There has been so much going on in the world, our nation and likely our own hearts and minds lately, to say the least. I understand that the overwhelming feeling that many of us are experiencing is nothing compared to the institutional violence and structural racism that our nation’s systems have imposed on Black lives – and I am glad that these issues are coming once again to the forefront of our attention – the weariness and “overwhelmed-ness” is essential in understanding the true weight, breadth and depth of the issue.
That being said, it’s necessary to continue to take care of ourselves and step away when needed from media. Spend time outside, have conversations, cook something from scratch, get some exercise – a rejuvenated and rested mind and spirit is also important in being able to best think through and address these issues.
Let me clarify “whiteness” too, because sometimes it’s hard to understand that we can be POC and still be very complicit in whiteness. Willie James Jennings, a Black theologian and scholar out of Yale who I really admire defines whiteness here as, “Whiteness is not a given, it is a choice. Whiteness is not the equal and opposite of blackness. It is a way of imagining oneself as the organizing reality of the world. It is an interpretative principle that narrates, sustains, and makes sense of the world. The fear that dogs whiteness circles around loss – a looming loss of possession, loss of control, and loss of the power to narrate the future of others. The focus of that fear has most often been nonwhite bodies.” Any one of us who has benefitted from a higher educational, economic, political, or social status from our placement within a society that discriminates against Black lives has been embedded in a structure of whiteness (which is probably everyone reading this).
I have constantly been thinking, over the past week or so, about my social location within the structural racism that persists in our nation. As an Asian American as well as an adoptee, I fully accept and admit that I have benefitted immensely from white privilege and “whiteness,” in the sense that my entire adoptive family (excluding my sister, who was also adopted from China) is Caucasian, highly educated, upper-middle class and with lots of access to resources, travel opportunities, good healthcare, etc. I went to really good public schools growing up and never had to worry about not getting enough food, not having insurance, not having my parents around because they both had to work full-time, violence in my neighborhood, or being killed or targeted because of my skin color. In addition, my status as an Asian American (unbeknownst to me as a child growing up) contributed to a sense of privilege and security – I was likely placed with many other Asian Americans in a “model minority” lens – seen by my peers or passersby as intelligent, docile, quiet and respectful, among other things. The intersectionality of my Caucasian family and my Asian features in the United States places me right in the middle of white privilege and the benefits of whiteness, whether I have liked to admit that or not as I’ve grown up.
This all being said, certainly I’ve experienced discrimination and both overt and covert microaggression for being Asian American. And it hurts. It hurt when a young girl once pulled at her eyes and made unintelligible noises when she saw me sitting behind her at a church in rural Maine. Or when people ask, “where are you REALLY from,” because “New Jersey” just doesn’t make sense to them. During my travels in Asia, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I experienced all sorts of different kinds of miscommunication and disconnect because of my features – I could not be accepted fully as Chinese OR American. In Thailand, I felt myself caught between a historical Thai-Chinese power struggle that I didn’t even realize was a thing, while also not being accepted as American. It made me question myself; “well maybe I’m not fully Chinese or American; what am I? If others don’t think I fit in anywhere, how am I to understand myself?”
However, these are slight microaggressions in the larger scheme of our nation’s and our entire globe’s deep, dark, savage history of anti-black racism and white supremacy. During this time, I have been thinking back on a cultural anthropology course, Caribbean Cultures, that I took in college. One of my favorite courses. We were challenged through reading Afro-Caribbean, Latin-Caribbean and Caribbean voices, to consider the wide-reaching effects of the slave trade, exploitation of black bodies and native bodies, rise of capitalism and supply and demand for cheap labor, in light of rising Western power and influence. We learned from authors like Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat about the dark side of tourism and trade on Caribbean lifestyle and culture and the ways in which the “white man” has taken advantage – and continues to take advantage – in our capitalist world – of black bodies. My eyes were forever opened and I was really disillusioned by the violence and embedded racism and white supremacy inherent in our capitalist economic systems, systems that we accept as “normal” and necessary to a world order that’s familiar to us. After that class, I wondered if I could ever buy bananas or sugarcane innocently again, after learning how those multinational corporations take advantage of cheap labor and have been destructive to Caribbean life and economy for generations.
But I continued about my life.
As the #blacklivesmatter movement and protests have ignited across the nation in response to recent events of police brutality, I am reminded of this global hierarchy of power and race – as well as a dark national history of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, that rears its ugly head in present times in forms like mass incarceration, segregation of cities and communities, structural denial or restriction of economic or political opportunities based on race, desensitization to Black pain, defensiveness or lack of willingness to engage, the list goes ON and ON.
After having confronted, and continuing to confront my own complicit whiteness and reflecting on what I’ve both learned and am learning about the magnitude and historical size of whiteness, I have to try and divest myself from this. It’s difficult, and maybe not fully possible. I recognize that every opportunity I’ve been granted, and will be granted in America will be tainted by structures of whiteness, and I have to learn how to resist that as much as I can – resist and recognize it. This post is going to end without answers, because I still am trying to educate myself about the size of the issue; the answers have always seemed elusive. However, I would encourage you: before you start searching for answers, understand the problem and your place within it.
If you are Caucasian, learn about your family history and your nation’s history through Black eyes and Black experience, because that is as much a part of your history as what you did learn about; it has just often been silenced or disregarded. Now is past time that you come to understand it. If you’re Latino/a, I’d encourage you to learn more about the intersectionality of your heritage and the Black experience in Latin America and the US. There are probably many more things you share than you may realize – and if you discover these things, please enlighten me because I’d love to hear more from Latino/a voices, scholars and thinkers on whiteness and Black history. If you’re of mixed race, think about the ways in which you’ve benefitted from whiteness and what you can do to learn more about the history of the issue – how can you recognize your place in the problem and divest from it in certain ways?
Asian Americans – I realize that is a broad umbrella term for lots of people of different ethnic backgrounds and histories, or that you can be of mixed race and Asian American – but some questions for you to consider – what has the “model minority” stereotype afforded you? Or has it not? What are intersectionalities between your Asian American history in the US and Black history? How can you reach outside of your comfortable circles, learn and engage more on these topics?
This is a lot, but still not enough.
I covered some things on my mind, but I’m sure more on this issue will come. My family (parents and sister) and I are starting a little bookclub this summer, and the first one we’re reading is, So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo; it might be challenging, but I’m looking forward to learning more and talking with my family about it. I also watched the documentary, 13th, by Ava DuVernay, and it was incredibly eye-opening. I’d highly encourage it to everyone. I was going to say, “to people interested in learning more about mass incarceration and the history of racism in the US – from slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to an era of mass incarceration and police brutality” – but I say “everyone” because if you are living in the United States, this is your history – your past, present and future as much as is the “white-centric” history that we learned about growing up. I’m feeling pretty frustrated that I only learned about one side of US history in school. I took up to AP US History in high school and I don’t believe ever learned about the dark side, the real effects, of policy like the War on Drugs. I took global history courses in college that simply did not address to an appropriate and realistic degree the realities of the global slave trade and exploitation of Black peoples.
Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now because this is a very long post.
But please, I urge you to learn and educate yourself, as well as continue to support Black businesses in your communities, movements and organizations citywide and nationwide that are doing great work for racial justice.
As always, reach out if you have suggestions or want to talk with me more! I’d love to talk and learn more about these things from your perspective.
Peace and love, Joy
One thought on “Why, as an Asian American, I need to dismantle my “whiteness.””
Loved reading this. It’s very thoughtful. One minor typo I think that you might want to change. In the paragraph where you address Asian Americans I think you mean “some” questions, not “same” questions. 😊
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