Kenneth Eng was not born a racist. I know this in my heart, because I know him—not him per se, but “him”—as in the Asian-American man with a chip on his shoulder.
“He” didn’t start out that way. But after constantly experiencing what he perceived as slights and wrongdoings against him—and being viewed by many as a stereotypically non-threatening, Chinese-slipper-wearing, noodle-eating, mathematically-inclined “Chink”—he turns into that militant Asian guy you don’t want to admit used to be a really good friend of yours.
So I can understand why someone like Kenneth would decide to blame everything negative in his life on racism. It’s far too easy to pull out the race card. Didn’t get into the college of your choice? Racism. And your dream job fell through? Racism. That girl in the bar turned you down? Racism. Got picked up by the police, who forced you to stand in a lineup? Racism.
I can understand, but I don’t accept it.
Not all Asian-American men are like Kenneth, despite their personal experiences with racism and discrimination—which, for men, can be far more direct experience than it is for us, and sometimes violent. (Was poor Kenneth dragged from his car and beaten by a squad of police officers?) Kenneth’s experience at New York University doesn’t make any sense to me. I attended the College of Arts and Science at NYU in the early 90s. Didn’t he see all the Asian clubs on campus, like I did? Didn’t he open his eyes and see the throngs of other Asian-American men and women packed inside the elevators of Main Building like sardines, or hanging out in Washington Square Park with nothing better to do than smoke some cigarettes and talk in their own languages? I sure did.
As an Asian-American woman, I proudly participated in Filipino Club activities and attended Asian Cultural Union events. In the process, I discovered not only my own “Asian”-ness, but also my Filipina pride. And that was over fifteen years ago, when there wasn’t a Southeast Asian Studies program in the curriculum. NYU was a place that encouraged racial pride—NOT racism. New York City—and, in particular, Greenwich Village—is a place where a person who has issues (sexual, racial, political, religious) can speak about them aloud, and begin an intellectual dialogue about them, without fear of persecution. If Kenneth felt any racism in the classroom, what did he do to remedy it?
What the hell did Kenneth do with his time at NYU?
After a certain point in our lives, it is our personal responsibility to ourselves—and our kids (if we choose to get married and procreate)—to question what we are really experiencing in any given circumstance. The cause of a painful situation may be more complicated than simple racism, but we won’t know unless we are willing to let go of the race card. Didn’t get into the college of your choice? Maybe your grades weren’t good enough, or your application just sucked. And your dream job fell through? Maybe the company you interviewed with just got bought out and the position you wanted no longer exists. That girl in the bar turned you down? Maybe you have the personality of a brown paper bag. Got picked up by the police, who forced you to stand in a lineup? Now THAT could be racism.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to NYU, and have lived in and around New York City all my life. And, while I find it the most culturally diverse place in the world, I have to admit that New Yorkers only tolerate one another. We harmoniously exist only in the most superficial terms. We acknowledge each other’s existence, but we don’t really accept and incorporate others into our lives. We don’t make eye contact unless we mean to have a confrontation, and we don’t exchange small talk unless a tourist surprises us with that ubiquitous question: “How do I get to Ground Zero?”
This kind of environment makes it easy to blow off steam with foul remarks and racial slurs. An accidental bump on the shoulder elicits a “stupid chink” remark, and the downward spiral begins. That remark, or one like it, was heard (but not answered, not then) by a certain overly sensitive Asian-American man, and an ugly boil of racist sentiment began to fester in him. All subsequent accidental bumps or ignorant comments were deemed racially motivated. All this can result in a very paranoid racist named Kenneth Eng.
It’s so easy to stereotype people—and not allow for any exceptions to whatever rules one has fabricated. Stereotyping demands minimal thinking, and less effort. But to rely on racial stereotypes is dangerous and irresponsible. Stereotypes in general, whether good or bad, are only mechanisms that human beings use to cope with their environment. Most of us learn that stereotypes are not absolute. As we grow from babies, to adolescents, to young adults, we learn that not everything red is hot to the touch, and not all smiling faces belong to benevolent individuals. So why, at twenty-three years of age, and with a college degree, would Kenneth Eng choose to revert back to such prepubescent thinking?
And why would a publication like AsianWeek think it would be okay to publish his infantile rants, expressed fully in his article, “Why I Hate Blacks?”
I love Asian-American men. I praise them. I put them on a pedestal and worship them. My father is the quintessential Asian-American man, one who has experienced far worse racial discrimination than Kenneth Eng could ever imagine. He has not blamed any misfortune in his life on racism, although he has every right to. He has never uttered a racial slur and never encouraged his family to hate other races. He celebrates his life, his accomplishments, his wife and daughters, his beloved New York Yankees, and his Social Security checks. While still in his youth, he learned to look beyond racism, and see the possibilities life offers. He questions why things happen, and tries to learn from the past. He is happy and content.
And he is what Kenneth Eng should hope to be, when he finally grows up.