As our current president and the United Nations come face to face this week, I’m reminded of an experience I had in 1990s Portland, Oregon. I was on a downtown street with a man who was giving me directions and said, “It’s the building where that Chinese guy is standing.”
Automatically I replied, “He’s not Chinese, he’s Korean.”
“Oh, do you know him?” the man asked.
“No,” I said, “but you can tell just by looking at him.”
The man seemed startled. “Well, he’s Asian,” he said.
The conversation ended, but it was an awakening for me.
I was born and raised in New York City. I grew up riding the subway with people of all races and colors, and as a child I was taught to treat them as equal to each other and to me.
My school included students of many national origins. My Asian classmates were Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino, and to distinguish between them was no different than telling blond from brown from red hair. In New York City, I never thought that ability was anything special. In Portland, a city with a population more than 90% white, I realized I had taken that for granted. To that man on the street and those who grew up in similar environments, anyone typically “Asian” in appearance was called “Chinese”.
As a news producer, I spent a lot of time in the rural south. When the locals found out I was from New York, it usually led to teasing along the lines of “Yankee” or “city slicker”. It was mostly good-natured, but I also heard things like, “New York City? That’s where all the gays and the Jews live,” followed by other racial and social slurs. My job as a journalist demanded that I remain impartial, but when the cameras were done rolling I began asking personal follow-up questions. The responses were almost always identical. As I gently exposed the flaws in their arguments, they would back off the initial comments and say, “Well, I’ve never actually met anyone gay/Jewish/Asian/ etc.”
I came to understand that a lot of perceived hatred wasn’t based on deeply held ideology but on limited exposure, and I saw that when people actually met and conversed with those whose race or culture they had maligned, their views often changed. Up to that point their world had been populated by ideas and people that they knew. For the first time, they were learning about people they didn’t know, and discovering that those people weren’t so different from them.
Our current president has dismissed the U.N. and its work several times, but at the risk of sounding optimistic, perhaps a similar understanding will awaken in him as he is introduced to people from places he’s never been.