When I was in 5th grade, my classmates assumed my diet consisted exclusively of rice. When I was in 8th grade, my friends called me the human calculator because I had squinty eyes and was good at math. When I was in high school, I walked past a dog and someone yelled at me not to eat it. Last week, I was on the phone with my mom speaking Vietnamese. After I hung up, my friends attempted to paraphrase the conversation by saying, “Ching chong ching.”
My parents taught me many things: compassion, perseverance, empathy. However, what they failed to teach me was how to identify ignorance and shut down prejudice. The unifying factor in every stereotype placed in front me is that each comment was said to me as a joke, and I justified the message because of the median.
If you were to ask your friend, your neighbor, even yourself, if they are a racist, each answer would probably be “no.” Bigotry today is pictured as a large mouth with furrowed brows and an unwavering finger pointed at beliefs on a glorified pedestal. I thought racism existed outside of my community; they were perverse individuals I hoped I never had to meet. Racism, however, is not exclusively supremacists saturating media and violence plastering headlines. Prejudice today wears no mask and has no guise; it can be as simple as the everyday conversations we have.
You see, no one ever told me these jokes were harmful. In the moment, each joke seemed innocent, playful even. In the back of my mind, I knew it didn’t sit right, but I was too afraid to say, “Hey that’s pretty racist of you to say that.” Instead, I would often join in on my classmates’ banter, making numerous quips about myself, playing into various stereotypes. Bigotry disguised as humor, especially at a young age, appears harmless, encouraged—celebrated even—yet is anything but. Up until now, I didn’t realize I was perpetuating an image in a generation desperate to promote equality and shed ignorance.
As I’ve gotten older, derogatory comments directed at me or other ethnicities began to exponentially bother me. Why did people think this was okay to say to me? To other races? Then I realized I’ve been participating in this behavior since the day in 5th grade that Crystal joked I had rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and I never stood up to her.
Gil Greenhouse, PhD in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, explains why this behavior followed me and many other marginalized groups throughout life. He explores the “Normative Window Theory of Prejudice” suggested by Chris Crandall and colleagues. Greenhouse describes the theory as placing social groups on a scale based on the basis of how legitimate it is to discriminate against them. For example, those that are sexist and participate in sexist jokes are more likely to advocate for sexist events, such as accepting rape myth and showing higher tendencies to discriminate against women. This is equally applicable in terms of targeting minorities in comedy. The problem with this is that seemingly harmless jokes in this case can be racist humor, which then “releases inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.” 
Simply put, “innocent” jokes lead to normalizing and promoting discriminatory behavior.
I allowed, and made, disparaging jokes about my ethnicity and other minorities because I thought it was innocent. Now I understand the true implications. It’s not okay to joke that I always eat rice, or that someone made the basketball team just because of their skin color. Someone else making these seemingly innocent jokes may say more about how that person views other not so seemingly innocent actions mentioned above.
I don’t have to be a raving televised tiki torch to be considered intolerant, but participating in “harmless” racial humor doesn’t make me any more tolerant. I will stop self-deprecating jokes geared towards marginalized races, and I will stop others from starting. In doing so, I hope to not only set behavioral expectations, but to inspire that young girl growing up that was too naive to stand up for herself.