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Racism: what can we do about it?

Jee Seun Choi | Monday, September 26, 2011

I’m going to call myself a racist, in a loose sense. I’m confessing that I think, say and act upon my ethnic prejudices, which directly hurts myself and others, and indirectly reinforces the continuation of such unjust, social inequalities.

I’m going to call you a racist by the same definition, regardless of your ethnic background, while asking for the maturity to be conscious of such prejudices. We are all bound by our preconceived opinions or feelings about others, sometimes formed regardless of our will.

On Sept. 21, Troy Davis, convicted of murdering a policeman, was executed in Georgia, possibly due to such prejudices. Our racism is different from a racism that influences such a life-and-death matter, but, to some degree, shares the same roots and thus hurts the Notre Dame community.

I am going to share my story, and I want readers to think about what kind of prejudices influence our behaviors and what we can do about it. When I first came to Notre Dame, I was intimidated by the white people, the ethnicity that seemed to account for the majority of the student body. Being from South Korea, I never had a white friend before.

I heard stories when I was young. The “white people” enslaved the Africans. They colonized Asia, Latin America and Africa. All the white people that had some direct effect on my life were those who seemed to be better than me to some respect: the American missionaries founded my secondary school and taught us about the religion of God, the textbook images of white American soldiers helped the country during the Korean War and the English teachers taught at my language institute. I saw friends and celebrities getting treatments and plastic surgeries to whiten their skin, widen their eyes and “lift up” their nose.

Then, unconsciously, I put myself in an inferior position when I interacted with “white people.” You might call it a self-degrading racism. Then I learned, ate, laughed, cried and grew up with them and I touched the blond hair and pale, white faces for the first time. They were different from me, but also very different from how I had imagined them. I could see them as individuals with their own defects and goodness.

Then I noticed my prejudices against other ethnicities as well. I felt uneasy when I met my first Latin American and African American friends. I knew I was supposed to treat everyone equally, but just like how I subtly put myself in an inferior position to white people, I found myself doing the opposite. I had to consciously “normalize” them in my mind to treat those individuals beyond the context of their ethnic background.

Fortunately, I ended up developing some of the most endearing friendships with those who tolerated my deficiency. Now, my ethnic prejudices obscure much less of my personal interactions with individuals from different ethnicities.

That was my story, and if you think an American would be better at dealing with racism, please explain to me what I have witnessed at Notre Dame.

A friend of mine was ridiculed by a drunk for being “a black person,” even though he isn’t African. Someone came up to me and my friend and asked, “Why do Asians always hang out with each other?” Some of my American friends say that they are never attracted to Asian or black men unless they have “white features.” Some of my Asian and Latino friends get intimidated in front of a white person — just another example of self-degrading racism. One American friend of mine never had a black friend until her junior year at Notre Dame.

Compared to the blind, active and even intentional kinds of racism, our loose racism is less harmful. Also, many of you are very conscious of such prejudices because you grew up in a diverse community.

However, as I described above, our kind of racism does affect our community. If you saw me, a small Asian girl, today, what would you think about me? How much would I differ from your prejudices? How many times have you interacted with someone like me based upon your ethnic prejudices?

Let’s try to stop our prejudices and see individuals beyond their ethnicity. Let’s prevent the more vicious kinds of racism from harming the innocent. We are the children of the ugly past, but that should not be a continuing agent of racism. What can we do?

Jee Seun Choi can be reached at asiaticgaze@gmail.com or


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.