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Christine Kim A shift from ‘just ignore it’

September 20, 2018

I was walking on the sidewalk in Cos Cob last week when a woman said something in a sing-song voice as she passed by. At first I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to me or to the guy she was walking with; I couldn’t even tell if she was speaking English or a different language. After a second I realized she had chanted “Konnichiwa, shay shay!” at me. (1)

Huh? Why would she chant Asian words at me? To be clear, she was jeering at me; she did not smile or stop to chat pleasantly. So why did she blurt it out? Well ... I presume it was because I’m of Asian descent. The jeerer was white. I’m born and raised in the United States, so not only am I American, I — for lack of a better word — look totally American. That day I was dressed pretty “Greenwich”: polo shirt, L. L. Bean shorts, and vaguely preppy shoes. (2) But this woman saw first and foremost my Asian-ness.

I kept walking. Stuff like this is old hat. I have gotten racial remarks — and worse — since childhood. (3) The rule is that you don’t give jerks the satisfaction of acknowledging you heard them. Also, she was walking with a man, so they were two people and I was by myself. It’s unfortunate, but you have to consider the possibility that if you confront a stranger they could get physical. However, the main reason I ignored them is that is what I have been taught. It is what I have internalized over years of experience. Ignore taunts. Don’t engage. Don’t even show you’re bothered. There is value in this line of thinking. People who attempt to bully you want to get a reaction out of you, so if you react, you are playing into their hands.

But.

We are at a point in our culture where we are questioning the “just ignore it” strategy. We have decided, for example, that schoolyard bullying is not simply “kids being kids” and that we should not ignore it anymore. People who have been sexually harassed should not be told to “just ignore it” because that dismisses the crime and allows harassers to continue. We no longer “just ignore” inconvenient facts about our country’s history. I am proud that our society is moving in this direction. No doubt part of the impetus for this cultural change is the behavior of some high-profile people in our country. There are influential people who serve up racially — and ethnically themed stereotypes and insults every day. They dish it out; their supporters applaud and ask for more. This role-modeling at the top is racist, blatant, and destructive to our civil society. That is why many of us refuse to ignore it any longer.

Before someone accuses me of complaining about a trivial incident, let me be clear: I have a wonderful life and I love living in Greenwich. I have great friends here. I have had privileges, blessings, and just plain good luck that most people would sell their soul for. The reason I write about this incident is not to complain about my First World problems, but to share with people a fact of life which, if they are white, they may have no concept of. I write this to inform people that yes, even in the “liberal Northeast,” in our truly wonderful town with truly wonderful people (I say this earnestly, not sarcastically), there are slings and arrows that non-white people face that white people do not, and that as a civilized, decent society, we ought to try to eliminate.

So what can we do? We can reject the policy of “just ignore it.” If you see racial insults happening, speak up if it is safe to do so. Because bullies are cowards, they’ll usually act when they are in a group and their target is alone. If you speak up, the person is no longer alone. If it’s not safe to speak up at that moment, write about it. Post it on your social media and say why you think this is unacceptable. Talk to your friends about it and send an article to your newspaper. Support politicians who agree with you.

One important point: I believe the woman who taunted me deserves our compassion. Why? I think that her behavior was not so much “virulent racist” as it was “foolish young person.”(4) After she blurted out her racist remark, I doubt she thought about it again, not for a second; certainly not for a few days, as I have. Maybe she has received putdowns for her looks or gender, and maybe she has learned that’s what you do in life: you gratuitously taunt others. I would guess her life is not very happy, because people who are happy don’t jeer at strangers. No, I don’t like that she tried to hurt me; I don’t like that she doesn’t have the maturity or kindness to behave decently. But putting her down in person or in print would neither get her to change nor make society better. I’m not proud of it, but there are times when I’ve said unkind, insensitive things. If at those times someone had yelled at me, no matter how much I might have deserved it, I would have been defensive. If instead someone had said with compassion, “Hey, what you did was unkind,” I might have listened.

So I hope this woman is listening; but if she isn’t, I hope others are. Because when you think about it, it’s really crazy: last week in Cos Cob a 20-something woman decided that I, a 55-year-old mother of four GHS graduates, should be jeered at because my ancestors did not come from Europe. How messed up is that? If I could wave a magic wand I would make her realize the damage she does to our society and to herself when she demeans others on the basis of race. I don’t have a magic wand, so I’m doing the next best thing: telling this story in the hope that other people can know it, recognize it, and maybe stop themselves or others from doing it in the future. Just ignore it? Not anymore.

Christine Kim is a Cos Cob resident.

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