Eating Bitterness

Posted on February 9, 2009

Acknowledging racism is uncomfortable, but necessary, believes Vivian Tseng (bio).


I think too often white mentors and white people in general can, it can feel very uncomfortable to acknowledge racism. And it can feel very uncomfortable to talk about. And so I think sometimes there's this natural desire to make it go away.

And to make statements like, "Well, I'm sure that person didn't mean it," or, "Are you sure you interpreted it in the right way?" And I think those are kinds of comments that make, that invalidate someone else's experience and can make it feel worse and can drive someone else away. That's the quickest way, I think, to make me feel, "Oh, well, you're not hearing me, and you're not understanding my experience."

Sometimes I think it's helpful for them just to have someone hear them, and to help someone think with them like, "Well, how can we, how can you negotiate this? Here are some different options." I think other kinds of statements that were never helpful to me: "Just wait until you have tenure. Just wait." And that kind of statement, for me, was never helpful because I think the message there is, "Just tolerate it. Just live with it for now."

And I think those kinds of statements, I think what people don't fully recognize is that there's a loss to yourself, that if you tolerate it and you live with it, there's a loss that I would've taken inside of myself. And who knows whether you recapture that? I think a lot of people become, if you, in Chinese, we have this saying about eating bitterness: If you eat the bitterness for too long, it just rests inside you.

And so what I would've liked is for my white colleagues to have, when they witness racism, to also speak up. I think that was, that would've been very important, because as a person of color, we're often doubted, too. You know, "Oh, well, I don't know if that was really what happened. Maybe she's just sensitive to it. Maybe we could understand her sensitivity to it, but she's just sensitive to it."

And I think that, even though it doesn't seem right, white voices that speak out against racism are heard more easily. And so, I think that gives white colleagues a particular opportunity, and I would say responsibility, to speak up as well when they witness racism.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 Leadership Training Institute in Bethesda, MD.


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