Culture Clash: Why We (People of Color) Get Stuck At “They’re Bad.”

note: I’m doing a different one on POC and White people later. If you’re White, you’re welcome to eavesdrop, but let me get schooled by people of color this time around. You’ll get your turn to school me later. 🙂


I walked into my sophomore dorm room to see my college roommate sitting on her bed, holding a bowl of rice close to her face and shoveling the food into her mouth with her chopsticks (with great dexterity, by the way).

“Were you raised in a barn?” I asked. “You look like you’re eating out of a trough. Could you get that bowl any closer to your mouth?”

“At least I don’t eat with my hands,” she said in retort.

Fair enough.

My roommate was half Chinese and half Japanese and she was eating the way she had been raised, in a way that was totally culturally acceptable at home eating the food she had grown up with. And she was right—when I ate Indian food, if I was in the appropriate company, I usually ate with just my right hand.


Check and mate: I had just been reminded that this was a conversation between two minority cultures that got to do things on their own terms in the privacy of their own homes; my rules didn’t trump hers.


Now, 10 years later I was at a birthday party about a week after returning from a summer in India and another friend of mine, an Anglo friend, looked askance at me and said, “Enjoying your cake there, Sandhya?”

“Yeah; why?” I asked, taking another bite, then watching his eyes follow the cake from my plate to my mouth.

I was eating the cake with my right hand.

In an American setting.

Check and mate: I had been reminded whose house I was in, and the house always wins.


A colleague of mine, African American, recently posted on facebook, “Why do some Asian people have to be hella rude?” The most common response from other African American friends was, “What do you mean SOME?”


I care about the way we engage each other across cultures because my main goal in life is to build solidarity. I’m very aware, as my movement friends would point out, that we’re trained to be suspicious of each other and to distrust each other because that keeps us divided and allows a handful of folks retain power while we beef with each other down here on the ground.


But that doesn’t stop me from getting sad about how we really kinda despise each other and feel really righteous about it.

  • As I’m walking through Union Station in LA, I hear a young Black man say to a Latino guard, “I don’t mean no disrespect, but I’m so mad I want to punch a Mexican.”
  • When meeting a sweet Indian girl I’m going to live with for three months, who has never been to America and never met a Black person, she asks, eyes wide, “Have you ever met a Negro criminal?”
  • My best friend and I have only had a fight we couldn’t resolve twice in almost fifteen years; both times, it was about whether Asians and Middle Eastern people intentionally prey on poor Black communities and take away job opportunities there or whether they don’t know the historic narrative they’re stepping into and are only able to find work in those communities because they’re not given access to any other work.
  • When talking with a prominent Asian leader in my denomination about his experience with a working group designed to bring together Asians, Latin@s and African Americans, he says, “But Black people are always so angry and so loud; I find it distracting from our work to collaborate in ending oppression, and I was raised not to complain so much.”
  • When W. Kamau Bell talks on his comedy show about all of the racist things happening in this country (the top 73 or so are “slavery”), close to the top of the list is “that Chinese woman who won’t touch my hand when she gives me change at the corner store.”
  • On a date with a Nigerian ex-priest when I live in Chicago, he explains that he feels solidarity with Black Americans because racism in this country means he is automatically lumped in with them, and yet he doesn’t understand them because he works hard and makes the most of his difficult situation in the face of that discrimination and he doesn’t feel African Americans do the same.

I think about these moments, and I notice a couple of issues:

1)      The tension or pain or hostility usually emerges from a sense of not being respected or not having one’s experience honored (W. Kamau Bell, or my colleague on facebook). Or sometimes the potential pain that will happen next is due to not respecting or honoring someone else’s experience (my denominational colleague or the little girl in India).

2)      All of us have been shaped by a culture that tells us certain things about one another that we are trained to apply to a person based on assumptions about their culture rather than paying attention to each individual narrative. We often don’t even realize we’re doing that, so we don’t think to seek out more information to understand whether an action is culturally driven and if so why.

3)      We’ve been painted with broad brush strokes, except the dominant culture. None of these illustrations are about how anyone feels about White people as a collective, because I believe as a general rule we’ve been trained to think of White people as individuals not representing their entire race. As Chimamanda Adichie points out, we have multiple narratives of people from the dominant culture, but at best one narrative about other cultures.

4)      Some of the tensions that emerge between cultures have to do with not understanding what constitutes disrespect for one community versus another (meeting someone’s eyes as one speaks, touching a stranger’s hand, direct communication, understandings of space).


What troubles me as a person deeply committed to addressing systemic racism (defined as race prejudice plus the misuse of power by systems and institutions) is that the ways we disrespect and distrust one another is part of what props up systemic racism. And it is hard work within my community to convince Asian immigrants that the broader American narrative impacts us when we believe that keeping our heads down and not making waves is how we move forward in American society, (API civil rights advocate Suey Park has spoken about how, in response to her twitter campaign #BlackPowerYellowMenace to foster Black/API solidarity, some API people responded that our best option was solidarity with White people.)

Compounding that struggle is that we have been formed to communicate differently than Black Americans, so we really do end up slighting one another and feeling slighted. And finally, my best friend is right ;we don’t know this country’s history and we open stores in the neighborhoods where we are allowed to go and we don’t understand or trust our customers and we perpetuate hostilities between communities. Simultaneously, no one seeks to learn about our struggles and pain and fear, and we are never seen as fully human or part of the community, so we stay with those who know what that’s like and remain strangers from another shore.


These divisions have real and tangible costs: I think of the Korean shop owners who lost everything in the LA riots in 1992 while the Beverly Hills elite enjoyed total comfort. I think of the innocent African American man shot by a Korean shop owner in the same community in the same year because he had learned that because he had been robbed and beaten by Black men, all Black men were threats and he would not be played by one of them again.

But it also has financial ramifications. In talking with a colleague who worked on a major labor campaign with port truck drivers, s/he said one of their failures was assuming that the workers would be more motivated by fair wages than dissuaded by working with the other drivers from different cultures. The Salvadoran driver wouldn’t want to work with Vietnamese drivers whose cabs stank of spicy soup. The African American driver wouldn’t want to work with the Sikh driver who wouldn’t wash the hair under his turban—“it’s against their religion,” he would say fallaciously. The Ghanaian driver wouldn’t want to work with the Mexican drivers because the Mexican drivers gave cuts in line to other Latinos. Their tribalism had gotten them into the country and had often gotten them jobs through a distant cousin who worked for management, and they had little reason to trust people who didn’t trust them. So they continued to work in poverty and unhealthy conditions with precarious job security, because they thought they knew who the enemy was. It was each other. Which protects and preserves power for the people who already have it.

I know that the simple but not easy answer to this quandary is we should get to know each other more deeply, as individuals whose actions are shaped by our culture and are neither right nor wrong.

But I don’t think most of us, and I mean people of color, want to. It’s easier, although mot simpler, to feel hurt and to blame others.

It’s easier, although not simpler, to see our culture as right, not just different (and theirs as wrong, not just different).


So I close this post with two questions:

1)      What would the community look like if we actually knew and respected each other and could ask for what we need in order to be respected?

2)      What would it cost us, and are we willing to give that up?

One thought on “Culture Clash: Why We (People of Color) Get Stuck At “They’re Bad.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: