One afternoon, early in my teaching career, I was out on lunch duty with one of my school administrators, a white man. We were tentatively broaching the subject of race when he turned to me, smiling, and said, “I don’t see you as Chinese. I see you as white.”
I was shocked, I didn’t know how to respond. So, I think I just nodded stupidly as he explained his reasoning. Sadly, this is not the only time someone has made a similar comment: I don’t think of you as Asian. I never noticed you were Chinese. I think of you as white. And worse, it is usually said while laughing. Deep down, it is meant as a compliment.
Well, world, if you didn’t already know, I am Chinese. I am Asian.
I am a person of color.
And I am most definitely not white.
In our country’s black-white paradigm, conceptualizations of race and inequity are understood on black and white terms. It shapes our dialogue. Although this binary understanding of race does not encompass the racialized realities and histories of all people of color, those of us who do not fit in either box are understood within this paradigm too.
However, Asian Americans are often cast as outsiders. No matter our personal histories, we are considered perpetual foreigners. The Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, and modern day fears that Asians are more loyal to their ancestral countries are only a few manifestations of this underlying belief. It lives in the questions, “Where are you from?…No, where are you really from?” and the insults, “Go back to China!” It is alive in every conversation that starts with, “You’re from ___, right?” or “I wanted to talk to you about, I was just in, I ate food from [insert name of an Asian country here]” and every person who has ever greeted an Asian stranger with a word or phrase from a random Asian language. Oh, and stick the inability to recognize or distinguish between different Asian ethnicities in there too.
It lives in Chris Rock’s crude Asian jokes at an Oscars that was supposed to bring awareness to issues of diversity in Hollywood.
It lives in the time one of my closest students asked me why I taught English and responded with an embarrassed nod when I called her on it by asking, “Why, because I’m Chinese?” You speak English so well, she said, most Asian people don’t speak English.
It lives in every time someone tells me I look like Lucy Liu; in the time I met Andy’s classmate and she reacted with shock, you do not look how I expected you to look! Are you ASIAN? Don’t you think you should have told us your wife was Asian, Andy?
It lives in my self-consciousness every time I speak, in public, to my son in Chinese. I always follow my words with the English translation; I worry people will think I don’t speak English. It is my way of whistling Vivaldi.
While there are many negative effects of the foreign positioning of Asian Americans, one significant consequence is of excluding us from the racial discourse. We are neither black nor white, American nor minority. We become invisible. Expendable.
The “Model Minority”: A Tool to Uphold the Status Quo
When Asian Americans are considered as part of the black-white paradigm, we are positioned on either side, depending on context and whatever will benefit the hegemony. In the mid-19th century and early 20th century, the courts classified us blacks. Asians were subject to violence, lynched and murdered. They faced discrimination in housing, employment, education and inequitable access to public institutions. After the Civil War, plantation owners pitted Asians against Black workers to maintain control of “employment” terms and wages. The rhetoric against Chinese immigration parallels the attacks against Mexican and Latin American immigrants today. Hate-mongering fear tactics were employed liberally.
In previous decades, Asian Americans were repositioned as not black, not white, but something more along the lines of better than black. The term “model minority” was first published in the popular press in 1966, not coincidentally, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. The article painted Japanese Americans as people who became successful without help from others; they were praised for not becoming a “problem minority.” Unstated, but clearly conveyed was the message, unlike the Blacks. Unsurprisingly, the idea of poverty as a cultural phenomenon began to spread during the Civil Rights movement as well. Poverty and the so-called “culture of poverty” were associated with Blacks, while Asians were upheld as examples of good culture and success. Asians were used to show that the notion of meritocracy was alive in the United States, thus undermining the movement against inequity and racism.
In more recent years, the Asian position has been shifted again. This time we are not black, not white, but other. A threat to everyone. Tiger moms and a portrait of overbearing Asian culture (how conveniently the culture argument is flipped to support the needs of those in power!) have become the most recent construct. Last weekend, I sat shocked, Andy tightly gripping my hand, as men and women around me blamed Asian families and Asian culture for the anxiety, stress and teen suicides in Palo Alto schools. “Our students,” the argument went, can’t compete with the pressure those Asian parents put on their kids. Us vs. them. At least in the Bay Area, White flight is no longer just away from Black people; it is away from Asians too. Just below the polished surface are the beliefs so vividly depicted in propaganda from over a hundred years ago.
Creating rifts between disenfranchised peoples is an oft repeated and tragically effective tactic. The model minority construct pits Asians against other people of color to silence those who stand up against racial injustice. The tiger mom stereotype pits Asians against everyone. There is a clear beneficiary in this dichotomy and it is not people of color. Look at the LA riots of ’92. These tactics divide people who should be united. They divert attention from real issues. They use Asians as tools to perpetuate the inequitable structure of white dominance and privilege in our society.
As a result, the hegemony remains intact. And, Asians as a whole are stuck in a racial no man’s land: not always welcomed by other people of color and used to keep power and privilege in white hands. I feel this acutely in every new social situation I enter. If I’m at an education or social justice conference, I feel like I have to prove my color; if I’m around mostly white people, I’m viewed in whatever way makes them more comfortable. Asians are objects of distrust from all ends of the spectrum. Or, we are completely overlooked.
The Racism of Invisibility
Manifestations of systematic and interpersonal racism differ for varying groups of people. I don’t believe it is possible to compare oppression or the effects of racism. I also recognize that as a Chinese woman, I have some privileges that other people of color do not. I don’t get stopped for walking down the street. I’m not afraid of being shot by the police if I get pulled over, laugh loudly at a pool party, or play in the street with my son. The no man’s land positioning can make it harder to fit in anywhere, but this also means that it is possible for me to be accepted – over time and if I put in the work – in a wider range of situations.
However, this doesn’t make the systematic racism against Asian Americans any less real or destructive. Like any form of racism, invisibility is a silencing of our voices. Our histories, diverse ethnicities and nationalities, cultures and racial reality are erased. Look at what happened last month during Black History month and Chinese New Year at the Sacramento Kings game. It is a rejection of our collective and individual experiences strengths and needs. It is division. Discrimination. Collective disempowerment.
It allows a caricature of reality to be used to perpetuate our existing institutions and structures. Invisibility maintains the status quo.
To My Asian Brothers and Sisters
To those that have internally aligned themselves on the White end of the paradigm, you are perpetuating a system that harms you. Distancing yourself from other people of color does not place you in a position of superiority, nor will it help you be more accepted. You are not White. Professing blindness to the reality of race and the importance of confronting racism is shutting your eyes to issues you know have a significant impact on your life. You know race matters, but hope ignoring it will make it false. You know it when people start ching-chonging at you on the street, pulling their eyelids into slants and doing kung-fu around you. You know it when everyone around you at the market receives service first. You know it when you’re told you’re acting white or that you aren’t authentically Asian enough. You know it when people talk over you, interrupt you and never seem to hear your voice. You know it when you, and other Asian people aren’t promoted at work. You know it when you or your children learned basically nothing about Asian history at school, and when you can’t find books featuring Asians for your kids to read. You know it when you look at the media and only see yourself in hyper-stereotyped roles, as the villain, or hm…not at all. You know it when you look at the faces of leaders in every field and barely see any that look like you. You know it, and I’ve heard it, when you get together with other Asians and commiserate about your shared experiences of overt discrimination and covert identity politics.
We cannot be bystanders with blinders. We cannot enable the divide. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency and used to perpetuate the status quo. Let’s speak up. It’s past time to rock the boat.
To those who have found their voices and are speaking up, teach me how and show me the way. Let us stand together, let me learn from you. I have so much to learn. Let me join your growing voice and help to build our collective strength.
So, no, don’t tell me you think of me as White. Don’t tell me you never think of me as Chinese. See me.
I am Chinese. I am Asian. I am a person of color. And I am proud.
I am not White. Nor am I Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, Polynesian or Native American.
And, I’m trying to see you too.
What happened with my former administrator? He fully supported me as I worked to address issues of race and equity at our school. He gave me rein to build a restorative support system, facilitate staff development around equity and restorative justice, lead focus groups, work with parents and create a social justice class at our school. He has worked closely with the National Equity Project. He is becoming an ally.
We cannot dismantle the racism and inequity steeped so deeply into our roots alone. We must stand against the narratives that would ignore or divide us. And we must stand together. Let us be allies for each other.