I’m really enjoying Linda Furiya’s memoir Bento Box In the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood In Whitebread America (2006), but I have a little quibble. During her upbringing in rural Indiana, she experienced many incidents of casual racism. Her memories of comments that stung are poignant; she gives many examples of thoughtless words spoken by white folks that show their clear privilege and outright ignorance.

Furiya tells a story of an older woman comparing Linda and a newly-arrived Vietnamese immigrant girl to china dolls–Linda objects to the phrase and points out to the woman that she is not Chinese. The woman is embarrassed, but doesn’t, I think, fully understand why Linda is so upset. I can see both sides of this–Linda is correct in feeling that the woman’s comment is insensitive (as well as inaccurate), and it certainly illustrates an American ignorance of Asian cultures. However, it was meant very innocently, simply to point out the dark hair of both girls, which was so different and exotic at the time in the Midwest, not as a comment on race. I don’t think the woman meant any harm or insult, and perhaps Linda’s retort would encourage her to think before she spoke in the future.

But why, then, does Furiya use the phrase “Indian summer”? When I was a kid, we would use the phrase “Indian summer” to refer to a warm day or week in late fall, after a cold period. The implied meaning of the phrase, however, is that it is a “false” summer, with the added implication that Indians either can’t be trusted or are easily fooled–the phrase is a racial slur! Obviously, Furiya doesn’t intend it as such, nor do the vast majority of people who use the phrase. But my point is–neither did the woman who called her a china doll! How might someone of Native American descent feel about the phrase “Indian summer”? I suspect, for some, it would raise the same kind of hackles that “china doll” did for Furiya.

I know there are people who say that “liberals” make too much out of this kind of thing, policing what people are “allowed” to say. My response is that it’s not “policing”–it’s empathy. How would you feel if you were in someone else’s shoes? We teach our children not to call people names, and to think before they speak. Some of our adults need to learn the same lesson.

I’m sure there are Native Americans who would say that the phrase refers to the time when Natives would hunt, and therefore it’s not offensive. However, I’m also sure that there are Asians and Asian-Americans who would not be offended by some of the things Furiya mentions. As I said above, I doubt Furiya was even aware of her hypocritical use of a racially-charged phrase. However, I do think it’s good to point out the possible implied meaning of the phrase, just as she pointed it out to the older woman in her story.

I am aware that, as a white person, I occupy a place of privilege in American society, and I try to be conscious of what I say and how it might be perceived. I also hope that, when people point out my missteps they do it in an empathetic way, separating my intentions from any hurt I might inadvertently cause. I feel somewhat awkward pointing out others’ missteps, worried that I might step on toes by speaking for the minority, but I also know that it’s important for white folks to speak out. Ok, now I’m going to go read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

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