I listened carefully as the man in the center of the room, a well-respected black civil rights activist, shared about his years of experience in community organizing and advocacy.
Then he said a word that made my insides clench in shock: “Orientals.”
I hoped it was a slip of the tongue. Surely a longtime native of Los Angeles, where every one out of ten residents was Asian, wouldn’t mean to say that.
But then, with a calculating gaze, the man looked at my coworkers Liz and Karen, and me. Out of the two dozen people there, we were the only Asian Americans in the room.
“You, come here.” The man pointed at Liz. His voice wasn’t rude, but it wasn’t polite either. He expected Liz to comply.
After a moment’s hesitation, she stepped into the middle of the room. She looked perfectly composed, but I had known her long enough to see the wariness in her eyes.
“Where are you from?” the civil rights activist asked. He peered at her through his glasses; his salt and pepper hair glistened under the fluorescent lights.
It was the question that every Asian American has heard hundreds of times. The question that sets us apart as foreign and different, as individuals who can never be considered truly American.
But that question wasn’t supposed to be asked here. Not by this man, and not in front of this group of people.
“I grew up in the Bay Area,” Liz replied coolly.
“No, where are you from? Where were you born?” He tried again, impatience creeping into his voice.
“Berkeley.” She met stubbornness with stubbornness, a tactic I had often used before.
“What about your parents? Where are they from?”
“California and Hawaii.”
“What about their parents?”
I waited for someone to politely but firmly put a stop to this. No one moved.
With another group of people, such intervention might have been too much to expect. But these individuals—black, brown, and white—were our fellow laborers for social justice. We worked for the same nonprofit that had been founded on values of equality and empowerment. We trained other people on issues of race and privilege. We were supposed to be the experts, the ones who knew all the right things to say about communities of color and social change and the power of unity in diversity.
But at this moment, no one had anything to say. No one, it seemed, had any idea what to do. Unspoken questions wove themselves through the tension in the room: Who are we to challenge a man like this, a hero in his community? Isn’t he supposed to be even more of an expert on race relations than we are?
When Liz eventually admitted she had an ancestor from Japan, the man crowed, “That’s right,” as if she had finally answered correctly after many failed attempts. He turned to Karen. “You,” he said with that same commanding voice. “Come here.”
I wanted to say something before I was called up to be interrogated. I wanted to refuse when the man pointed a wrinkled finger at me and told me to step into the middle of the circle—apart, strange, unequal from my black and white brethren. But my voice had disappeared the moment this man began singling out the Asians for humiliation and no one defended us. Even among social justice advocates, there were those who had power and those who did not.
When the man had gotten the answer he wanted—“My parents are from Hong Kong,” I confessed, as if it was a crime—he turned to his captive audience and gave a rambling lesson on why we “Orientals” were so peculiar.
I couldn’t bear to listen. I focused instead on my own shallow breathing as I looked down at the carpet. Shame curled around my chest.
Still, none of our colleagues said anything. In the heat of the moment, our collective expertise had failed us.
And yet, as I stood there like a specimen on display, the last thing I needed was an expert to explain the complex dynamics of race, gender, age, and group think that were at play. What I really needed was a friend. I needed someone to acknowledge the deep hurt I was feeling. I needed someone to challenge me to extend grace and forgiveness to this man. I needed someone who would extend the same grace and forgiveness to me when I inevitably said or did something insensitive or hurtful—because, truly, we all fall short of understanding the lived experiences of those who aren’t like us.
There is no such thing as an expert on race, no such thing as a person who holds no stereotypes and always intervenes to stop an injustice. Even an illustrious, decades-long career in civil rights is not enough to form an individual who can embrace people of all colors equally.
The next day, when a colleague finally got around to asking me how I felt about what had happened, I fell back on the same tired, smart-sounding words. I blabbered something about recommitting to diversity within our organization and taking up the mantle to help my colleagues understand the Asian American experience.
Yet even as I said it, the words sounded hollow. I wasn’t an expert on race—mine or anybody else’s—and I never would be. The greater work, I was realizing, was learning to be a friend. To listen first. To speak words of affirmation. To practice receiving and extending an abundance of grace, for none of us will get it right all the time.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor who has found healing and hope through words. She writes the Personal Effects column for Inc.com and contributes regularly to Christianity Today, Her.meneutics, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. Dorcas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but is currently enjoying an extended stay in Kenya with her husband and adorable hapa son.
Image credit: Pham Khoai
- There Are No Experts - February 15, 2019
- There Are No Experts - June 20, 2016
- Substance and Empty Space - July 14, 2015
18 thoughts on “There Are No Experts”
Oh, man, Dorcas, you already know how much I like this post–even though it makes me feel uneasy. I was listening to OnBeing on NPR, and one of the guests, Mahzarin Banaji, said we humans are “difference-seeking machines”. When you add on top of that the structures of white supremacy, we’re really primed, quite deeply to segregate. We so desperately need Jesus to give us enough stinking humility to confront our blind spots.
Yes, amen! We all have blind spots, no matter our background or how open we think we are. And we’re only kidding ourselves if we say otherwise. May God give all of us the grace and humility to recognize this and live accordingly!
Dorcas, I love your post. Thank you for sharing this painful experience with such openness and grace. None of us gets it right all the time–I appreciate the way you tell your story both to highlight that and point the way forward.
Thank you so much for the encouragement, April! This happened to me more than ten years ago, so it’s taken quite a while for me to be able to write about this in a constructive, grace-filled way. But I’m hopeful that my painful experience can serve others in some way.
Hello, Dorcas. First — let me extend a virtual hand and hold yours for a minute. As the second most privileged person in that room (compared to white men, not the speaker whom you mention) — a white, hetero, able, cisgender female I have no words that I can say to ease your pain. To be truthful, I am also feeling uncomfortable and pretty angry about what you just described. While it is true that none of us is perfect nor ever will be regarding this work, seems to me that in order to truly build a collaborative, inclusive community, folks outside of the particular group being “othered” — in this case the Asian American community — have a responsibility to help call folks back in (not sure who coined that term as opposed to “calling out” but I think it is apt in this case.) Maybe not right then but sometime soon. I’m feeling sad and I’m praying that someone in your group is working out how to help this gentleman continue his learning. I am also going to think about how that “calling in” to inclusive community could be done in a loving way with a situation we have in our group. Not exactly the same, as the problem is with older white males who seem to have difficulty adjusting to all-female leadership no matter the color, and so use very confrontational and demeaning ways of interacting with those leaders. I would greatly appreciate hearing from other folks here regarding suggestions on how to help everyone continue their learning about others in our groups without shaming or disrespecting.
Thank you for your empathy and kindness, Grace. I agree that we don’t do a great job of naming what has happened and trying to reconcile. Your situation sounds pretty challenging. There are no easy answers, though I think listening and speaking with respect and honesty, and giving people time to settle into contexts that are uncomfortable for them can only help.
So has anyone in the group worked on this with this gentleman yet? Just wondering.
This took place 10+ years ago, so I’ve lost contact with almost everyone involved. As far as I’m aware, I don’t think anyone ever said anything to the gentleman. I was reminiscing recently about this with one of the women who was singled out with me, and we both agreed that the lack of closure or resolution of this incident made it all the harder to bear.
Oh, Grace, this is a really good question. I am not sure I have any super-practical wisdom for you–but I do wonder if there are any white guys who -do- get it and can be an ally–maybe asking them about it, and asking them to speak up in the next unhealthy interaction? As far as I can tell, with these power dynamics, it can be really hard for someone who is in the ‘othered’ group (an Asian, in Dorcas’ case, or in your case, a woman) to speak up without being labeled hostile, angry, or worse. If no ally is available, then you kind of have no choice but to stick up for yourself solo, but that can be really frustrating and painful and traumatic. I’ve noticed a lot of patterns of white supremacy and patriarchy actually correspond with classic narcissistic traits (fragile egos, aggressiveness or passive-agressivness, grandiosity, etc), so it might be worth looking into how to deal with narcissists, because it’s tricky to do but there are probably helpful tools out there.
I’m really sorry that happened to you and your friend; that man who was so rude had ancestors who came from somewhere else, too. I was born and raised in Hawai’i and love the multi-cultural environment, and it upsets me that stuff like this happens.
Thank you, Mokihana. There is so much beauty in multicultural environments! I love them too!
This is a very important post on many levels. But what stands out to me is your generous (and realistic) statement that it is truly impossible to fully “understand the lived experiences of those who are not like us”, causing all of us to sometimes make mistakes in how we treat each other. Together, we are on a journey to better understand one another, and in doing so, grow in unity. Thank you for sharing this story and reminding us that we need to always be examining our own hearts first and foremost.
Yes, I’ve been struck by how we can act like some of us are so much better at understanding people from different ethnic backgrounds than others. And while some of us have had more opportunity to be in diverse groups and have benefitted from that, I believe this is a lifelong lesson that all of us need to engage in.
Thank you Dorcas for your honest, painful and insightful blog. There are no “experts.” We are human and have our blind spots. We need to offer grace and forgiveness to one another as we journey this road. “Save for the grace of God go I…”
Absolutely, Jeanette. I completely agree.
Dorcas, what a horrible thing you and your friends had to go through that day. Thank you for sharing your words here that are so full of wisdom. This really stood out to me, “The greater work, I was realizing, was learning to be a friend.” I think this is what we all need to realize. First and foremost we need to be true friends, to have a listening ear, to be empathetic, and sometimes just to sit with someone even if we don’t say a word. Blessings to you and your family!
Thank you for your empathy and encouragement, Gayl. I appreciate it!