This is something I wrote for a class at UCLA.
“American Jews have opted to become white, and this is how they operate…And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life.”
This excerpt, taken from James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies”, is a kind of jarring way of explaining the idea of “whiteness”. This idea of choosing to be white instead of any other race seems rather controversial, but it’s something I can seriously relate to as an Asian-American.
As an ABC(American-born-Chinese), I thought I had seen both sides of the coin — there were the Asians who wanted to assimilate completely into American, or “white”, culture to prosper more and embrace the “model minority” term, and those who held on tightly to their Asian values and culture and lived within tight knit communities of other Asians. However, growing up I’ve realized that it isn’t as simple as two sides of a coin, and often people don’t exactly have a choice on which side they want. On the contrary, I believe there is a healthy spectrum in terms of what level of “whiteness” Asians choose to embrace, and that circumstances out of people’s control play the largest role in determining where on that spectrum they lie.
I’m Chinese-American. I was born into a middle-class family, my father was a professor and my mom a stay-at-home mom. Growing up in a comfortable suburb, most of my friends were white and by a pretty young age, I found myself on one extreme side of the spectrum, having subconsciously made the decision to be white. As I grew into a teenager, I remember trying hard to present myself in a way where other people (not surprisingly, mostly white people) would be able to tell I was cool/white/not-super-Asian. I often looked down on other Asian friends, friends who were nerdier and mostly hung out with other Asian people and who overall seemed, for lack of better wording, more Asian. It wasn’t until college when I really became aware of this mentality that had grown within me — the mentality that I had to make sure I wasn’t grouped together with the other Asian people, because I “wasn’t that Asian, I’m the cool white Asian”. I talked to Asian-Americans from all sorts of backgrounds who you could tell harbored serious resentment towards white people, and I remember thinking, “what’s their deal, white people aren’t that bad”.
But after talking extensively about it with them, I realized it was because my upbringing was so cushy and privileged(shoutout to the Irvine bubble). I had essentially been shielded from the reality of being Asian in the US — I had been shielded from the racism and subjugation that other people experienced daily, and so my perspective was different, and to an extent, almost a lie. I never knew what it felt like to be the only Asian person in the room, as my high school was 50% Asian. I would later joke with my friends that white people were more of a minority.
My journey from wanting to be white to being comfortable with my race and identity is complicated and has a lot of moving parts. The clearest angle that captures this journey can be found in my perception of Chinese culture. Growing up, visiting China was not enjoyable to me — I remember it being gross, filled with mosquitoes, but mostly the people there were rude and didn’t seem to care about what others thought of them. I’m sure my internalized racism played a significant role as well.
But as I became more aware of myself and matured, that changed. I started putting less thought into unimportant parts of my life (most importantly being what others thought of me), priding myself on not giving a fuck, and my perspective on the Chinese culture changed from “they’re rude and gross” to “they really just don’t give a fuck and that’s fucking awesome”. Visiting China last year for work was my first time going their as independent person, and my interactions with the people there were nothing but positive. Chinese people are funny, full of heart, and want to be nice to you, you just need to break through the roughness and “rudeness” on the outside. Also, IMO they seem happier than the people here in America.
Now, looking back I think I went a little too overboard in not giving a fuck, but it was a step in the right direction, just maybe too big of a step. I now find myself feeling more comfortable as an Asian-American, I find myself siding with other Asian-Americans more on issues, small or large, while still being content and accepting with the white part of me that is, for better or for worse, still very much a part of who I am. I’m feel like I’ve reached a good middle on the Asian-to-White spectrum, and am more comfortable with myself than I have ever been.