Six years ago, I messed up.
In 2014 I started grad school. I went to the first school event for new students and told another student an anecdote about my study abroad in China in 2000. I told the story exactly as I always had — and I used a bad Chinese accent and broken English to imitate a man I met in Beijing.
I want to say unequivocally, I was wrong. Also, I truly did not know I was wrong. If I had known, of course I would have never done it.
So why did I think it was okay? Because my entire life’s experience up to that point had taught me that it was.
I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, then my Chinese friends would have told me so. I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, John Hughes wouldn’t have made fun of Long Duk Dong, the Chinese exchange student character, in the film Sixteen Candles.
This was before comic Hari Kondabolu made a movie called The Problem With Apu explaining why The Simpsons’ Kwik-E Mart owner is hurtful to South Asians. I assumed Apu was fine because the white people I grew up with thought he was funny — and my Indian and Pakistani friends never said anything either.
So, how did I react when a fellow student called me to task for my tasteless impression? Unfortunately, the wrong way.
I didn’t listen. I felt attacked. I told her that I had lots of Chinese friends and a degree in East Asian studies and blah blah blah, I did nothing wrong.
In my head, I wasn’t trying to make fun of the man in China. I was trying to recount the incident as it happened, the same way I use a British accent when I tell stories about my time in London. I think that’s why I didn’t listen.
What I didn’t realize is that white people make fun of Asians and their accents and grammar enough that, no matter your intent, as a white person you probably just shouldn’t do it.
Regardless of my intent, imitating an accent propped up stereotypes of Asians to anyone who heard me doing it. Imitating a British accent doesn’t have the same effect.
After I made a second blunder — and did not listen again — the other student told our professor what I did. Not listening to the other student compounded how much I hurt her.
After the professor talked to me, I realized I had to change the way I thought. I began actively and intentionally learning what I could about race so I could become a better person.
There are several lessons here. For white people, don’t assume that your life experience to date in America has taught you what you need to know about race. It probably hasn’t, even if you have non-white friends.
If a person of color says you said something hurtful, try to understand their point of view. There’s probably something you need to learn, and it might be a long learning process. Some things take time and experience to really sink in.
I find it helpful to consume media by people of color to better understand their point of view. I like comics like W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, shows like Dear White People, lots of fiction books by authors of color, and websites like TheRoot.com. It’s a lot easier to do your learning when you aren’t the one who screwed up and got called on it.
Even if mistakes come from well-meaning ignorance, like mine did, we all still have a responsibility to learn and change so we can continue moving toward social justice.
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