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Koji's Column

When I was a Kid…

When I was a kid, I remember thinking the world was almost perfect. I assumed that by the time I became an adult, we would have solved all the major problems humanity has ever faced – sickness, war, poverty, and racism.

At the time, racism was only a concept to me. I mean, I knew that it happened. I knew that in the past people hated other people because of something totally arbitrary such as race. But not anymore, right?

The first time I realized I was wrong was on a car trip with my family. I was sitting in some small town café eating some small town meal when I heard two older Caucasian ladies at the next table talking. They were making disparaging comments about some African Americans they knew and called them the “N” word throughout their conversation.

I was shocked. I asked my big brother if they were racist and he told me that of course they were. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wanted to say something, but what could I say? I was only eight years old.

The biggest fear I had at the time was that they would say something about how different I was from them. How my skin was darker. Or how my eyes were more slanty. Or how my first name wasn’t Joe or Bob or Frank. And I think I knew, even at that age, that because they were comfortable saying what they were saying around me that they considered me (Asian American) more like them (Caucasian) and less like those people (African Americans).

I ended up not say anything and we continued with our trip. Because I kept quiet, the two old ladies couldn’t tell me how different I was from them and I can go on believing that.

The next time I realized I was wrong about racism was at the Price Club (before it became Costco). I was with my father and I was pushing one of those huge shopping carts around when I heard a Latino man yell at an Asian woman telling her that “they” couldn’t drive both cars or shopping carts.

This time I didn’t have my big brother there to tell me if this too was racist, but I knew it was since it made me feel hot with anger. Because this time the words weren’t directed at someone else: African Americans. They were directed at someone that kind of looked like me.

Again, I wanted to say something. Anything. But what could I say that would make this guy understand that some of “us” could drive cars and shopping carts?

I’m older now. Some would even call me an adult. And despite my hopes that the world would be a better place when I grew up, the world is still as messed up as ever. Maybe even more so.

I was recently driving out of town when I got engaged in a heated road rage game with another driver. The other driver was so mad that he started pulling the sides of his eyes at me in the mirror – telling me in essence that my Asian-ness was the cause of my bad driving. When in fact, I’m just a bad driver in general – but especially when I’m on my cell phone, playing with my radio, and drinking coffee.

So what did I do? My first instinct was to get out of the car and confront him. My plan was to hit him in the face as hard as I could and then make him apologize to me. I knew I was bigger and stronger than him and that if it came down to a fight I would probably win. Of course, it wouldn’t have been much of a fight considering I was a good thirty years younger than him.

We didn’t end up fighting because I didn’t get out of my car. He drove off and I put a curse on him hoping that he would accidentally drive off a cliff. I never found out for sure if he drove off a cliff or not but I know “someone” was listening and these kinds of things have a way of working themselves out. Do you hear me God? I’m still waiting.

Anyway, what’s important to remember from this most recent experience was that I still remained silent. I was still like a little kid, unable to say something when confronted by a racist or racist talk. Thinking about my past and now this new incident has got me thinking: what’s the appropriate response to individual racism we may encounter in our every day lives?

I would like to think that a witty comment that could make a racist see their own stupidity and change their ways would be best. However, I don’t pretend to be smart enough or creative enough to come up with such remarks. Besides, they never come when you really need them.

Bodily harm is always an option but jail time is just not that appealing to me anymore. Plus, I’m not sure that the racist would learn anything other than “don’t say it to their face.”

I could do nothing and pretend that it doesn’t bother me but that just makes me feel helpless. It makes me feel like I’m still that little kid listening to other people being racist and not doing anything about it.

I’m curious to hear what other people do or say when they see something racist happening in front of them or God forbid someone is racist toward you? Please post your responses.

 

© 2007 Koji Steven Sakai

About this series

“Koji’s Column” is a column series contributed by Japanese American National Museum staff member, Koji Steven Sakai. His column explores Nikkei identity and culture from the standpoint of a second- and fourth-generation Japanese Americana American male from Southern California.