Names have been changed.
The summer after 8th grade, I was nervous about starting high school. A lot of my middle school friends were going to be attending other schools. I didn’t want to be alone; I was shy and found it hard to make new friends. So I tried joining a clique from my middle school who were going to the same high school as me.
I’d met a lot of these kids playing handball after school. At first, I was only there to play with my friend Brian. But over time I befriended his friends. They were all Chinese-American like me and part of a big social circle. I dubbed their clique the Science Squad because it mainly consisted of students from the science club at my middle school.
I wasn’t yet officially part of the group that summer, but we started playing handball every day until the sun set. On rainy days, we went to the nearby food court to play poker or board games.
Most of these kids did a lot of joking around but were reluctant to talk about their personal feelings. Still, I got close to two of them: Steve and Garth. The others seemed like good people, mostly other introverts who played video games a lot. I began to feel like I belonged, and this made me feel more confident as school started.
Was This a Joke?
One night in the fall of freshman year, I went on Facebook and saw that I had a new message. There were about 10 people in this conversation. I was finally in the Science Squad’s group chat!
I scrolled up through the conversation thread to find out why I’d been inducted. Instead, I found a stream of racist remarks.
“What is something that a Black kid can’t say?” asked Garth.
“Shut up you stupid n-gger,” said Steve.
“I love you, Dad,” said Garth.
It appeared as if this was normal conversation for the group online. Their nicknames were also inappropriate. Garth was called King n-gger and Steve was nicknamed reggin. The other names picked on a person’s physical appearance or intellectual ability, like wii-tard and Mac D.
This shocked me. Then, the conversation turned to me.
“Hey, monkey,” wrote Steve.
“Who, me?” I responded.
“Who else, you stupid n-gger,” he replied.
Inside this protected space, my new friends spoke with only disrespect. Didn’t it occur to them that this was wrong? Maybe they were only joking but it felt horrible. Who addresses friends with names like these?
They were waiting for my response. In that moment, my desire to be part of the group overrode my conviction that talking like this was wrong.
“Shut up, you stupid monkey,” I replied.
I Knew Better
I wanted to fit in because I was insecure. For a long time, I remained in denial about the group’s racism, telling myself it was just a joke. Before I knew it, I had become one of them. I came up with vile jokes, trying to out-racist the other guys. It became a competition between me, Steve, and Garth, who turned out to be the worst offenders.
I knew what I was saying was wrong, but I liked the attention and making people laugh.
I first learned about racism in elementary school history classes that covered the civil rights movement. I was confused and amazed by the way people of color had been treated throughout American history.
I learned that even after slavery was outlawed, Black were still commonly treated as if they had no rights, even lynched from trees. Other people of color often faced discrimination, harassment and violence as well, and too many people—from politicians to judges and police to their own neighbors—tolerated it.
Despite all of this, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks withstood threats and stood up to change laws and protect people. I didn’t understand it deeply then, but I could see that being racist was wrong.
Conditioned to Fear
I reflected on my own traditional Chinese family. In China, my parents’ relatives had been farmers who had never seen much outside of rural country life before coming to the United States. As immigrants, they lived in Brooklyn alongside other poor people of various ethnicities. Despite the diversity of their neighborhood, my relatives were fearful of those different from them.
The first time my teenaged aunt brought a Black friend over, my grandma freaked out and told the friend to leave. My mother advised me to stay away from the Mexicans in the neighborhood because they might be in a gang and up to no good.
Growing up in a world of racism normalized it. My family’s attitudes seeped into me, and it became almost an instinct to be wary of people of different races. If I hadn’t learned about racism and its consequences in school, I might never have realized how wrong it is to hold prejudices and discriminate against other people because of their skin color or ethnic background.
But I continued to hang out with my new friends the summer after freshman year, still rationalizing that their abhorrent language was just their way of joking around. But one day, I could no longer ignore the truth.
It Hurt Me, Too
During the first month of 10th grade, I was hanging out with Garth at McDonald’s. As we ate our sandwiches, a group of Black students from a local community college walked by, yelling and laughing loudly. As they lined up to place their orders, Garth whispered to me: “Stupid n-ggers.”
The hateful look on Garth’s face told me he meant it. I didn’t know how to respond. I was silent for the rest of the meal.
Later, heading home on the R train, I thought about it. Where did his animosity come from? More importantly, why hadn’t I said something?
Although I didn’t speak up, after that incident I realized I couldn’t live in denial any longer. I participated less in the online group conversations, eventually abandoning them altogether. No one asked me why; I simply faded away.
I missed the feeling of camaraderie I got from the group, but their racism had already influenced me more than I wanted to admit. I realized I’d started to believe they were right about other people. All those times when they’d said Black people are stupid and worth less than other people had sunk into my subconscious.
These thoughts made it hard for me to befriend people outside of my own ethnic group. In a crowd of strangers, I would avoid Mexicans and Black people because of my brainwashing. Even if they seemed friendly or approachable, I maneuvered myself away.
That summer during engineering camp, I sat near a Black student and a Mexican student. Instead of asking them when I needed help, I tried to catch the eye of White people across the room or asked staff members to assist me with my project. At the end of that program I realized my inherent bias, and that shunning them was my loss.
A Toxic Bubble
I admitted to myself that I was a racist, but I wanted to change. Still, although I stopped participating in the racist group chats, I never stood up to my friends in real life. I was afraid they’d either ridicule me or ignore me altogether. I wanted to speak out against their toxic talk, but I didn’t have the confidence. I gradually withdrew from the group, and they didn’t seem to care.
Soon after, I met people at school from different ethnic backgrounds, including those of Korean, Eastern European, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent, and some became close friends. Although I’d grown up hearing negative stereotypes—in the media and from my family and friends—about people from all these backgrounds, it turns out my new friends and I have a lot in common, from comic books to handball.
I’ve been away at college for a year now, and I’m appalled by how I once thought and behaved.
But standing up against racism requires more than choosing not to participate in hate speech. It’s about learning how to challenge people’s prejudices, and having the courage to do so.
Recently, I tried to speak up when I heard someone use a racial slur. I wasn’t as bold as I’d like to be, but I said, “Hey, can you please stop that?” Nothing much happened; he just laughed and moved on with the conversation. But over time, I noticed others who’d been present stopped saying racist and homophobic things—at least in my presence.
It made me realize that I do have power to influence people by speaking out. I hope I’ve caused at least some people to think, and maybe reconsider their behavior.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching in the past three years about the kind of person I want to become. If I’m totally honest with myself, I know I still have a long way to go toward being more accepting of people different from me. In the meantime, I am working on finding the confidence to speak up so that maybe others will be encouraged to do the same.