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Pet Sins November 1999

White woman denies race privilege while wailing about class oppression

This exchange happened with a white friend I knew for a long time. Recently, I told her about an incident in a Chinese restaurant in which the Chinese waiter swiped the soy sauce off my table without asking me, and gave it to a white customer.

White woman: Oh well, maybe he thought being Chinese you would UNDERSTAND.

Asian: UNDERSTAND what? Understand the racism that undergirds the daily lives of people of color?

White woman: Oh, maybe white people give better tips.

Asian: All right, MAYBE that is true in a good number of cases, but it still does not excuse DISCOURTESY in any way. You're always hating rich, privileged, spoilt people. And you're right that they have discriminated against you, a working class white woman, and hurt you.

What if this happened: You were sitting in a restaurant, and the waiter swipes the Tabasco sauce off your table without asking you and gave it to another table of rich-looking, well-dressed people. You would be FURIOUS. You would have denounced the action as classist, another example of all the shit you have endured and still endure everyday in a society that favors the wealthy. And I would have BELIEVED you. What if I said "It is understandable that he does that because rich people give better tips"? Would you have calmly and happily accepted it as the way things should be and quit calling the waiter an ass? Why can't you believe me or at least try to see things from my perspectives once in a while? I don't expect you to agree with me on everything, and I value our differences.

You don't have to feel threatened or uncomfortable when I point out examples of Asians favoring white people. I am not blaming you or white people in general. I am resting the responsibility where it belongs -- with racist Asians. You seem obliged to instantly raise counter-examples to what I speak of.

When you pointed out how Asians treated you badly because of your whiteness, IMMEDIATELY, and WITHOUT hesitation, I ACKNOWLEDGED and VALIDATED your perspective. I said, "YES, there are certainly Asians like that. That is definitely disgusting." and "There are DIFFERENT kinds of racism -- there are Asians who kiss up to whites, there are Asians who hate whites."

But you did not acknowledge my experience in the same way -- you tried, in the most awkward, unnatural way, to explain it AWAY, to convince me it was not what I thought it was, to pretend that the racism I saw didn't exist. But you should understand that nobody can take away the pain. It is not your fault. You can't take it away and you are not responsible for taking it away. I just want my friends to *acknowledge* the pain. Recognize it is there -- recognize why it is there. When I talk about racist crap I have to endure -- it is not your fault, you don't have to (and can't) take it away. I just want you to acknowledge it happened. Do you know how much you add to my pain when you deny it happens or excuse it?

White woman: Why is the lazy waiter worth the effort?

Asian: This is the exact problem. Instead of acknowledging the racism that happened, even now, you ask "why is the lazy waiter worth the effort?" You stop pointing the finger at the perpetrator and point the finger of blame back at the people who name the perp. No, the lazy waiter is not worth the effort, but preventing people of color's problems from being swept under the carpet is worth the effort.

White woman: I don't want to focus on racism. I don't find it interesting. I'm more interested in economic class.

Asian: But can you respect me enough to listen instead of dismissing what I say as groundless? Not finding it interesting doesn't mean you cannot acknowledge that it exists. I will have to repeat what I said before since you are clearly not listening.

What if this happened: You were sitting in a restaurant, and the waiter swipes the Tabasco sauce off your table without asking you and gave it to another table of rich-looking, well-dressed people. You would be FURIOUS. You would have denounced the action as classist, another example of all the shit you have endured and still endure everyday in a society that favors the wealthy. And I would have BELIEVED you. What if I said "It is understandable that he does that because rich people give better tips"? Would you have calmly and happily accepted it as the way things should be and quit calling the waiter an ass?

I do NOT find your style of music interesting and I do NOT listen to it for my pleasure, but that doesn't mean I cannot support you in your quest, or acknowledge that a good song is a good song, a good player is a good player, a good singer a good singer, a talent like you a talent, no matter their style. I took the initiative, made the effort, to get you to open mike, to hear you play, to appreciate the hardwork and talent that has gone into it, even though I never cared much for that style of music. I listened to you even though I wasn't personally interested in that topic. Realize that I am not asking more of you for me. This is about being friends. If we are superficial acquaintances out to have a good evening, then of course I wouldn't talk to you about racism.

You don't want to focus on racism doesn't mean you can't RESPECT what I have to say about it, right? What I now feel now is that you DENY the possibility that anything I have to say on race relations is true. This I find very damaging to me coming from a friend. That my friend finds me incredible. Does not want to believe me.

White woman: I don't want to focus on racism. I don't think I can make a difference.

Asian: Look, everybody can make a difference. We are equally powerful/powerless on this. I think you can make a bigger difference if you just LISTEN and ACKNOWLEDGE what angry people of color have to say. (and don't take it personally. Understand that their anger is not directed at you)

So many times, the disempowerment of people of color comes from not having a forum -- not having a place to voice their anger, their concerns, the reality of their lives. In a mostly-white-owned media, it happens, intentionally or not. It is far, far sadder when their own friends don't give them this forum. I've heard of black people not wanting to talk to whites about race because they think "white people don't understand" and white people being afraid to talk about race with blacks because "black people would get offended". In the end NOBODY learns anything about the other.


I was angry. I felt she had TOTALLY no respect for what I was saying; she invalidated my experience for her own comfort. Anyway, she then told me she did not want to discuss racism because it was not interesting to her. That was another major diss.

I think friends should be willing to listen to things that are important to each other even if one party isn't interested. I've always given her that listening ear no matter what crap she was talking. She would talk about her sex life and her numerous affairs with men to me and then she doesn't allow me to talk about racism. Is that fair?

This white woman is always wailing about class issues and implying how middle class Asians shouldn't bitch about racism because unlike her, we weren't "truly" oppressed. The thing is, when I look at her life, she wastes so much - this 'poor' working class white woman throws food away so liberally that I, the 'middle-class' Asian is shocked. She is always saying that little bit won't make her rich but can't she sees it's the little expenses that add up? All right, the little bit of food won't make you independently wealthy but it can reduce her chronic check book problems.

She herself admits that her numerous 'poor' siblings and herself noshed off fresh milk, orange juice and burgers while growing up. Luxuries that I, 'middle-class privileged Asian', could not even IMAGINE. I never saw a full bowl of rice or had a whole fruit to myself till I went to college.

In her adult life, she also made some decisions which destabilized her financially -- like quitting the computer programming job she hated so she could do music. These decisions I support and respect, but the key is, why is she blaming the whole world for the unequal distribution of wealth when she is poor because of a decision SHE made as a free professional woman?

All she sees is Chinese American families in the suburbs like my friend Anna's and she thinks we are privileged. Does she know that Anna's parents had NO furniture for YEARS when they moved from Chinatown to the burbs? Does she know I slept on the floor my first 2 years out of school even though I was working as a computer engineer? When I visit 'poor' white people I always notice their "luxurious" big queen or king sized beds.

Does she know Anna's parents worked 16 hours a day? Does she know I worked 16 hours a day? Does she know Anna's parents made the sacrifice so that their children could live in a better school district and get a good education? Does she know, that I, like my parents, am saving up so that my children of color can have a good education?

Her white working class father told her to watch TV instead of doing her homework. And now she's saying it is unfair that we middle-class Asians are more financially stable than her. Is it our fault that our Asian working class parents taught us more personal discipline than her white working class parents taught her?

Unlike what she wants to think, Asian American middle class families are where they are because they made certain decisions, they made certain sacrifices, they worked hard. Not because the world, and certainly not because this country, gave it to them for free.

I acknowledge that things she says about class differences and the unequal distribution of wealth are important. It is true that there is economic injustice in this country. I just don't buy her crap about her being less privileged than me and therefore I should shut up about oppression. The 'I am a poor person so non-poor people of color have nothing real to complain about in front of me' crap.

Her wailing about being less privileged than me and 'my kind' is a whole bunch of baseless bullshit. How can she set herself up as more materially deprived than me when it is SO obvious she is used to a far more materially rich lifestyle than I am?

She decided to terminate the friendship of 6 years because she couldn't give respect to me, not because she wasn't getting respect from me. Once the going gets tough/she hears something she doesn't like to hear, she quits. This behavior is also part of what keeps her in financial trouble. Quitting when things get hard.

Again, it is supposed to be the fault of middle-class Asians that we don't have to worry about balancing our checkbooks the way she does.