Would You React Differently If This Person Were a White Man?


Recently I ran into a Chinese woman whose behavior bordered on being barbaric. You see, she’s not just any random person. The way I saw her group dynamic, it’s clear that she held an esteemed position of leadership.

If I understood it correctly, she was the leader of a large group of leaders on vacation. They had a very lively chat near a table where I was working. At the end of it, the woman asked me to take their group photo. The thing was, she insisted that to do so I had to stand on top of a sofa! Would you do that?

I didn’t need to think that over. I immediately responded to her, “No. I won’t do that.” Immediately she took back her camera from my hand, and climbed the sofa herself. No way in my right mind would I ever climb a sofa. But she did. And she didn’t have the slightest hesitation in doing so. I just thought, “What an unseemly sight.”

On a separate occasion, an elderly white man wore shorts throughout an otherwise official event. Can you guess what kind of comments I heard of him? “He’s such a humble person! Look at how down-to-earth he dresses!” and “Liberating!” not to mention “A pioneering and exemplary dress code!” All the while, I hadn’t had a chance to see this man in person.

When in the end I did see him, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Would people still make the same comments were this person, who conducts his business while being under-dressed, not a white man?” Or at least, would the comments be at least somehow still positive? I highly doubt it.

Several weeks ago, I went on an all-day trekking adventure to an outer lying island in Hong Kong. It was very far from the city, extremely hot, and we really exhausted ourselves. At the end of the day, my friends and I were back to the city and took the MTR while craving for food, Pocari Sweat, AC, and bed. In the MTR, at least we’ve got the AC – but not a seat, unfortunately. So my HK friend told me, “Let’s just sit on the floor.”

“Oh, is it OK?” I asked, a bit startled.

“It’s fine. As long as you speak English.”

He then proceeded on elucidating me on a side of HK: how particular behaviors, when committed by someone who speaks with mainland Chinese accent, would be ridiculed, maybe even videotaped and broadcast online where many more people will continue the scorn and bullying. The exact same behaviors though, when committed by a Caucasian, would earn the culprit some degree of respect for being “enlightened”, “modern”, “independent thinker”, etc.

As I’ve had these two striking encounters in a span of less than a month, it occurred to me that it may be a good benchmark to ask the question, “What if this person is a white man? Would I still make the same judgment?” As for climbing a sofa and wearing shorts on a formal event, my response is still the same: these simply aren’t behaviors to aspire to.

Try it yourself and see whether your assessment of the situation is changed by that question.

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