Different Sides of the Room

Cornell had several race-related incidents this year. There was the controversy over the oriental font used for a poster for comedian Margaret Cho, which resulted in the poster being pulled and apologies issued. More recently, there was an uproar about individuals at the Sigma Pi house throwing bottles at passing African American students and one non-Cornell student hurling insults with a reference to Trayvon Martin to taunt the students. The man responsible for the incident was later identified and fined.

These events have led me to examine my own experiences with race, experiences that thankfully have not been nearly as severe as what happened at Cornell. What really ignited my drive to explore this issue a small incident that happened during Cornell in Washington.

Towards the end of the CIW semester, we divided into small groups of 8 or 9 students to present our papers in seminar rooms. In my room, there was a long conference table at the center of the room and I sat at the side farther away from the door. The side closer to the door gradually filled up as students scrambled in with their notes and dashed to the first open seat they saw. Eventually, that side filled up except for one cramped seat in the middle while my side of the room had a handful of open spaces.

At this point, a girl in my program (who will remain anonymous) came into the room and wandered over to the more empty side of the table. Before she sat down, she thought for a moment, and then turned abruptly and made a beeline for the cramped chair which she pulled out to make room.

I was puzzled and curiosity got the better of me. “Ha, what’s wrong with this side of the table?” I asked lightly.

The girl seemed surprised that I asked. I could see her debating internally for a second, then she said something I will never forget, “Well, I thought Asians should sit on different sides of the room.”

My first reaction was to laugh, as if I had just heard a joke only the two Asian-American girls now at the opposite sides of the table could understand. My next reaction was to tell her “I knew what she meant,” to diffuse the tension that had permeated the room.

One of my friends in the room, trying to decipher the remark, piped up and said, “I don’t think that was as clear as you think it was.” People in the room laughed. Some nodded. The tension was gone and we started the paper presentations.

It was such a small incident that I kept asking myself why it continued to bother me. What was the big deal? Why did I feel this discomfort caused by the combination of empathy and disgust? Then I realized it bothered me because race was the sole basis for this individual’s decision was race. Someone purposely, consciously chose not to sit somewhere and chose a seat that was harder to get to because of race. It bothered me because if I was still the exact same person but had a different skin color, this musical chair would not have happened. I don’t think it was meant to be a personal affront, but there was something deeper there.

I told this story to a few close friends and they were confused – “She was Asian too, so what gives?” I understand the remark now, weeks later, no better than I did in the moment. What I grasped then was that it meant the two of us shouldn’t be in close proximity in a room, because it may draw attention to the fact that we’re both Asian, and that was somehow bad. Perhaps two Asians being together emphasize the Asian-ness of each person. This part I understood. When people with a shared characteristic group themselves together, they lose a bit of individuality, are perceived as a collective, and are referred to as said collective. That’s why in high school cliches you have “the jocks”  “the nerds” and  “the band geeks” and not “Steve” “Ted” or “Sue” the individuals who each have a diverse set of talents. From this, I inferred that perhaps this girl wanted to be her own individual, and not to be perceived as “one of the Asians.” That would mean she wanted to shed the racial identity she was born with and my mere presence was impeding her progress. So where does it end? If we should sit at opposite ends of the room, should we eat at different tables as well? Should we be friends with different friend groups?

I don’t know if I considered the remark racist (honestly, maybe it was just a paper-induced bad morning), but it did propel me into looking at research associated with intra-racial racism. This is an area that has received very little attention in social sciences literature. Intra-racial racism occurs “when an individual is discriminated against because of their race by a member of their own ethnic/racial group, as opposed to inter-racial racism where discrimination is also based on the notion of race but where the perpetrator and target of racism are from different racial groups” (Paradies, 2006, Oxford University Press). A 2004 study in the Journal of Black Psychology explored perceptions of inter- and intragroup racism in a sample of 269 black university students. It found that 15% of “problematic life experiences” in the subjects were attributed to intra-racial racism. Another paper out of Rutgers in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that 28% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos “reported intra-racial racism as the most prevalent form of racism they experienced.” This 2010 op-ed in the New York Times further explores the intra-racial issues associated with “colorist.” While Asians don’t physically exhibit “shades” of Asian-ness, I’m sure we fall along a spectrum on how strongly we identify with this race.

Intra-racial racism isn’t a priority in this day and age because there are more significant problems with INTER-ethnic group racism. Unfortunately, it’s still something we have to deal with. When we witness exchanges like this, is it justified? Is it something we can – and want to – change? There’s little reason to fault the person for doing it if it does conform to that status quo, but i wonder if we could change that status quo.

One thought on “Different Sides of the Room”

  1. What kind of cookie?
    It’s good to read your thoughts…. I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately and the whole race thing is incredibly fascinating.
    Anyhow… take care and keep posting your thoughts.

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