Don’t be such a Hitler

Sadly, it appears that I am breaking Goodwin's law on my very first post! Well, not really.

Writer Ta-NehisiĀ Coates, who blogs for The Atlantic, operates one of the relatively few online spaces that consistently produces comments that are not only readable but worthy of reading. In the process of doing so, I stumbled across this fascinating, nay, almost mind-blowing anecdote:

It starts with a response to an earlier commenter (I guess “commenter” might not be a word per se, but it seems that it should be) who discussed white flight:

The difference between the melting pot ideal espoused by some whites, and what they actually do when faced with the reality of a rainbow, is perfectly expressed here in ultra-liberal San Francisco where the public schools are 13% white. And remember that here the flight is not from blacks and Latinos, so that whites could point to lower test scores as an excuse for removing their kids from public schools. Here the public schools are filled predominantly by Asians, whose educational statistics are often superior to whites.

But, as they say, no one could have foreseen what would come next:

Growing up white in SF public schools is a great education for white kids in understanding what it is like not to be the majority. I had one Chinese-American teacher point out my daughter (the only (blonde, blue-eyed kid in the room) in class as an example of what the followers of Hitler looked like!

One thing I appreciate right off the bat is the woman’s graciousness. She doesn’t lash out and declare that this is “proof” that whites are the most put-upon population group. To some of you, this might seem like faint praise, but the rest of you know that some (many? most?) of us whites have a habit of flying off the handle at far less. Whether the teacher here was “racist” or not is a game of semantics; some assert that only the dominant race can be racist because racism implies power, many others disagree, and still others might assert that Asian Americans are in fact the ones with power in this situation, while the response to that might be that San Francisco whites still have power because most of them can send their kids to public school.

The truth is, I’m more interested in the daughter’s reaction (and in fact I replied, asking her about this). The commenter implies that her daughter got a chance to (however fleetingly) experience the other side of the often-overly-simplified majority/minority divide, and chalks this up as a learning experience. Yet I have some young relatives who find themselves in slightly different situations, and without going into detail, they don’t seem to have received any degree of enlightenment from the experience.

Not to frustrate whoever deigns read this too much, but there is no conclusion yet, then. It’s more food for thought; can such unusual experiences generate more sympathetic, humanistic individuals, or will they rather inspire new, more unfortunate genres of resentment?

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6 thoughts on “Don’t be such a Hitler

  1. Thank you for pointing to Coates’s blog. I think it is really rare to see high quality blog comments. I think we both think I’m a bit more extreme about how race should be discussed in the classroom (like is it so bad that the girl’s whiteness is emphasized?). I’m going over Dick Gregory’s chapter, “Shame,” from his book Nigger (I think it’s a selection anyway) and it’s totally about the flip side of this, the historically normalized side of this where the teacher points to him and says he can’t participate in the charity fundraiser because they (the predominantly white middle-class classroom) is fundraising for “his kind,” meaning predominantly Af/Am families on welfare. It’s a really stunning piece of writing.

    1. Welcome! When I added a new “widget” to the right side, it somehow replaced all the pre-existing ones. This has been remedied. Glad you liked “TMI,” you shoulda seen the word salad that I originally put up, before I remembered the virtue of simplicity.

      A friend remarked via AIM that, all things considered, it wasn’t “nice” to single out the student (since I hadn’t really addressed this in the post), and I agreed. But after reading your response makes me remember hearing a former colleague of ours worry about a white student who seemed uncomfortable during a discussion on race, even though the student had not been singled out whatsoever. At the time, I suggested that my friend, who is Chinese American, shouldn’t trouble herself too much about the sensitivities of entitled fellow white folks, but she felt it would be cruel to take on such an attitude.

      Obviously, it was a different context, but I seem to have become more concerned about the feelings of a “temporary white minority student” (that phrase is extremely facetious) over time. Perhaps it’s because of the experiences of my relatives; I’m always wondering what can possibly be done to stop producing unearned racial resentment in white folks, although perhaps the answer is “nothing.”

  2. I went to Taipei American School for high school and most of the students were Chinese. We had some discussions on race before and in one town hall type meeting this guy in my grade said “well, you know, there’s scientific evidence that Asians are smarter than Caucasians” which made it really awkward for everyone in the room (at least I felt so), and after it was over two white kids were arguing and one said “He said that Asians are smarter than Caucasians!” and the other kid said “What’s that?”

    “That’s US, DUMBASS!” which was kind of sad and funny at the same time. I remember a classroom discussion about race in which I was the only one not to say anything (out of respect for the teacher and another student who were white) while all the other Chinese males were dogpiling on stereotypes about white people. Bear in mind the teachers were almost all white so it was dumb for these kids to say things like that and get into trouble.

    There was also an incidence where some hackers (I knew them) uploaded a virus onto the library network that said “FUCK YOU!!! ASIAN PRIDE!!!” or something like that. It was presented as a big scandal (with sensitivity reminders aimed at the Chinese kids) but I knew the truth: this redneck librarian from Texas got into this argument with a classmate, and the classmate said “Why should I respect you?” at some point, which prompted the redneck to say “…because I’m white and you’re Asian!” The faculty never heard that side of the story.

    One kid got in trouble for being quoted in the TAS student paper as saying something along the lines of “….because Chinese people, more than other people, like hearing about how much better they are than other people.” The vice principal called that kid (Slavic origin I think) in for a talk.

    Then I came to UCSD for college and had white kids saying racist things directed at me or Asians right out in the open. So it was quite unpleasant to be the target of a hostile white majority. I learned that the world was an ugly place in college. So as you can see, I’ve seen racism on both sides. I would say the racism in Asia is subtle, whereas the racism in the West is open and more prone to violent confrontation. So I can see where the author is the article is coming from. It was definitely stupid for the teacher to point out the lone blonde girl and give her as an example of something evil.

    1. I remember a classmate in middle school being asked to fill out an “ethnicity form” before a standardized test, and he was so frustrated and confused by the choice “White/Caucasian” that he gave up, saying “fuck this” or some such thing. This is even worse than your “what’s that” kid because this guy couldn’t understand that the slash indicated that both terms on either side of it were equal. Not that “Caucasian” is a particularly crucial word to know by itself, but one imagines they don’t know all kinds of other words.

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