Racism About and At Home: A Personal Essay

Defending the place you're from can be difficult when both subtle and overt racism remain.

Serena Puang sitting on edge of rock overlook
Courtesy: Serena Puang

“Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”

These questions are enough to make any person of color cringe. They’ve become the quintessential example of what not to say if you want to come across as baseline socially aware. When asked, I always say I’m from Arkansas because I was born and raised there, but people have actually told me that I’m wrong.

“I thought you were Korean?”

“Wait, but you look mixed?”

“Konnichiwa.”

One of the fringe benefits of going to college about 1,400 miles away from home in New Haven, Connecticut is that I don’t get those reactions at school. In fact, at Yale, we don’t even ask people where they’re from.

We ask them where home is, and I appreciate this sentiment, but the question invariably leads to a set of follow up questions:

“Arkansas? Really? Where is that exactly? How did you get here?”

Along with these comments comes an assumption of what people are like in Arkansas. People express sympathy for the bigotry I “must have” experienced growing up, and I want to tell them that it’s not what they think.

I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the overt discrimination that so many, not only in Arkansas but all over our country have, and these people they’re making assumptions about are my friends.

There’s a constituency of Yalies from Arkansas who try to cleanse the state of its stigma, and I want to help them. After all, Arkansas is home to me too, and I don’t appreciate the fact that people only know it as either the home of Bill Clinton or the headquarters of the KKK. I want people to know that yes, we do wear shoes here, and no, not everyone is like the caricature of a Trump supporter that people imagine.

However, unlike my classmates who aggressively defend our home state, I can’t bring myself to give an unreserved endorsement. To do so would blatantly ignore all the racially problematic incidents I grew up with. Sometimes I don’t want to defend Arkansas at all, but given the “knowing” looks people give me at school, I have to.

Sometimes racism looks like disenfranchisement, police brutality, and overtly racially-motivated attacks. In 2020, it is sadly obvious that these are not artifacts of the past. But racism doesn’t have to look like that. Most of the time, it doesn’t. I grew up surrounded by people who would never consider themselves racist.

“I want people to know that yes, we do wear shoes here, and no, not everyone is like the caricature of a Trump supporter that people imagine.”

And yet, the first person who told me I had a talent for writing also told her child not to be friends with me anymore because she didn’t like that I was Asian. She volunteered in my 4th-grade class, and she was the perfect host when I stayed at their house overnight for my friend’s birthday party. I would never have known if my friend didn’t tell me.

The first boy who told me he liked me always made fun of my last name. He’d shout “CHING CHONG” as I talked to my parents in Chinese on the phone, pull his eyes back with his fingers, and ask how I could see through my slanty eyes — which, for the record, were bigger than his. Everyone acted like it was a joke and therefore not a big deal, but it was never just a joke to me.

When I tried to talk about it, I was always met with skepticism. Surely they didn’t mean it that way. Was I certain I wasn’t misunderstanding them? Why was I taking it so seriously?

And it’s not just Arkansas. Last year, I was talking with some friends in the basement of my church in New Haven, and someone told me that Asians don’t experience racism.

“Don’t they just think y’all are smart and really good at math? Isn’t that a compliment?”

Every so often, something tragic happens that makes the racism BIPOC face every day almost undeniable, and people wonder where we went wrong.

Didn’t we deal with this already?

But it’s been there all along. The problem isn’t those racist people out there that we need to get rid of. It’s much deeper than that. The problem is that we’re so steeped in racism that we don’t even see it anymore.

People are happy to buy books about racism and comment on how sad it is that there are such terrible racist people in the world, but what happens when your everyday actions, inadvertent or not, tell BIPOC that they don’t belong?

In a country riddled with systemic racism, prejudice so internalized that we are even passing it on to artificial intelligence, and years of BIPOC nodding along to problematic comments because they feel like they can’t say anything, it’s not enough to stop making intentionally racist jokes.

Our country is broken. What are you doing to fix it?

Serena Puang
Serena Puang

Serena is a freelance journalist who writes about accessibility, culture, language, education, and the ways they intersect. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Teen Vogue, and she writes regularly for the Yale Daily News and the Yale Logos. You can find her work and personal blog at dearyall.net.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed