I laughed along with everyone else when Mr Li mispronounced a word in my Mandarin LOTE class, relieved that no one was making fun of me. I laughed nervously when my coworker turned a client’s name into the office swearword, secretly feeling sorry for the poor person whose family name was now spoken in vain. For too long, I have been complicit in the mockery of others … but I don’t want to be a bystander anymore. I don’t want to let people off the hook.
Last week, it was Harmony Day. It certainly didn’t feel like it.
With talk of 18c, my newsfeed was flooded with people’s everyday experiences with racism. How brave, I thought, giving my fervent Facebook like to each post. I’m still not quite ready to share with anyone the discrimination I endured in childhood, so I always admire those willing to open up.
This is my attempt at opening up.
Last Thursday, I was scrolling through my newsfeed. My thumb stopped and hovered over an article entitled, “How to Deal with Crappy Lecturers”.
Ooh! I wonder what advice the Arts Society has for me.
After reading the first three sentences, I began to feel physically sick. My heart started racing and I felt like all the oxygen was sucked from the room. I was upset. Dismissing the tears pooling in my eyes, I continued reading. It was silly of me to be so distraught without reading the article in its entirety … right? But no – I still couldn’t shake the feeling. I had to do something.
I quelled my impulse to post a righteously indignant comment. It took every ounce of restraint to backspace, “Really, ArtsSoc? How could you allow such drivel to be published, especially after Harmony Day?”
It was obvious that the writer had put a lot of effort into this article. I didn’t want to be impolite in an online space that is so often troll-infested. I didn’t want to ignite a keyboard war.
So I messaged the writer.
“Hi [name omitted]. Rather than publically commenting on Art Soc’s FB post (I did not want you to feel attacked or embarrassed), I am PM’ing you. I’d like you to know that I was offended and hurt by your article when you described the attributes of a ‘crappy lecturer’, and started off with ‘from lecturers who have a super strong accent’.”
I received a reply.
“Hi Yenee thanks for your feedback however I believe this is a misunderstanding. What you are talking about is referencing the difficulties experienced when you can’t hear what a lecturer is saying. I’m sure everyone can agree is hard to deal with, and the reference is not meant to mean anything apart from that.”
And just like that, my grievance was swept aside as a “misunderstanding”.
I was overreacting. I misunderstood the writer when she equated having “a super strong accent” with being a “crappy lecturer”.
Whenever I was walking home with my family as a kid, I would prime myself for the chants of “CHING CHONG CHANGA!” But on the rare occasion that people didn’t shout gibberish at us, I always breathed an audible sigh of relief, thankful that, this time, they weren’t bothered to imitate my parents’ accents.
To me, an accent is a sign of strength. Sometimes, the only thing that people are able to bring with them when they leave their home country is their accent. There’s no time to pack photos, clothes or shoes.
I was strongly affected by this article. Racism on the streets I can dismiss, but in an article posted by the Arts Society? I was not expecting a club which prides itself on representing “6,000 undergraduate students within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences” to allow the phrases “crappy lecturer” and “super strong accent” to be conflated in a blog post.
I forwarded the link to my friends, needing validation that I wasn’t being irrational. But they replied with: “Huh? What racism? Doesn’t say that crappy lecturers have strong accents.”
Confused, I refreshed the page – lo and behold, the article had been altered so that the offensive phrase now read, “lecturers who are hard to hear”.
Was I going crazy? Did I imagine it all? Luckily, I had taken a screenshot – you know, in case Channel 7 wanted me for Today Tonight.
I was flummoxed. The writer defended her choice of words, refused to own up to any wrongdoing, but then secretly edited the article.
Was I expecting too much by wanting an apology? By wanting her to acknowledge that her implication that those with “strong accents” are “crappy lecturers”, was unkind and untrue?
In response to her last message, I wrote this:
“My feelings do not stem from any misunderstanding, because those are the words that you wrote: “lecturers who have a super strong accent”. Bearing in mind UNSW’s substantial international student population, reading what you wrote can be damaging.”
I feigned ignorance of the article alterations in my reply, curious as to how the writer would reply. I felt petty wanting an apology and acknowledgement of error.
“We changed it and will be more mindful in future.”
But what was I expecting exactly? A disclaimer saying, “This article has been edited to not be racist”?
Needing some support, I reached out to my best friend. I felt childish for needing to hear an apology. After all, I kept declaring, Nicki Minaj got one from Taylor Swift! I just couldn’t understand why the writer couldn’t say sorry– as stupid as it sounds, even a fake apology would do (I know I’ve issued many in my time).
My friend replied:
“She didn’t apologise because she doesn’t think what she did was wrong. She’s never experienced racism so she thinks you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
All at once, it was crystal clear! Being the beneficiary of white privilege, the writer has likely never been teased about their eyes, their lunch, or their accent. I seemed overly sensitive to the writer because they could not understand where I was coming from.
I don’t write this article to sully the Arts Society. In fact, I greatly respect some people on the ArtsSoc exec, so I felt some trepidation writing this.
But for too long, I’ve been voiceless. I’ve stayed silent so that I don’t draw attention to my Chinese-ness.
Read the original ArtSoc blog post here.