Dear People of Color, I’m Sorry

My previous post was one of my most popular to date, and the feedback I’ve received from people of color has convinced me that I should write more about race. I guess the first question is: why haven’t I written more about race? There was a time when I cared a lot more about the Asian American experience in white America, but my foray into thinking about race critically never got much deeper than that. For the past five years or so, my understanding of racism in this country has been completely stagnant. Why is that? Part of it is that I devoted almost all of my intellectual efforts to my writing, and I think it’s telling that I wrote about Asian Americans in all of my novels — I did want to be part of the Asian-American narrative. But I still didn’t think deeply about what racism meant to me or how the Asian American experience could be connected to the Black, Latinx, etc. one. I didn’t write about Black Lives Matter, I didn’t express outrage at the fact that white America voted Trump into power, I chose not to get involved in the people of color community at Yale.

To all my fellow people of color, I’m truly sorry. If you would allow me to explain myself, though, there is another reason for my lack of participation. I have been and still am self-racist. Well, that wouldn’t be the accurate term anymore, since there has been a movement in the academic and activist circles to redefine racism as prejudice plus power. When a person of color discriminates against a white person, that is racial prejudice, but it is only when a white person discriminates against a person of color that such discrimination becomes racism. So, since I’m not white, I cannot be racist against myself. Instead, what I have been is a participant in and a victim of white supremacy culture. Let me explain. White supremacy culture is the predominant culture in our society. Its traits are definitely not limited to white people or even to America, but those particular traits are used in our country to shut down minority voices and perpetuate the dominant status of white culture. All my life, I’ve grown up within white supremacy culture, and its effects have been lasting. When I was in high school, I wanted more than anything to have white friends. Unfortunately, white people saw me as a goody two shoes, as someone who spent all her free time studying and playing piano. They never saw me as an equal, and they would often look through me as if I didn’t exist. Well, not all white people. White girls. White guys, on the other hand, sought me out to talk to me, maybe because it gave them a thrill to lure a straight-edge girl into darkness, to see if they could crack my sexuality.

In high school, I cared about things like how many white people were in my Facebook pictures. The more the better. I highly doubt that white people have ever looked at their friends, noticed that they were all white, and wondered if something was wrong with them. I looked at Asian Americans who had mostly Asian friends with disdain. The few Asian Americans who had majority white friends, I looked at with awe and admiration. How had they managed to do it? How had they cracked the code? What did they have that I didn’t? Fortunately for me, in college I dated my first Asian American man, who patiently taught me to embrace my Asian side. And he was tall and handsome and charming, defying the American stereotype of the quiet, skinny, nerdy Asian guy. After dating him, I never saw Asian men the same way again. I developed a newfound attraction to and appreciation for Asian men, because they shared so much of my experience and my culture.

Despite that I started allowing myself to indulge in the Asian part of my culture, however, I was and still am very “self-racist”. I’ll admit, it continues to offend me to this day when someone comments on how Asian I am. I often claim proudly that I am interested in Asian culture the way white people are interested in it — I like the sightseeing and the food and the raw feeling of a developing country, but I’m not at all connected with Asian current events or pop culture or politics. I love visiting Asia, but only as a tourist, and I’m happy when Chinese people think I’m Korean because I fumbled so much asking for one coconut in Mandarin (I ended up asking for yige zhege). When I traveled in Asia with my dad, I let him do all the talking for me, even when I could easily have spoken up. I really struggle to speak to anyone except for my mother in Mandarin. That’s not something to be proud of at all! It’s shameful. If I really think about it, I am incredibly grateful that my mom forced me to speak Mandarin to her, and my Mandarin is good enough to communicate most things. If I really think about it, I’m really proud that my Mandarin was good enough that I translated an entire personal statement about my immigration client’s domestic abuse. If I really think about it, I’m really proud that I was able to overcome my fear of talking to Chinese people in Chinese when I was in China last, because my siblings depended on me.

I would be remiss to say that I have any real understanding of what it means to be a Chinese person. My experience of China has mainly been cheap massages in fancy massage parlors.

So why does a part of me still believe that being a white-washed Asian American is a good thing? Let me tell you why: white supremacy culture. Dear white people, racism isn’t just the KKK or your senile anti-semitic grandma or Donald Trump and his supporters. That kind of overt racism is certainly harmful and can lead to death. But subtle racism can have more long-term effects, simply because it’s easier to recognize and reject overt racism, but subtle racism unknowingly changes how a person of color sees herself. Dear white people, every time a person of color writes about her experience with white supremacy culture and you are offended and imply that she shouldn’t write like that, that is racism. Every time a person of color writes about racism and white privilege and you call her racist and deny having white privilege, that is racism. Every time you try to argue with a person about the definition of racism and white privilege, that is racism. Every time you try to flip the conversation and accuse people of color of making you uncomfortable, that is racism.

Every time a Jewish person makes a joke about eating Chinese food on Christmas, that is racism. Jewish people may think that Chinese restaurants are open for Christmas because, like them, Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s not why. Poor, uneducated Asian Americans are among the most underprivileged groups in the United States. They do not benefit from the model minority myth. Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas because they’re open on every holiday, including the Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Day, National Day. They’re open on every holiday because they need the income and now, because of white supremacy culture, they’re expected to be.  You are essentially making a joke about people who are a cut above slave laborers and victims of human trafficking. I know for a fact that some of them are literally mail order brides, because I’ve represented them in court. Instead of making jokes about Chinese food on Christmas, try avoiding Chinese food on Christmas. Go on another day. If you must go, instead of laughing about it, try expressing sympathy for the workers who, unlike you, have to work on Christmas.

Dear people of color, I’m sorry. I’ve been silent too long for fear of upsetting my very white community, for fear of uttering the two words “white people”. I’ve been ignorant too long of how white supremacy culture has affected me. I’ve been too slow to join my fellow people of color in the fight against oppression. But I promise to be better. I have to be better, because white America is so, so racist and it’s only getting worse. I have to be better, because my children will grow up surrounded by racism, and it’s highly likely that they will be racist themselves. Can biracial children be racist? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.

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2 thoughts on “Dear People of Color, I’m Sorry

  1. Not sure if you remember me but thank you for writing this. This really resonated with me. I too have perpetuated white supremacy culture. I used to, and still do to some extent, push back against Chinese culture and made an effort to seem more “American.” In addition to the outrage I felt during last year’s election cycle and Trump’s eventual victory, was a deep shame and guilt that I had, in effect, contributed by turning my back on our people and culture throughout my life. Thanks again for writing this!

    • Frank from Transformers? Of course I remember you! Thanks for your words of encouragement. Unfortunately, I think all Asian Americans have roughly this same experience. I see your photos on Facebook — seems like you’re doing well. Your daughter is freaking adorable!!

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