Post it, tweet it, broadcast it: how to counter racism in an age of social media

Juli Min says the public information tools at our disposal mean we no longer have to suffer discrimination in silence. It’s important to speak up, without being overly sensitive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 11:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 7:10pm

Over the past weeks, the topic of racism towards Asians has gained national attention in the US. Brought to the fore by an insensitive report by Fox News’ Jesse Watters, and then separately by Michael Luo’s “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China” in The New York Times, the issue has reached a new level of visibility.

Many readers shared comments about personal experiences with racism. Protesters stood outside Fox studios holding signs with the hashtag #notfunnyfox. New York City mayor Bill De Blasio shamed Watters on Twitter, calling the segment “vile”.

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To those abroad looking in at the debate, the situation may seem dire. For the past seven years, I’ve worked with students from Asia who move to the US for high school and college. One concerned mother asked me the other day, “Is it safe to send my child to such a racist country?”

I wanted to answer her question correctly. Is it safe? Yes, I believe so. My own experience as an Asian-American has not been riddled with racism. I do not think her child is physically, or even very much emotionally, in grave danger.

One frequent complaint was of being asked too often ‘Where are you really from?’

To get more context, however, I put out a call on social media to my friends of Asian descent. I was flooded with messages and texts. On aggregate, they seemed like a lot, like the aggregate of comments on the New York Times’ website. And yet, when I asked individuals how often they experienced racism, it seemed that, like me, most had only one or two stories in mind over the course of 30 years.

One thing I noticed was that many often conflated racism and a general feeling of alienation. One frequent complaint was being asked too often “Where are you really from?” or being told “Your English is so good!”

The question may be uncomfortable, even annoying. But the question itself is not necessarily an act of racism.

I now live in East Asia. When I see a white man speaking fluent Cantonese in Hong Kong, I may ask him where he is from, despite the fact he may have been born in Macau or Hong Kong. Am I racist? Do I believe he is inferior, or am I antagonising him for being white? No. I am curious as to how he came to speak a dialect so well. Maybe I’d like him to give me a few tips.

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Clear instances of racism include that of my friend Sally, a Korean living in midtown Manhattan, who was told repeatedly to “Go back to China”. Another is when James, riding the bus, was accosted, singled out, and called “Chinaman” by the bus driver. April, a Chinese-American, was admonished by an elderly white woman that she was an animal for standing while waiting for her financial planner in a midtown Charles Schwab branch.

Acts of racism do not have to go unseen and unheard, tolerated with silent resentment

These are real instances of racism, of people disliking others, antagonising them, based solely on the colour of their skin.

I asked these friends how they responded. Sally was too frightened to respond, as her aggressors were a group of young men. April was too shocked to reply in time. James filed a letter of complaint to the bus company.

What else could these friends have done in response? I believe that the recent debate has made at least one thing clear – acts of racism do not have to go unseen and unheard, tolerated with silent resentment. Luo spoke up, made the issue public, and opened up the floor for thousands of voices.

Next time she meets a racist, April can pull out her phone, get connected to Facebook or Twitter, and ask the person to clearly say their name and restate their opinion for more people to hear. We live in an age of public information sharing, and do not need to suffer in silence private acts of shaming. It gives us voice and power, and is the tool that will help us see, hear, and react to the world accurately and responsibly.

Juli Min is a writer, former teacher, and founder of Boutique Education Consulting. She was born in Korea, educated in Boston, and lives in Shanghai. Some names in the article were changed by request