Choosing to defy “normal” versus excusing “unconscious racism”

How cool is it that a fifteen-year-old high school student carries a picture of a world leader in her backpack rather than Justin Bieber? | photograph courtesy of my daughter Margot 

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

My fifteen-year-old daughter Hao Hao came back from school last week pretending to sniffle, “All my friends and even my teacher laughed at me.”

That was very much out of the ordinary, so I gathered her into my arms and asked, “What happened?”

She explained that they were talking about the Cold War during AP US History class, when the conversation segued to Putin and some of the things he did at the end of the Cold War.

This is when Hao Hao said, “I have a picture of Putin here in my bag,” and pulled it out to show everybody.

Instead of being appreciative of this instant handy-dandy visual aid, her friends asked, “Uhhh, why do you have a picture of Putin in your bag?”

“Well, he was on my wall next to my JFK poster, but then he fell off, so I put him in my bag,” she answered a little too straightly.

Her friends just stared, open-mouthed, wanting but not daring to ask the next obvious question, “Uhhh, why do you have a picture of JFK on your wall?”

Instead, her teacher simply declared, “You are certainly a unique individual.”

Hao Hao spent the rest of the afternoon puzzling over why her friends found all this so strange. I just smiled, secretly patting myself on the back for having raised such a, well, unique individual.

The irony is that for most of my childhood, I desperately longed to be “normal,” or to even understand what “normal” entailed. As a child of immigrants, I often conflated “normal” with “American” with “the right way” with what I saw on television, and I felt largely left out. I spent much of my childhood (ok, ok, and adulthood too) feeling foolish for getting caught doing things “the wrong way” when I did not even know that there was any other way, and I thought it was my fault for being obtuse and forever awkward.

So I try to make sure that my children at least know what counts as “normal,” even if we do not aspire to it. I give them as much information as possible so they can choose their own path rather than just defaulting to whatever is right in front of them (or simply doing the opposite because it is the opposite). However, I often find that they are much more insightful than I ever was—than I still am—they not only know what is “normal,” they also know what is “alternative,” as well as all the various “alternative alternatives.”

As a teenager, I loved reading Miss Manners and Ann Landers for the small window their readers opened onto “normalcy,” especially regarding issues that “normal people” would, of course, be too polite to say directly. As an adult, these windows come more infrequently, but when they do, the opinions revealed are much more surprising because the issues have been hidden away so deeply, sometimes even to that person herself.

There has been a lot of talk lately about unconscious racism. Toure wrote a provocatively titled article in Time, “Inside the Racist Mind,” about a woman who admitted she was racist and who said that racist thoughts kept popping into her mind unbidden, even though she knew it was wrong. Then, after the W.F. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing conference, Psychology Today wrote that different health care due to doctors’ unconscious racism did not make them racist. What? Jezebel called out hipster racism as not ironic, just racist. Then Ashton Kucher’s unfunny brown-face Popchips commercial somehow came out without anyone asking, “Yo, is this racist?”

We all have biases and unconscious programming of various sorts, however, I am uncomfortable simply explaining it away, “I was raised that way.” That is too easy. Sure, there are lots of people raised by racists who then become racists themselves. However, there are also lots of people raised by racists (and sexists and homophobes and Republicans, etc.) who are not. What is it that makes some people choose a different path? We can be bigger than our programming.

Try it. Do you have to eat everything on your plate like your mother told you to? Or could you change if you wanted?

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, and She teaches and is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


  • JayT

    May 5, 2012 at 4:51 am

    All it comes down to is ones own experiences with other groups. If all your experiences are bad, you become racist. If they’re good with a certain group) then you become non-racist (about that group anyway). It has nothing to do with ones parents or media or anything like that.