On February 22, during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Seattle Times sports pages carried an article with the secondary headline "American outshines Kwan, Slutskaya in skating surprise".As one reader commented in an angry note to the editors, "The sub-headline, of course, implied that Kwan is not American. That hit the nerves of many Chinese-Americans such as I, who, on more than one occasion, are perceived and treated as foreigners, as if people with yellow skins can't be American." The Seattle Times apologized for the mistake, describing it as the result of sloppy editing. But I was reminded of the story about Bruce Lee, the famous kung-fu actor: when he first met his mother-in-law (a Caucasian) and introduced himself as an American born in the USA, she allegedly replied, "You're an American citizen, not an American."
Having lived in the US for decades, I am not unfamiliar with racial discrimination. Interestingly, discrimination can be positive (in other words, I have sometimes been treated better than members of other groups) as well as negative, and such treatment can come from people of all races: Anglos, Africans, Hispanics, even other Asians. How should we people of Chinese origin interpret all this? Is the Michelle Kwan flap an indicator of enduring racial discrimination in the US?
Webster's New World Dictionary defines "to discriminate" as "(1) to distinguish, (2) to make distinction in treatment; show partiality or prejudice." Thus, racial discrimination is about distinguishing among people, showing antipathy towards some on the basis of race and ethnicity. Almost 40 years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, racism is alive and well in America, just as much as in any other part of the world. From my experience, the American style of racial discrimination can be classified in three ways: hereditary, tactical and inferential.
There is a professional person I know who, though brilliant in many ways, likes to make openly derogatory remarks about African-Americans. For him, being mean to blacks is part of his heritage.When people are brought up to believe that whites are whites, blacks are blacks, and naturally, Chinese are Chinese, you have a sort of "hereditary" discrimination. This is passed from generation to generation unless something is done about these people's attitude towards racial differences.
Years ago, the Chinese community filed a lawsuit against the State of California accusing it of discriminatory treatment of the Chinese.The plaintiffs pointed out that a certain number of Chinese students had been rejected by California's public universities despiteshavingsbetter marks and test scores than some successful applicants. The probable reason?The universities wanted to admit additional non-Chinese ethnic-minority students so as to seem more culturally diverse. Such discriminatory behavior was "tactical" because the Chinese students just happened to be standing in the way of university administrators. When it becomes institutionally beneficial to change the attitude towards Chinese students, the tactics will change accordingly.
Finally, people like to stereotype. This is an inferential process based on limited data. Many Chinese think that Westerners are wealthy and well-educated and live happier lives. This is because the few Westerners they have encountered seem that way. Similarly, many Americans, bombarded by media images of young Asians winning awards and scholarships, believe all Chinese students are smart, hard-working over-achievers. What Chinese and Americans alike do not seem to realize is that they are using a poor sample to make inferences about the underlying population. Just as there are many impoverished, uneducated, unhappy Westerners, there are likewise many lazy, under-performing Chinese. Some Americans err in making inferences about the Chinese, who in turn take offense at their mistaken notions.
What recourse do we have? Against hereditary discrimination there is only the slow process of enlightening people to the historical evil and vile everyday pettiness of discriminating on the basis of race. Over time less of this mentality will be transmitted to the next generation. Tactical discrimination needs to be exposed in the media and the courts. When that happens, there ceases to be any advantage in it. Inferential discrimination can be gradually overcome through education. A better-informed population will make fewer shallow judgements.
Maybe the next time somebody tells me that I am not an American I should say, "I'm glad you noticed that. I'm a Chinese-American and proud to be one!"