How One Word Sparked a Crisis
A poorly chosen word recently sparked a social media war in an affluent East Coast town. A local yoga studio owner wrote a Social Media post in which she used the word “chinky” to self-effacingly describe her eye shape. She is, to the best of my knowledge, a white woman, and not of Asian heritage.
The subtext that “chinky” aka Asian features were undesirable came across as tone-deaf and insulting, and her Social Media followers attacked her for the word choice. Rather than delete the post and humbly apologize, she then doubled down by posting a video defending herself.
She talked about being teased and bullied as a child for these features, and her self-pity did not play well.
Another local woman was offended on a personal level by the word choice and proceeded to publicly shame her on Social Media, calling her out by name as a racist. She reportedly approached members of the yoga community to rally against the studio owner in what looked an awful lot like a smear campaign.
Subsequent Social Media bullying followed, leading the studio owner to delete her accounts and effectively go into hiding. These “armchair liberals” vented their anger in a torrent of posts and comments, and the level of vitriol was stunning and disheartening.
Why are all these well-off white people so angry, I wondered?
Leaders within the wellness community were pressured to publicly pick a side. Failure to denounce the studio owner (i.e., the villain) would be viewed as an implicit agreement with alleged racism. Publicly chastising her would promote the cycle of anger and shaming, which goes against the purported philosophy of the yoga community.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire prides itself on its liberal values, although roughly 90 % of the town’s population is white. Less than 5 % identify as Asian and around 3 % as black or African American. http://worldpopulationreview.com
The community responded to the Social Media uproar by staging an open meeting in a local co-working space to discuss the controversy. Reportedly, the group was comprised of 20 citizens, 18 of which were white.
I heard about the meeting after the fact, and my next question was, “Who did this help?” There is nothing inherently wrong with a group of people getting together to discuss their views. I was unable to find other attendees willing to share details of the meeting, and can only speculate as to what was accomplished.
This type of meeting could shed a spotlight on the dearth of diversity in Portsmouth or motivate those in attendance to be mindful of their language moving forward. Or, it could just be a room full of white people with the luxury of leisure time to practice yoga talking about how liberal and open-minded they are.
Discussion is a start, but in reality, it is the tip of the iceberg in terms of promoting diversification and tolerance on a broader scale. It is easy to denounce racism from your smartphone, or a hip co-working space while surrounded by your peers, but actually doing something about it is a whole other story.
If affluent white Liberals genuinely want to make a difference, we could follow the example of other U.S. cities and take action to promote diversification and inclusion. A few ideas include:
1. Support initiatives to create affordable housing on a larger scale.
The estimated median home value in Portsmouth is $452,200, which is almost double the national average. zillow.com
The Gateway Zoning Amendment passed in 2017 incentivizes developers in Portsmouth by allowing 50 % additional density in exchange for 10–20 % of units dedicated to affordable housing. A current project will add 27 designated affordable units, which sets a favorable precedent for future endeavors.
80 % of jurisdictions with inclusionary housing programs are located in New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts. California is currently the most diverse state in the country, and New Jersey is fourth on the list. New Hampshire sits near dead last at forty-seventh. https://nextcity.org
2. Partner with Voluntary Agencies to designate Portsmouth as a refugee settlement site.
Manchester NH has been an official refugee-resettlement site since 1994 and welcomed thousands of refugees to its community. https://iine.org
As of 2017, there were over 68 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Perhaps our liberal, upper-middle-class town could squeeze in a few. www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org
Manchester is home to several international community centers, and a plethora of authentic global cuisine including Nepalese, Thai, Indian, Mexican, Hungarian, and African. Exotic and delicious meals may not be enough to convince the public of the benefits of diversification, but it’s undoubtedly a perk in my mind.
For those who are not ready to commit to the thankless work of political activism, another option is to support diversity on an individual level.
I have volunteered as a tutor in inner-city Bridgeport, Connecticut, schools in addition to helping refugees prepare for their GED at the International Institute of New England (https://iine.org/).
I was a Big Sister via BBBS (http://sdbigs.org/) in a diverse San Diego neighborhood. These were rewarding experiences, but admittedly also made me feel good and served as resume and LinkedIn profile boosters.
In writing this story, I realized that I am the epitome of an armchair liberal. I am white, choose to live in a homogeneous community, and love yoga.
Being an armchair liberal takes minimal time or effort. It would be refreshing to see people put their money where their mouth is, with fewer angry social media posts and more concrete plans to effect change.
One local yoga service organization has expanded its reach to Manchester, NH, and Biddeford, ME, both of which are home to more diverse populations than our own. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.
I have been researching how we might host refugees and eventually become an official refugee resettlement site, as well as reaching out to local leaders and city council members.
Most of this was done on a smartphone from the comfort of my overpriced condo, ensconced in a 90% white neighborhood, but it still feels like progress.
I invite other affluent white liberals to join me, roll up their sleeves, and devote their time and financial resources to promoting diversity in a real way. After all, actions speak louder than words.