Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
photograph courtesy of my daughter Margot.
After Indian American Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, I sent the very long New Yorker article about the case to my teenagers so that they can understand what kind of digital footprint they leave whenever they do anything online, and to remind them that regardless of what they might actually be doing, they need to be aware that sometimes those actions may be perceived quite differently by others, including people who do not understand technology and culture, including people with power.
Although I agree that homophobic bullying should not be tolerated, because of the technical complexity of this case, I cannot shake the nagging feeling that had Dharun Ravi been white, or if Tyler Clementi had been a person of color, this case might never have been prosecuted, and certainly would not have been punished so harshly (Ravi faces a possible sentence of ten years and deportation). Ravi admits to being a jerk, but there have been too many other cases in which white bullies have gotten away with much worse. Harry Lew. Danny Chen. Phoebe Prince. Vincent Chin. Luis Ramirez. Trayvon Martin.
• Do not run in public.
• Do not touch anything in a store, and always ask for a bag.
• Be polite and cooperative if stopped by the police.
• Keep your hands visible.
I think about the rules that I teach my children—for both race and gender—and I quickly add a few to my list that I had not previously considered. My children are multiracial, so they might be perceived as any number of stereotypes. They might be perceived as Caucasian, different kinds of Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Native American, foreign, exotic, lotus blossom, both victim and suspect.
• No means no, but never get yourself into a situation where that “No” is the only thing keeping you safe.
• Stand up straight and walk briskly, head held high. Look like you know where you are going. Always walk with a friend.
• Always close and lock the door to the house. Always leave the office door open when talking with male teachers, professors, or bosses.
• Do not dress “too Asian” (except at Asian cultural events) or too sexy (because if anything happens, people will blame you).
• Never use your real information online.
• And most important, always pay attention to the exact words and slurs people use. Memorize them. Write them down. Tell an adult. Stand up for your friends. This one we practice.
I am not only trying to prevent trouble they might encounter, I am also secretly preparing them for the court battle that would follow.
I review constantly because, like these African American mothers, I want these to become habits, so that they will not forget. My teenagers used to be indignant, “You never let me cross the street by myself until I was in sixth grade!” To which I answered, “See? It worked. You didn’t get run over by a truck, which would have hurt.” However, now they tease and reassure me at the same time, by quietly holding my hand as we cross any street.
Geraldo Rivera has been ridiculed for saying that the hoodie was as much responsible for Trayvon Martin‘s death as George Zimmerman [He has since apologized]. Certainly, he is overstating things, and it does not excuse Zimmerman. However, I understand why Rivera might not let his son wear one. Sure, you have the right to wear what you want. Sure, you have the right to be in a public place. Yes, definitely you should work for change. However, you also need to be aware of how some (crazy/violent/racist) people might perceive you. The trick is figuring out how to balance your freedom of expression with protecting your safety. Safety first, my child.
The heartbreak is that these rules alone will never be guarantee enough. I am devastated by the cold murder of Iraqi American Shaima Alawadi, 32, mother of five, US citizen, beaten to death with a tire iron in her own home, with a note to “go back to your country you terrorist.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog, Chicagoistheworld.org, PacificCitizen.org, and InCultureParent.com. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.