Speak up, I told myself, but I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and took deep, slow breaths, my chest heaving. I stared down at my hands where they rested in my lap, the calluses and chipped, uneven fingernails digging into my skin, leaving little red marks but no blood. Speak up! I repeated, but my limbs were deadweight, my body refusing to move.
For longer than I can remember, I have spent every Friday night in a classroom from 7:00 to 9:00 PM, learning Chinese. Friday night has always meant homework and tests. One year, though, was very different. Our teacher that year was a little unusual. For one thing, we didn’t have a textbook. She never gave us homework, tests, or even difficult classwork. For another thing, she always arrived about five minutes late.
At the beginning of class, she would sometimes ask us something like “What did you do today?” to practice spontaneous speech. Then she would say: “Let’s have one of the girls go first. In my experience, girls are always smarter than boys.” The first time she did this, everyone was shocked, but it happened again and again and eventually we got used to it.
One day in class, a couple of kids were messing around and not paying attention. Our teacher told them off a few times but they wouldn’t listen. She started lecturing us about behavior. “You’re so lucky,” she told us. “You have good educations, homes and opportunities. Your parents care enough about your future to send you to Chinese school. Not everyone gets these kinds of privileges.”
We all mechanically nodded our heads. Most of us grew up hearing these kinds of lectures every other day at home, so this particular speech didn’t affect us much. However, after going on along this line for a while, the teacher changed tack. “Black kids, you know, they don’t get good education, they grow up in poverty,” she said. “Their parents don’t love them. They don’t care about their future.”
I looked around at the other students. Nobody seemed to be reacting to what she'd said. Nobody was protesting. I stared at the little crescent marks on the side of my hand and wished they would hurt more. Speak up, I told myself, but I seemed to be cemented to my chair, my arms plastered to my sides, my legs turned to stone.
My teacher was still talking. “Black parents work late, they aren’t home a lot to see their kids. They have bad jobs. They’re uneducated so they don’t know how to help them with homework or academics. You guys are so lucky your parents aren’t like that. Because black kids don’t have good role models, they’re just trapped in this endless cycle of ignorance and poverty. You guys should be thankful you have such good lives compared to them.”
Chinese culture strongly emphasizes respect. We grow up learning not to argue with adults, not to fight tradition, not to be rude to our teachers-- in short, contradicting my teacher, an elder, a superior, and an instructor, went against everything that had been ingrained in my and my classmates’ minds all our lives.
Habit is a difficult thing to overcome, and though I knew I should stand up for a group of people who are already targeted enough, who weren’t even there to defend themselves, I sat like a statue as her words washed over me.
I think one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned is to resist. My entire life, I was taught to do the opposite, to do what I was told. To find out that some of the people I’d been brought up to believe in weren’t the ideal people to learn from was a rude awakening. I learned my lesson though, and not from a moment of glory but from a moment of failure. Sitting in the car on the way home, I promised myself that next time, I would do what was right.