The five of us sat around the kitchen table, our wine glasses half empty and the chilly night air creeping in through the open windows. I looked across the table at my sister, the two of us sharing a horrified and furious expression. My mother sat to my right, and across from her sat her sister, my aunt. My uncle was seated at the head of the table. The nonverbal exchange between me and my sister, one that was charged with anger, frustration, and incredulity, was fuelled by the shocking opinions of my uncle.
As I looked at my sister I saw a slightly altered reflection of myself. I saw the smaller nose, the pin-straight hair and the light freckles across her cheeks. These minute distinctions are meaningless compared to the similarities that define our experiences as Korean, not-entirely-white females. My mother and aunt share these similarities as well, although they have the added experiences that result from being completely non-white, immigrants and speakers of their native tongue. My uncle is a white man who was raised in the United Kingdom. Each of our respective identities and experiences created a debate which, even as I am writing this, causes my blood to pound in my ears and my cheeks to flush with anger.
We began our discussion with an innocent comment put forth by my sister about her future. A hardworking and motivated woman in law school, my sister mentioned that she envisions a future in which her boyfriend stays at home and cares for their children while she focuses on her career as a lawyer. This is not a ludicrous idea. This is not a modern reversal of “gender roles.” This is an assertive woman making a personal decision with her significant other on how they want to live their lives.
Yet my uncle felt the need to insert his sexist opinions into the conversation.
“It’s funny,” he began, “I never even gave a thought as to how having children would alter my life.” It must be nice to be a man. He then continued to “advise” my sister that her perspective would change once she actually had children and that she would develop the maternal instinct that she apparently lacked. Thanks for perpetuating the asinine stereotype that all women want to have children and become mothers.
We ended this conversation with a hollow “agree to disagree.” We then delved into the issue of racism in the United States. As mixed-race women, my sister and I have experienced the same infuriating questions that plague any mixed-race or non-white person. “Wow, where are you from?” “Can I guess what you are?” “What’s your ethnicity?” The new and more subtle: “Where are your parents from?” The politically incorrect: “What’s your nationality?” (To which I always answer: citizen of the United States). Even worse are the “compliments” that follow these questions. “That’s so exotic.” “What a beautiful mix.” “Whoa, that’s so interesting.”
My uncle tried to justify this creepy and disgusting interest in other people’s ethnic backgrounds as an innocent and well-intended curiosity. He did not see this as racist. All of these – the questions, the comments, the “curiosity” that they originate from – are racist.
There is a synonymy between “American” and “white” that prompts people to assume that non-white people are not from the United States. Why else do we attach prefixes like “African” and “Korean” and “Mexican” to Americans that are not white? Why else are white people simply referred to as Americans and not “white-Americans?” This concept, perception, stereotype, practice, mentality or whatever you want to label it as, needs to be eliminated from the United States as soon as possible. It is archaic, racist, and simply ignorant to maintain the ideology that white equals American.
So why is it racist to ask where non-white people “come from?”
It emphasizes the inherent need to identify people who look “different” and implies that non-white people cannot be American. My uncle failed to see this reasoning. He not only argued in favor of asking people where they “come from,” but he also completely denied that this was racist.
Thus began the most perfect example of “man-splaining” as delivered by a white man. Cue the condescending voice and the exaggerated hand motions. These always pair excellently with the confidence-infused explanations of “how things really are.” To recall his argument from earlier, it is not racist to ask where people “come from” because sometimes they look really interesting and it is okay to be curious about their origins. Duly noted. Thank you, again, for explaining to me why I should not be offended when people try to play “Guess The Ethnicity” with me. As a white man you are extremely capable of understanding and defining my (a half-Korean, half-white woman’s) experience in the United States.
Further arguments included why anti-black racism is not institutionalized in the U.S. (it’s not? Thank heavens, I was so worried that it was!). He then concluded with two sincere questions: 1) what is white privilege? and 2) how do we end racism in the United States? I have two answers that will resolve any confusion that may arise from these mind-boggling questions. 1) Examine your life and your ignorance of the term; that is white privilege. 2) Stop being racist. It’s so simple.
As I write this, I feel a slight twinge of guilt for attacking my uncle. I do not hate him. I do hate his ill-founded and small-minded beliefs. I have to call him out on his opinions because they correspond to a large group of like-minded thinkers and represent a severe issue with racism in the United States. And, rather than accept that his beliefs are concrete and that they hopefully die with him, I hope to change them so that he can understand why I believe that he is wrong.
As a white, heterosexual man, my uncle has won life’s lottery. But because of this, he cannot understand, or probably does not even consider, the experiences of others. Thus, he cannot tell a group of consistently oppressed and discriminated individuals that their struggles are non-existent. He cannot tell me that it is not offensive to be asked where I “come from.” He cannot tell my sister that as a woman, she will develop a desire for children and a maternal instinct. He cannot and should not attempt to describe the experiences of others.
This applies to every person within the United States who shares my uncle’s beliefs, and not all of them necessarily need to be white. We need to reform the way that people think about the term “American” and how racism is addressed by others. Our society and culture is far too evolved to simply equate American to white, and to retain the idea that non-white indicates non-American. In short, end the sexism, end the racism and (for the love of everything good in this world) end the man-splaining.
Catherine Foley is a freshman in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University. Her interests include writing, reading, baking, eating, blogging and travelling to new places. She hopes to combine all of her interests into one major that will launch her career in writing and publishing. Her ultimate goal, and childhood dream job, is to become a food critic in New York City and other major cities around the world.