A gem in my life.
April 09, 2012

A few years ago, I found myself seated at a table with two good friends of mine: one Chinese and one white.  And at one point in the conversation, the white woman made a comment about the way Asian people smell and said to my friend “you know what I’m talking about, you’re a Chink.”

It felt as though time stood still, as though every last molecule of oxygen had been sucked out of the air.  My Chinese friend waited in silence for a moment and considered her answer.  Then she told them calmly that she personally finds that term offensive and prefers to be called “Chinese” or “Asian.”  She explained what about their statement upset her and apologized for making the conversation so uncomfortable.

I called her as soon as I got home that night to apologize for what had happened, and my friend told me something that I will never forget.  “Sarah,” she said, “You shouldn’t be apologizing for them and what they did.  You should be apologizing FOR YOU AND WHAT YOU DID.”

“What I did?!” I said bewildered.  “But I didn’t do anything!”

“THAT’S MY POINT,” she responded.  “You, as a white woman and as someone this other woman respects, had an opportunity to stand up and say NO, this is not okay.  You had a chance to defend me, but instead you sat there like a coward.  It is a luxury to be a white person in America and I don’t care if you don’t want to use that privilege to stand up for me because I can stand up for myself…but what about the people who can’t?  Would you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs while discrimination ran under your nose?  Would you just look in the other direction because you didn’t want to offend someone or get your hands dirty?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Look,” she continued.  “I can accept this about you if this is who you are.  But in all the years that I’ve known you, through thick and thin, through all manner of stupid mistakes, this is the ONE TIME that I’ve been ashamed to say we’re friends.  One day when I have a baby with my same slanted eyes, what are you going to say when someone taunts them in a store?  Are you going to stand up for them so that they see that they’re worth standing up for and that racism should never be tolerated…or are you going to just let it slide?”

“BECAUSE THE PERSON WHO LETS IT SLIDE IS JUST AS WRONG AS THE PERSON WHO SAYS SOMETHING INAPPROPRIATE IN THE FIRST PLACE.”

Yesterday something happened that reminded me of this.  Yesterday someone made a racist stereotype in my presence and I…let it slide.

Then last night I contacted my Chinese friend and I told her about it.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I feel so disappointed in myself.  Someone from that ethnic group was sitting RIGHT NEXT TO ME and I just…I didn’t know what to say.  I felt so uncomfortable and I didn’t want to make anyone upset, especially when I knew they didn’t mean it maliciously.  But I don’t want this to repeat itself because you’re right, it isn’t okay.  How do you deal with it?  What do you say?”

I felt like I could hear my friend smiling through the phone.  “It’s been five years, Sarah,” she said.  “I was starting to wonder if you’d ever ask.  I know you probably think I’m disappointed in you right now, but I’m not.  I’ve never been prouder.  So when do you want to get together and talk about it?”

Every now and then, I have a moment of clarity when it dawns on me how very lucky I am to have someone in my life.  When I’m sick and Donald spends six hours making chicken soup from scratch.  When I doubt myself and my daughter spontaneously approaches me with a kiss and an “I love you, Momma.“  When I walk down the road and my parents offer me food or a break or just conversation.

Or when I approach a friend with a really hard question, feeling very much like a failure, and they grin and pat my back and say “let’s do this thing.“


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  1. By on April 09, 2012

    Good for you, Sarah, go forth, learn, advocate. We must because so few people do. Your friend is right and I am so glad to hear that you and she will talk about it and you’ll learn from it and then go out and crusade for correcting wrongness in many off-the-wall situations—you’ll be great, Sarah. And so will Charlotte.

  2. By elizabeth Mackey on April 09, 2012

    I didn’t grow up in a typical “American” family since my mom is Panamanian and my dad is Canadian. Most of my influences on dealing with people tend to come from my very out spoken Panamanian mom.  Seems like the average American woman tends to be a people pleaser, and do not want to be confrontational.

    I tend to speak up, sometimes a bit too much, and I must say, I then tend not to be part of the popular group, but if someone is being out of line I say something to them.  I think ladies need to work on this in the US.

    It is very liberating to speak up and right some wrongs. I think some people need a little verbal slap sometimes to put them on the right track in life.

    It’s great that you are bringing this to light, and perhaps others will get the motivation that you did, from reading your post.

  3. By bethany actually on April 09, 2012

    I think the above commenter is correct that most American women learn to be people pleasers, to make people comfortable—-and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, unless it causes us to stay silent when we know we should be speaking up.

    It takes practice, and like anything you practice, you CAN get better at it. I think in the situation you wrote about, I would’ve stuck to simple truth, said as matter-of-factly as possible: “You know, the term ‘chink’ used to describe an Asian person is offensive to many, because it’s been used in derision for so long. Even if YOU didn’t mean it that way—“ here you can fudge a little “—and I’m sure you didn’t, to others it’s just as offensive as ‘k!ke’ or ‘n!gger.‘ I wish you wouldn’t use it around me.“

  4. By Donna on April 09, 2012

    This brought tears to my eyes because I too have let things slide and I want to stop that. I need to learn to embrace the uncomfortable and that is hard sometimes. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. By Meg @ Moments Like This on April 09, 2012

    I had to tell a friend, who is white, to stop talking about my children’s skin color the other day.

    She never said anything out of line but I calmly told her: “My children will be faced with the obstacles the color of their skin brings most every day when they are older…So I would like it, if just for a while, it was a non issue in their lives. They will be reminded daily of the color of their skin, so I’m trying to hold it off for as long as I can.”

    She seemed to understand where I was coming from and it was an uncomfortable conversation, but one that had to happen in order for our friendship to grow, if it was meant to grow.

    If these people are around you saying these things and you confront them a couple things may happen:

    they may grow and your friendship may grow

    or

    they may take it the wrong way and your friendship will change (maybe for the worse)- in which case I would say you and your family are better without them.

    This is especially true if you happen to be a foster parent for a child of color, Charlotte has friends of color, or dates someone of color.

    You owe it to that foster child, her friends, or potential partner to stick up for them, their history, and their future.

    So good for you.

  6. By Sarah@CrazyLoveGambleStyle on April 09, 2012

    Great post.  Your friend makes such a good point.  Thank you for sharing.

  7. By Sarah Christensen on April 09, 2012

    Meg - It’s interesting to me that your white friend talked about skin color at all; talking about skin color is one of the hardest things for me to do BECAUSE I’m white.  I’m terrified of being called a racist.  I have a very difficult time talking about skin color even when I’m only describing someone to pick them out of a crowd…and talking about ethnic differences is hands-down the most difficult topic I deal with as a parent.  I think it’s important for Charlotte, as a white child being raised by white parents, to be engaged in conversations about skin color and discrimination, but aiyiyi give me the good old sex and drugs and rock-and-roll talk any day of the week.  Other white parents I know who have adopted children of color have been so incredible when talking to me about how they approach racial tensions with their children and how they talk to their biological AND adoptive children about ethnicity and heritage and all related topics, but I always sort of wonder how I’ll handle it the first time a child I love is faced with the sort of issues relative to their skin color that I’ve had the privilege of just…not…facing.  I worry about how to help a child through that because it’s not something I’ve ever dealt with myself.

    Thank goodness for strong and vocal friends to help me through!

  8. By Meg @ Moments Like THis on April 10, 2012

    Maybe she feels so comfortable because her husband is black and they have a son..who doesn’t have any dark pigment in his skin at all. So her comments were more like “Look how dark your son is compared to mine..“ -whatever her reason behind mentioning my children’s skin color it bothered me..and as her friend I had a responsibility to tell her..not only for my sake but to advocate for my children :)

  9. By tara pollard pakosta on April 10, 2012

    please share what she says to do about it, because even though it’s never really happened for me, it could in the future or to my kids and I want to know what to say or what to tell my girls to do!
    that’s so hard!
    I love this post!
    tara


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