Sometimes, you have to take overt discrimination with a sense of humor. I mean, it happens so much, in small amounts, that you eventually develop a style, a way of taking things that eventually end up being more positive. It's an interesting experience, because since I grew up in the post-Civil Rights US, I don't have to deal with overt expressions of prejudice as much as the manifestation of subtle or covert patterns of prejudicial treatment in society.
What do I mean by this? Well, being the dark body in the water on the water polo team at an east coast boarding school wasn't the result of any discriminatory policies on the part of that pretty liberal and well-meaning school. The percentage of minorities there was about 30% due to heavy recruitment and the existence of one of the biggest endowments (and hence, best need-based financial aid packages) on the planet.
And it's not even about "affirmative action" at this point – how much real developed talent is there versus potential in 8th grade, when most kids are being pushed to apply into boarding schools? My school recruits smart minority kids from the Bronx and Queens, NY, through some particular programs in that fair city. I got recruited through "A Better Chance" which for me, was just a referral service that let me know that boarding schools weren't just a place where rich people send their kids to disappear.
Naw, these kids were smart as tacks but were stuck in some of the worst public school districts in the country, and when given a chance to not have to worry about getting into trouble in the neighborhood, dodging drugs at school, as well as all the other BS that comes with life in places that are simple hard to live in, they blossomed. By the time it came to college, there was much less for anyone to have for affirmatively act for. In a different world, that's the way it should be. But that's another conversation.
But the one thing that was already apparent was the fact that almost all of the folks who were poor, international, or from huge megacities – and these categories often overlap – don't know how to swim.
My old boarding school has an swimming requirement – you have to be able to make one lap, with a real stroke, in a 50-yard pool. Now me, having nominally learned to swim in a YMCA class when I was a kid, I loved the water and even liked diving a bit – but I didn't really swim with a stroke. I doggy-paddled down and back during my test, and was nearly completely spent, having trouble getting out of the pool. "Instructional Swimming" was to be required for me during my first trimester, my choice for the required sport all kids had to take.
Ahh...the old pool. 25 yards of fun!
I instantly noticed something, though. There were literally no white kids in the class. None, at least in mine. It was full of all the minority kids, as well as a lot of international students, the ones I remember being from China. And on the day of my swim test – a humiliating experience, I might add, having been conducted in huge batches on one day, with most of the freshmen watching each other's not only nearly naked but swimming in front of an audience – I noticed that white people knew how to swim. And some Asian Americans. Of course, this was not a genetically-scripted instinct, and yes, there were a few white kids who couldn't swim a lick, and the Asian exchange students certainly sank like bricks; but for the most part, those upper-class, white boarding school kids were like speed racers in the water. Some were diving off the starting blocks (this was a competition-grade pool) and were even doing flipturns. This was seriously tripping me out.
Just a recent grab from the alma mater's site – still looks the same.
I was figuring out something for the first time, through direct experience: there are bigger patterns at work here, of which my life has been subject to for longer than I had ever thought about. Life living amongst kids with last names such as Murdoch, Goodyear, and Aga Khan, or even first names like Caitlin, Effie (no, I'm not kidding), and Jackson (that's a first name?) tends to do that to a lower-middle class kid from Ohio.
Also, hanging out with the Black and Latino kids made me realize that I had lived a relatively comfortable life, and that their whole lives brought them into contact with the reality of race. They lived the lives I only heard about in rap lyrics (this was just before the advent of so-called "gangsta rap") and saw of BET (at the time, MTV still refused to play rap videos and Black folks watched them all on Black Entertainment Television). It wasn't a questions of being "more" or "less" black, but more of a question of how much that fact was made to be a hindrance towards being treated fairly and getting a fair shake in life.
I thought my boarding school experience more diverse and educational than any of the living I did in "liberal" Berkeley or college. We kids, from wildly different backgrounds, tended to get on pretty OK. It wasn't perfect, but we at least tended to talk with one another. In any case, by the time college came, self-segregation and the balkanization of identity was far worse than when we youngsters were socio-economically bumping up against each other up in Massachusetts.
So I haven't really had so many "incidents" back home, but became aware of race as it usually plays out in the States – in the patterns of media representations and quiet decisions, such as those made when not hiring people with too-ethnic names, the friend who only sees me as his "black friend" but not me, or somehow never being chosen in certain social situations. I'd gotten a few "nigger!" yells from hicks in trucks and even a bottle thrown at me once, but nothing major. I mean, this wasn't Emmett Till in the 50's or nothing.
So Korea is a trip – I mean in the sense of "trippy" – because I feel "raced" much more here and I have also been subject to overt, negative discrimination. And today was pretty interesting.
I'm walking into the building housing the Sizzler here in Daehakno (Hyehwa Station, Line #4) when an ajussi puts his hand up and literally prevents me from entering the building. I had received this kind of treatment before, on a Sunday going into the Sizzler, but the second time defines a pattern.
He was telling me not to enter the building. So I angrily inquired, "Why? Because you think I'm Filipino?"
Ajussi replied, "Yeah. Foreigners can't use the public toilets here."
Ooooh. "All foreigners? Or just Filipinos?" I shot back.
Then he switched modes, knowing he done fucked up. He quickly waved me to enter, shove this conversation under the rug.
I decided to go in for the kill, bemusedly remembering one of my favorite and funniest moments of cinema history, when Eddie Murphy played the race card to get himself a hotel room without a reservation, while wearing a "Mumford" sweatshirt:
Eddie: "Don't you think I realize what's going on here, miss? Who do you think I am, huh? Don't you think I know that if I was some hotshot from out of town that pulled inside here and you guys made a reservation mistake, I'd be the first one to get a room and I'd be upstairs relaxing right now. But I'm not some hotshot from out of town, I'm a small reporter from Rolling Stone magazine that's in town to do an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson that's gonna be picked up by every major magazine in the country. I was gonna call the article "Michael Jackson Is Sitting On Top of the World," but now I think I might as well just call it "Michael Jackson Can Sit On Top of the World Just As Long As He Doesn't Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel 'Cause There's No Niggers Allowed in There!"
Clerk: "We seem to have an opening, sir."
Brilliant, even if I did feel sorry for the clerk. But my situation was a bit different and I didn't feel at all bad for the ajussi, since he was actually discriminating. In the old-fashioned sense of the term, I mean, like stopping brown people from entering the building. Doesn't matter if 99% are trying to use the bathroom and the building doesn't like it – I pointedly asked why they didn't just put up a sign in English, instead of stopping everyone with brown skin from even entering the building? He kind of motioned for me to go on in, wanting to end this little embarrassing exchange, saying that they'd put up a sign. Then I decided, by virtue of having the relative privilege of being an American who doesn't have to fear police or deportation, to pull an Eddie.
"This is racial discrimination, you know!" I said, using my best stentorian tone.
"As a reporter for a foreign newspaper, I'm going to report this, you know. What's the name of this building? Who's the owner?" I demanded, as if I was going to actually do something with the information.
Now, he seemed a bit more interested in the conversation. The fact that I had my big camera on me and large photo backpack was helping. Niiiice.
"No, no. That's not what's going on here at all. We just want them to use the public toilet outside," he replied.
"Then put up a sign," I said again. He said with a forced chuckle that he would. Yeah. Right. We'll see next time, mothafucka.
I left by telling him that I was going to write about the behavior of the 씨티 building's treatment of and discrimination against foreigners. I told him that I would report on his behavior and this building's policies. I am doing all that right now in the "foreigner newspaper" that I publish.
I wonder how Sizzler (contact the home office) and Bennigans (their's too) back home would feel about their chains being in a building that don't let brown folks walk through the front door. I mean, we had those all those late-night restaurants in urban areas that had problems with largely black customers, especially back in the 90's, it seemed, when all the news reports were focusing on it. But no matter how many black punk kids who need to pull their pants up cause trouble in a Friendly's or a Denny's, you can't just say "No Blacks allowed."
And before stopping all people who look a certain way from even entering the building – at least put up a fucking sign.
Yeah, maybe it's not the biggest deal in the world. But if that's the case, how easily would a few angry phone calls put a stop to a lot of petty bullshit like this, stuff that we easy-livin' and easy-lovin' foreigners don't have to put up with? I, as an American, even if I'm mistaken for being Filipino, simply have to flash a little indignation and say, "How dare you? I'm American!" and all the bullshit ends. Even as a brown man, I've got serious privileges over here. And for all you white folks out there who now lay claim to minority status as a racial other in Korea – how 'bout standing up for your new brown brothers and sisters a little? We all in the same boat now, right?