White students must not dismiss their peers when called out for racism

“You need to take things less seriously.”

“You’re too sensitive.”

“Why don’t you have a sense of humor?”

“I was just making a joke.”

“Lighten up and live a little, snowflake.”

“Don’t be weird or a wise guy.”

“You misunderstood me and over-exaggerated my words.”

“That’s not what I said. And if I said that, you know I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m obviously not a racist or responsible for your problems.”

During my life, White members of my mixed family have minimized their racist rhetoric, shrugging it off as a joke. When I call them out, they shut me down by guilt tripping me and writing me off as bitter and angry. They deflect any responsibility for their hurtful words by changing the subject. They move on as though nothing happened, and I feel unsettled and powerless.

My White friends and family members probably mean well, but they’ve told me in the past they “don’t see me as Korean” because “I speak normally like they do.” They want me to feel flattered that I’m successfully assimilating and ditching anything “ethnic” far behind. It doesn’t stop with my White family – White classmates have conflated “mainland China and Tokyo” when they meant Taiwan. But no one spoke up to correct them. This fall, a White professor lectured my class on the proliferation of Buddhism in Asia and insisted we call the Asian state of Myanmar by its British colonial name – Burma. My professor only confessed to any “controversy” when I told her I met the foreign dignitaries from the region who personally told me Myanmar is the name under which they would like to be recognized.

It gets worse. I’ve watched students and professors in predominantly White classes say they won’t bother pronouncing “far-East Asian names” because they’re too difficult to pronounce. All the while, they’re cracking their tongues into 12 pieces to pronounce supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. They do not grasp these small oppressive issues and fail to acknowledge that their rhetoric is partially why students of color struggle in the supposed free world.

But I’ve eventually learned to speak up rather than stay silent as I’ve done for the past 20 years. I have finally gotten the courage to stand up to White guilt and racist transgressions. And White people must accordingly listen to this constructive criticism and learn from it rather than act defensive.

White people like my family members and classmates, intentionally or not, have historically silenced minorities like me from saying anything remotely “controversial” to keep their white picket fence. They claim ignorance as an excuse for their microaggressions. But the truth is that the American Dream has only been easily afforded to White people, while the barriers for people of color are much higher in comparison. To keep this narrative in their head alive, they implicitly blame the victim as a means to vindicate themselves and discourage people like me from speaking up to challenge their idea.

My entire life and now at GW, I have been told to change core aspects of my identity. I’ve been given suggestions to “romanize,” or in other words translate, my Korean last name “Noh” to something else because it sounds too similar to the common English word “No.” As a result of that pressure, my family traded their Korean last name in for a White American one – “Rho.” This has been yet another way the White patriarchy has given “whitewashing” a comfortable euphemism to force people of color to adhere to their cultural rules. But I will not stand for it anymore, and for the first time in more than 45 years, I am reverting it back and representing myself publicly with my Korean last name the way it was originally written – Noh.

White people, I challenge you to take a moment and listen to the students around you. I notice a sea of White gaggles of people in your Snapchat outings like the cast of “Friends.” I challenge every White student at GW to deeply connect or reach out to a person of color to better understand their unique experience and to listen. Do not make them the spokesperson for their entire race, but instead remove that pressure and hear their experience as just one member of their race.

When someone calls you out for being insensitive, take a step back and understand what they’re trying to say. Don’t act defensive or dismiss it as a joke, but make a genuine effort to acknowledge that what you may have said or done has hurt someone else. Allow people to call out racism when they see it – that brings us one step closer to curbing systemic racism.

Liam Noh Studer, a junior majoring in political science and sociology, is an opinions writer.

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