It was our second date. Spencer had taken me to San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose, where we sipped beers and traded poems under strings of soft lights. I read him Lang Leav (“it lit up something inside me I had thought long dead”) and he read me E. E. Cummings (“it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant”). That night he seemed to glow, and I knew I wanted to kiss him.
A few weeks later Spencer whisked me away to a succulent nursery in Monterey, where we explored no less than nine acres of cacti. It was a day of discovery, each cutting more strange and beautiful than the last. Everything we liked, we took home. Then we spent the afternoon with our hands in the earth, creating our own tiny plant wonderland. By the time we finished, I knew I was in love with him.
Fast-forward another few weeks, full of romance and bliss. We were at a Mexican restaurant, enjoying a lazy brunch on a Saturday morning, happily sharing two oversized plates of runny eggs and avocados, when Spencer gestured towards the workers in the kitchen and mused aloud, “Look how happy they are. Everybody’s happy in Mexico, all the time.”
My fork froze, suspending a bite of chilaquiles in the air. My mouth hung in silence while my mind blared in alarm – What did he say?
Firstly, who knows if the kitchen workers were even Mexican? They could have come from Puerto Rico or Guatemala. Assuming they were all Mexican simply because they worked at Adelita’s Taqueria was like assuming that all sushi restaurateurs are Japanese when many of them are actually Korean.
Secondly, who knows what those kitchen workers were feeling? Their faces were unreadable – not a single lip turned up or down to betray a hint of emotion. The fact that Spencer projected happiness onto their neutral expressions was reminiscent of colonial views that left me a little queasy.
And third – how can you say that everybody in an entire country is happy, all the time? You can’t even say that of an entire city block. But a whole nation of 122 million diverse, unique, complex individuals…?
I asked Spencer, “Have you been to Mexico?”
“No,” he said, inhaling his chorizo. “Have you?”
Here’s the thing about Spencer.
He’s white, straight, cis, and able-bodied. His supervisor gives him bonuses for no reason. His family owns several cabins in upstate New York. His mother tells him, “I had your little sister as a gift to you, so you’ll never be lonely in life.”
In other words, Spencer’s about as privileged as you could get. Which is fine. Though I’m a queer female Asian art teacher who makes as much money in a year as he pays in taxes, I still think it’s okay to have and enjoy advantages in life, as long as they’re not taken for granted.
And Spencer didn’t seem to, at first. From the moment we met, he’d always seemed so open to other cultures and experiences. On our first date when I said my parents were born and raised in Taiwan, he told me about his recent trip there and how much he liked the island’s night markets. On our third date he brought me to a Japanese grocery and bravely tasted samples of natto, fermented soybeans. One of his best friends was Korean, and one of his exes was Filipina.
For all these reasons, I thought Spencer would be open-minded enough for us to have an honest, mutually respectful discussion about race. And this was a conversation we absolutely needed to have. Because that day, after brunch, after going back to his place, after getting in bed together, he reached for me and kissed me and I was repulsed by his touch.
It was a jarring moment, shrinking away from him like that. So many people have said racist or sexist things around me, to me, but I never felt the urge to confront them about it. The supervisor who said, “Asian people are great! They give such good massages.” The professor in film school who said, “Women shouldn’t operate camera, they just don’t have the upper body strength.” The cousin who said, “White guys will only like you if they have yellow fever.” Each time I just froze, and commiserated later with another person of color.
But this was different. There was no way Spencer could spew ignorance and still have sex with me.
So I told him, “What you said really bothered me. I think it was insensitive to the other cultures.”
Keep in mind – this was my very first time standing up to racial injustice, after a lifetime as its silent bystander, witness, target. So my chest was tied in knots, and my words were choked behind my tonsils, and I didn’t so much speak as cough up fragments of phrases, bits at a time, terrified of what I was saying – at one point even confessing, “I’m sorry to bring this up. I wish I didn’t care. I’d be easier to get along with.”
To make things worse, it was also Spencer’s first time ever hearing those words. The first time someone disrupted the blameless vision he’d constructed of himself. The first time someone told him it takes more than sampling the cuisine of another culture in order to understand it.
He didn’t take it so well. He turned cold, pinching the bridge of his nose to show the great agony this conversation. Finally, after some prompting, he said, “I’m confused. I know Hispanic people who crack race-related jokes about themselves all the time. Why is it okay if they say it, but not me?“
“It’s more complicated than that,” I said. “When people make light of their own culture, it’s implied that they also understand its subtleties and histories and struggles. It’s awkward when you say it because it sounds like you see an entire culture as a caricature.”
Spencer mulled this over awhile, staring intently at the ceiling. He mumbled, “Okay, I’m sorry.” Then closed his eyes and started drifting off to sleep. But it was barely past noon, and just a moment ago he’d been fumbling at my bra hooks. He wasn’t tired – he was avoiding conflict.
But the discussion wasn’t over yet. Sure, Spencer had muttered an apology for a specific comment about kitchen workers, but he still didn’t know the full story of why it’d bothered me so much – how it’d reminded me of so many personal experiences at the receiving end of such ignorance. Ignorance that unfairly cast insecurities and expectations on my identity as a minority, which were so hard to overcome.
I wanted Spencer to know it wasn’t his fault those things were said to me. But he also needed to know how much damage those comments can cause. How it might cause someone to fear that no matter what they said or did, they’d always be seen as a massage therapist or sexual fetish because of their skin color and anatomy.
I gave one last attempt at salvaging the conversation, and asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
He shook his head no.
“Are we okay?”
“Should I go, then?”
He nodded again.
I went home. The talk ended on an odd note. But Spencer had said we were okay, and he was a reasonable guy, and we could always finish the discussion another time. I wasn’t worried.
Until the next morning. Something was off. Usually Spencer would bombard my phone with an endless stream of sweet messages and cat photos and kissy emojis. After our talk, I got nothing but radio silence. I’d ask him how he was doing, and he’d respond with a curt “Good!” or a lame “Sorry, I was in meetings all day, couldn’t have my phone with me!”
After a couple more days of this – of reaching out and getting painfully cordial responses in return – I called my friend Naomi, a therapist, and asked for some insight.
“Look,” she said. “Race is hard to talk about – especially if it’s his first time getting called out on it. Best case scenario, he just needs a few days to process. Worst case scenario, he can’t handle it, and he’s bailing – in which case you don’t want to be with him anyway.”
“Really?!” I said. “You think that’s possible? The past few months have been a dream, and you think it could end because of one conversation?!”
“You know, it’s hard to tell when it comes to race. Some people would rather cut off a relationship than face their own ignorance.”
She was right.
After a week of stalemate, Spencer and I ended the relationship. He said I was too demanding. I had too many ideas about how people should talk, and act, and treat each other.
It’s too bad. Talking about race could have brought us closer. We could have opened up, listened, learned from each other. But it takes two people to have a conversation. And while I was ready to make myself vulnerable and share my experiences and continue growing together, Spencer just wasn’t interested. Race drove us apart.
I was shocked when it happened. Spencer and I hadn’t been together long, but long enough for me to want him in my life, and hope for him to stay. Long enough to love him. But our initial failure to communicate – and more importantly our continued failure to communicate – indicated deeper differences. At our core, our worldviews were profoundly incompatible.
I believe that everybody is ignorant on some level. How can one person possibly know every nuance about every cultural background, gender identity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status? We must acknowledge this ignorance because that’s the only way we can fight it, by educating ourselves and thinking critically. Only then can we make room for every body, every dream.
After Spencer (not to mention the 2016 presidential election) it hit me that not everybody thinks like this – even if they shop at Japanese groceries, and their best friend is Korean, and they live in the Bay Area, which is possibly the most liberal place on the planet. Some people willingly cling to their ignorance because it’s frightening to give it up or embarrassing to acknowledge its existence. It’s scary to wonder if you’ll have less opportunity if minorities get more. It’s uncomfortable to admit you might get better jobs, higher wages, and louder laughs at your jokes because of your Y chromosome, not because of your charm.
It hit me that so many people don’t have the vocabulary to talk about these issues. And so many people don’t even know these issues exist.
During that talk with Spencer I’d said, “I’m sorry to bring this up. I wish I didn’t care.” At the time, it was true – I’d met plenty of interracial couples where a white person might joke that she would never learn to pronounce her Chinese partner’s surname (“Does ‘Wang’ rhyme with ‘bang’ or ‘bong’?”), and he’d laughed along like it was funny. It would’ve been easier to be like him. To accept status quo, instead of asking for respect.
That’s why it was so difficult to confront someone about race for the first time. It wasn’t just about me and Spencer. It was also me, making the life-altering choice to care. To accept the pain of recognizing injustice. To bear the hope that it should and can be eradicated. To assume the responsibility of speaking up in the future, with better and calmer words.
I’m not sorry about raising these issues anymore. The best way to equip people with vocabulary is to practice it yourself. The best way to spread awareness is to speak up, and create opportunity for safe, open dialogue.
I’m starting to find my voice. Now when I hear things like, “Asians just look younger than white people,” I respond with, “You know it’s not cool to make sweeping generalizations like that, right?” I keep the tone light, as if they’ve made an endearing error, like misquoting the lyrics to an Adele song.
Most of the time, people apologize and we move on right away. Sometimes they rephrase their statement with more precise language, “Okay, but definitely most Asian people I know look much younger than they actually are.”
Occasionally, though, especially when working with students, someone will ask, “Did I say something bad?”
And I tell them, “Not ‘bad’ – just a little misguided.” I tell them, “When we make generalizations, even if they’re true, we’re writing off any individuals who don’t fit into that generalization. We’re saying they don’t count, or they don’t belong.”
Usually their follow-up questions can be answered based on the many interactions I’ve had with people of various cultures, genders, religions, and socioeconomic statuses, supplemented by hundreds of think pieces and essays by writers of different backgrounds.
If I’m ever stumped, I’ll just say, “You know, I need some time to come up with an articulate answer. Can I get back to you on that?”
Part of it is modeling how to apologize for mistakes, too. In a recent conversation with a student, I used the pronoun “she” to describe a trans man. My student interrupted me, “You mean ‘he’, right?”
“Of course!” I said. “I’m sorry. Thanks for catching me.”
This system’s been working out really well for me so far.
So well, in fact, that I wondered if the relationship with Spencer would still be intact if I’d brought up race in a less emotional way. It’s likely that he would have agreed to stop making assumptions about countries he’d never even visited, and we would have stayed together a little longer. But that would have been treating the symptom instead of the disease.
The problem wasn’t just that Spencer said, “Everybody’s happy in Mexico.”
The real problem was his unwillingness to face the truth of how other, less-privileged people live. He never asked. He never wanted to know. He was surrounded by Asian colleagues and friends, yet he’s never had a serious discussion about race. He received arbitrary bonuses at work, yet he refused to entertain the possibility of implicit bias. He owned a library full of books, yet almost all of its authors were white, male, and either British or American.
Spencer was blinded by privilege. But the deal-breaker was that, given the opportunity to become aware, he just walked away.
It was a matter of time before we were over. A couple could never last if one person always tries to confront the problem, while the other pretends it isn’t there.
I will always try.
And I want the world to know. Because that’s the only way it’s going to change.