Barred from saying it in the name of justice

One might ask, “What is so offensive and immoral about racial slurs?” Or rather, one does not ask. The answer is obvious.

My first conscious encounter with racism was in seventh grade in Nepal. My friends and I were helping a local farm as a part of our community service program. We were planting seeds on the summer soil when a dark-skinned woman nearby stared intently at me with concerned, parent-like eyes. Our group consisted only of Nepalis except me, a Korean, which justified her curiosity. She stepped forward and interrogated me, “Are you Chinese? Because you have small eyes.”

I was deeply offended at the time, and this was not an exception to a rather wholesome environment with local Nepalis. Walking down the streets one afternoon with the intention of buying groceries, I found some kids looking curiously at me. There was nothing flamboyant about my outfit, nor did I hope to raise attention or suspicion. They persisted though, not letting me leave their sight. I passed them and finally looking back, I saw that they stretched their eyes horizontally with their fingers as a flattering imitation of me.

Another time I recall was when one seriously concerned man approached me, soberly asking if it was true that all Koreans ate monkey brains. I had to politely decline – to his disappointment – any knowledge of the sort.

In Nepal, I excelled at math and music in my school but was it not the anomaly if that was not the case, as an East Asian? There was a paradoxical nature in being competent in academics as an Asian, one that bloated its toxin into my world. I wished to hide my passions, even questioning if I genuinely enjoyed math and music, or if I was another indifferent byproduct of Asian culture.

As a new student in Woodstock, I was foreign to the school culture. I learnt a new derogatory term towards East Asians in my first few interactions with the people. Not only that, I heard numerous racist jokes such as those targeting Jews or African-Americans.

It’s expected, or at least hyperbolically portrayed in social media, that I must defend myself of the “social injustice” on my race. There’s a zestful spirit that boils in the spectators when an ethnic minority fights for his or her rights. I’m expected to be enraged and oppressed. But I’m not.

It’s an imperative that an international school environment as in Woodstock raises cultural diffusion and acceptance rather than arrogant racial superiority. On this basis, racist jokes in Woodstock should be viewed not as a contradiction to this rule, but as a natural expression of teenage, immature development as global citizens.

There is a clear difference between the closed-minded xenophobia of conservative countries and the joking manner of Woodstock students. They are under common sense that racial slurs should not be used in front of the targeted ethnicity lest offending them.

Racial slurs and derogatory terms are used in Woodstock to refer to the culture, rather than to directly offend the race. Students are driven not by ignorance of the historical background but by the progression of the words’ meanings. Referring to somebody as a racist term traditionally towards African-American is a way of expressing brotherhood – alluding to the street culture described in popular songs by African-American artists. Referring to somebody as a derogatory term towards East Asians is an anti-compliment to your accomplishments. Using these terms is an acknowledgement of cultural differences in this globalized world.

Many times, I’ve been stopped and reprimanded for my lenient view. Some people say that this tolerance builds hatred (a view held by James McGough, as stated in a contrary piece on this site). But then I have to ask them, is it not true that Asians tend to be skilled at music? Is it not true that Asian culture focuses on mathematics?

The liberal view of the world is one that denies the idiosyncratic characters of culture, the beauty of diverse traditions, and the impact of cultures on individuals. I am unconsciously affected by the values of Eastern culture, regardless of the intensity of my verbal denials.

Richard Nisbett states in The Geography of Thought that the ideals of Confucianism in East Asia are radically different from the development of individualism in the West – a fact not to incite racism but to celebrate diversity.

Every student knows the “right” and “wrong” of the words they speak. The underlying motive behind saying derogatory terms is simple: attention. Suryansh, Class of 2021, said, “We can’t be offended by everything we speak.” “People make these jokes for attention.”

If the community is loose with language, there will be those few who, with malicious intent, exploit this assumption of good faith. Common decency is a choice. But what is to ban words if not to provoke the rebel that lives deep within us?

Jinho Yoon is a staff reporter for The Woodstocker. 

Edited by Navya Sethi 

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