This post is inspired by and in response to Michael Luo's open letter on The New York Times.
I was publicly discriminated against because of my race while attending an open workshop for college students last year. The lecture was intended to encourage students pursuing design careers to build portfolios and ask questions about careers in art. In the middle of the lecture, without any warning, the speaker, an Art Director at some design firm, began to talk about bullying and how he wanted to teach us a "lesson" about facing adversities at work.
He called out three minority students involuntarily in the classroom including me to use as examples of bullying in corporate culture. He first pointed at an African-American student and said “I would not hire you because you are black and might even steal my wallet. I don’t trust you.” He then walked up to a Hispanic student and said something insulting about his language.
When he got around to me, he said “I wouldn’t hire you. You’re Chinese. You’re the majority group and there’s enough of your kind in our population.” He proceeded to relay ethnic slurs about the Chinese as the entire class listened on. I sat there, explicitly being pointed out as the only Asian in the room, and I was shocked to hear that some of the people around me were laughing.
At first my reaction was to be embarrassed. My pride was hurt but I didn’t want to overreact or be sensitive so I continued to engage in the lecture. But then I grew angry to see that there were adults in the room sitting in silence, allowing this demonstration to happen and to serve as an education model for students.
At the end of the lecture, I approached the speaker and confronted him about what I had just witnessed. His intentions were to inform us about “real-world” situations, but his behavior was unethical, offensive, and overtly racist. He became defensive and attempted to justify his actions by saying that he was once bullied too and that we should be "prepared to face anything in order to achieve our dreams."
After some time, he offered me an apology and as I accepted and was about to leave, he continued to say, “But you are Chinese. And you are the majority of the population.” AppalIed by his ignorance, I corrected him and informed him that I was Korean. He hurriedly brushed me off as other students were still listening in on our conversation, and seeing that there was no point in arguing anymore, I exited the classroom.
I decided to report in to my own professor, to gain his perspective on the occurence, which resulted in a series of e-mails, a response from the speaker, and hopefully a real change, if any, in the way he approaches future students and victims of his racist tactics.
Why I am so eager to share my story now a year later after the incident is because, honestly speaking, I wasn't scarred by the speaker or his words. I remember what hurt the most was not the words of the speaker but the silence of the classroom. To stand alone in a room full of people who are unable to empathize simply because of privilege or who are fortunate to avoid the situation. I was publicly humiliated and felt socially and racially excluded because of my appearance. It was a big lesson for me: to understand what it felt like to be a victim of oppression and to take up the social responsibility to stand up for those that are voiceless by not remaining silent.