To be a minority is to suffer through small indignities every day.
Discrimination comes in various forms. The most identifiable forms — racial slurs, jokes, etc. — are often discussed. Less frequently discussed is “friendly” discrimination that underlies seemingly friendly comments or questions.
Being Asian, blending into Caucasian America is hard purely on a physical basis. It is not hard to see that I have black hair and an Asian face.
I was born in China and emigrated here at age 5. I have no memory of life in China. By all rights, I could well have been born here into a Caucasian family.
One of the many indignities that stands out was when my parents applied for U.S. citizenship.
My parents had lived in the United States for more than a decade. The values of America were deeply ingrained. They were only one right away from achieving the full American dream. Suffrage came only with citizenship, so they applied.
The citizenship process is long and grueling. They went through a background check and months of waiting. After that, they had to pass a citizenship test. The final process required an interview.
Though the experience was less than dignified, my parents passed the interview and became naturalized citizens.
Many natural-born citizens have not even heard about this process, never mind ever having to go through it. For the minorities who have, we have sworn off our heritage and pledged our allegiance to the United States.
To discriminate against minorities, especially toward naturalized citizens, is just furthering the idea that there are two groups — Americans and aliens. This brings me back to friendly discrimination.
Two months ago, my e-mail account’s password had to be changed because you can only have the same password for a semester or so. Of course, I forgot the new one instantly. I went to ITS with my ID to obtain a new password. My ID does not display my middle name, Michael. Instead, it says “Zaiming He.”
At the desk was a full-time staff member. I approached her, showed her my ID and asked for a new password. As the password was printing, she asked me, “What is your name?”
“Michael” I replied.
“But that’s not what your ID says.”
I informed her that my middle name was Michael. She persisted.
“Is that your nickname?”
I said no, it’s my actual name. She proceeded to inform me that “Here, we give people nicknames. Do you know what a nickname is?”
I was shocked and at a loss for words. What had she meant? Here? Versus what, when I was living in Connecticut? And who was this “we” that I was not part of?
These questions struck deep because of the simplicity and friendliness in which they were proposed. My first name had somehow set me apart. The rest of the world was the “we” and I was someone who did not know what a nickname was.
My entire life, I have known nothing but America. I am and always will be American. Those two simple sentences had ripped through the core of my existence. I wondered, would you ask the same question to a stereotypical blue-eyed, blonde haired American? Probably not.
These questions strike deeper than any racist slur — those any minority understands to be a product of ignorance. With a friendly comment, it is like a neon sign saying, “Face it, you’re not American.”
If there is to be any true unity of the races, we need to treat each other equally. If there’s ever any question about what you are saying is equal treatment, ask yourself, would you expect George Bush to comment to Tom Brokaw, “Do you know what a nickname is?”
He can be reached at email@example.com.