Joke's On Us: Laughing at Our Racist Double-Vision

In my mind, I sketch a brat. That’s how I remember her, anyway. She walks toward me and my best friend. We suspect nothing, because when you’ve just spent an hour trying not to become the target of hand grenades posing as foam dodge balls, it doesn’t prepare you for other onslaughts, ones you cannot possibly see coming. The year is 2006, the setting is the girls’ locker room, and the scene lasts maybe 10 seconds.

-       Wait, are you guys like, twins?

A pause. Bewilderment, then a faint seeping of something, indignant.

-       … no. We’re not related at all.

-       Oh, but you guys look the same!

I think maybe we tried to pass our grimaces off as smiles.

What do you say to something so miserably innocent?

We were ten years old, and didn’t have it in us to explain the details. One of us was Japanese, the other Taiwanese-American. We were bilingual in different languages. Our height differed by at least four inches. We were born more than 6,000 miles away from each other. Twins indeed. There’s only so much we wanted to say to her.

Six years later, I moved into French Hall, located in the River Cluster of dorms at Dartmouth College, so removed from the rest of campus that sometimes our phones told us we were in Vermont.

There happened to be about four other Asian girls living in the building. Perhaps it is a testament to the quality of students admitted to Dartmouth, but no one tried asking if we were quadruplets.

I entered with one name, Alice. I have a Chinese name, but no one’s used it to address me since the bygone days of weekend Chinese school, and no one has ever seen fit to try and call me Ally or Al. I was always just Alice. By the end of winter term freshman year however, I had lost count of how many names people were calling me, and how many I in turn, responded to. It became a simple, yet meaningful game of casual subversion.

Looking back, I cannot trace its exact date or person of origin, but the place I know all too well: the French lounge, a space that has become almost mythical in the minds of the people who have called it home. It was the only shared, public area for socialization in the building, serving all four floors of French, plus the admirable handful of residents in the basement. Having only one lounge for the whole building meant getting to know residents from all floors, and in this way, the lounge served as a sort of casual marketplace, always vibrating with the sounds of ceaseless banter, debate, gossip, and occasional rap in foreign languages. French the dorm was no club, no affinity house, no Greek organization, nor team of any sort. As a collective, we shared little in the way of specific common interests or goals. But as a randomly amassed group of ‘16s, it was an experience not merely in co-habitation, but also friendship and interaction across difference.

I wasn’t all that surprised the first couple times someone mistook me for another Asian girl in the building. There were French residents I saw only very rarely, and freshman fall each of us probably ended up being introduced to more new people than we had met in all of our high school years combined. If the mistakes had smacked of anything but genuine human error, it could have been irritating, but I was lucky; few people wanted to sabotage their chances of making friends as a freshman, and it was difficult to be annoyed at someone who had made the effort to address me by name instead of ducking out with a curt, impersonal “hi.”

Occasionally other people would overhear such name mix-ups and rush to berate the unfortunate offender, usually with an air of exaggerated mockery. Soon enough, people began to intentionally mix up the names of us Asian girls, and we responded in jest – it became a piece of the strange culture we developed in the lounge that year.

Popping my head into the lounge after the long hike back to the River cluster usually rewarded me with several exclamations of another Asian girl’s name. Some people fancied themselves especially creative and even called me names of some Asian guys in the dorm. It was all utterly preposterous, and I loved it, this opportunity to mock the racism we seldom knew how to catch red-handed.

At its heart, it was an inside joke, but it doubled as commentary and light-hearted backlash to the subtle racism rampant in our present day. It called out this racism that flitted among the small gestures, the haughtiness in one’s eyes, the derogatory jokes cracked in private, and the assumptions that tried to hide in our individual and cultural unconscious. It encouraged us to admit the problematic perception that only those we are familiar with have the privilege of being unique individuals, while everyone else is “just another ____,” difficult to approach and identify correctly. Rather than denying racism’s presence, we blew it up until it looked so ridiculous and lop-sided that it couldn’t hurt us anymore.

But humor itself can be a performance of carelessness. It was exhilarating to find a space where I could inflict upon myself what others have in the past, seemingly with impunity. Perhaps I so thoroughly enjoyed these episodic mockeries of racism in the lounge because I knew it could not have been comfortable for everyone else in the room. Maybe I wanted people to share in my discomfort, to force themselves to laugh along with me and the other Asian girls through and despite that discomfort. We refused to let the uncomfortable presence of racism paralyze our voices, even among those we were trying to befriend. It is always easier to criticize strangers, to rip apart those you will never have to talk to again. We adopted humor out of necessity, to educate our friends without reprimanding them, so we could preserve an inclusive residential community that was also aware of its internal differences.

It was liberating to stand together with this community of peers as we faced down racism’s subtleties. This unassuming brand of racism was a common issue we knew we could tackle as long as we were vigilant about keeping an eye on its daily activities. Many of us had grown up being spoon-fed ideas about the explicit, intent-driven evil equated with racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. It took listening openly to other people’s stories and observations to realize all the different, understated ways violence can occur. Our dorm-based network of difference taught us that unintentional violence (not always, or even usually, of the physical sort) is perhaps the most common in a setting like our campus, and that we should thus limit the ways in which we throw about blame and pity, making victims and aggressors out of others. Scolding those who are unaware does not educate them; in fact, it puts them out of reach of becoming educated about the subtle racism most of us have been complicit in. Ignorance does not absolve us, but it also suggests the counter-productivity of finger-pointing.

Speaking of “victims” and “aggressors” may seem excessive when we’re only referring to something as commonplace as mixing up peoples’ names. Such is the accumulating damage of subtle racism however: few can say how deeply it permeates the lives it touches. Oppression is always a dialogue, and all parties have a responsibility in loosening the way it dictates relationships in our world.

None of us had the luxury any longer of being that sixth grader who claims her ignorance is innocent, or of being the other sixth grader, who seethes in silence and remembers her classmates as brats. In sixth grade, I did not have the need or desire to befriend that girl in the locker room that day. In my freshman lounge, no matter the backgrounds and aspirations that marked us different from each other, we all shared the responsibility of educating ourselves about each other if we wanted to form relationships with one another.

We understood that the racism we were battling was the subtle brand, the kind where a person’s coat-flaps whip you in the face as they turn away from you – the potential harm that comes from carelessness. Humor, though imperfect, was our way to target the malice of ignorance rather than the malice of individuals.