Confucius say what? Whitewashed by the colorblind

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Confucius Say What? Whitewashed by the Colorblind

Panel 1

[Image] Five women sitting at a table. The one in the middle is Asian, and the rest are white. All are smiling.

[Caption] I was at a retreat for an international women’s volunteer organization. I was the only Asian there.

Panel 2

[Image] A woman with short light hair, with her hands raised, palms together.

[Caption] Overall it was great, but then it happened…

Short-Haired woman: Confucius say: man who cut self while shaving lose face.

Panel 3

[Image] The Asian woman between two white women at the table. All are smiling, but the Asian woman has one arm wrapped around her torso.

[SFX] Ha ha ha

[Caption] I don’t know why I laughed along.

Panel 4

[Image] The three women. The woman on the left is gesturing expressively. A blank speech bubble indicates she is talking. The Asian woman is not smiling.

[SFX] Ha ha ha

[Caption] And then it happened again.

Panel 5

[Image] The same three women. The woman on the left has her hand raised, pointing upward. A blank speech bubble indicates she is talking. The Asian woman now has both arms crossed, and looks unhappy. The two white women are still smiling.

[Caption] …and again.

Panel 6

[Image] The Asian woman sitting alone at a boardroom table. She looks very sad, and her shoulders are slumped.

[Caption] I can’t remember if there was a fourth. What I remember is how it made me feel. I instantly felt awkward and that I didn’t exist. My colleagues were oblivious about what these jokes might mean to someone like me.

Panel 7

[Image] A white man with a goatee, facing the reader and looking confused.

[Caption] When I told my husband (who is white):

Man: Are you looking for something to be upset about?

Panel 8

[Image] A white woman with short dark hair, facing the reader and looking confused.

[Caption] When I told my best friend:

White woman: I never think of you as non-white. I just think of you as a person.

Panel 9

[Caption] Well yes, I am a person. But part of what makes me a person is my Chinese heritage. The color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, and the history of my people – it’s all part of my personhood.

Panel 10

[Image] The panel mimics a computer screen. In the top right corner is an icon of a paintbrush that says “Tool – Brush” On the screen is a stick person with long black hair, smiling. The mouse arrow hovers right next to the stick figure.

[SFX] Click

[Caption] It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centred on the Caucasian experience.

Panel 11

[Image] The stick person looks concerned and is looking down at a new icon reading “Color”. A mini-menu has popped up underneath the icon with the option “Default.” The mouse arrow is hovering over “Default” The Tool icon in the top right corner is now of a Paint Bucket.

[SFX] Click

[Caption] “Not seeing color?”

Panel 12

[Image] The stick figure is now a fully-rendered person: the Asian woman. But her skin remains uncolored. The icon in the top right corner is still a paint bucket.

[SFX] Poof!

[Caption] …just means defaulting to the societal standard, which is white. ]]Panel

Panel 13

[Image] The Asian woman, now with her normal skin colour, reaching upward to the top left of the screen, and hitting “Undo (CTRL + Z)” with her forefinger. She looks annoyed.

[SFX] Click!

[Caption] But I’m NOT white. My race is a significant part of my personhood. It affects how I experience things, including jokes about Asians.

Panel 14

[Image] A faded aggregation of panels 4,5,7, and 8 – the laughing white women, the husband and the best friend. All four pictures are background to the caption.

[Caption] When they don’t “see color”, it becomes okay to make jokes about Asians in front of me, and then accuse me of getting upset over “nothing.”

Panel 15

[Image] The Asian woman, sitting at the boardroom table, alone. She is looking directly at the reader and looks sad.

[Caption] One of my African American friends scolded me for not speaking up. He said I should have made them stop and reminded them I am Chinese. Would I have made a difference? Would they have reacted the same way as my best friend and my husband? Would they have dismissed me as overreacting? I don’t know. But, for my part, I think I’ll try to say something next time, though I’m not sure what. There’s only one thing I know for sure. There will be a next time.

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Full story

I was at a retreat for a women’s volunteer organization – this organization works primarily with girls, but it was an event where adult leaders were invited from the entire region. Adult volunteers were there from several counties.

I was the only Asian woman there.

There are many non-caucasians in the organization, but there weren’t any at this retreat. They all looked white to me – but I’m not fool enough to claim to know for sure of anyone being white through and through. To my quick assessment of the room, I was still the only person who was Asian.

I had a wonderful time at the retreat. I didn’t feel out of place and certainly felt welcomed by everybody there. Truly, truly, these were incredible women and they were all great volunteers. We taught each other new things, discussed organizational changes, and planed regional events. It was nice to be part of this group of women.

But then there was this one moment. I have been processing “the moment” for a while now, and I’m not sure how I should have handled it.

I wish I could remember exactly what the conversation was. I wish I could remember why I even laughed after that first joke, but I think I did because it wasn’t a joke completely out of the blue. It followed the course of the conversation so I didn’t think it was strange. It was the following two or three jokes that didn’t sit right with me.

It started when someone told a “Confucius say,” joke.

For the uninitiated, it’s usually some clever turn of phrase in broken, English. For example: “Confucius say man who cut self while shaving lose face.”
I laughed the first time. And then the next one was said – in that broken English and fake Chinese accent. And the next one. I can’t remember if there was a fourth.

What I remember is how it made me feel.

Offended isn’t the right word. It feels too strong. I wasn’t “offended”. But I instantly felt that I did not belong, that I was not part of them. That I wasn’t white…and they were oblivious about what those jokes might mean to me.

When I told my friends, the reactions I got from my white friends were starkly different from my non-white friends.
My white husband said, “are you looking for something to be upset about?”
My white best friend said, “I never think of you as non-white. I just think of you as a person.”

Well yes, I am a person. But I am a person who happens to be Chinese, who felt awkward and non-existent when they told those jokes. It’s not like I can change the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes or the history of my people. That too is part of my personhood, but the jokers seemed to not notice. And when you don’t acknowledge that part of me, it becomes okay to make jokes about Asians in front of me, and then accuse me of getting upset over “nothing”.

My friend who is African American scolded me for not stopping them in the moment. He said I should have made them stop making those jokes and reminded them that I was Chinese. That I should have said the jokes were offensive. He scolded me for having laughed at the first joke. That it made me complicit and that I’ve somehow done a disservice to all the people in the organization and society as a whole.

But it took me days to even put a word to my experience. It took me days to understand it in any way and to put it into context for myself. I know I wasn’t ready right then to say a single word about it. It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centered on the Caucasian experience. “Not seeing color” means defaulting to the societal standard, which is white. They are saying that they treat everyone as white people – instead of as people who have racial differences, who live different lives because of those differences. This is why saying Asian jokes is okay in their mind. They’re not treating me as a person. They’re treating me as a white person.

If I had spoken up and shamed these women, my newly made friends, told them that their jokes were racist, what exactly would have happened? Would it have made a difference, would they try to understand why it was problematic? Or would they all react the same way as my best friend and husband, and think that I’m over-reacting, being too sensitive?

I wish I had a nice neat bow to finish up this little essay but I don’t. I don’t think I can figure all this out in one little essay. For my part, I think I’ll try to say something next time. I’m not sure what I will say. There is only one thing I know for sure.

There will be a next time.

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14 responses to “Confucius say what? Whitewashed by the colorblind”

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  1. Mary says: |
    February 16, 2015 at 11:12 am

    You could say “those jokes and any jokes that use stereotypes are disrespectful and offensive to a culture!”
    The thing is, everyone needs to become braver and learn to speak up when there are racist jokes thrown about. Even if you were not there, I would hope a white lady would pipe in and say the same thing! When we leave the work of undoing racism to only people of color, the cultural pressure is unbalanced. And then the person of color is left to have to “take care” of the white person’s confused emotions of being held accountable. But that is not the job of the person of color. I hope the author excuses herself from that duty. It is enough of a burden to have to speak up and stop those toxic words.
    We must be more united in our pledge to act regardless of our background. Only then will we be effective in undoing racism.

  2. j says: |
    April 27, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    i’ve heard my share of dumb racist “jokes” and comments from the majority… This is probably why i only date minorities.

  3. Sam says: |
    May 22, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I don’t know if it could be explained any clearer.

  4. Donald says: |
    July 17, 2016 at 11:28 am

    I get jokes about my race all the time.
    My usual response is to say to those around me “You do realise I’m still in the room, don’t you”.

  5. Wolf says: |
    July 18, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for this! I have yet to hear anyone ever make an “Aristotle say” joke in a broken Greek accent, totally unrelated to anything Aristotle actually said.

  6. Step says: |
    July 30, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    I’m white and I used to whitewash before I spent significant time in the bay area; before that I lived in a predominantly white state. I think that whitewashing is half-a-step away from racism and a sincere intent to be accepting of other enthicities and cultures, but it’s still victim to ignorance.

    It wasn’t until I talked to more people from other backgrounds, and spent time as the only white person in a large group, that I started to understand all the different perspectives.

    People who whitewash sincerely are trying to be accepting, but they don’t have the experience or information to understand how what their doing is unfair to the people they’re whitewashing.

    The next time it happens, and every time it happens, just talk with them. Be understanding that they’re trying to be understanding, despite missing the mark. The only way this is going to be resolved is through communication.

  7. lisa says: |
    August 3, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    I think a good rule of thumb (and pithy aphorism for such situations) is something to the effect of: “hey guys? Let’s try not do impressions of other races”. I’ve been able to employ that in a fairly jokey manner to success; it’s difficult to disagree with, and isn’t specifically calling your own race out – although I can certainly understand why the author would feel as though it were drawing attention to herself.

  8. Jacquie says: |
    November 24, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Wow. It’s interesting to read about another person experience whitewashing. But even my own father calls me a coconut, so I figured it was ok to have others treat me as the same. But it’s not. Even though he grew up in another country we still have our own experience and identity to come to terms with and recognize. Just because our voices and colloquialisms pass as domestically indistinguishable from any other locally born and raised white person doesn’t mean that we still don’t identify with a heritage that helped mould our values and perspectives. Thank you for this.

    I really liked what Lisa said about generalizing the call-out. More often than not, when we are the only minority, it’s better to say something to bring self-awareness into the room, than remain complicit. Rule of thumb for me, if it feels weird, say something. Especially now.

  9. Norman Dragt says: |
    February 19, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    At first I did not understand the comic, because I did not understand the others where making jokes also. That said, there are many possible reactions, but maybe better would be to give a motivation to react.
    In this case of an international women’s volunteer organization the reason to react is that women are still secondary and often tertiary of even lower citizens in many countries, were this international women’s volunteer organization will do its work. This makes it important not to make jokes that belittle any group, not based race, not based on gender, no group that can be distinguished from the group in power. So speaking up would help these volunteers learn to make appropriate jokes.
    So a response could be: Sorry guys, but the first joke was funny, but its vocal expresion was inappropriate. The jokes that came after that where not really funny anymore. But more important we need to learn not to make these jokes, because in some countries where we work they will be found offensive and might hinder us and our volunteers do their job. If we want to make jokes, we should make jokes that make us accessible not show or enforce our position of power.
    I know this is a long answer. Another option would: Guys, these jokes make me feel weird. I do not know why, maybe it has to do with my background, maybe it has another reason. Can we talk about what just happened, so we can learn from it?
    And another option could be: Guys stop, these jokes make me feel bad, that can’t be the goal of these jokes. And then you could go into why as a volunteer organization it is not good to make jokes at the expense of minorities.

  10. seed says: |
    May 28, 2019 at 1:13 am

    Those Confucius jokes weren’t funny because they were making fun of you as an Asian-American woman. That’s the main reason you didn’t like them, and you had every reason not to. Hopefully, you were able to check someone on making some stupid offensive jokes about Asians the next time someone called themselves being funny by making such jokes.

  11. Cim says: |
    December 20, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    Your husband should read up on some ethnic studies and things from the Chinese-American diaspora…he could make some effort. That was an unacceptable response imho.

  12. lilbear says: |
    April 28, 2021 at 6:07 pm

    That is NOT “not seeing color”!
    Not seeing color means treating EVERYONE as an EQUAL HUMAN BEING and NOT making fun of ANYONE!
    Not that I like that term or anything … You deserve to be seen as who you are!
    I think most people who claim they “don’t see color” wish they didn’t see differences in themselves/others, because then, they can go on pretending that everyone is as well off as they are and has had life handed to them; just like they have.
    People “don’t see poverty”, either – it’s easier for them to pretend that they somehow “earned” the best schools, nutrition, healthcare, etc.; because then they can blame you for all the bad things that have happened to you, all while pretending that they’ve had to overcome the same (or even greater) hardships!

  13. lilbear says: |
    April 28, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    I did NOT mean to say that all white people have life handed to them. I meant to say that many people who are financially well off did absolutely NOTHING to earn the comfort, security and health that it comes with!

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