Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Bad Memory

I am back. I had a great time hanging with the JLK, then spent the weekend in BigNearbyCity while Mr. Phizz was away so I wouldn't die of loneliness. I hung out with friends, went to museums, and ate dim sum. I went shopping, spoke with my best friend IN PERSON, and it was just awesome. And now Mr. Phizz is back, and all is well. It's a good reminder that the Internet is just the Internet. I have a Real Life to attend to.

Anyhoo, recently an incident which occurred to me as a very small child came roaring back to me, for some reason. And it makes me sad, and it makes me mad. Because it has to do with some pretty heinous behavior directed at a child for her race.

I won't even pretend to know what it's like to be a different race. I only know what it's like to be mine, and it's not ALWAYS a picnic, though I will fully acknowledge that I believe it is a lot easier than being, say, black in America.

But when I was a little kid, I believe I was all of seven, a few things happened with a neighbor of mine. This man was father to two of my friends from across the street, and he always seemed pretty gruff and not especially friendly. But he was an adult. And adults always know what they are doing (that's what my seven-year-old self thought, anyway).

One day I was talking to this man for whatever reason, somehow the subject turned to presidents. I was probably telling him we were learning about presidents in school. He said to me, "Do you want to know who the greatest president in the history of America is?"

I surely did. I had a thirst for knowledge back then that kind of blows my mind right now.

He told me Harry Truman.

I tucked that piece of knowledge into my brain.

In school, I think the question was raised of who the greatest president was. Lots of people raised their hands, including me. I wasn't called on, but I was appalled to hear that no one said Harry Truman. After all, an adult had told me so. I didn't know what he had done and I had never heard of him before, but an adult had told me so. Therefore, everyone else had to be missing something, he must be greater than Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt...even though I had heard of those guys.

A few weeks later, his overstimulated son beat me up. He was a boy, and he wanted to fight, not because he was mad at me, but because he wanted to. He explained that he and his friend fight all the time and it was fun. I didn't want to fight. I had never been in a physical fight with anyone. He fought me anyway. My new pants got grass-stained. My head slammed into the wooden fence. I cried.

I ran across the street with two other neighbor friends (who were white boys) to "tell." I told him that his son had beat me up, my pants were ruined, and that he hit my head against the fence.

This man looked down at my little tearful self and said, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

I was shocked, I didn't know what to say. I explained again that his son had beat me up, had hurt me. He repeated, "So....WHAT do you want me to do about it??"

After a little while, it was clear he was not planning to mete out one iota of punishment, nor was he remotely sympathetic. Writing this is bringing tears to my eyes from the recollection. That this man could be such a jackass to a tiny little seven-year-old is beyond me. Even my other friends were surprised. I remember clearly, one of them said to console me, "He's not a very good father." The injustice was apparent to them, as well. They, like me, didn't know why he acted that way.

These are all just memories. I don't have a whole lot of memories from when I was this age, but these are very, very clear.

When I got older, I suddenly thought back to these events, and it struck me that this guy was probably anti-Asian. Probably, more specifically he was probably anti-Japanese but had never bothered to realize which Asian nationality I was, because I'm not that one. Not that how he acted would be ok if I were. After I got older and got a more complete vision of what all the Presidents were known for, I realized this: Harry Truman is known for his "The Buck Stops Here" sign, his excessive swearing, and dropping the Bomb. You know the Bomb I am talking about. Can you think of anything else you could possibly know about Harry Truman that would stand out?

Who knows. Maybe the guy hated little kids, except his own. Maybe he wouldn't have punished his son if he had beaten up anyone, whether they were Asian or not. Maybe he was just in a bad mood. But a large part of me, when you put it together with a lot of things I vaguely recall from childhood, feels sure that he just didn't like Asian people.

It still amazes me though, that he would treat a child the way he treated me. Well, suck it Mr. X. I rock.

To think that these days, this shit is probably happening to little Arab girls around the country breaks my heart.


Mrs. CH said...

First - glad you're back! You'll have to post about what you and JLK did!

That's such a sad story - regardless of what his motivations were, he was a monster to treat a 7 year-old that way! His kids probably didn't fare very well with him as a father either. So sad.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Ick! I'm so sorry about that...though it's probably nice that you didn't realize what it was about when you were seven.

And did I miss something? What's going on with the internet?

Anyway, I hope you had a nice break.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I hate that I share so much DNA with people like that. What a dick.

ScientistMother said...

that was very well said. I am hoping because so many of us (us being visible minorities) are older that there may be more pressure against that happening to any little girls or boys anymore.

PhizzleDizzle said...

thanks for the support guys. i just felt the need to share the story, not sure why :).

AA: i was just a bit sick of everything that was going on in the various comment threads STILL about the Sheril thing. I needed to remember that having pissing contests on the Internet means nothing IRL, and that i have actual duties/responsibilities to fulfill!

Gail Carmichael said...

This was a really good post, awesome writing (as usual, but for whatever reason this stuck out for me).

Another odd thing. This is the first time that you mentioned being Asian since I started reading your blog. This whole time I imagined you as a Caucasian girl who looked fairly similar to me. Funny how we project ourselves into the people we imagine when we don't know anything about how they look. Does anyone else ever realize they've done that? (Hope it doesn't sound rude or anything...)

Ambivalent Academic said...

Sorry that's still bugging you Phizz. Yes, there are more important things IRL and when the 'tubes get too weird I find it helps to just blow them a big raspberry and bugger off for a bit. Just as you did. Glad you're back.

ScienceGirl said...

Yikes! I have an Iranian friend here; sometimes I am glad she mostly just interacts with the grad students because there are plenty of Mr.X.'s among the locals. I am sorry you've had to experience the ignorance and hatred...

microbiologist xx said...

Phizz - I hope sharing your story helped in some way. THat is such a shitty thing to happen to someone, let alone a 7 year old.
Like everyone else, I am glad you are back. :)

Candid Engineer said...

PD, glad you had a good time away, and thanks for sharing your story. I'm sorry you had to encounter this kind of sucktitude.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Gail, thanks for the compliment :). It's funny that you say that, because it made me think about what I assume about other people - and my assumption is generally that they are white until proven otherwise. It's probably as a result of living in the US, where let's face it - the majority of people are Caucasian.

It kind of reminds me of the campaign a while back to change the "face of science," where the premise was if you ask a kid to picture a scientist, they picture an old white man reminiscent of Einstein, and they wanted to change that. I wonder if there are any interesting implications to the fact that when I, an Asian person, picture an arbitrary person I know nothing about, I picture a Caucasian person. Interesting. I'll have to ask JLK if she knows of any studies that deal with this sort of thing.

ScienceGirl - I hope your Iranian friend has a good network of American friends to rely on and get a good sense of the nice people in this country...I have a few Iranian friends too and I'd hate to imagine them suffering from ignorant behavior.

MXX - thanks, I'm glad to be back. And yes, it was cathartic to share. I have posts to catch up on, I saw your headline that you've become busy - great news! :)

CE - thanks for stopping by, flattered as always that you read me :). Your success and take-no-prisoners 'tude inspires me.

Jane said...

Wow. There should be a special place in hell for people like that. I'd call that guy a jerk, but that would be too nice....

Toaster Sunshine said...

I think I understand where you're coming from, having had observed it. I grew up learning English through my father's very thick accent and as such I myself had an accent. But I got a free pass for it because I'm a paleface, whereas I distinctly remember other kids with foreign accents getting made fun of, one Arabic boy got teased in particular about it. The kids I went to school with had already internalized the predominant social programming of "white=OK, all else=suspicious".

It sucks that such a jerk would be an asshole even to children. Not that that makes it any better to do to adults, but still, with children he was automatically in a position of authority and as such his words had more power.

Rebecca said...

I believe Harry Truman may have integrated the army, although as you say I'm sure that wasn't what the dude was thinking of.

What a mean guy to say such things to a little girl! I guess it was a good thing that you didn't understand his meaning at the time, but dang! I know what it's like to realize, years later, what someone was talking about in a situation like that. Very shocking, makes you question everything else you were thinking at that time!

Juniper Shoemaker said...

When I was seven, I had a similarly odd experience. My (white) teacher, who adored me, and who had no problem with my skin color or mixed-racedness, wanted me to join GATE. However, my examiner was an Asian man who hated blacks. (And I'm only half-Asian. After all.)

I didn't find out until later. (He eventually said something to my white teacher, and she told my mother.) Here's what my (private) exam was like:

(GATE Examiner and seven-year-old Juniper sit alone in a cramped office. GATE Examiner looks coldly and smilelessly at Juniper.)

Examiner: (in an extremely, mysteriously displeased tone) What book led to the formation of the FDA? That's the FOOD and DRUG Administration.

Seven-year-old Juniper: (with nameless terror) The . . . Jungle? Because the book author . . . he wrote about rats being ground up into sausages . . . in, um, factories. And the President--

Examiner: (cutting Juniper off with disgust) What on Earth did you say? You said, "Like, there was a book about rats. And. Stuff."

Seven-year-old Juniper: (Too scared to protest. Too scared to contradict an adult. But. That. Is. NOT. What. I. Said. AT. ALL.)

Examiner: (glaring at Juniper) Let's move on. Who invented the lightbulb?

Seven-year-old Juniper: Thomas . . . Edison?

Examiner: (bristling) You think, or you know?! Why are you talking in that stupid tone?

Seven-year-old Juniper: (whispering) It's Thomas Edison. I read that.

Examiner: (ferociously scribbling something on clipboard)

Etc. The whole test was like that.

Needless to say, I was not admitted to that GATE program. When my father received another assignment to a military base one thousand miles away, my (white male) science teacher at my new school enthusiastically nominated me for their GATE program-- without either me or my parents saying a word to him about it-- and I was admitted there. No problem. (Even if I turned out to the only black kid in the program, as well as the only black kid jumped into advanced math. Not that there were a lot of us in the first place!)

Nevertheless, for years, I was ashamed of this memory. That's because many of the female protagonists in the novels I liked to read would've never let something like that happen to them. They would have stood up and yelled, "THAT'S NOT WHAT I SAID." They would have told another adult. I did neither of those things. I said nothing.

I'm really sorry that happened to you. That sucks something fierce. I vividly remember that "But he's an adult!" state of shock and confusion. I don't get these kinds of assholes.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Juniper - as a child, I was NEVER as bold as the protagonists in the books I read. Don't feel bad about THAT! I told no one about my little incident either. I think my parents still have no idea.

JLK said...

Weird, my original comment apparently didn't go through. The first time I read this, I said something to the effect of "Phizz, I don't know what to say except that I'm so sorry you had to go through this, and it breaks my heart to think of little PhizzleDizzle dealing with that douchebag." (Something like that.)

Anyway, what you were talking about as far as assuming people are white has to do with the fact that the mind works in categories to reduce our cognitive load. I forget what the actual term is for what you're talking about specifically, and it's driving me fucking crazy that I can't remember....

But basically we have a set of schemas, and when we come across some piece of information, we try to fit it into a category using those schemas. So for example, there are many more white people in this country than other racial groups - so in the absence of other information, you assume that someone is white. (FUCK what is it CALLED????)


Woo-HOO! (I think.....whatever....close enough.)

Okay, anyway. So sometimes bits and pieces of other seemingly arbitrary information can lead us to other conclusions that are often wrong. For example, when DuWayne Brayton first started appearing in the blogosphere, I assumed he was black because I've never known a white man named DuWayne, but I've known several black men with that name. It was not until he posted pictures of himself with his kids that I was like, "Oh. I'm an idiot for assuming."

Does that mean I'm a stereotyper? Sort of, but not really. We are all subject to stereotyping in that way - it's just the way the mind works when we don't have all the facts. If Dr. Isis gave no indication of her gender at all except for posting about shoes, we would still assume that she was a female for that reason. It doesn't make us sexist, it just makes us human.

There's a lot of debate in the cognitive community about how exactly this works, and it's been ongoing for decades and decades. We NEED to assign people to categories because if we viewed everyone as a unique sample, we would be overloaded with information and unable to process it in any efficient manner. I'm guessing you have a bunch of computer analogies for this too.

Categories get smaller and smaller the more we get to know someone. My husband, for example, is no longer "Cute white guy" in my brain, but "husband." There is only one person who fits into that category. But if I met someone who reminded me of him in enough ways, I would think "Wow, this guy is a lot like my husband." Does that make sense?

Think of your brain as a matching game, like Memory. You flip over one card, "Oh, it's a shoe!" then you flip over another card, "Oh, it's a banana." No match. Flip over a boot, "Sweet, another shoe!" You'll consider those a match until the category gets narrower. Flip over a high heel, "Shit. That's a shoe too. Does it go with the first shoe, or does it go with the boot?"

But if you're playing Memory with nothing but shoe pictures, you can categorize based on much finer distinctions - strappy sandal, flip-flop, sneaker, etc.

The bottom line is that the human brain is designed to make sense of the world using the least necessary information.

I hope this answers your question....

Gail Carmichael said...

JLK, thanks for posting that detailed explanation! It really threw me to learn that non-whites often assume that a person is white for the categorization reasons, rather than us projecting ourselves onto others. But it makes total sense.

ScientistMother said...

It also has to do with not "seeing" others in different positions. Its why I never thought of being a PI until I met a Indian woman doing research. I was like hey I do belong there...this is why diversity is so important

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

I'm late on my blog reading, but I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I'm really sorry that anyone has to go through that (no matter how old, but especially if you're young). I do wonder if that douchebag, I mean, man only acted that way to you or if he did the same to your parents. Not that I have any experience as to being another race, but I know that a lot of people treated me poorly for being a female interested in "boy stuff". However, these same people don't do so now (although, I'm still interested in "boy stuff"). Not that this makes it ok (if anything it's worse), I'm just wondering out loud (and I haven't had coffee yet... so this may not make much sense).

PhizzleDizzle said...

Amanda: Thanks. I have no idea if he acted that way with my parents, I don't think they ever interacted to my recollection. His wife was a really nice lady and did most of the "socializing" with the neighbors.

JLK: Thanks for the explanation, it's what I figured. I wonder though, if there are any deeper implications to psyche. Kind of like how SM mentions the importance of diversity for reducing undesirable categorizations. Like, I wonder if you were a minority, and in relying upon the representative heuristic presumed that an arbitrary human looked like a member of the majority, whether there are implications to how you see your own personhood or humanity. That's more what I was wondering about. It seems to me eventually there is a fine line between categorization for mental sanity purposes and constructs of society creating categories that negatively affect people who are on the "wrong" side of those categories. I don't know if that made sense.

Anyway, I know you are out of town. Hope you're having a good visit, maybe you'll see this when you get back.