When POC become each other’s allies
Taking a stand on racism when I had everything to lose
“If she doesn’t like it, she should just go back to her country.”
I heard a grad school instructor make this comment, and I looked up from my notes. Somewhere between dumbfounded and disgusted, I looked around the room for Asian students. There were none. That’s when I realized why this instructor felt super comfortable making that comment. I mean, who else would make a fuss about telling an Asian student to go back to her country? Even that student wasn’t there to defend herself.
But let’s back up a little to explain what lead to the comment. I was taking a multi-part certification course at a grad school in downtown Chicago to learn Chicago Manual Style. I was also in grad school at another university and working full time. I’d been pondering transferring to this downtown school once my employer decided to pay for this certification course. If I could avoid grad school bills, why not blend the two?
My goal for the certification course was to learn all about Chicago Manual Style to continue with my job as an Assistant Copy Editor for a financial adult education textbook company. I loved my boss and the job paid my bills, so I took this monotonous course to improve my skills. Call me naive, but I never expected to have an instructor transition a topic about serial commas and punctuation into Racism 101. In another one of the grad school instructor’s classes, there happened to be an Asian student who challenged an editing mark that the instructor made. And the instructor apparently was still irate about it because she felt the need to tell the entire class about this previous verbal exchange.
But at no point and time should either of the two be so passionate about a topic that we start telling people to “go back to your country” if we don’t agree about edits.
Now writers are sensitive. Editors can be cutthroat when they’re not being sensitive. And writers who are editors are a colorful mix of the two. But at no point and time should either of the two be so passionate about a topic that we start telling people to “go back to your country” if we don’t agree about edits. While I sat in that course in a room full of white students who seemed unphased by the comment, my blood started boiling. It wasn’t just that the comment was unnecessary, tactless and the girl wasn’t there to defend herself. It was that somehow the instructor either ignored that I was in the room or felt that since I was African-American, I would breeze right past that. I wasn’t Asian, so what’s the big deal?
Anyone who has a general idea of me, never mind knowing me personally, knew this wouldn’t end well. I have zero tolerance for blatant racism and will be on high alert around passive aggressive race comments, too. But let’s say I didn’t have a Japanese college friend who sat around my family’s Thanksgiving table. And let’s say that I didn’t attend an undergraduate university where I befriended Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and exchange students of Asian and African descent. Let’s ignore a couple of non-black guys I’ve dated. I’ll go even further back than that. Let’s say that I was still the elementary school kid who hadn’t yet been at a school that wasn’t predominantly black and hadn’t taken field trips to see Denzel Washington’s “Malcolm X” flick or read the book. I’d like to believe my response would’ve still been the same mix of irritation and the itch to do something.
My parents just didn’t raise me to be someone who could quietly ignore someone’s dismissive comments about another person’s race. It’s not in my DNA to just shrug it off. It took more effort for me to not just grab that bright orange CMS book and storm out of the room.
I finished the class that day and quietly passed the course. I said very little to the instructor for the remainder of my time. At the end of that multi-week course, I received a teacher evaluation. I not only gave her a detailed, lengthy response about how I felt about her comment. I went straight to the head of the English department to make sure that they knew that not only would I not continue on with the certification course but that I had no interest in potentially transferring my grad school credits over. I patiently explained to my boss why I would not be moving forward with the rest of the classes in that certification course.
Because I already knew what kind of person that my boss was, I knew she would fully understand. I took that CMS Style Guide and quietly studied the rest of it on my own. As far as I know, that instructor continued to teach her certification courses. I’m not sure if she was ever even reprimanded for her actions.
Meanwhile, with a less understanding boss, my response could’ve easily been met with termination for refusing to complete the certification courses. The school could’ve retaliated and not confirmed that I passed the course, making it useless on my resume. And my response to that instructor’s comment could’ve ruined my chances of getting into this university if my heart was set on transferring there. (It was not; I just wanted the free grad school courses. I preferred my original grad school much more afterward.)
I could’ve sat idly by in the classroom that day. I could’ve acted like I was oblivious to the mindset that if someone can say something this callous about an “other” simply for disagreeing with you, that they will indeed do the same to you as soon as you’re not within hearing distance. But enough was enough. I’m not afraid to shake a tree. I’ve never been someone who was timid about confrontation. What bothered me most from that entire exchange is the exact same reason I’m so repulsed by 45. The guy in the White House is so much more focused on physical appearance when it comes to Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) that he cannot seem to comprehend the political issues that they earned their way into discussing.
Anyone who is more focused on what you look like than actually listening to the point you made is not worth talking to. Quite frankly, if they can’t even do that, then they’re the ones who need to leave the country that gave (many of) us the right to speak freely — commas included.