The Devil Wears J.Crew: Exploring the Trauma of Forced Assimilation

Donald Trump has shocked and disgusted like no US presidential candidate before him. His comments on women and minority groups, particularly Africans Americans and Latinos, have drawn international condemnation. His plans to cherry pick immigrants based on their ability to successfully assimilate have been widely panned. There has been endless hand wringing over what Trump — and his continued popularity — means for America.

But he’s hardly alone. Across the United States and Europe, we have witnessed a stark rise in anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment. And at a time when discourse on xenophobia, racism, and nativism abounds, it is crucial to share personal stories that counter conventional narratives about diversity, assimilation, and inclusion.

I’m what many call an 1.5 generation immigrant, someone who came to the US as a very young child. Unlike the popular perceptions of Asian privilege, I grew up poor in an inner-city neighborhood plagued with violence, poor-performing schools, and a crumbling public infrastructure. As soon as my parents were able to secure better paying jobs, they did what many immigrants had done before them, and moved to neighboring suburbs.

Ironically, my transition from the inner-city to the suburbs was traumatic. My sister and I, as well as my cousins, had been integrated into largely African-American working class neighborhoods and inner-city Catholic schools. Many of us were raised by grandmothers, aunties, and uncles while our parents worked brutally long hours at menial jobs for very little pay. We largely fended for ourselves, riding public buses home on our own and playing outside together in our crumbling, forgotten neighborhoods and parks after school.

The suburbs felt shockingly different by comparison. There were never ending rows of well-maintained houses and perfectly manicured green lawns. Everyone drove cars and there was a stark absence of public transportation. Children seemed to play outside only when their parents were around.

I also felt different in the suburbs. My brown skin and black hair felt alien in a homogeneous sea of whiteness. My discount store clothes and shoes felt dingy and cheap. My parents’ accents felt heavy and embarrassing. And in a suburban public school, I was an anomaly.

It wasn’t simply about not fitting-in. I was indeed the only person of color in a school full of hundreds of white students. But aside from the routine puzzled stares, no one seemed interested in my life experiences, my perspective on the issues of the day, or my insight or opinion. I was nothing more than an outsider, the “brown” girl who sat in the front of the class and wore thick goofy glasses. I also didn’t know anyone and couldn’t relate to the discussions about boys, clothes, cars, malls, and football games. It was all so unfamiliar, so utterly foreign.

Overwhelmed by my sudden, deep, and troubling consciousness of physical and material difference, I felt alienated from those around me at school. It wasn’t that I was taunted, bullied, or teased openly for the color of my skin or the shoes I wore. Instead, I was simply ignored and isolated. And it didn’t seem to matter whether I felt any sense of belonging or connection to those around me.

Recognizing my discomfort, my parents looked for other options and I won a full scholarship to attend a well-regarded private high school. It was a watershed moment for me academically and socially. I was introduced to all the trappings of what many consider to be upper-middle class educational and social privilege. I connected deeply with my teachers; I devoured works by Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, and Jack Kerouac among others; I took up the french horn; I found a passion for painting; and I was able to try out for various sports without worrying about the costs of participating. I was exposed to the kinds of curricula and experiences that would better prepare me to move up in American society.

The social transition from public to private school, at first, didn’t seem too remarkable. However, I soon realized that most of my classmates were very well-off, living in a world that seemed so distinct from mine. I was stunned by the largesse of my peers’ homes, some palatial structures located on several acres of land. I was not ready for the birthday parties at country clubs or on yachts, where on several occasions I was mistaken for custodial staff. And I was in disbelief when my peers received fancy SUVs and horses when they turned sixteen. I wasn’t jealous. I was in shock.

Although my participation was encouraged, it was predicated on an unspoken covenant of conformance. I was expected to act, dress, and talk in ways that validated a post-racial, elite, politically conscious, and progressive social order. In essence, I was supposed to assimilate, and fully. I feared being shunned and shamed for holding onto any kind of racialized or working class identity.

My classmates, decked out in their J. Crew classic chinos and fair isle sweaters in rusty aubergine and chestnut canvas, evoked the quintessential New England, preppy, Ivy League lifestyle, wherein my background had no place. They, much like J. Crew catalogs, seemed to promote an aspirational lifestyle and group membership based on upper middle-class American ideals and values — rugged individualism, class mobility, and social tolerance.

But this ideology is devilishly deceptive. People like me are meant to be proof of the benefits of forced assimilation by way of a remarkable liberal education that fosters ambition, intellectual elitism, and social advancement. I was accepted so long as I could assimilate fully to upper middle-class whiteness because that was understood to be the only way someone like me could be successful, happy, and American.

But assimilation does not guarantee equality or inclusion. It silences and erases rich individual and collective identities as well as neglects the continuing legacies of economic oppression and racism in favor of a post-racial ideal that promotes social freedom and material prosperity. Assimilation is about forgetting the past and celebrating a diverse present.

This type of ideology can lead to debilitating and harmful consequences precisely because it erases and trivializes the trauma, violence, and abjectivity of racial and class assimilation. More importantly, it promotes the thinking that educational and economic success are protective factors against class and racial privilege, when in fact, they are not and have never been. Diversity by way of assimilation is a superficial aesthetic, much like the glossy spreads of J. Crew catalogs where one or two token models of color are seen running errands in navy blazers or casually brunching with (white) friends in a perfectly tailored lace shift dress.

True diversity, outside the confines of assimilation, has the potential to reconfigure these blind spots. Integration can be a realistic goal if we celebrate our differing perceptions, histories, backgrounds, and experiences; discuss openly the ever-widening social and economic inequalities; and take concrete action against increasingly inflexible racial and class hierarchies. Ultimately, such renderings of diversity and integration can serve to dismantle the very idea of assimilation as the only path to equality.

I have managed to move forward and pursue my aspirations, yet I often reflect on the trauma of cultural assimilation and the overwhelming pressure of negotiating race and class that affects so many of us. Such reflections constitute just the initial step of better understandings of class and racial privilege and power. I hope that more of us, not just those who are disenfranchised, can engage in these personal reflections and outward discussions–especially at a time when so much seems to be hanging in the balance.

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