probationary whiteness

On Monday morning, news broke that a United passenger had been forcibly removed from a plane. The passenger, an older Asian man, had refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight.

I wasn’t outraged or horrified when I first saw this. I muttered and texted petty pieties about how awful it was, and then I moved on. Every day brings a new litany of horrors, and like many of us, I ignore almost all of them. I even laughed at a couple of the jokes on Twitter about the United incident.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I followed up on the story, and I only did so because the headline was so outrageous as to be literally unbelievable. “New Video Shows Bloodied United Airlines Passenger Saying ‘Please Kill Me’,” it read. It was real. The footage showed me exactly what the headline said it would.

I don’t know know how many times I watched and rewatched that clip before it hit me: The man (graying, Asian, bespectacled) looked like my own father.

The realities of race in America rarely intrude on my multiracial family, shielded as we are by the magic of being solidly upper-class in a wealthy suburb. My dad was born in Japan, but raised here since the age of two. His English is impeccable. My parents have told me stories of being discriminated against as an interracial couple, but the stories are all decades-old and far away. Occasionally, we run into some mishap — a tour guide mistakes us for a school group, a man says “Welcome to America” to my father — but we’re rarely jarred for long. These stories become talismans, used to reaffirm our familial bond and to situate ourselves outside of the traditional racial hierarchy. I don’t know if my siblings even identify as Asian-American. I do know that when the Asian community in Chicago was marching to protest police brutality, no one in my family said a word.

I don’t know how to describe the first feeling I had while watching that man ask to go home, except to say that if you’ve felt it, you know it too: Oh my god, that could’ve been Dad. There was a second thought, right on its heels, that makes me hot with shame to remember even now: No, that would never happen to him. His English is much better.

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