Keren and I spent two hours on the Oval — a central grassy area on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus — with the “Please Talk With Me About Race” sign. It was so cold, with gray skies and a stiff wind, but we are determined to do our “job” on this tour.
Although the Oval is a major crossroads on campus, no one came to talk to us for the first 30 to 40 minutes. A couple of people — a white guy in a suit and a young white woman who was probably a student — called out that they were running late but otherwise would want to talk, but nobody stopped. Many people passed by with sheepish looks, suddenly averted eyes and a quickened step. We began to wonder if anybody would ever come by.
Finally, a young white woman came striding over the grass to us. A public health major, she told us about Ohio’s rank as the highest in black infant mortality in the nation and about white flight from Cleveland and Toledo. We asked her about race relations on campus and she told us that there’s a lot of animosity against international students, particularly the Chinese. “If a [grading] curve gets broken, people will say, ‘It’s the Chinese.’ But if the people saying that actually valued their education as much as the Chinese students do, they would apply themselves and get better grades.”
A white male student from small-town Ohio joined the conversation. He told us about the Christian proselytizers who come to campus in the warmer months and how, in his observation, they shout at students of color much more than at white students. He also said the Chinese students often kept to themselves, sitting together in groups in the classrooms and being hesitant to speak Chinese because of harassment.
Another male student came up and told us how the anti-Chinese sentiment flared up recently on social media, like the hyper-local, totally anonymous Yik Yak app. (At my book event that night, a graduate student told us that there was a similar set of attacks posted on a Tumblr page.)
Later, when a Chinese student came up to introduce herself and ask what the sign was about, I thought I might hear something about these anti-Chinese activities. Having studied closely with Chinese teachers in college, I knew I would have to ask very delicately, given the cultural reticence to talk about personal complaints to strangers, but I tried to draw her out.
In a turnabout, she started asking me questions — Did I think black students got as good an education as whites in this country? Why does the U.S. spend so much on military instead of schools? Did I think the police killings of young black men are actually racially motivated? etc. — and kept the focus very tightly on black/white relations.
So, when she asked me, “What should we do when someone says a racist joke?” I thought she meant how should we, as non-black people, respond when someone says an anti-black joke.
“We have to say something,” I said. “We can say, ‘That’s not funny.’ Or, ‘That hurts people.’ Or …”
But I could tell from her face that’s not what she was asking about. I tried to get clarification. “Where do you hear these jokes?”
“On the internet,” she said. On later reflection I realized she had read some of these anti-Chinese attacks on social media but in the moment I didn’t put two and two together. I still thought she was talking about slurs against African Americans.
I acknowledged how unaccountable people can be on the internet but said it’s still important for people to speak up, to say something. It was a weak response to what should have been her obvious hurt, but I just didn’t put it together, that she was talking about herself.
Later, one of the white male undergrads was still hanging out with us. He talked again about the Christian protesters who flock to campus, thumping Bibles and calling down God’s wrath on students of color, Muslims, young feminist women, and LGBT students. I told him there was a movement among progressive Christians, like in Sojourners and the United Church of Christ, to push back against hate dished out in the “name of Jesus.” He was glad to hear it.
He brought up how, in science, a researcher’s work is subject to critical examination before being published. It’s called “peer review.”
“We should have that for these protesters,” he said, suggesting that other Christians should come to these protests and call their fellow believers out on their hate.
I think the same goes for Yik Yak, Tumblr, and the student union cafeteria — we need peer review of our community’s behavior. If someone says something hurtful, untrue, or discriminatory, we have to call each other out on that. Lovingly and directly, if possible. But even in an anonymous setting like Yik Yak, we have to interrupt ignorance.