My ethnic makeup is 50 percent Chinese (mainland) and 50 percent white (European mutt). Even as I write this, I feel the need to apologize for the invalidity of my POC experience because I can and do pass as white. Moreover, while East Asians in the U.S. have certainly dealt with historical discrimination and present-day bigotry, East Asians’ current position in the United States’ system of racial oppression affords us higher privilege than Black and brown folks, who are far more often victims of poverty, police brutality
I am definitely closer
When I attended Chinese school on Saturdays from age 6 to age 11, I stuck out like a sore (white) thumb. I was constantly singled out for being, in their words, “so
Now I am an adult who speaks three languages, none of them Mandarin. I’m not Chinese-looking enough for people to expect me to speak it, but I feel Chinese enough to be guilty that I don’t. I jokingly refer to myself as ethnically ambiguous, as the question I often field from strangers and acquaintances is: “So like…what are you?” Only after leaving the California Bay Area (where East Asians and other hapa abound) have I begun to feel powerful enough to claim my racial identity for what it is—and that doesn’t mean running through the list of things that justify my Chinese-ness, checking the boxes that prove my Asian status. Yes, I can check a lot of stereotypical boxes (no shoes in the house, extended family is close family, homemade dumplings and wontons and fried rice,
In college, it can still be jarring to hear other people refer to me as a woman of color. Weirder still is hearing a white romantic partner say that they’ve never dated “an Asian” before (that article! That reduction of my identity into one word! Ouch!). Is my whiteness somehow erased by my genes of color, despite me ultimately benefiting from systems of white supremacy in the United States? Undoubtedly, to be defined by one’s race is always weird and inappropriate. But it becomes especially startling when someone else pinpoints my Asianness, considering it’s something I hardly felt I could claim myself. It can be uncomfortable to suddenly remember that I’m not always white-passing.
On some level, no matter how white I feel or how Asian I feel, the way I will be seen both ways depends on who is looking at me. It’s like that optical illusion with a rectangle that’s been laid onto a color gradient, making the rectangle appear to be a gradient as
Just as there is a distinction between race and ethnicity, we must acknowledge the distinction between racism and bigotry. Though I may experience individual incidents of bigotry or prejudice, I will never experience the systemic racism that Black and brown people deal with. I am still working on not feeling like I have to prove my ethnic identity, even though I often feel that my racial identity invalidates it. I know by my experiences and by my genes that I am Chinese. I know by my other experiences and my other genes that I am white. Being both is an experience I am reflecting on, analyzing and grappling with every day.