Race at the Olympics

By Katie Van Loo 8-20-2008

I can't go anywhere these days without hearing about the Olympics ("Michael Phelps this, Michael Phelps that." Thank God my friend finally told me who Michael Phelps is). But it wasn't until I was over on Eugene Cho's blog the other day that my interest was thoroughly piqued. Cho posted a photo of the Spanish men's basketball team "making their eyes Chinese," along with his response. (I encourage you to check out Cho's honest and articulate posts -- he has since written a second one -- and the open conversation they have sparked.)

The New York Times has thoroughly covered the incident. The photo was an ad in a Spanish newspaper that also included an identical photo of the women's basketball team. In order to assuage some of the reactionary discomfort surrounding the ad, the Spanish teams have alluded that it was an "affectionate gesture" between the teams and their Chinese sponsor, Li-Ning footwear company. And as a response to critical accusations from those offended by the ad, we are reminded that the Chinese embassy in Spain does not find it to be racist or offensive.

This seems to imply that everyone else is overreacting: "Look! Even China doesn't care!" However, I see China's willingness to overlook the incident as a diplomatic consequence rather than an admission that the act is not a racially loaded and dangerous one. Don't get me wrong -- I'm glad we don't feel the need to start official conflicts over such things. Being able to recognize intention, distinguish between actions and actors, and, above all, gracefully forgive are hallmarks of mature relationships. But this does not equal rendering the act as "okay" and inoffensive. How do we keep from sacrificing loving accountability for diplomatic tolerance? Or more bluntly, how do we say a racist act is wrong but forgiven, rather than ignore the offended and excuse racism for the sake of appearances?

Let's bring this down a level: Suppose an acquaintance of mine says to me, with a wink, "Katie, thanks for helping with cleanup. You're such a good, subservient Asian girl." Now, I will not punch her in the face and declare her my enemy. However, I most certainly will put an affectionate arm around her shoulders and have a word. It might sound like this ("what I'd say" = "what I'd mean"):

"Ha, ha" = "I can see how you might think that's funny and clever because I'm Asian and it's an Asian stereotype."

"I'm glad we're friends" = "I believe relationships should be dealt with lovingly. So, I'm not going to punch you in the face."

"But let me tell you why you're wrong" = "But it's not okay. And I am going to use this opportunity to help you understand how and why this hurts people, especially those who are not your friends, because they probably won't do that. But, they might punch you in your possibly well-intentioned but ignorant face."

Or something like that. My point is, whether or not the Spanish teams meant nothing bad by the gesture and whether or not the Chinese embassy accepts this, it is still wrong. It offends someone. It misleads someone into thinking it's okay. It reinforces stereotypes. And it reduces all of someone's pain that was borne out of the history of such a gesture, such a stereotype, down to a couple of very public photos and a shrugged-off worldwide response. This is what matters.

I am a former student who studied cultural identity and stereotyping and am a Christian who seeks opportunities for reconciliation. Thus my initial reaction upon reading Cho's blog post was to displace blame (we are all at fault for racism), rigorously find and attack the root problem (Institutions! Apathy! Ignorance!), and mend relationships (let this bring us together rather than divide us further). But I am also an adopted Korean woman living in the United States. I have endured demeaning comments from men ("speak Japanese to me and giggle!"); I have struggled at childhood "beauty parlor" parties because my face didn't follow the Caucasian fashion magazine rules; I have had good grades discounted because studying and science are "in my racial DNA;" and I have, of course, been subject to people slanting their eyes at me. So when I read Cho's most recent post about the topic, I took the time to stop thinking and theorizing and problem-solving. Instead I simply looked at the picture of (this time) the Spanish women's tennis team slanting their eyes at the camera. And I have to be honest, it hurt.

Katie Van Loo, a former Sojourners intern, lives in Washington, D.C.

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