Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
June 6th, 2020
Society
#2,307

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The main course

Who am I to comment on the terrible things that keep happening in this country? Me, I’m just someone who’s lived a sampler platter of a life. I have just enough musical talent for the honkytonk pianos at the airport, but not enough to survive another lesson. I had Tourette syndrome just enough to be teased at school, but not enough to need medication. I’ve crisscrossed the U.S. enough times to amass a mound of maps, but I was so clueless on my first visit to Europe, two years ago, that I needed help turning on the lights in my hotel room.

I’ve experienced just enough racism to know it still flourishes in this country. As an Asian American growing up in a nearly all-white, conservative Ohio town, I got to know the stereotypes pretty well. My grade school initially dumped me in a remedial English class assuming I didn’t speak my only language. (What I actually needed help with was math.) If I missed a pop culture reference, it was because I needed to “learn more about America”, my country of birth, not because I’m a bookworm. There was the time a white classmate assumed I was a Democrat because I’m non-white, then half-jokingly ridiculed me for sympathizing with slaveowners. (If that sounds absurd, consider that American history teachers dwell on antebellum politics, but they skip the civil rights movement and party realignment of the 1960s, ostensibly for lack of time.)

Racial profiling is not an abstract concept for me or my family. For example, when the town redid the street outside our neighborhood, they stationed a white police officer there for a week to enforce a “Local Traffic Only” sign. The only person she pulled over was my father on his way home. She refused to acknowledge that he lived in our tidy suburban neighborhood. Instead, she booked him and falsely accused him of assaulting her. Ultimately, he got the citations thrown out in Mayor’s Court, but that incident colored our impression of Loveland as just another Reading.

I wonder: do white parents berate their 10-year-old children for leaving a convenience store without a receipt as proof of purchase, worried that, next time, the store clerk will turn around and call the cops on them for shoplifting? I still think of that eagle-eyed store clerk every time a gas pump runs out of receipt paper.

In Ohio, most adults described racial profiling as a hypothesis, the race card as a certainty, and racism in the past tense. That made it difficult to share a different perspective candidly. I do use the past tense to describe these experiences of mine, because upon moving to California and finding a job in Silicon Valley, I’m technically no longer underrepresented and most of the racism I experience is much more subtle. In a sense, I’ve escaped, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

Sampler

I’m writing about these experiences not because I want your pity, but rather because I don’t want anyone I know to be complacent about racism in this country. It would hit close to home if you knew how it affects the friends and acquaintances of yours who have to suppress their frustration like I suppress my Tourette ticks, just to get on with life. Racism needs to be acknowledged and addressed, led by those who aren’t its victims. As a society, we need to work on not only the symptoms, like racial profiling and excessive use of force, but also the pernicious lack of representation that leads to it. For me, as a coder, addressing the lack of visibility and fair representation is how I can most readily make a dent in systemic racism, because increasingly people rely on software and online services as gateways to society.

When I started working in earnest on Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap and later joined Code for San José, I thought my efforts were about narrowing the digital divide and plugging holes in education, but it turns out everything is interrelated. Now the challenge is to make these open source projects more authentic: not just for marginalized communities but, more importantly, with these communities. An effective code of conduct against harassment is now a baseline expectation, not much to write home about. But what to do about a project that celebrates outdoor mapping as the gold standard, looking down on “armchair” mapping, when a Black person wouldn’t necessarily feel safe surveying by foot or by car in their own neighborhood, let alone an unfamiliar one?

It would be wrong for me to say I feel anything like the weight of racism that the Black community faces in this country – that would be like saying I know what it’s like to be hospitalized for COVID-19 because I had a nasty cold in March. None of the encounters I described above were life-or-death situations, because the model minority myth shields Asian Americans even as it stifles us. I even have the luxury of nostalgia for the town that sometimes embraced and sometimes slighted me. But that awareness makes me all the more concerned about people who are served the full entrée, and more determined to do something about it.


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