When Safe Spaces Aren’t Safe

Wednesday afternoon was a cool, crisp, quintessential fall day. The sun was high in the sky just past noon, poking through the leaves on the trees casting perfect shadows on the ground. Taking advantage of the light, I went out to shoot some photos on a busy block distinguished by a local favorite coffee shop.

Behind the coffee shop sat a number of men who looked to be in their mid-forties or fifties. The men told me that they often sit there, not talking “about anything real – just the weather, sports, and girls.” I laughed casually and asked if I could take their picture, a true representation of life on that block.

As I walked away, a tall man wearing a cowboy hat came up to me and extended the conversation a little longer.  He continued, “I think that church over there would make a nice photo subject. I, myself, am nondenominational, but looking at you I’m starting to lean more towards the Buddha.”

I quickly thanked him for the photo suggestion and walked steadily back to where my friends were standing. While racialized flirting is by no means a new thing to me, the audacity of some people still shocks me each time. Firstly, I am not interested in a romantic relationship with a man more than twice my age. And secondly, this man’s statement indicated that he was not interested in me at all, but rather Asianness at large and his perceived notions of people who look like me.

I went on with the rest of my week but found my identity as an Asian woman the target of white male gaze once again.

On Friday evening I attended a dinner at my school titled, “What Can You Do With A Degree in Chinese/Japanese/Asian Studies.” As a departmental major, I felt obligated to attend. Furthermore, I was legitimately interested in any pragmatic advice they had to offer. The Keynote speaker addressed language skills and cultural competency in an international business setting. I found his words realistic, but encouraging.

After the Keynote speaker, the department invited an alumnus to speak about his experience, not as a major, but about his time in Japan and China after graduation. I immediately got an uneasy feeling in my stomach as the small, blonde man with overly active eyebrows and excited hands took the floor.

The man started by telling us lessons he learned abroad. In a slow and condescending manner, he began, “First: I learned that the Chinese culture is very generous. My friends and I would fight about who would pay, and before I knew it, they had paid without me noticing. Second: I learned that China is a much less sanitary place than the U.S. The Chinese people don’t have the money to buy their children diapers, so they cut a hole in the pants and let them go to the bathroom wherever they want.”

I nearly started coughing. Many Chinese babies wear split-pants. While there are some hygiene issues at play, there are also benefits to split pants – less paper waste and fewer diaper rashes to name some. This is not some homemade DIY remedy due to poverty. Additionally his broad sweeping statements about China left no room for nuances or exceptions.

He went on, “The Chinese people don’t have the money to buy their children more than one coat. Because the buildings lack central heating, you get to know the children by their coat color. When the spring comes, and they take off their coats, you don’t know which student is which student anymore.” Excuse me!, I felt like exclaiming. Are you suggesting that Chinese people don’t have faces or names? Perhaps more importantly, did you not make any emotional connection to your students in which you individuated them in your mind?

The white mansplaining of Asian culture to a room filled with predominantly Asian people continued as he swept his hand slowly in midair, showing the vastness of China and his knowledge. “I learned that the power of relationships (guanxi) is really powerful. I also learned for the first time what it felt to be the minority and to be discriminated against by shopkeepers who would increase the price tenfold just because of the color of my skin. And in this way, I experienced racism.”

As a person of color who legitimately experiences racism, discrimination, and microaggressions, let me be clear when I say that I wish racism was just people increasing the price of goods for me, and not having to deal with racial slurs, physical threats, objectification by strangers (like Wednesday’s visitor), and deep rooted systems in operation working against me. By definition, this white man can not have been the recipient of racism. Racism requires two key elements – privilege and power, both of which he holds (even in China). While he certainly was a minority in China, what he experienced was discomfort in a new setting and some prejudice. Everyone can perpetuate stereotypes or discriminate against someone based on a superficial trait, but people of color cannot be racist against white folks because of the inherent power and privilege differentials.

Additionally, jumping prices up for foreigners is not exclusive to China. It’s a tactic that is used all over the world to trap naive tourists. I’ve experienced it in Europe and when traveling within the U.S. I’ve also been a victim to overpaying on products in China when it was clear that I, too, was a foreigner. Furthermore, many Chinese bars and businesses I visited had “Foreigner Discounts” or “Foreigner VIP cards” that I had to fight to receive. At one bar, I paid more than double my white American friends because the waiter would not believe that I was American. The alumnus’ highly generalizing manner of speech did not leave open any space for my experience as a person of color, more specifically, a Chinese-American, in China.

The man talked more about his time in China, joking that “the Chinese eat anything on two legs but humans, and anything on four legs but tables and drawers.” He interjected by saying, “I have certain humble principles that guide me. I won’t eat humans, cats, or dogs because they are our friends.” Forgetting he was still talking to a room full of Asian people and people who have studied Asian cultures and languages for a significant amount of time, he said, “Because of my time in China and Asia, I bet I have eaten weirder things than any of you. I have eaten worms. I have eaten donkey meat. I have eaten scorpions…” The list continued, as did his exotification and otherization of Asia as a “weird” and “far-out” place.

He attempted to end his ramblings with a Taoist story of a dancer who journeys home. He likened himself to the dancer and told us that travel makes people gain things but also lose important things about them. I stared quizzically, wondering when I’ve lost important elements to my being while traveling and couldn’t think of any examples. I can certainly recall reflections and knowledge gained. He added, “I now prefer to eat using chopsticks!”

I let out another disappointed sigh as he listed just one more way he appropriated Asian culture and saw nothing wrong with it. I was so relieved when he finally alluded to making closing remarks, I began to draw my head up again and made eye contact with the man. “So what can you do with an Asian Studies major?,” he concluded. “You can work for the State Department, you can be a translator, you can go into business, or…” He smiled extra wide, showing all of his teeth and raising his eyebrows once more, “You can find an Asian husband or wife and make adorable babies.”

At this point, I could no longer hide my irritation. I felt my body temperature rise and my eyes widen as my mouth gaped open. I whipped my head around to look at a friend sitting behind me and was affirmed by her look of disgust, as well. Another friend texted me, “I am so uncomfortable right now.” I felt so fortunate to have these friends and sources of support during an absolutely grueling twenty minutes.

In addition to my annoyance at the alumnus for his words, his condescending mannerisms, and his orientalist ideals, I was angry that he permeated what should be a safe place for me. I have no choice but to go outside and face what the public has to say, but I chose my school for its principles of multiculturalism and internationalism as well as its progressive politics.  While I never anticipate racist language directed at me when I step out to shoot photographs or grab a cup of coffee, there are some places where I definitely don’t expect to experience a battering of racial assaults. My school, and especially the Asian Languages and Cultures Department, is one of those places.

After this dinner event was over, I found myself reflecting on safe spaces and the reality that even in places where I choose the locations and, for the most part, the people involved, I can’t ever be one-hundred-percent sure that a safe space is safe or will remain that way.

What are some things that I could have done to reclaim my space? I could have spoken up at the time and challenged the man’s assumptions of China and the Asian cultures he thought he understood. I could have shown my disapproval by walking out and not participating in the event. I can still let the administration and department chair know how offended I was by this man’s talk at what should have been an interesting and fun departmental dinner.

Despite the actions I can make to take back safe spaces, it doesn’t negate the fact that I had to deal with this man’s racial incompetencies or that slight feeling of hesitancy I will face before the next Asian Studies event or the weariness of interviewing a potential dating partner to be sure that they don’t hold the same grandiose, orientalist visions of Asia as this man. It is often the burden of people of color to carve out pockets of safety zones in society, but it is the responsibility of white folks to keep those places sacred and comfortable. When someone, like this alumnus, infiltrates that space, it’s’ never quite the same again.

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12 responses to “When Safe Spaces Aren’t Safe

  1. I don’t know which school you attend but this person who displayed his ignorance and covert racism should either be fired or he should never again be permitted to speak, advise or meet with students on your campus. Why didn’t you speak up?

  2. Wow. I can’t imagine sitting through that. I hope it is a comfort that you were in a room full of people who also were appalled at this person. Certainly it is a topic that needs to be brought up with event organizers.

    The fact someone has traveled to these places and is completely clueless blows my mind. What a waste of a good trip.

  3. The speaker is clearly a boor and the department is sorely lacking in good judgement. As an invisible minority, I encounter this less often in person but everyday in the press. When I read about or hear someone say something which is discriminatory, I confront it head on. Doing nothing helps perpetuate bad behaviour. You will encounter people like this in your life. How you respond will certainly alleviate your stress, but more importantly you will be providing another person with a life lesson. One person can make great change in the world.

  4. Lord have mercy that’s nasty. It would be interesting if it dawned on the department chair just how nasty that is while Mr. Orientalist was speaking. If not, then there’s a huge problem that will be hard to address. Sorry you had to sit through that.

  5. I’m sickened that you had to experience that, and desperate to protect my children from it. I know that I can’t, but through stories such as yours I gain more insight into what they will have to deal with (and already do, even as young children), and I’m grateful to you for writing about it. [FWIW, I’m guessing that the speaker significantly damaged his own career and social scene with this speech.]

  6. What in the entire hell were they thinking inviting dude to come talk…and for 20 minutes no less? And the department chair didn’t sandman him and usher him stage left? They just let him talk?

    I hope that you will share your thoughts with the department chair. I agree with you that safe spaces can evaporate in an instant. 😦

  7. I feel even more appalled that no one in the audience chose to speak up and point out the speaker’s obvious racism. I mean THIS is why asians are portrayed as weak, meek, passive etc etc. It’s honestly super upsetting for me to picture a whole room of asian students quietly sitting before this man while he’s spewing all these assumptions and garbage about China.

  8. Thank you for writing such an eloquent piece. I can definitely relate on so many levels regarding your observations. Having been abroad myself, back to my home country, China I too, experienced similar things you had. I was adopted, so that added another layer of utter confusion and disdain. These experiences don’t just disappear, however for many in the “seat of power” it’s as if what they said didn’t have an affect on anyone.

    I’d like to give examples from my experience, however maybe I will another time. I don’t want to negate yours, however I want to express my support and understanding of your experiences. 🙂

  9. Cringeworthy does not even begin to describe this man’s display of ignorance. Thank you for sharing and I am so sorry you experienced this in what one would assume to be a safe place.

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