Let’s play a game. It’s called: Look at my photo, and tell me what you see.
I’ll go first. I see a dude with a head that looks like a bowling ball, who probably shouldn’t have worn a bold checked shirt on picture day, because the photo’s in the paper and online so often that now when he wears it, people probably think, “Geez, it seems like he wears that shirt every day!”
Then there’s this reader, who left me a voicemail Jan. 28 to give thoughts about a column I wrote, and also to expound on my appearance.
“Looking at your mug,” he said, “you appear to be half Ethiopian and half Cambodian. Also, looking at your shaved head and at your physique, put one of those yellow saffron robes that Buddhist monks wear on you and give you a begging bowl, I swear to God, you would pass for a disciple of Lord Buddha anytime. ... You seem to be as different a human being from me as it’s possible to be. But hey, there’s room for us both in this world.”
What’s the proper response here? “Thank you”? “Close but no cigar on my country of origin, but hey, I totally get it – all Asians kinda look the same to me, too”? “You forgot: ‘You also look like you’re a hard worker, a martial artist and a bad driver’ ”?
I’ve written about race in both light and heavy ways for the Observer, but this was a landmark moment for me: It was the first time in 10 years in Charlotte that a reader clearly assumed things about me based solely on my picture.
Then a week later, it happened again.
I’d written a review of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus’s final tour in Charlotte, under a headline that encouraged readers to see the show one last time (Feld Entertainment is shutting it down forever in May), with this as a kicker:
“Yes, on Wednesday night at uptown’s Spectrum Center, I saw something that I don’t see nearly as often as I’d like to in Charlotte: a rich mix of races, colors, religions, creeds, sexes, sexual orientations and ages – all being entertained under one roof at the same time.
“In what’s become a shockingly divisive time in our country’s history, losing a piece of popular culture that promotes so much wonder and awe among such a diverse crowd is a loss for America indeed.”
Plenty of people take issue with whether the circus is appropriate entertainment, and typically reach out to the media when it doesn’t acknowledge that viewpoint. But I’ve never received feedback quite like this.
“Loss for America? I couldn’t disagree more,” a reader wrote in an email to me Monday. “Like the romans watching the christians fed to the lions, this is a spectacle that needed to be put to rest. like other pre-civilization activities. But then again you are asian. They have all kinds of abuses in asian cultures. Primitive, heartless people. Not only do they consume cats and dogs, they keep them in tortuous conditions and absolutely torture them prior to eating them all to make them taste better. No, I couldn’t disagree with you more. But I just consider the source.”
I’m not naive enough to be surprised to hear something like this. But my picture’s been attached to my columns in the Observer for a decade. How have I not heard from people like this before?
One theory, popularized by legal experts and civil rights activists, is that President Trump’s campaign rhetoric emboldened schools of thought about “different” cultures that were once on the fringe in America. That may or may not be true, and that may or may not be fair. But to me, this much is clear: Now more than ever, we’d be better off forming opinions about people based on what they say and how they say it, and not on how they look.