“What the hell, CHINK?”
The sudden cry caught me by surprise. I whirled around, nearly stumbling over myself, to see where the remark came from. A disheveled man had paused hunched over on the sidewalk, with an assortment of plastic bags in his hands. He stared at me with bewilderment and distaste on his face, like he had crossed paths with something alien.
I went on, silent.
I normally do not notice my race. Only when I look in the mirror, when I receive an unprovoked taunt when I go running, or when I stumble on a multi-syllabic word, do I suddenly remember that I was not raised here, that I am neither black nor white. I am yellow. And to be yellow is to be incapable of talking about race; it is to passively allow my own categorization into the broadest catch-all grouping on affirmative action surveys: “Asian.”
Richard Rodriguez, author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, knows about the awkwardness of my situation. As Rodriguez writes in a chapter entitled “The Third Man,” being caught with a skin color between black and white means being caught outside “the tragic dialectic of America, the black and white conversation” (126). In his essay, Rodriguez is sitting between a black academic and a white journalist, both of whom are making generalizations about race relations in America. Being in the gray area means enduring the assumption that all Latinos and Asians—or, to use a recently popular term, immigrants—face the same challenges in the United States, when in truth the common issue we face is silence—silence that springs from a fear of talking about race, and from a belief that such talk is unnecessary.
I remember my first day of school the year I returned to the United States from Taiwan. I had just received my schedule and was wandering around the foreign-looking hallways, entirely lost. I was immediately directed to the ESL teacher, who was also a
caretaker for overseas students. I thanked her, in rusty English, for her offer of assistance. But I never returned to that room again. I had left home to be challenged, to have no retreat, and I did not want the shelter of silence afforded the kids in that room. I wanted neither delicate treatment nor extra time on exams.
The East Asian immigrant’s narrative is one of silence. East Asians do not like to talk about race; we seek no conflict and remain constantly considerate of others. Though these are racial stereotypes in themselves, our hesitation to speak out is evident: as a race, we are less politically active and outspoken on racial issues than other groups. Race is a foreign construct to us—one we believe almost superfluous.
That is why I desired a clear-cut, accent-free affiliation with English just as Rodriguez did in his youth, perhaps out of the same fear of linguistic grayness—the fear of having no native tongue. It did not take me long to realize that language is the basis of race. The reason that broad lifestyle differences exist between races is that disparate languages dictate different modes of thinking.
Racial identity is difficult to address because race is easily lost in translation. As Rodriguez points out, there are dozens of words to describe Hispanic skin color, few of which can be fully translated into English. Likewise, English fails to describe the complex familial ties and names of relatives in extended families that are integral to Chinese racial identity. And when concepts about our identity are lost along with the words, ambiguity about our racial identity ensues.
In last year’s No Child Left Behind report for my school district, a bar chart conveniently grouped Asian Americans and whites in one column. The authors of the report reserved their precision for other minorities. The problem with race in the United States is not just demographic or geographic. It is about taking care to use precise terms. In “The Third Man,” the African-American professor gets on stage and “refers (in one breath) to ‘Blacks and Latinos,’ his synonym for the disadvantaged in America” (126). As Rodriguez points out, only by tearing down the racial dichotomy in America, by recognizing the “third” man— the brown, the yellow, and all the colors beyond—can we distinguish between and talk more intelligently about culture, heritage, and blood, and recognize that these designations exist independently of race.
Despite what my school district thinks, I, at least, know that I am not white. I have Taiwanese blood, though many would claim that it is no different from Chinese blood. In terms of race, I would happily surrender to either category, but most surveys settle simply for the ambiguous term “Asian.” Even the bum on the street knew more about my nationality. If “[r]ace is America’s theme—not freedom, not democracy (as we say in company)” (Rodriguez 136), then why are we so careless with our language when addressing race, compared to our diction in discussing national ideals? Could it be that the English language lacks the complexity needed to describe my race?
One problem with affirmative action is that it is hampered by politically correct language. Experts on race fear they will offend broad groups if they distinguish between suburban black families and inner-city black families, between first-generation immigrant Chinese and Chinese who don’t actually speak Chinese. These distinctions are personal and they rely on assumptions, but they are necessary for even broader distinctions of race to be meaningful. Yet, it is out of a concern for decency that affirmative action becomes a dichromatic system splitting the population into two broad groups: the Fortunate and the Unfortunate, demarcated by skin color. Such polarization benefits few minorities, because no one willingly accepts the “Unfortunate” label. As Rodriguez points out: “Not so long ago, Hispanics, particularly Mexicans and Cubans, resisted the label of ‘minority.’ … I remember my young Mexican mother saying to her children, in Spanish, ‘We are not minorities’” (126).
Of income, education, ability, age, culture, upbringing, geographic ties, and all of the characteristics by which we determine a person’s circumstances, skin color is the most visible, but it is also the least indicative of a person’s capacities. If we are committed to healing the racial scars in our nation’s history, why do we continue to use race—a construct that inflicted such wounds in the first place—so widely in decisions we make in education and the job market? Why do we try to use the term so ubiquitously in affirmative action when it is so bogged down by political correctness and so devoid of linguistic precision?
I have a residential advisor, Nicholas, who is from Ecuador and speaks English with a Spanish accent. He shocked me the day I moved in by greeting me in flawless, unaccented Mandarin Chinese. What race is he, then, according to my language-is-identity model? What race am I, now that I write better in English but speak more fluently in Mandarin, that I alternate between two languages when I talk to my siblings, that my inner monologue is conducted in English, but that I automatically switch to Chinese whenever I count and do math? Does it mean that I belong to neither race? Can I acquire a new race the same way Nicholas and I have acquired new languages, new modes of thinking? Could I “lose” it in the same way Rodriguez tried to rid himself of his Hispanic identity by refusing to use Spanish?
Might a pedestrian in the street care about what I have to say and be able to see me for more than my skin color?
By stepping back and viewing race not as something that envelops us but instead as something beyond us, we can begin to see the details of the identities into which we are unwittingly born. Only by learning Spanish did I learn the mechanics behind English that I would have learned in ESL classes. Likewise, only by viewing my Taiwanese heritage from the viewpoint of the English language was I able to see both in a clearer light. The “third” man sees both sides of a conflict clearer than the participants themselves.
Perhaps I talk about race because I believe that no one grows up automatically prepared to speak in the American racial dialogue. Anyone can and should talk about race, regardless of how innocent or ignorant they feel about their own racial identity. Despite the collective American obsession with race, it is a silenced issue. As a result, our vocabulary for talking about race is woefully outdated and imprecise—a situation that may be remedied by bringing more voices, and indeed more languages, into the dialogue.
A bum on the street is no more ignorant about race than I am, though I wish he could be more articulate in talking about my particular race. I might not appreciate the more verbose insult he might offer, but perhaps it is exactly what we need—a break in the silence: an indication that we, despite our primitive racial vocabulary, desire to talk about race.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Third Man.” In Brown: The Last Discovery of America.
New York: Viking, 2002. 125-143.