What a cultural exchange program taught me about responding to racism

I wasn’t prepared for the anti-Asian racism I experienced this summer. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

In the heat of the Indiana sun, a cold sweat ran down my spine. With my mouth agape and adrenaline coursing through me, I wondered which instinct would win out: fight or flight.

I must have heard him incorrectly. There is no way he asked me that, right?

But he did. And now, I had to decide how to respond.

Vanessa Chen (Courtesy photo)

This summer, I was one of 10 Americans chosen to participate in a government-sponsored cultural exchange program with the goals of promoting mutual understanding and civic responsibility. Out of the 10 American fellows and 45 European fellows — one from each country on the continent — I was the only young woman of Chinese descent.

As someone who grew up in New York City’s Chinatown and went to elementary, middle, and high schools with Asian majorities, I have never been a minority in my community. I have had the privilege of feeling so comfortable in my skin that race was not something I considered when I decided to attend this exchange program.

Of course, I am aware that Asians make up only around 7% of the adult American population. I have learned about America’s history of anti-Asian racism preceding even the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. And at the height of the pandemic, with hate crimes targeting Asian Americans skyrocketing, I feared for my parents’ safety every time they went outside for a simple grocery run.

That being said, I have never felt like a minority. Because in all those instances of hate that I learned about or faced, I am fortunate enough to have been in a community that reminds me to be proud of my identity. I took part in protests against AAPI hate and campaigns to support small businesses in Chinatown, and I have always had a support system.

And so, when a fellow in a majority white environment asked me whether I ate dogs or bats, I was shocked. Not knowing how to respond, I ended up laughing but not because I found it funny.

I am not usually afraid of confrontation. When I heard stories of people facing racist comments from their peers, I had always imagined that I’d demand an apology if I found myself in a similar situation. The fact that I stayed silent and laughed still feels disappointing.

At the same time, I feel lucky that my first direct encounter with racism was at age 17; I am old enough to understand that comments like these do not define me. I cannot imagine the impact that these comments can have on younger kids of color who regularly face microaggressions and worse.

Having grown up in a beautifully diverse place like New York City, I could not fully sympathize with people who purposefully reject their home language or traditions to fit into their environment. My ability to speak both Chinese and English fluently has always been something I pride myself in — not something that embarrasses me or makes me uncomfortable. But being in Indiana for a month, as one of the few Asian students in my program, I became keenly aware of why someone might feel compelled to try to assimilate.

Unfortunately, my experience with racism during my fellowship was not isolated to a single person or incident. I had to have multiple conversations with different people about it. Some people responded by apologizing right away. Other times, I had to explain to someone why certain comments were racist, not simply “jokes” to which I was overreacting.

At moments, I was too filled with emotion to say anything productive. “You don’t know anything that you are saying,” I’d say in those moments. Or “Google it.” These remarks never yielded any real understanding, but they taught me how to respond more effectively the next time.

My experience with racism during my fellowship was not isolated to a single person or incident.

I also learned how important it is to show vulnerability and empathy in these conversations. Why would you show vulnerability to someone who just said something racist to you? While some people who spout racist remarks are actively trying to undermine you, others aren’t trying to hurt you (but still do).

When I pulled aside the kid who asked me about dogs and bats and told him how I felt, he apologized. I later told him about the anti-Asian hate that people in my community faced amid the pandemic, how Chinatown boycotts affected my family’s small business, and how his words impacted me.

Importantly, I listened to him and tried not to judge his lack of awareness. The fellows in this program were from all over and haven’t had the same upbringing as I’ve had. As such, I focused on our common ground: respect. No matter where you are from, respect goes both ways, and I hoped that if I showed him respect, he would do the same. Had I scolded him, he might have put his guard up or become defensive.

Still, it’s important to know when someone is not worth your time. It is not my job or any person of color’s job to educate other people on racism. If after attempting to explain the impact of their words and actions they are unwilling to listen or change their behavior, they are not worth it.

And to the white allies, it is natural to protect someone you care about. It comes with good intentions, and in many cases, your voice and actions are appreciated. But sometimes, the person who was targeted might want to respond directly. I encourage you to yield to them in these situations.

I applied to the fellowship intent on learning more about international diplomacy and global affairs. I never expected it to be my introduction to direct racism. The experience, while sometimes painful, has made me more thankful for my New York City upbringing and more sympathetic to those who don’t have the privilege of growing up in such an accepting and diverse community.

Landing back in New York City, I found myself paying closer attention to the communities that I travel through. From Manhattan’s Little Italy and Koreatown to Flushing, Queens, home to Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Hispanic, and many other communities, I have a newfound appreciation for the beautiful ethnic enclaves that make up my hometown.

Vanessa Chen is a rising high school senior who loves to write and read in her free time. She has organized community events, including gatherings where Chinatown youth can bond and protests against neighborhood displacement. In school, Vanessa serves as executive producer for her school’s theater community and last fall produced the musical, “Matilda.”