Sunday, January 26, 2014

Can You Speak English?!

It's been a little while since I've done an experience-based-rant post, so why not bring it back?  Today, I want to start off my rant with a little story.

Last Friday, I was riding a particularly crowded bus.  Now, practically everybody who regularly rides public transportation knows that there are a few rules about riding in the front of the bus.  Mainly, that's fine if you do so, but if you see someone who needs the seat more (ie, an elderly or disabled individual) then you have to let them have it.  They announce this about every ten minutes over the bus intercoms and it is also posted graphically on all windows at the front of the bus.

As I mentioned, this particular morning the bus was packed, although this didn't seem to stop even more people from trying to cram their way on.  As you might imagine, people's patience were running quite short; I know I was repeating an inner mantra of "Stupid bus driver, stop letting more people on!"

At the front of the bus, there were a bunch of elderly women already comfortably settled, and one young Asian woman typing quickly on her phone.  Apparently the older white woman across from her couldn't handle the thought of her taking up a seat in the front, because she said very loudly across the isle, "Can't you speak English?!  You can't sit up here!"

Cue rant.

Yes, at that moment tensions were running high and patience was at a communal all-time low.  But does that make it okay to make a blatantly racist comment on a bus full of other Asians?  I think not!  This woman assumed that, because the young woman was Asian, that she was foreign and therefore couldn't understand English.

I've been thinking about this all weekend, deviating between anger at the older woman and saddness that we still have so far to go when it comes to our attitudes on diversity in the US.  Yes, I know it's 2014 and the fad seems to be pretending that we're in a "post-racial" society because, after all, haven't we elected a black man as President?  But the truth is, we're still a highly racially insensitive society, it's just a bit more implied and subtextual.

I think what made me so mad about this encounter was that I've had experiences like this myself.  Last year, I was riding the bus while reading a book by a Thai author with a picture of a little Thai girl on the front.  One of the white men in front of me tapped on my book and said, "That's cool, you're on your book cover!"

I believe my response was to blink at him and do my best not to lecture him on his ignorant statement.

When speaking of a European or Caucasian individual, we generally specify where in Europe their ancestry is from.  So why should we do any differently with people of color?  All Asians are not the same, just like all Latinos are not all the same and like even people who are African-American have historically come from many different African countries.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you even feel vaguely ignorant or unsure about a racial comment you're about to make, just don't say it.  That's fine if you're not sure what race of Asian someone is; that doesn't mean that you should make stereotypical assumptions that will probably end up insulting someone.

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