Challenging racial stereotypes

February 2, 2020


"I use every moment that I can with the kids as a teaching opportunity.”

I grew up as a third culture kid, right? And if you delve into specifically what that is, they are folks who live in so many different cultures, that the fact that they're moving as much really becomes their narrative. So in that, I found significant comfort in being able to really just blend into situations and things like that. However, the college that I attended had a sizable international population. So, as is the immigrant story of so many generations of folks, you tend to kind of get close to those folks who have shared similar experiences.

But it was kind of the time when the association of folks who were from the Southeast Asian continent was closely tied to Apu in Simpsons, right? And then also with some other flavoring and smattering somewhere along the lines, and now we have this character who's synonymous with everyone that looks like this. So, I remember being in social settings and having those sorts of conversations, and people swapping into accents and whatnot, and I'd laugh the thing off because, frankly, some of the jokes were actually pretty funny, got to be honest with you on that one. But in hindsight, also, if we are then to think that we are truly moving towards a post-racial America, right? A lot of folks will say that we are in a post-racial America, because well, congratulations, we had a black man as president. Well, that means nothing, right?

Let me give you this example. So we're in the grocery store, right? And I'm in line with my oldest boy, Liam. Smart, smart, smart, little guy. And there's a lady in front of us, and I remember this because she had the red cap on, had this shirt on about, you know, America is great and all this other stuff, and there was some expletive about Hillary Clinton, okay? I'm just watching this and my son's eyes are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger as he's reading this, and looks at me and he's like, [makes gaping face]. And I'm like, 'Yeah, I saw that.' And then he must have mentioned it loud enough that this lady turned around, looked at the both of us, and I knew at that moment, I'm like, 'Okay, I'm not going to look down or look away, I'm just going to look at her,' right? Because it's like, 'Okay, well, you felt empowered enough to dress like this. So where's this gonna go?' And she looks at me, and she said incredibly the most insensitive thing, which just completely surprised me, and I'm here with like, a 10-year-old, right? I mean, she says to me, she's like, "Well what the ---- are you staring at?"

And I looked at her and I'm like, "Excuse me, miss, I have a 10-year-old here with me." She looked at him and said, "I don't care." And then went down the narrative of, 'this is America,' and all of this other - and this is South Bend, Indiana. So I just looked at her, and when she was done with her tirade, I said, 'Hmm,' because I reflect on myself and I'm like, my son's watching. I said, "Well, you know, ma'am, thank you for your thoughts, but I know you don't think that when you come in to see people like me for your medication. I know you don't come in and act like this when you're in class being taught by folks like me. And I know you sure don't do that when you come into our restaurants." She didn't know what to say. And she heard the way I spoke English, and it was completely accentless. And I hope at that moment, she had clarity and reflection on her own meaning. I doubt it. But it is what it is. So I use every moment that I can with the kids as a teaching opportunity.

About the interviewer

John (Jack) Lyons is a member of the Class of 2021 at the University of Notre Dame. He majors in theology and is a member of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy.

Chris Abayasinghe

Chris Abayashinghe is the Senior Director of Campus Dining at the University of Notre Dame. Before Notre Dame, he held similar positions at Williams College and Eastern Connecticut State University. He is a citizen of Sri Lanka.