This piece has been written by Nikili Rochill (Batch of 2018).
I have often been subject to subtle discrimination and derogation. I have not been able to fully comprehend and delineate what consists of an actual joke and what power those “words” have on me. Very often, the locus is on me to stand my ground and convince myself that I am more than the words which label me.
I do not fully know why I feel put down when someone makes a “joke” based on the way I look, the place I’m from and the sex I represent. Is it because society has led me to believe that such words are offensive and that I am reacting in a predetermined manner? In other words, am I overreacting? After all, the other person finds it funny.
I have not experienced the full brunt of sexism, racism and xenophobia that my ancestors did. I am allowed to go to college and I study with people I might have been prohibited to talking to in the past. Are my experiences purely ‘imaginary’ as I am led to believe? That every time someone calls me a “chink” it does not mean what it means – a derogatory word used to express distaste for Chinese workers in the U.S.A. It is now colloquially used to refer to “a person with small eyes” and because I have small eyes, I must laugh because it is funny.
But if it was just physical would people use it anytime I expressed a fondness for a particular song or did a particular activity? Is the continuous repetitive use of it to encapsulate everything I do justifiable? If it was just something private and individual, like that person who has a lopsided grin and is teased for it, would it be used to describe every other person with physical features similar to mine, irrespective of background, nationality, interest, whether I identify with them? Can the underlying negative undertones be ignored? Are they determining what I represent, not on grounds based on what I stand for, but what I look like?
I realized too late that it is not okay to group people based on their features and decide it is enterprising and fun to deride it. That is something only the majority can afford to do. Unfortunate retribution by the minority does not have the same effect. It has to be “derogatory” to be effective and what is “derogatory” is often determined by the dominant/majority. There is no equal playfield when racism takes the field. It is not funny to use words loaded with a history of discrimination and hate on the same minority that was subject to it in the past and still continues to be subject to it. You cannot expect me to laugh at your well intentioned joke when the random person on the street shouted out the same racial slur to me a few days ago, when the guy at the bar asked my friend how much she charges a night because she’s a c***k, and when someone tells me that I’m not as dumb as the other c***ks. You must realize that you assert your privilege at the expense of the discriminated.
Additionally, I am fully aware of the multifaceted implications of these jokes. Conventional beauty standards decided by the dominant class dictate that small eyes are less preferred. Racially, it is a common feature of people of Mongoloid, Tibetan, Chinese, the list goes on, descent. Etymologically, it originated in the USA as an expression of distaste and disgust, in India, to refer to “the dudes who are trying to take Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh from us”, and additionally, anyone who looks like them. Numerically, we are a minority in this country. Biologically, it is natural. Naturally, I am different. Does anyone like being reminded that they are treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative? These are words loaded with a history that you cannot erase or ignore when you use them and decide to normalize and trivialize an issue that permeates through the lives of a people.
It took me quite a while to realize that my feelings of doubt were unfounded. That I am not an uncool and unfunny person who cannot take a joke. If someone reading this has experienced similar moments of confusion, you are not a prude. This is random, but I recently stumbled across a speech that (the best person ever) Lin Manuel Miranda (who was of Puerto Rican descent but born in New York City) gave way back before Hamilton in the 2009 NAHJ Scholarship banquet. It says:
“I grew up with the central question which I think a lot of us grew up with, which is, where exactly do we belong? Where is home and if we are Puerto Rican why don’t we live on the island, and are we meant to live on the island, and if we are from New York, but Puerto Rican or New Yorkans what traditions do we carry with us? Do we speak Spanish, do we eat *Rican dish can’t figure out* even though we may prefer pasta?”
“I remember the first time I went to Puerto Rico for summer vacation. Prior to that the way I saw Hispanics on TV were as janitors, criminals and talking Chihuahuas. That’s pretty much it. And I remember being struck even at that age, being in Puerto Rico and realizing, ‘Oh, the doctors here are Puerto Rican. Oh, the lawyers here are Puerto Rican. Oh, the journalists here are Puerto Rican and here we can belong and here is where we belong and we can do anything we want. Back in New York, we are janitors, we are criminals and we are talking Chihuahuas. I was really struck by this.”
He goes on to say that he wrote his first musical In the Heights when he realized that no one would change the trope for him and that he had to change it himself. I realize that the second half sounds like I’m selling Lin, but I hope that it inspires someone just as it inspired me. It might get hard because of all the negativity that surrounds it, but to all the people who have felt like Lin has and like I have (OTP), please love your heritage, your identity, your culture and what you are. And if anyone has decided to be a kinder person after reading this, I thank you for reading it and for understanding.