Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: Invisible Attitudes

1987 was a year of firsts.   A college degree, an all-girl road trip (mountain bikes tied on with bungee cords), a solo backpack trek (in the Wasatch mountains), a car payment (1987 Hyundai Excel), aaaaaand an insult.  First insult?  Not exactly - it wasn't that I had never been insulted.   I was 23 after all.  It was that I was just building my resiliency, and didn't have the life experience to repel thoughtless actions from others.

On that first all-girl road trip, my good friend and I drove to Bellingham, WA, to research a graduate program and to spread our wings a little more after five years as an undergrad, two of which focused specifically on Speech and Language Pathology.  It was a good time.  You know, new degree plus a new car, not to mention zealous twenty-somethings with a somewhat single-minded focus on living the dream.  The dream of mountain bikes, trail running, tele-skiing, perhaps a career path in an interesting field of study.  So we drove from Salt Lake City following the Rand McNally road map stopping to sleep in rest areas, and getting in a few runs between long miles until finally arriving at our destination.  Bellingham looked just like it did in the pictures.  Stunning campus enveloped in deep greens high on the most northern part of the state;  I remember imagining what it'd be like to live that close to Canada.

My undergraduate degree was in Speech Language Pathology, but at West Washington University, the department I could potentially study in was "Communication Sciences and Disorders."  I actually thought it was kind of an ironic area of study - communication disorders, given my tangential interests in how people can communicate more effectively (and lovingly).  This field, however, was in things like fluency, articulation, and language which was entirely different.  I guess I find irony in the name of the field and the experience I had at that time and place.  An insult could very well be a "disorder in communication."  

Anyway, my first meeting was with the department chairperson.  He was cordial and neutral, an older man who was processing "thousands of applications from all over the world," he would tell me.  I got the impression he was trying to make on me:  It was competitive.  But I already knew that.  I was serious enough to visit the campus and I paid what seemed like a million dollars to apply for the program.  I wasn't going into it blind without doing my research.  I felt confident about my career path having already accumulated over 300 clinical hours of work which was a pretty good indicator of my personal drive.

But to this guy, the guy who would serve me my first memorable insult, I was clearly just another girl in the chair.  He paged through my application while I sat nervously, admittedly under-confident for this brief and impersonal interview.  The space steamed inequality - a feeling I had as he conducted this exchange that required only "yesses" and "no's" from me.   And then it came out of his mouth rather matter-of-factly:

You won't have a problem getting in this university.  Your minority status makes it easy.

That's what he said.  Even though his voice tone was neutral and calm and it was purely a literal statement, he may as well have been screaming.  Because in my mind it sounded and felt more like this:


Okaaaaay, so part of my college funding was through a minority scholarship, and I did get a generous Asian-American scholarship even though I'm Micronesian (I guess they just figured they'd lump us all together since we're Brown and all . . . ).  And I was always on the dean's list for academic excellence;  not just any dean's list - I made the list of academic excellence for minorities.  So I wanted to scream back at him: "YEAH, I'M A MINORITY" just as plainly as he told me the obvious, but it would have been an empty and silly way to express my self-conscious shame.

After all, I felt a bit of relief.  I mean, why wouldn't I?  There were parents to please, educational loans to defer, and a chance to study someplace where the environment would fit my recreation.  But those kinds of things didn't lessen my shame.  Somehow, this old man made all the contents in my application packet feel worthless.  As if nothing else mattered because I checked the box "Pacific Islander/Other." There wasn't much else to say to each other once his declaration was made.  We shook hands, I thanked him, and left feeling an unnerving internal conflict of excitement and shame.

Why shame?  Because I felt demeaned.  I felt as if no matter what my application packet looked like, I would benefit because I would help meet a quota.  Intentional or not, he insulted me to the bone.

I banked that insult.  Not to hold a grudge or carry negative experiences.  But because I wanted to look at that negative event as just one event.  A single ambiguous interaction that occurred not because the man was a bigot or a racist, but because in that moment, he perhaps had a lapse of intelligence and displayed his ignorance.  I needed to move on.

I didn't tell anyone about that event until much later, and to only a few people.  It was hard to admit feeling shame, and it was even harder because it was confusing.  Like, why should I have felt shame in the face of ignorance?  It took a long time to understand it.   In retrospect, I believe that White American man was probably decent, moral, and kind; he probably believed in equality.   I am certain he didn't give that interaction a second thought.  Why?  Because his actions and their meaning were invisible to him.  After all, he told me some "good news" and was acting with only the best of intentions.   He most likely would have found it difficult to believe that he could even possess a biased racial attitude, which I suspect he could have explained away with a seemingly valid reason anyway.

And that's why until today, that recap of my year of "firsts," including my first memorable insult, was only for a select few.  Because as the recipient of that racial remark - there was always the nagging question of whether it really happened.  That is the power behind racial attitudes - that the person offending doesn't always see that it's happening.

Thankfully, the trip didn't end on that note - we did an amazing ride on stunning terrain, learned about microbreweries, and spent an inordinate amount of time in a used bookstore before making our way back to Salt Lake City.  While that experience was an eye-opener, it was also a time to review my status as a minority.  Internally, I questioned every opportunity, decision, and advice when it came to applying for school funding - exactly what kind of minority was I?  Did I deserve assistance?  Was I worthy in spite of being a minority?  It's incredulous how a single statement can change a person.   Be thoughtful out there, especially if you're in a position of power - you might not intentionally mean to do harm but you also might not be aware of the power behind invisible racial attitudes.  


  1. wow...amazing story...ignorance is bliss right? I had NO idea you were in speech therapy:) My hubby and I also hit Bellingham right after college..tried to find jobs there...ended up in Yakima, WA:) Well don't let these comments get to you if you can...I am guessing he really meant no harm. I would however have been tempted to write him a little HEARTFELT letter if it had happened to me:)

  2. Racism is so complex. I like it how directly you are confronting it in your blog and in conversations I've had with you. Doing so is valuable and pushes against it all. Enlightens some if they are willing and able to see. Change will come. I am sorry that such bad experiences have so often come your way or come anyone's way. I am impressed by your thoughtful effort to unravel them and expose them for what they are.