"America talks too much about race. America also talks too little about race."
This is a line from award-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest novel Americanah that echoes in my head. I read Adichie's book last summer, since it was Pomona College's summer reading assignment. As I read, I jotted down questions that I hoped to reflect upon after I start studying in a country that is as racially diverse as the U.S.
When I'm reading, I sometimes subconsciously associate the part in the book that I’m reading with the actual location where I have been reading the book. And when I revisit the text, my mind would bring me back to my previous physical surroundings.
Every time I think about the characters and plot of Adichie's novel, my memories bring me back to Beijing, where I read it over the summer. Back then, I wondered how much the whole issue of race would affect me personally.
In my American politics class, our professor jokingly shares his family's perspective on race, that by saying someone is "colour blind" or that an individual is "a person of colour", we are basically saying that white people are colourless. Chauvinistic? To relate it to my own experience, I find the following situation equally funny: someone asks "Where are you from?" and upon hearing my response, (s)he becomes slightly surprised. "Oh, you don’t have an accent."
If I don't have an accent, does that mean that I don't have a non-American accent (i.e. East Asian accent, based on my appearance)? This comment may appear innocent at a first glance, but it is ignoring the existence of other types of accents (e.g. Australian, Irish, Indian…) from other native speakers of the language. Shall we call this an implicit way of discrimination?
Similarly, when I attended local events where I was the only Asian, I seemed to get special treatments of some sort. Far from being marginalised, I actually received more attention than my Caucasian friends who I was with. This is akin to the situations in Americanah, where Ifemelu, the protagonist, provokes special interest in her native country, sometimes excessive / artificial attention.
I'm by no means a cynical person, although there's been a lot of questioning in this entry. Let me end with a positive note. In colleges like Pomona, we are paying much attention to address race-related issues through our student-initiated discussions (open mic forums, speaker panels, film screening and discussions, etc.) and our Dynamics of Differences in Power classes. I find the insight that my peers have shared in those events and classes extremely eye-opening. Yes, race has been a hot issue for a long time. We need to continue thoughtful dialogue in order to respect and empathise with everyone's unique experiences.