Much has been said, as must be said, about the African-American graduate student at Yale University who was reported by a White peer to the campus police for napping in a common room. I can identify. In stating my sympathy as an Asian American, however, I should, and I do, appreciate that my circumstances are, to a certainty, easier. A good ally takes care to avoid appropriating another person’s suffering.
Ideally, a person exposed to a bit of bigotry becomes sensitive to the extremes that extend beyond that instance. More than a decade ago, as an adjunct professor at another Ivy League institution, I was accosted while lecturing by a White student, who barged into the classroom, demanded to know who I was, doubted I was telling the truth and stormed off to summon a guard to check my identification, because he wanted to enjoy his own study area. In an era before everyone could record any encounter with ease, I complied, and the guard shrugged off the belligerent undergraduate.
None of this is all that unusual. The media recently covered the case of two Native Americans, brothers, who were detained while on a college tour. A White parent had identified them as suspicious, for their inappropriate behavior of being too quiet. Even members of minority groups who are celebrating turn out to be troublesome. African-Americans who strutted across stage during a commencement ceremony were rushed, even pushed, to hurry. The White professor, whose school apologized, was ignorant of this tradition for those whose ancestors were excluded from educational opportunity.
But I am privileged on relative terms. I do not doubt that Asian Americans, as well as Whites, could and occasionally face similar or even the same situation as African-Americans and Hispanics. Nonetheless, I am highly skeptical that anyone else other than African-Americans, and Blacks of all backgrounds, experience it on the same scale and with the same severity. An isolated incident is not the same as a daily occurrence.
The categorical claim that nobody else can be discriminated against is based on ideology instead of information; it depends on defining the impossibility rather than considering the facts. By the same consideration of evidence, not anecdote which is the origin of stereotyping, African-Americans on average and in the aggregate have it worse, from infant mortality to housing segregation to employment discrimination to disparate treatment within the criminal justice system. The data confirming asymmetries are overwhelming if anybody heeds the reality of the world. There is no metric by which a reasonable observer could argue Whites on the whole are subjected to the mistreatment African- Americans are accustomed to.
I can offer a simple example as an individual who isn’t even White, either. I can saunter down the street without being mistaken for a mugger. For that matter, I have never feared that if I fall asleep in public that I will be arrested. Although it has worried me that I might not be safe if I am snoring, I have assessed the threat as coming from any number of sources including others of Asian ancestry.
Yet I am prejudiced, as we all are. These fraught interactions are about belonging and community: who belongs where, and what places belong to which people. They are about risk, too: all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly generalize about the strangers whom we see around us, who is a friend, who, potentially, a foe. Our brains are hardwired for pattern recognition.
Thus, we — at least, I — need to admit our bias. The implicit association test wows the crowd. Word games show we correlate Whiteness with goodness. We are shocked to confront our own unconscious selves. Even people of color have internalized a hierarchy in which Black girls favor White dolls over Black dolls as beautiful and who they would like to resemble, as demonstrated to the Supreme Court when they decided the Brown v. Board desegregation case. If we pay attention, we will catch ourselves. Teachers can prime students in a positive manner. We have a responsibility to prepare citizens who will participate in a diverse democracy.
Here is a trivial example that hints at much more.
In San Francisco where I live, many people walk their dogs without using a leash. On a fine summer day, I saw a golden retriever by itself, ambling out of the park near my home, as happy as these family pets are supposed to be, tongue lolling, tail wagging. I thought to myself a disapproving thought about the human who should be accompanying the animal, which could come to harm unsupervised. I then realized that the young Black man further down the sidewalk was that person, but he was not who I was expecting — his canine, presumably in my subconscious, would be a pit bull with a stud collar. I would not describe my error as egregious racism. (Then again, none of us owns up to that.) I would have to accept that it is an assumption based on race.
Perhaps that is the real problem reflected by the spate of racial episodes making the news. They constitute the norm. They cannot be dismissed. Those who would defend the individuals involved, scared of a Black person who had dozed off, resort to the excuse that the perpetrators are ordinary folks innocent of hate.
The argument is backwards. That is why we ought to be alarmed and not assured, because the more typical the guilty are the more disturbing their actions. Despite our ideals, even our classmates, coworkers and neighbors perceive some of us very differently than others of us. Their character may be decent enough, but their conduct is not.
Frank Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.