On Being Racist and Asian
I’m going to start by saying that this is a particularly difficult post for me to write. Filial piety is a real thing, and I generally shy away from writing what could be construed as negative portrayals of my parents. However, this topic is too personal and too important for me to not try to have a discourse about. Also, I’m going to preface this by asking for forgiveness first — I am sure that some of my words may be lacking in precision in how I describe race, ethnicity, or even experiences — I’m not writing a political essay, I’m just writing about my own memories.
I was following Tamika Mallory’s Facebook Page (I saw her speak at the Women’s March and was thoroughly impressed — I hope she runs for office), when I came across the following video:
The video struck a deep chord within me not just because it was violent and so horrifically wrong, but because the store owners are Asian.
My dad had for a few years owned a store in Greenwich Village in New York, and I had spent most of my teenage weekends as a cashier there, planted behind the register on a red stuffed couch. I did my homework among “I Survived a New York Cab Ride!!!” T-shirts, fake purses, and, ahem, recreational drugs paraphernalia. It was over those years that I watched how racism slowly molded itself into my father’s gentle soul and has had a lasting effect on myself that I am still realizing in all its reach.
The immigrant Asian community — particularly first generation immigrants — are profoundly racist, at least from my personal experience. Most times it is not a brutal, violent, outwardly hostile type of racism; it is a more likely a withdraw, a silence, a polite nod followed by words muttered to those who share the language nearby. A laugh, a joke at someone’s expense. An unchallenged stereotype passed almost unseeingly from one generation to the next.
Countries like China, South Korea, Japan, and India are fairly homogeneous in terms of race. The Han Chinese is more than 90% of the population in Mainland China, and ethnic diversity is something celebrated in the Olympics and at National Ceremonies — pretty outfits and dances, rather than actual cultural preservation, particularly if the groups are resistant to assimilation (re: Tibetan). Race is not really something people even understand really well — it is not an identity or a construct that is taught in the country’s education system nor in its history. Asian countries also tend to adopt a highly Westernized beauty standard of “lighter is better,” where the prized aesthetic is comprised of fair skin, large eyes, round face and pointy chin, and a general appearance of daintiness and sweetness — the face of obedience. That aesthetic is clearly morphing with modernization, globalization, and more diverse preferences, but is still the dominant imagery. Whitening creams are popular beauty products and are often used to “bleach” the skin to a “crystal like transparent hue.” I call the look “albumen plus.”
This combination of homogeneity and Westernized beauty standards serves as the bedrock for racism in Asian countries. People of color are already seen as being on the bottom of the preferential beauty scale. These preconceptions are pretty good kindling for ignorance and one-off anecdotes that sprout and take root as truths within Asian communities. Stereotypes burrow their way into people’s minds and homes.
When my parents immigrated to New York, they settled in Queens, in a mostly Latino neighborhood. My mom worked as a nurse in Metropolitan Hospital, where her best friend was a 300-lb foul-mouthed black woman who helped her flip patients and curse them out when necessary. My mom found her f-bombs hilarious and often shared anecdotes with us, referring to her as “Big Lady.” But outside of her couple of colleagues at work, my mother barely knew any black people. She was well educated, but her lack of exposure and experience simply didn’t allow her to navigate her own stereotypes with any ability to eventually rise above them. Her image of African Americans in the US came from images of hip hop (which she didn’t understand), the local news she saw, and other Chinese immigrants. While my mom was aware of the history of the Civil Rights movement in the US and loved to watch movies and TV series on African American history and culture, the part of her that wanted to learn and understand through intellectual engagement was outward seeking, and not inwardly critical. When my mom saw Coolio perform Gangstas’ Paradise being at the Grammy’s, she commented “What are all these homeless people doing on stage?” She was disappointed when Obama was elected. Once on the subway, we stood next to two young black teenagers who were joking around and when the train came to a sudden stop, one of them accidentally stepped on her foot and turned to her and said “I’m sorry, Ma’am” very politely, and I saw her look at him with furrowed brows and an icy stare, a fraction of a moment of sheer contempt, before she looked away. These small images pressed against my young mind.
My father’s experience is different, but equally telling and influential to me. My dad only has vague understandings of the history of race in the US. Yes, he knows about slavery and the Civil Rights movement, but not much else. His main experience came from being in Chinatown, where he mingled with other Chinese immigrants and took on their derogatory language and name-calling with an easy, masculine style, the language shared between shop keepers like a bad cigarette. I will tell you that my father is one of the most decent, kind and good human beings alive at heart, but that does not mean he is not flawed. His experience is vastly shaped by the petty crimes that he witnessed while maintaining his store in Greenwich Village. I once saw a young black woman and her friends come in, sift through hats and scarves and gloves, talking to my dad loudly all at once, and I watched as she slipped a pair of sunglasses into her back pocket. I told my dad and he tried to close the door, only to have her and her friends scream in his face. The young woman later promised to come back and “burn the store.” I was there holding my puppy in my arms and watching my father threatened. I remember this incident because I was scared at the time, but also because these are the kinds of selected experiences that colored my father’s own views over time. He was robbed at gun point and stolen from many times, sometimes with physical altercations involved. However, there were also mistakes. He once asked a magnificently dressed black couple who had been looking at felt hats where a particular hat went; the woman smiled and walked straight out the door. My dad later found the hat in another pile. In his mind, however, they were the exception.
These limited experiences meant that despite best intentions, despite being good human beings, my parents had a very narrow view of race. They may have lived in a large urban center, but their personal spheres of interactions with people of color were narrowly defined. They didn’t grow up with diversity; didn’t go to schools where they could be with and interact with people of different backgrounds, and they didn’t speak English well enough to have a diverse group of friends. Immigrant communities can be as homogeneous as isolated, rural communities. So as immigrants, they have by default insulated themselves against personal experiences that can change what they repeatedly have come to know.
As for me, I would like to think that growing up in New York with a fairly liberal upbringing would have allowed me to develop enough self-awareness to extricate myself from the racism that my parents harbored. But if I am honest, to this day I am still finding tendrils of evidence that despite all my efforts, there are biases I am not even fully aware of. While most Asian parents can tolerate their children, especially daughters, dating white men, many will vehemently oppose their kids dating black men or women. The “it’s okay as long as it’s not my child” mentality is prevalent. Inter-racial relationships between blacks and Asians are still in the minority. My father once told me that he would “disown” me if I dated a black man. I didn’t take him seriously, but I also never dated a black man, and I wonder today if that is part coincidence (as I didn’t date very much in general) or part self-censorship, because of my parents. I recently went to a college friend’s wedding, and most of the wedding guests were black, and while I didn’t realize it in college, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t close to a lot of these people — I knew them and we were always cordial — but we weren’t close. And they were amazing people, smart and cool and funny and even more so, they had similar interests as I did — education, poverty reduction, sustainable urban development. I was struck with the clear, painful realization that maybe what prevented me from embracing these individuals when I was younger, truly fully embracing them and seeing them for who they were, was the self-censorship that my parents invisibly passed onto me. Like I said, the special brand of Asian racism isn’t necessarily violent or obviously hostile, it is like a cloak whose purpose is to create a thin yet impenetrable layer between you and another person. It is the missing hand shake, the looking away, the politely clipped conversation and the superficial smile, these are the true killers of the human connection.
As an adult, I’ve learned that overcoming racism, at least in the Asian community, can take years. Sometimes generations. Despite patient conversations that ultimately turn into scream fests at my parents over their total lack of comprehension of Black Lives Matter, I know that the progress they have made, while not enough, is formidable given their backgrounds, education, and the social context they grew up with. The work now rests with me and my future children, and all I can hope is to broaden their experience along with my own, introduce them to diversity as early as possible, and encourage them to embrace others who look different from them — fully. These experiences often have to be crafted intentionally and built with a sense of purpose. I recently watched a video of a mom who buys her two young daughters dolls of different races so they can learn to love representations of different skin colors. It’s a small thing, but children’s memories hinge often on the mundane details in life. In the work teams and organizations I am in, I try to build diverse team and promote minority and female leadership when I can. I will try to engage with the local Black Lives Matter movement. It is the very least I think I can do to create space for diversity and understanding. And I know that I will be fine with whoever my kids date. Unless they date Nazis. Definitely no Nazis allowed.
On that note, there are a few things I’d love to see in the near future: I’d love to see a major video game franchise come out with a black heroine as the lead. I’d love to see Asian American Societies work more closely with African American groups on community building and partnerships, and host cultural learning sessions for immigrants. In addition to the outstanding “Get Out” by Jordan Peele, I would love to see modern takes on films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that explore inter-racial relationships and the inevitable tensions that arise from cultural differences between families.
And I’d love to see more Asian Soul Food. I think we all need some of that deliciousness.