With the increase of violent Asian hate crimes and the mass murders of 6 Asian women this week, this week has been a tough one for Asian Americans. But this is not a new problem. I wrote this essay back in 2015 and it was posted on a now defunct platform. But I wanted to share it again because it is sadly as relevant now as it was 7 years ago.
When I was a little girl, I was already very aware of what racism was. It felt like the cigarette burn to my flesh by the high school girl who called me a dirty chink. I was eight years old.
Racism has been seared into my psyche, like the shame that filled me when a white boy spat on me as he screamed “Go back to where you belong!” It sounded like the laughter of the crowd of middle school kids, that surrounded me and called me chink and gook. It looked like the jeers and smirks on the faces that pressed close, like nightmare images I couldn’t escape. I was ten years old.
It was the fear I felt as I held my little sister’s hand tightly as we ran away from a group of girls who pelted us with rocks and told us that slanty-eyed chinks don’t belong in their neighborhood. I was eleven years old.
It was the pain of my hair being torn out of my head by the middle aged Russian woman who spoke no English but knew every dirty, filthy word that she could use with ching chong, when I confronted her for stealing from my parents store. I was fifteen.
It was having a kind looking grandmother scream at me to go back to my own country because she didn’t want my kind ruining the USA. I was twenty-two.
It was having a group of white teenagers shout “Where’s my pork fried rice, bitch?” while I was walking with my little children. I was thirty-five.
It was going to Catholic mass and having the woman directly behind me shake everyone’s hand and then refuse to shake mine during the offering of peace. I was forty years old.
It was hearing all three of my children tell me about all of their own racist experiences and knowing this cycle of hate and violence was never ending.
Over the course of my life, I have learned that I was never safe. I learned to be wary. Racism is so damaging that when anything bad happens, you can’t help but wonder if race was a factor. Would that teacher have humiliated you in front of your fellow classmates if you were white? Would you have had better service if you were white? Would that business colleague have thrown money in your face in such a contemptuous and disrespectful manner if you were white? Whether or not it is true, you can’t help but think it. And that is the insidiousness of racism. You are always wondering is that person just an asshole or is that person a racist?
The pain of the racism I encountered was amplified by witnessing what my parents had to deal with. I at least spoke perfect English. But my immigrant parents with their broken English suffered far worse than I have ever had to endure. I weep more for what they have dealt with than for myself. And yet, they still love this country deeply. Immigrants who suffered humiliating racism and crippling poverty, and yet have never wavered in their love and support of their adopted country. They shame me. I was the one who hid my lovingly packed kimbap lunch from my classmates to avoid teasing. I was the one who refused to speak Korean in public with my parents because I didn’t want to stand out. I was the one who was ashamed of being Asian in a white country. Not my parents. They were always proud of their culture of their heritage. And when people sneered at their broken English they could reassure themselves that they spoke two other languages fluently. When I think of all they endured, I am both brokenhearted and proud.
There are still well meaning people out there today who believe in equality and fairness and truly believe in their heart of hearts that they are not racists. Yet they are still a part of the problem. Hate is that thing that won’t go away if you ignore it. Hate doesn’t work that way. We talk about the “silent bystander” effect in crimes and how it can promote an atmosphere of violence and bullying. Apply this to all kinds of hate of marginalized people. That is what a lot of well meaning “non-racist” people are doing. Do you stay quiet when people make racist jokes? Do you not speak up in the face of injustice for your fellow citizens? Do you get personally offended if someone points out that something you said or did is a little racist? Do you ever say, “it probably wasn’t about race” to a BIPOC when they talk about an incident that troubled them? Are you a silent bystander to racism?
Some people love to say — “I’m sick of all this race talk.” That is the nature of having privilege. It’s like telling someone suffering from chronic debilitating pain that you’re tired of them talking about being in pain because you have the privilege of being able-bodied. BIPOC don’t have the kind of privilege that allows us not to make everything about race, because to us it is ALWAYS about race. There is no such thing as being colorblind. Colorblindness was a feel good, altruistic theory that was developed by well meaning people who didn’t know any better. And sometimes well meaning people unknowingly cause harm. Colorblindness is not our reality. We cannot change our skin color, our facial features, our background. We cannot pretend that a core part of who we are does not exist. Instead of colorblindness, what we need is real talk, real action from those who claim to be our allies. But it is a difficult conversation to have because people don’t like to feel that they are in the wrong. And while it may be as much my fault for not pointing out racism as it is your fault for not recognizing it, it is not my fault if your response is to become defensive and accuse me of being an angry Asian.
Some people act like being called a racist is the worst thing in the world that can happen to them. When will they understand that living everyday of your life with racism is far worse? When Black people and IPOC talk about racism, the response should never be “But I’m not a racist!” or “It’s not always about race.” It should be “Yes, I recognize that we live in a world with systemic racism.” And instead of shutting down a conversation, you grow it, you learn from it, you try to become the advocate and the ally we need. We need to keep talking. So that maybe my future timeline, and those of my children, won’t be marked by racism anymore.