America talks too much about race. America also talks too little about race. This is a line from award-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest novel Americanah that echoes in my head. I read Adichie's book last summer, since it was the Pomona College summer reading assignment. As I read, I jolted down some questions, which I hoped to ask the author (who was to give a talk at our college a couple of months later) in person.
You might have noticed from my previous entries that I love using flashbacks and anecdotes when I'm writing, for I'm a nostalgic person at heart and enjoy reflecting on moments from the past. I enjoy reading and writing in different environments, and taking a stroll in between to think about what I have just read or written. When I'm reading, I sometimes subconsciously associate the part in the book that I'm reading with the location in which I have been reading this book. When I return to the text, my mind would bring me back to my previous physical surroundings, and connect it with my current setting. It's an interesting phenomenon.
So now, every time I think back about the characters and plot of Adichie's novel, my memories bring me back to Beijing, where I read it over the summer. Back then, I wondered how much the whole issue of race would affect me personally, whether it would be exclusive, or if I would have personal connections to the phrase "race cards". Having been studying in the U.S. for five months now, I feel that it's time to reflect about what I've read, seen, experienced, and learnt.
In my American politics class, our professor jokingly brings up his family's perspective on race during our class discussions, that by saying someone is "colour blind", or that an individual is "a person of colour", we are basically saying that white people are colourless. Hmm... A chauvinistic term, rather.
To relate it to my own experience, I find a situation that I face a lot of the times to be equally funny, where someone asks "Where are you from?" and upon hearing my response, (s)he becomes slightly surprised, "oh, you don't have an accent." If I don't have an accent, does that mean that I don't have a non-American / British accent (i.e. Chinese / other East-Asian accent, based on my physical appearance)? This comment may appear innocent at a first glance, but it is ignoring the existence of other types of accents (e.g. Australian, Irish, Indian...) from other native speakers of the language. Shall we call this an implicit way of discrimination? To what extent does this point relate to our broader question of race in America?
Similarly, when I attended some local community events where I was the only Asian in the room, I seem to get special treatments of some sort. Far from being marginalised, I actually got more attention than my Caucasian friends whom I was with. This is not unlike the situations described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where Ifemelu, the protagonist, provokes special interest on her native country, sometimes excessive / artificial attention.
I am not a cynical person, although there has been a lot of questioning in this entry. Let me end with a positive note. In colleges like Pomona, we are paying much attention to address race-related issues through our student-initiated discussions (Open Mic forums, speaker panels, film screening and discussions, etc.) and our Dynamics of Differences in Power classes. I find the insight that my peers have shared in those events / classes extremely eye-opening. Yes, race has been a hot issue in the United States for a long period of time. We need to continue those thoughtful dialogues in order to respect and empathise with individuals' unique experiences.