“Why are there so many f—ing Asians in the library?” This was the first moment I became aware of my identity as a person of color. I was sitting in Perkins procrastinating reading the work of an old dead sociologist last month when a male student walked past and spewed this bit of verbal violence. In truth, there were only three Asians in the room—myself, a third-generation Asian American, included—but that’s tangential to my point.
My initial reaction was to view it as an isolated incident of racism. However, the memory has continued to resurface, whether by the caricature-like depictions of Asian Duke students in Gossip Bro’s comments about Asians in the library or through a greek email about a certain group of Easterners f—ing up an econ class curve, to name the most visible. I now recognize that these occurrences are symptoms of a racial structure we need to question and challenge, but I want to address them within a larger context: the matter of “isms.” Because you see, what surprised me most about my experience wasn’t that race is still an issue, but that many of the students I told my story to just didn’t get why I was offended.
This was at first baffling to me. How could some of my closest friends not understand the brutishness of being told indirectly (if you consider being called a f—ing Asian being told indirectly) that you were not welcome in a space because you looked a certain way or belonged to a certain group of people?
It was only today after reading the fliers posted across campus for “The Heterosexual Privilege Checklist” that I really got it. Much like I am often oblivious to the benefits I derive from hetero-normative privilege, my closest friends—many of whom benefit from a white privilege (whether they identified or not)—were unable to key into the challenges of my racial minority narrative. It is difficult to understand the weight of an ism—racism, sexism, classism, ableism and all the other isms—without a frame of reference. To break this down further, as a thought experiment I invite you to list the dominant categories to which we subscribe to (e.g. rich, male, straight, right handed, etc.) and then count the number of dominant groups you belong to. To my surprise I was a member of more dominant groups than minority categories. Often as members of various dominant groups, we can unintentionally overlook the challenges of minority group members because we have never experienced them.
So, as a member of the Duke community, a social, curious and intelligent group of people, I see it as my responsibility to be mindful of the language of isms, in particular those that are not a part of my native tongue. As some of my friends at the Center for Multicultural Affairs say, to contend that people are beyond race, to prematurely declare us beyond ‘ism’ is counterproductive. To buy into colorblindness and say that we must not speak of race in order to end racism is problematic because it ignores the greater reality of racial inequities. Instead, I encourage an address that, rather than tiptoeing around uncomfortable conversations and being excessively PC, recognizes ‘isms’ as a very real part of campus life. It is far more progressive to acknowledge differences, socially constructed and otherwise, and move to understand those differences with an open mind and consciousness of behavior than to deny them. Only then can ‘isms’ begin to become relics of our past rather than challenges to our present.
Kristen Lee is a Trinity sophomore.