By Wayne Chan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“…they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
With the current rise of violence against Asian Americans, I keep going back to this famous quote by Dr. King. The first time I heard that famous speech, the beauty of his words just seemed to soar in the air. Honestly though, I didn’t really consider the message he was trying to send.
That all changed in college.
To be sure, I had first-hand experience with the racist jokes and taunting that seemed to be coming from all directions in my youth, and I remember a few times turning my back on these bullies with tears in my eyes thinking, “Why do they hate me so much?” As just about the only Asian student in my school, maybe I should have seen it coming. But that was mostly in elementary school and junior high. It died down considerably by the time I got to high school.
But in the fall of 1983, in the wealthy enclave of La Jolla, California, as a budding economics student at UC San Diego, I realized that racism, at least for some, never really goes away—it just changes forms.
I was excited by the start of my college experience. But first things first, I had to find a place to live for the next year. I went to the on-campus housing department, and as this was before the internet existed, I walked around the department where they had posted “for rent” flyers all over the room. I was looking to rent a room in a home near campus. Each of the flyers had a phone number, and students could call right from the department to set up a visit with a landlord.
I immediately found one that worked. It was in my budget and it was a short 10-minute bike ride from campus. I called the number listed to set up a time to take a look. A woman answered and sounded pleasant enough. She told me that the room was available, and I could drop by right then to take a look. I accepted her invitation and told her I would be right there.
I got on my bike, and sure enough, I was standing at the front door of the house in less than 10 minutes. I parked my bike, walked up to the door, and knocked.
The door opened part way, and a woman poked her head out. I introduced myself and told her I had just called. She glanced at me, looked up and down.
In a very short tone, she said, “The room has been rented. It’s not available.”
I said, “Ma’am, I just talked to you 10 minutes ago and you told me it was available.”
She said, “It’s not available,” and shut the door.
I turned back towards the street, and I stood there for a moment, considering what had just happened. I felt a combination of anger and bewilderment. The first thought in my head was, when I called her, if I spoke with any discernible accent, would she have even told me the room was available?
You might ask whether this one experience still bothers me. I’d say, the fact that I still remember it happening vividly 38 years ago probably means that it does.
It just brings me back to the brilliance of Dr. King’s quote. Not only did my would-be landlord not consider the content of my character before turning me away, but seemed to determine that I had some unacceptable flaw through some apparent clairvoyant “ability” she possessed based purely on observing the way I looked.
Based on the way I looked, she couldn’t possibly know that I was born in Michigan. She wouldn’t know that my favorite dessert is apple pie or that I loved Batman so much that as a kid I would jump off my parent’s bed with a towel as a cape just to see how far I could go. She couldn’t possibly know that my adolescence was filled with cultural references to “The Fonz,” “Hawkeye and Trapper,” the moonwalk, “the force,” and Indiana Jones.
The truth is, being judged is just a part of life. Whether you’re trying to find a room to rent, applying for a mortgage, or just finding a friend, being evaluated is a necessary requirement for living in this world. It comes with the package.
There’s a reason why I’m being judged. Maybe I’m a person who has no honor. Maybe I don’t show respect to the elderly. Maybe I’m self-serving and greedy. Maybe I’m simply a mean person.
If that is what someone is wondering, fair enough. But whether I’m from Michigan or mainland China, my contention is that no one can determine that simply by looking at my face.
The phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is exactly right. The cover is just what you see on the outside. It’s the content the cover holds inside that counts.
Wayne can be reached at email@example.com.