Growing up, I lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, attending majority white schools, surrounded by white friends, and spending weekends sleeping over at their white households. It’s not that there weren’t people of color around me, but I felt drawn towards whiteness at every opportunity. I thought I was happy on this path, but as I grew into my teenage years, my mom would remind me on occasion, seemingly from nowhere: “remember, you are not white.”
[CW: racism, violence]
Her warning seemed absurd at the time. How could someone raised in Maoist China who’d never even seen a white person until after college know anything about race in America? After all, weren’t we taught in social studies class all throughout elementary school and middle school about how we were actually all just people who’ve made it through a troubled history to come together in the present to form a pluralist democracy where people were judged by the content of their character and not the color of the skin? Slavery, Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps were all in the past and this country must have learned its mistakes, right? So why should it matter if I wanted to hang out with only white kids?
White kids seemed to like me. They invited me into their houses to meet their parents and siblings. They ate lunch with me at school. They even traded me their roast beef sandwiches and Gushers for a few bites of the potstickers and fried noodles my grandma made for me. Most importantly, they were clearly so much cooler than those other Asian kids that only hung out with Asians, which made me cooler by association. How can racism be a thing when there are several popular kids at school who were people of color?
It wasn’t until February 2013 during my junior year at Reed College (motto: Communism, Atheism, Free Love), that I fully grasped what my mom was trying to warn me about all those years. It’s not that I didn’t experience racism until that point, but I’d learned early on that compartmentalization and internalization was a reasonably effective strategy for moving through this world. It’s easier not to rock the boat when it appears to be heading where you want it to go. After all, it wasn’t an Asian teenager who was shot to death almost exactly a year earlier, just for wearing a hoodie while walking by a vigilante’s house.
For me, the moment of recognition happened on a school-related Facebook group that in theory, served as a missed connections board that only posted anonymized submissions. In practice, it was a reflection of the majority-white student body’s unchecked id. The post in question read: “Fucking China, first they took our jobs, and now they’re taking our Jenny [name changed to protect their privacy].” This was in reference to a white person who was studying abroad in Beijing for the semester. Shocked at the brazen offensiveness of the post, I replied: “Not that I personally care, but this is really racist.” Obvious internalized racism aside, I think we in 2016 can all agree with this analysis. But at the time, my classmates begged to differ. What ensued was a 70+ comment discussion about whether this was or was not racist and the semantics surrounding the term “racist” over more specific subsets of discrimination. “Well actually, this reads more like xenophobia than racism to me,” read one particularly enlightened individual’s response.
It’s worth noting here that unlike previous incarnations of Yik Yak, this Facebook group only provided anonymity for the original poster. So everyone who commented on this thread was using their real name and actual profile picture to debate whether a person of color had a right to feel offended by a racist comment made by one of their colleagues in a public forum. Glad they could put their liberal arts educations to good use. Let no claim go unchallenged, am I right?
In the grand scheme of things, stakes don’t get much lower than a comments-section squabble over an anonymous Facebook post. But the event itself paled against the aftermath. I kept finding myself surrounded by people whose names and pictures I recognized from that thread in the classes I took, while walking around campus, getting coffee, studying in the library, they were everywhere. This is when I realized that mom was right: I was not one of them and never would be.
In retrospect, this was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Accepting the existence of white supremacy was what enabled me to confront it and decide who and what I wanted to be, on my own terms. In the time since, I’ve made an effort to seek out and listen to marginalized voices. I learned about toxic masculinity. I learned about intersectional feminism. I learned about allyship. And I now have an explanation why I felt so alone through most of high school, despite the fact that I thought I had a lot of friends.
The Democrats’ immediate reaction to what the media described as Donald Trump’s “surprise outcome” was one of shock and dismay. But, as Mayukh Sen wrote in The New Inquiry’s Waking up in Trump’s America series, “For the rest of us, the victory of this fascist is a confirmation of the biases we have known all along, no matter public liberal consciousness’s inabilities to wrangle them into submission.”
In other words, talking to one’s kids about Trump’s win is nothing new for people of color. Whether we listened or not, our parents never stopped telling us about the reality of where we stood. The only thing that’s changed now is that there’s no more denying it, even for privileged children of color, even for white children: America is a white supremacist country. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can confront it and do better.