if I found out a girl was Vietnamese it got even worse. I became nervous and panicky and wanted to escape before I was attacked. I felt awful about this but could not control my feelings.

All over that minor little childhood incident. I am pretty thin skinned I guess. Not like anything truly bad happened but it is the principle of it. I admired Rosa Parks so much and I was not able to emulate her. If you cannot live by your convictions what are you? I have been wondering that myself. What am I if I cannot do the right thing when it matters so much to me.