Race reflections since I started at University of California Shanghai

I hope no one finds my title or subject matter offensive or insensitive. I’m not complaining about anybody or putting them down, but since I started attending a school with a majority Asian student body, I’ve had some thoughts and feelings that are really new to me. In fact, considering I spent three years living in Asia, I have been really surprised at these feelings. How come I didn’t feel particularly weird when I was a white person living or traveling in Asia, yet it seems really strange to me now, back in California, to be part of a minority group at school? And why does it even affect me that white people are a racial minority at school, when we are the most privileged members of American society, and when our Western European roots pervade dominant culture?

Sometimes I look around my classes to see if I’m the only woman, to see if there are any black people or Latinos. I looked around at the last physics class I took, at everyone standing around waiting for the professor to arrive. “Are there really only three women?” I thought. I started to feel like that was strange–should be strange–but almost immediately I noticed a black man, and I realized that while there might only be three women in the class, he was the only black man.

Some people say this doesn’t matter. Some think it is racist to observe that some people are “like me” or “like us,” or not, and they think it’s racist to seek to be with people like oneself. But this is nature, not racism or sexism. In some situations, I am more likely to talk to a woman than to a man. It isn’t exactly because we have two X chromosomes; it’s because we share at least some of the experiences of girlhood and womanhood, and being together can make us feel less isolated by those experiences. This is why veterans who hated their time in the military still get involved in veterans organizations when they get out! It isn’t that I think you must be a good guy since you were a Marine, or my new BFF because you were an AT in the Navy too. No! It’s because civilians just don’t get what we’ve been through. And since for many of us–hell, I speak as a woman and as a veteran on this part–what we’ve been through has been so formative that it feels really unlikely that anybody who hasn’t been through similar things could ever understand who we are.

To paraphrase St. Francis, May God, “grant that I may not so much seek… to be understood as to understand.”

It is better to understand than it is to be understood, but it is also better to give than to receive–this does not mean that receiving is not good, however. It is both natural and perfectly fine, I think, to wish to be understood. So it is also natural and fine to congregate with people you can reasonably expect to understand you, but–

But the trouble is when folks seek each other out not in an effort to be around understanding fellows, but in an effort to avoid the other. To avoid people who you do not easily understand, to refuse to try understanding them, and really–not that I had intended to write very religiously in this post–to refuse to call those people ‘neighbor,’ and love them accordingly, as Christ commanded.

I am digressing. I have noticed before when I have been one of only a few women, but this has only ever bothered me in cases of sexist comments (and I mean real ones, from bona fide I-hate-all-women-because-one-woman-screwed-me-over misogynists) or… hm, what is it called? When men think they are being courteous, but really you wish they would not assume you can’t lift 30 pounds just because you’re a woman? By the way, I can lift a lot more than 30 pounds–but I digress again.

At my new school it’s a little different. I don’t find myself seeking out other white people. “White people” is such a broad demographic, believe it or not, that it’s pretty meaningless in terms of seeking out someone who probably has a similar life story so far. But it’s awkward to even try speaking with some of the Asian students, especially those who are international, because how do you find a way into a conversation that’s going on in Chinese or Korean, unless you speak those languages? I can’t blame Chinese speakers for wanting to speak Chinese with each other, of course! But I, me, a white American, don’t feel as normal as I would’ve expected to going to an American university.

I have other thoughts, especially related to the Intro to Chicano/a Literature class I’m taking, but I guess I’ll save them for a Part 2. It’s dinner time, and I still need to study tonight.

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