A middle school classmate used to call me “Ching Chong,” but five years later, I am proud to call him one of my best friends.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may be difficult to reconcile that mean-spirited little kid with the kind, funny and big-hearted person I know now. It may even be difficult to understand why I stayed in touch with him in the first place or how we developed such a close relationship despite our rocky start.
For me, however, there is nothing to reconcile. While his actions were not justified, I’ve come to understand that his behavior was shaped by a lack of education about race, not by real hatred toward me or other Asian Americans. In fact, his openness to changing his mindset is why we are friends today. While there are many racists who refuse to listen to rhyme or reason, there are also many people — like my friend — who may be willing to reshape their worldviews once introduced to new perspectives that they simply weren’t aware of before.
My entire middle school was pretty racist, and initially, it was difficult to forgive my classmates for their taunts about my culture and their gestures mocking my eyes. In fact, I had normalized those experiences to the point where I didn’t recognize them as racism until high school, having only viewed the mocking words as simple evidence of our differences. Looking back on it, though, I still don’t see malice lurking beneath the surfaces of those innocent 12-year-old faces. I only see ignorance and childish insensitivity.
In my middle school days, students made fun of everything and everybody: boys who wore pink were “gay,” Asians had “slits for eyes,” people who couldn’t keep up in gym class were “losers.” I was no saint, either — I never used slurs or pointed fingers, but I laughed at my peers’ jokes all the same.
However, while our age was no excuse for the things we said, our teachers and counselors never informed us of how deeply those labels could affect others. In middle school, no one ever talked about racism, much less topics like homophobia or sexism. I’m sure that my classmates and I were aware of these issues on a base level, but we never had discussions about what they were or how they could hurt people. So despite lamenting what my younger self had to go through, I don’t blame my classmates for their thoughtless insults. Rather, I blame our so-called “educators” for the lack of awareness my peers and I had about basic social issues.
Prejudice often forms early, at a time when people are most open to changing their minds. Because kids look up to authority figures for what to think, do and believe, it’s important to instill values of acceptance and tolerance in children at a young age. Yet when I look back at my middle school days, I do not see teachers who were willing to educate their students on the issues rampant in our society, nor even on etiquette that would help us treat each other with more respect. Instead, I see bystanders who sat at their desks while kids bullied each other five feet away.
I can’t help but think that things would have been different if only someone had taught us acceptance earlier on. Many of my previously racist peers are now active liberals within their communities, so clearly they were capable of changing their worldviews and the ways they spoke about different sociocultural backgrounds. Unfortunately, these changes occurred only after damage had been dealt.
It’s great that most of my old classmates learned to respect differences and call out inequalities, and I don’t hold my previous experiences against them. In situations where people have used harmful labels in the past but no longer do so, it’s necessary to acknowledge that what they did was wrong while still accepting that people can grow and change for the better.
However, a majority of people never learn to do the same, and it’s important to remember that not everyone has had the same educational opportunities. Some people enter adulthood without having ever had meaningful conversations about privilege or injustice; they may come off as offensive, even with the best of intentions. In other cases, people may hold prejudiced beliefs because of personal experiences that they generalized to an entire demographic. Although prejudice is never okay, explaining why intolerant beliefs are harmful may help create a more positive impact in the long run by opening up avenues for conversation and encouraging open-mindedness.
Comparatively, condemnation may serve only to isolate others or heighten their biases, for they may not even understand that their behavior is problematic. Shunning people will only allow that behavior to continue or exacerbate it. Refusing to talk to people who hold prejudiced beliefs will not stop them from hurting more people in the long run, nor will it change their minds about the communities they choose to judge. Based on my individual experiences with family members and peers from school, communication was usually more successful at prompting receptiveness to other perspectives.
Of course, conversation comes with a limit. Marginalized communities have no obligation to talk to people who have hurt them, much less to forgive them. Also, at some point it no longer becomes enough to blame bigotry on previous authorities or circumstances — adults are old enough to take responsibility for their own beliefs and education. That being said, I still encourage people to strive to educate rather than condemn those with intolerant mindsets. While many bigots will never eliminate their prejudices, being the bigger person may help others see sense instead of driving our communities further apart.
Although it took me a long time to forgive the people who hurt me — and I didn’t forgive all of them, since many people were also genuinely cruel and fully aware of what their words meant — I realized that talking to them and explaining why their behavior was hurtful and offensive was usually more effective than attacking them back. Not all people are willing to change, but making the effort to step back and communicate is worth it for those who are.
To help communities become more aware of social issues, it’s important that people try to start conversations before denouncing others. While individuals are not responsible for their peers’ conduct, shunning people rarely ever produces meaningful change.
Jadyn Lee SC ’24 is from Monterey Park, California. She loves eating pho and introducing her friends to various Asian cuisines.