Learning white privilege
What I learned the night of the Winter Gala
At the 2017 Winter Gala, my date and I were standing in line to have our photos drawn as a caricature. It was a crowded room and there wasn’t a clear cut line for each caricature artist. As our turn approached, we stood next to a couple who also thought it was their turn. After a quick conversation between my date and the couple, my date sat down to have his portrait drawn.
What happened shortly after he sat down remains vivid in memory, but blurry in meaning.
“Scum,” the man said. And then again.
Scum. Scum. Scum. Scum.
He’s shouting it at my date. He continues to yell this. One of his friends joins in his hateful chant.
I stand watching, paralyzed by fear and shock. How is it that something so simple could have escalated to that level of taunting? I had to witness the humiliation of two white men calling a black man “scum” right before my eyes.
“Nice job on finding a quality date,” the guy’s date jeered sarcastically.
The guy turned from my date back to me.
“You’re scum,” he spat.
Stereotypes say Asians are quiet and reserved, and black people are aggressive and loud. In this incident, neither of my date nor I played our assumed role. When I finally spoke out, my date told me to “let it go.”
Let it go: a win for peace and a loss for society. Let it go: a win for whites and a loss for minorities.
This is what society conditions minorities to do: live in silence or speak out to represent your race.
Coming to Buffalo, I knew I would be entering classrooms where I would be the only Asian. For some students, I would be the first Asian they ever interacted with. So I made sure to put on a smile and to be on my best behavior because I accepted I would represent my race.
On my first week of classes, a white woman told me I was her first Asian friend. A win for diversity, I told myself.
But despite my efforts, it was never enough. Each new friend I made, I was told my English was too good, my name was not American enough and I got good grades because I was Asian and smart — not because I was hardworking. If I chose to not drink or smoke, or confessed that I was a virgin, it was because I was Asian and therefore, uptight and a prude.
I was labeled before I ever got the chance to speak.
Gala highlighted a painful truth. I know if I had spoken up, I wouldn’t have the support of the masses. And not because I was wrong — because we were two minorities in a room that was primarily white. The privileged majority would win because they could just accuse the black man of wrongdoing. And I would have been the rogue Asian who chose the wrong crowd.
It’s overwhelming to know I will live my life constantly working to break these stereotypes. When you have white privilege, you don’t live with those lingering labels or face the pressure to represent your race.
Had my date and I been the ones to cause a scene, everyone would say it’s because people of our color are “just like that:” ill-mannered, aggressively drunk, irresponsible, stupid. The list of ignorant stereotypes goes on.
Our caricature hangs in my room, but the public humiliation just wasn’t worth a cartoon with fake smiles. I learned the power of white privilege that night and for some time, I was afraid to stand up to it.
Not anymore. White privilege is just a twisted reality that thrives on my silence.
Wanly Chen is an assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org