“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Race is one of those seemingly-impossible-to-talk-about topics where one or both parties — especially between people of different races — eventually grow defensive and give up in defeat. Regardless of whether we’re white, yellow, black, brown or blue, so many of our fears and insecurities are projected out onto the other; so many of our feelings and experiences are carried over through time and space, and transferred onto the person in front of us, where a single person becomes a symbolic representation — a reminder — of all of the accumulated injustices from our past.
Historically, society has not provided us with a framework with which to have productive conversations around race, but in recent years, individuals such as Michelle Alexander, Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Daniel Dae Kim have mobilized a movement: they’ve taken on the responsibility of becoming thought leaders and bringing necessary conversations into mainstream culture. While I don’t deny the progress we’ve made since the 1800s, it’s clear we still have a long way to go. Many of our policies and institutions continue to maintain the myth of meritocracy, defined by Wikipedia as “a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an inferiority complex around certain women, in particular certain white women, which over the years, I’ve learned to disguise under a veil of fake confidence, apathy and an internal game of one-upmanship. This complex sat at the edge of consciousness — amorphous and elusive. Only in the last several weeks has it been brought to the forefront of consciousness and solidified itself into a definitive, graspable shape.
It came to a crux about a month ago, when I encountered Alexa, an attractive woman I deemed the quintessential American girl: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tall, svelte with legs seemingly double the length of mine, tawny-skinned, fashionable. The list of positive qualities extended beyond just her physical appearance. She was also intelligent, competent, articulate, creative and well-traveled. The final kicker? She was nice. Sure, a woman like that might elicit certain feelings for many women who struggle with confidence — self-doubt, envy, jealousy. But for me, it was all of those plus something more, and that something was anger.
I know comparison is the thief of joy, but it’s one thing to know this intellectually and another to embody it and live it — I haven’t yet reached that welcome stage of enlightenment. It took some time for me to strip away the layers and get to the bottom of where this anger had come from, and of course, once I got to the bottom of it, it was so clear, so obvious, I immediately fell into self-reproach for my previous ignorance until my more compassionate parts took over and suggested I give myself a break.
Alexa became a symbolic representation of you, of all the white girls I’d ever known. She deformed into a glaring, unescapable reminder of all of the injustices I felt I had suffered at the mercy of “popular white girls” in elementary, middle, and high school, simply for being foreign, different, non-white, Chinese. Few of these “popular white girls” were acutely mean or cruel. Instead, it was what I experienced as your chronic disregard, your lack of desire to notice, engage or befriend me, that stung the most. Alexa was nice, yet that is precisely what vexed me, arousing intense sentiments from my ten-year-old self. “Niceness” and “politeness” feel like barriers to entry, a kind of pretense for connection, the genesis of distancing and disconnection.
In the years following fifth grade, when I first became aware of what it felt like to be “other-ed,” I did everything I could to white-wash myself — to not draw attention to myself as different — by adopting whatever traits I could to more closely resemble the “popular white girls” in hopes of being noticed, accepted, befriended. This was not so much a conscious choice as what felt necessary to survive.
My friends thought Mandarin sounded ugly and angry, so I avoided speaking it in front of people. When avoiding it wasn’t possible, I spoke it quietly and delicately, reducing the tonality as though I were speaking English. I threw out the lunch my mother prepared the moment I arrived at school to avoid being teased for eating strange and smelly foods, and instead opted for bean and cheese burritos or pizza. I was deeply embarrassed by my mom’s Chinese-ness, and her unwillingness to assimilate to American culture and learn English properly. I begged her to take me shopping at Fred Segal, to pay an absurd amount for Juicy Couture, Hard Tail and UGGs, because that’s what you wore.
I remember feeling a sense of smug satisfaction and frustration when my friends called me a Twinkie or a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside; satisfaction because being white or close to it seemed supreme, frustration because I would never look white. When a pretty white girl told me I was the prettiest Asian girl she’d ever hung out with, I beamed with pride, but there was something else too, some other feeling — a hesitation — I couldn’t quite understand or articulate then.
Through adolescence and early adulthood, I completely disassociated from the fact that I was Chinese, or Asian. I moved out of my mom’s house and lived with boyfriends, all of whom were white. (I’ve begun to wonder how much of my ending up with a white man has been a subconscious, subversive move to merge with whiteness — but that’s perhaps a topic for another post.) Rather than following the prototypical Chinese-American path of going to an Ivy League school and becoming a doctor, lawyer, banker or engineer, I allowed myself to be carried by the current of my cool, new white friends. I drank. I partied. I slept around. I was emptied.
I spent the next decade searching for my lost self, refilling the void by honing my intelligence, competence and creativity. Living in China helped me reconnect with that significant and previously disavowed part of me. Bonding with other Chinese-and-Asian-Americans normalized many of my adolescent insecurities and encouraged me to recalibrate my identity barometer. Traveling around Asia allowed me to experience and understand race from the other side.
Since returning to the US in 2016 after six years abroad, I’ve resettled into a comfortable, upper-middle-class life, surrounded by mostly white friends and acquaintances, in spite of living in a city where one-third of the population identifies as Asian. Even though I had long been affected by racism and am acutely aware of my non-whiteness — in the same way you, as a woman, might be conscious of being in a roomful of men, I didn’t have much of an opinion around race beyond racism still existing and that being “bad.” My own feelings towards those who cared about social justice were doused in negative associations such as self-righteousness, overzealousness, rage, irrationality or extremism, in part because of by whom I chose to surround myself.
You see, I bought into America’s myth of meritocracy, I thought I “made it” because I’d successfully embedded myself within predominantly white communities, friendships and relationships. Soon, I’ll cross-pollinate my genes with the love of my life — a white man of the elite echelon in society — and my otherness will be further diluted. I secured a position of “privilege” where my race no longer mattered because I’d infiltrated the system and unraveled the lines of code that would grant me eternal acceptance.
Except that acceptance isn’t unconditional, and it was Alexa who exposed the flaws in my thinking.
What I didn’t realize and still have trouble reconciling is how illusory and oppressive this “privileged” position of being a “model minority” is. In these last two decades, what I’d done well is introject the ethical and value systems of a society founded on Puritanical principles. What I’d done well is assimilate to the dominant culture — white culture. What I’d done well is delude myself into thinking I could pass — if not in appearance, then at least in character — as white. Whatever that even means.
Alexa was my foil. She pulled back the curtain and unveiled my imposter syndrome of whiteness, to myself.
Everything I associated with being “successful” in society, she possessed. Everything I aspired to be more of, she was. Everything I felt I’d worked so hard for, she seemed to exude with effortless ease. It didn’t matter how intelligent, competent, articulate, creative or well-traveled I was or strove to be — I would never be white. Her niceties and what I perceived as a blasé attitude towards her own glamorous life were the final nails on the coffin — an advertisement for true privilege, inaccessible to me and millions of others in this country. As foolish as this sounds, what I wanted then and there was for her to recognize her privilege, to speak with some diffidence, to see me and be curious about me.
But she did not, nor was there any indication of a desire to know me further, and while this was by no conscious fault of hers, I felt the broiling heat of rage and hatred build in my lower abdomen anyway.
I began to question how much of my belonging and acceptance in American society was due to my somewhat successful and rather comprehensive introjection of whiteness, of my complicity. I, too, like Alexa, know how to be nice and polite. But what if I, by American standards, were not; where would I be then? Would I be the victim of far more discrimination and hate crimes for chewing with my mouth open, burping at the dinner table, eating pungent foods, doing strange exercises in the middle of a park, speaking Mandarin the way it’s meant to be spoken, with avidity?
Would you take one glance at me and look away, thinking I’m a barbarian? Or would you not look at all, because I’m too different for you to even bother with? Would you try to be my friend?
I think I know what your honest answers would be, because mine are the same. There’s no need for niceties and politeness here, just truth.
As Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series has remarked:
“Most of us avoid telling the truth because it’s uncomfortable. We’re afraid of the consequences — making others feel uncomfortable, hurting their feelings or risking their anger. And yet, when we don’t tell the truth, and others don’t tell us the truth, we can’t deal with matters from a basis in reality.”
This letter isn’t intended to invoke guilt, shame, pity, anger, hate, nor is it meant to accuse or blame. Instead, I hope my loose narrative elicits some fellow feeling, however subtle, regardless of your color, sex, gender or age.
While I may not have chosen when, where and by whom to be born, I have chosen to be an American. What that means is a question worth asking time and time again: how are you and I each responsible for the society and culture we create and live in? How do we excavate our own deeply entombed desires, wants and needs, and parse them from those of the dominant culture within which we reside?
As writer and actress Brit Marling has written, “These are not yet solutions. But they are places to dig.”