des moines, News, Winterset

Recognizing the anti-Asian racism of my Iowa youth

A childhood friend texted recently. She was angry about the gunman who attacked a series of Atlanta spas, killing eight people including six of Asian descent. She worried about the attacks on elder Asians in San Francisco.

My friend is of Chinese descent. Her father was an Iowa farmer who fought in the Vietnam war. He met and married a Chinese woman. They settled in Winterset. They opened a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town.

My friend struggled growing up. She was the only minority face in our class and among a very small number of minorities in Winterset. This is typical of most small towns in Iowa.

But until recently, until the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last summer, I never bothered to look at the world from my friend’s perspective.

She was the only person who looked like her. We grew up in the 1980s and anti-Asian talk was common. Parents remembered Vietnam. Grandparents remembered World War II.

People still gave cold stares to anyone who bought a Japanese car.

People used regularly the racial slur “chink.” My friends did. I am ashamed to admit, I did, too.

We referred to her, our classmate and peer, like that in casual conversation. I remember it clearly and it turns my stomach.

I offer no defense. There isn’t one. I spoke in ignorance. I thought only of myself and trying to be cool or thought of as the funniest guy around.

Not everybody behaved that way. She named classmates who were kind, who were friends she treasured.

I apologized to my friend for the words I used, my immaturity and my ignorance. She said I was never the problem and she didn’t remember being angry with me. It was small comfort.

My friend endured a lot. The anxiety she suffered from daily bullying and racial insults gave her an eating disorder in high school. She lost her hair. Can you imagine being a teenage girl and losing your hair?

I had moved away by this time to finish school in Des Moines. The story goes that one day my friend wore her wig and another classmate, also a friend, pulled it off her head and ran down the hallway as she chased him.

My friend took her grievances to the school counselors. She complained of the bullying and racial epithets. One counselor, she said, just stared at her without blinking. Another told her she would need to toughen up.

The counselor told her parents – in front of her – that she would never succeed in college.

They were wrong. We were all wrong. She graduated from Iowa State. She went on to become a famous hairdresser in Chicago. She worked “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Jenny Jones.” She moved to Florida and began competing in Iron Man competitions around the world.

She’s married now and lives in California.

She told me a sweet story about her daughter coming home from second grade one recent day. The private, Christian school her daughter attends celebrated multi-cultural week.

Her daughter learned that her friend was from Africa. The child was so excited to have a friend from Africa and wanted to know more. My friend spent time with her kids looking up facts about where the child grew up.

“I wish I had grown up with this kind of inclusiveness and I loved that my own daughter saw things as they should be,” my friend said.

I spent most of my life rolling my eyes at things like multi-cultural week. I never bothered to understand the violence inherent in my words as a child and too far into my present.

In mind, I didn’t understand hatred toward Asians. From the perspective of a white man, they seemed to acclimate so well. Many own businesses. Their children were high achievers in school.

The fault in that thinking, of course, is that it’s from a white guy. I haven’t lived in world where I have to bite my tongue every time someone uses derogatory words at or near me.

I didn’t have to suppress my culture – reading comics and playing video games – because it was the dominate culture. I missed out on learning about my friend’s experience because of white privilege.

White privilege gets mocked in the conservative community. I see white privilege as having the freedom to ignore the struggles of others, especially Black and brown people and the LGBTQ communities, because the culture doesn’t force them to see it.

My friend could never ignore or rise above racism because it was always there, in her face, every damn day.

She’s doing well. She’s happy.

Then some asshole in Atlanta shoots eight people to death at massage parlors. More assholes beat old men in San Francisco.

And my friendship with my classmate helps me see those events better, understand the sinister underpinnings of racial hatred that had always been present in my life – all the way back to grade school.

I ignored it because I was allowed to. Now I understand a fraction better. All it took was the suffering of a fellow human being and classmate to finally shake me awake.

What, I wonder, will it take for me and the rest of us to do something about it?

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.