After living in China I can’t not see race. As a foreigner in China you’re four-ten-thousandths (0.0004) of one percent of the total population. The minority. Being the minority was an eye-opening life-changing experience.
Months ago I took an Uber to a multi-level marketing scam job interview. Elias, the driver, and I were discussing race during the ride. Elias told me that as a young boy his mother explained race in the following way:
“Look at the flowers in our garden. Do you see the different colors? They beautiful. And just like flowers have different colors, people have different colors. We’re all beautiful flowers in a colorful garden.”
At any rate, a few weeks ago I finished a film project called The White Ally Video Series (videos coming soon). As you may have guessed the project calls on white people to be allies for people of color. Simply: If you’re a white person and you see/hear another white person say something that’s racially charged, say/do something to remind them it’s not okay.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about race in America…especially as political pundits and candidates alike continue to escalate racial tensions through their incendiary hate speech.
Anyway, I stumbled across Chivas Sandage’s Why I Can’t Say I’m An Ally to People of Color. This quote of hers sums up what I’m thinking.
Listening led me to 11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies.
In the linked article above Brittney Cooper, co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, regular contributor to Salon, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers offers this message to white people:
“White people should recognize that the best way to be good allies is to go work among their own people (white people) to create more allies. Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures. What we are really asking is for them to 1) affirm that account boldly among other white people; and 2) use their privilege to confront racial injustices when they see them happening, whether in the grocery store or the boardroom.”
And yeah, confronting people for the horrible things they’re saying and doing isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. Let your discomfort with someone’s racial microaggressions fuel you.
Rather than end here — though I probably should — I want to share a few examples from my own life where I felt compelled to speak up.
It’s not 1949 anymore, Grandma
In the fall of 2008 I was dating a white woman with thick curly dark hair. Kate.
One Sunday we drove out to my grandparent’s home to take them to church. Kate and I arrived at their home early so as to make introductions.
Things were going well when Grandma remarked how lovely Kate’s hair was and asked, “Do you get your curls from your mom or dad?”
Kate thanked Grandma and said she didn’t know as both her parents have straight hair.
Without missing a beat Grandma said, “Must’ve been the nigger in the woodpile!”
I yelped, “Grandma! You can’t say that!” I don’t care if it was a common expression while you were growing up, but it’s not okay. Ever.
I regret not saying something
Fast forward to 2012.
Three years ago when I told people about moving to China I heard a lot of racial microaggressions.
“You’re going to be the tallest person there! Won’t you get sick of rice? Or will you develop an appetite for bow-bow on a stick? How are you going to understand anyone, you don’t speak ching-chong-ching. You’ll have the biggest dick in China!”
That stuff came from everyone everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in line at Target remarking on the impending move to the cashier or talking to a friend at a coffeeshop.
It’s like all Americans view China* as the common enemy. Thus: it’s okay to say horrible things about China because everyone know China’s horrible.
And when people said these terribly offensive things I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to China. Could they be right? (They weren’t.) I felt like if I stood up for China I’d be attacked for being unpatriotic or have “yellow fever” or… I don’t know. I was afraid to say something, especially to my friends.
Thinking back on those off-the-cuff remarks, I feel shame for not saying anything. I just let people beat on an entire country and culture I’d later come to love.
I miss China every day.
Hi, I’m Minneapolis’ Faggot Bastard
In January 2008 I was at The New Uptown Diner for dinner.
While waiting in line to pay my tab I couldn’t help but overhear the middle-aged white guy in front of me barking across the counter at a young server. He was degrading the employee, “You understand me? You speak English? Listen, can you hear me Padre?”
The man then tried to communicate with the server in very bad, broken, offensive Spanish.
All the while that little voice inside was screaming for me to do something, but all I wanted to do was leave. I was uncomfortable. The man moved to the side of the register to continue harassing the employee.
The server motioned me forward and I paid my bill. I’m assuming the jerk sensed I wasn’t okay with what he was saying because as I turned to leave the man leaned into me and said, “Hey man, it’s all cool.”
As I was staring back at him something inside of me snapped and I snarled “No, it’s not cool. You don’t have to be such an asshole.”
He started to respond, “Hey, I’m –”
And I said it again, “Yeah, you’re being an asshole!” I turned and walked out the door.
The last thing I heard was him calling after me, “You fucking Minneapolis faggot bastard!”
Yeah, I could’ve handled that one better. But it takes practice.
You can’t win them all
The last time I was involved with the One Act play competition I had acne covering the majority of my face and back. The Supreme Court just elected George W. Bush to his first term and I finally had a driver’s license.
Despite the fact neither my high school (Watertown-Mayer) or I ever advanced to the state level — ever — attending the two-day Minnesota State High School League’s One Act play event at St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy auditorium remains one of my favorite activities every year.
But due to living abroad and all I missed the past few years. So this year was special…until the festival’s Oral Critic, Gregg Sawyer, let his racist freak flag fly.
Following the performance of “Rocky’s Road” — a play based on a true story of a white teenager killed by a police officer — Minnesota-State-High-School-League-Official-Gregg Sawyer was critiquing the all-white-cast’s portrayal as “protestors” protesting a boy’s death when he said, and I’m paraphrasing here —
“I know we all have this Minnesota Nice thing, but the judges thought the protestors could’ve been talking over each other more. But they don’t know how to do that because they’re all white! AND I can say that because I’m white!“
Mr. Sawyer didn’t say this to five people. He said these words to an auditorium primarily filled with caucasians, most of which happened to be students.
What I heard in the subtext of what Sawywer said:
“White kids don’t know how to be loud, only people of color know how to be loud. And it’s okay I’m saying this because I’m white in a room full of other white people, most of which are minors. So not only do I have power over them because of my age, gender, station, income level, and education, but I also have a microphone and close relationships with a lot of the movers and shakers in the high school/community/semi-pro theater world.”
When he said that I felt like I was punched in the gut. Because — and maybe I’m wrong, but — that’s some racist shit.
An apology should be issued for Gregg Sawyer's racist oral critique comments yesterday, @MSHSL
— Michael Venske (@michaelvenske) February 12, 2016
After not hearing anything from anyone via Twitter I sent a long email with the above to the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, CC:d the MSHSL’s Executive Director, Associate Directors, Coordinator of Officials, as well Mr. Sawyer’s superiors at the Academy of Holy Angels.
No one responded to me about Mr. Sawyer’s remarks**.
light at the end of the tunnel
Two weeks ago I stopped in at North Shore Vape. While waiting in line I overheard a young white male bemoaning to his friends about a rental rate he was charged at a hotel.
“They jewed me on the room!”
I turned to the man and said, “Excuse me. Did you just say ‘jewed’?” He and his friends stared at me.
The man replied, “Does that offend you? Are you Jewish?”
I said, “Don’t say ‘jewed.’ It’s offensive. There are other words you can use.” That was that. Silence.
Then last week I popped back into North Shore Vape. Just as I was about to leave the owner asked, “Remember those guys last week? After you left they talked about you for a good 30 minutes. What you said affected them. They really thought about what you said and they’re going to try to be more aware.”
And that’s the point.
See something, hear something, do something.
Thanks for reading.
* = insert current enemy
** = Chris Franson, the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, did respond to a handful of the 16 observations I emailed regarding the festival, however, Gregg Sawyer’s comment was not one of them.