September 6, 2017

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM | Weighing in on Interminority Prejudice

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Over the summer, I managed to save up for a trip to California, one of the places in America celebrated for its liberalism and openness. Ignoring the sinking feeling that few other tourists would look like me, I set about to explore the Bay Area. An exciting aspect of traveling being souvenir shopping, I googled the best place to buy souvenirs, which took me to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Hopping from shop to shop deciding on what keepsakes to buy for myself and my family, I noticed a trend – each store I went into, a shop attendant would be close behind, watching my every move.

When discussing race relations in America, whether it’s in a seminar or on social media, racial prejudice is often framed as only a “white problem.” Indeed, having lived as a minority in America for only two years, the first image that comes to mind when I think of racism in America is of torch-yielding white supremacists akin to those who were protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia. I recently learned, however, that there are more subtle kinds of isms and these can come from other minority groups. Interminority prejudice, discrimination between racial minorities, may not seem as threatening as a Trump presidency or being shot for having dark skin (as was the case in St. Louis in June 2017 when a white police officer shot his black colleague who appeared “suspicious” to him), but they are just as harmful.

When it comes to campus discourse about race, it seems all minority groups are allies in the fight against the ongoing effects of European colonialism, but is this the reality on the ground? Repeated personal experience in which I have been the recipient of prejudice from other minority groups prompted me to ponder whether interminority relations in America are given enough attention. Regarding my recent experience, in every souvenir shop I entered that was owned and operated by Asian and Asian Americans, I was followed around while I noticed that the French and white American tourists were left to shop in peace. It didn’t matter that I was polite, friendly, and well-dressed, greeted every shop attendant with a smile, and carried a bag with a huge red Cornell logo identifying me as a member of a prestigious university. It didn’t matter how I acted or what I wore. I was a threat and unwelcome, while white tourists were treated like kings. It was also interesting to note that I was never followed around in shops that had white attendants.

A friend recently shared with me that his friend of Latin American descent (who we will call Friend X) always makes it a point to make racially charged jokes in which black people are the punchline. From using watermelon emojis to poking fun at parties hosted by predominately black fraternities as “having fewer pretty girls than regular [predominately white] frat parties” and that one “should hold onto their wallet at a black frat party.” When called out about the cultural insensitivity of these jokes, Friend X claimed that it was impossible for them to be racist because they too belonged to a minority group. If these are the sentiments of a self-proclaimed liberal with many “black friends” at Cornell, then we need to consider broadening the way we talk about discrimination.

Jokes like the ones made by Friend X perpetuate negative stereotypes of minority groups, regardless of who says them. We need more discourse on campus that unpacks the phenomenon of interminority prejudice and compels everyone, regardless of skin color, to examine their assumptions. Arguments such as “I’m a minority too, so I can’t be racist” have run stale, much like the laughable “I grew up in homogenous society, so I should get a pass on being prejudiced” reasoning. Change starts by looking in the mirror and confronting your own contributions to the problem.