In light of recent events and ever since the birth of #BlackLivesMatter, my non-blackness came into the forefront of my awareness and very quickly, my non-whiteness faded to the background. As an Asian-American, I could easily hide in the complacency of my non-blackness while discussing issues of race. Yet, this slowly unravels into a conversation in which I cannot hide.
My thoughts on race have never been something that I hide from my social networks; as a social worker, issues of race and cultural humility are core to ethical social work practice. But, I believe that I spoke of race without paying attention to my own non-whiteness. I hid in my privilege as an Asian-American. I had “forgotten” that I am not white.
I once had an acquaintance on Facebook who “defriended” me because, as a white male, he felt that all my posts about Trayvon Martin and other issues about white privilege were targeted at attacking white people like himself. He carefully private messaged me about it to which I encouraged a continued conversation, but he had chosen his stance firmly. His solution to dealing with his white guilt was to censor what his news feed would show and to erase people like me from his life. No, it was not enough for him to merely block my posts; my views about whiteness and blackness and injustice needed to be met with a dissolution of our online friendship.
I only recently thought: had I been white, would this “friend” receive my views in a better light? I forget sometimes that as an Asian-American, I often get to share the privilege that many white people have and yet I am still not white. Was it not okay for this “model minority” to show the white man that despite my privilege as a “special” woman of color, racism still existed? Do white people hate hearing that racism still exists, especially from Asian-Americans because supposedly our “success” as a minority means racism is gone?
My husband’s white friend once told him, “You’re basically white,” when chatting with him about issues of race. While my husband is one-quarter French and three-quarters Vietnamese, he always identifies himself as an Asian-American. His friend’s statement of my husband’s “basically” whiteness was not a statement of his genetic make-up; he was making a statement of the model minority myth.
But are we? Are we “basically white”? And what did he mean when he said that my husband (and in solidarity, myself) is basically white? I recently took one of those online quizzes to measure privilege, after a white female friend of mine posted it online. She had scored surprisingly low and it said “not privileged,” which was shocking to me because I assumed all white people automatically have privilege. I forgot that privilege has many faces. I took the online quiz and scored much higher than her score and scoffed because I had learned to embrace not having white privilege, forgetting that I have many other privileges as an Asian-American.
Things like not having to pay student loans because my well-off parents were able to assist me in paying for both my undergraduate and graduate degree, things like having health insurance, owning a car, being educated, being heterosexual, being born in this country, etc. I have so much privilege and yet I am also not white.
So, what does it mean? The model minority is defined by a minority group whose members achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the general population. For example, Taiwanese Americans (like myself, thank you very much) have the highest educational attainment level in the United States, more than any other minority group. We are also four times more likely to obtain a master’s or doctorate degree. It is very unlikely to find a Taiwanese American in poverty.
However, high socioeconomic status is not an indicator of the absence of racism. The term “bamboo ceiling” exists in that so often Asian-Americans are overlooked in promotions or C-level positions in businesses and oftentimes, Asian-Americans are not as aggressive in asking for promotions or striving for these positions. Sometimes, stereotypes of Asians as the “passive, submissive, quiet ones” also plays into the reasons why they are ignored when it comes to career advancements.
As an Asian-American, I still have to deal with idiots who pass me in the street and say “konichiwa!” or “ni hao!” or people who marvel at the fact that I speak perfect English. (I’ve once had someone tell me that I even talk like a white girl — whatever that means) I’ve had friends tell me that I’m not the “typical” Asian-American female in that I speak my mind, I’m assertive and I am opinionated. Statements like that are microaggressions — unintended discrimination in brief, commonplace verbal, behavioral, statements. It’s saying that Asian-American women are thought to be passive, quiet, and submissive.
So, my experiences with racism may not be as extreme of always getting pulled over when I’m driving, being shot at by cops, being followed when I enter a store, or getting harsher prison sentences than white counterparts, but my experiences are still experiences of racism nonetheless. At the end of the day, I am not white and I will never be white and nothing can change that.
And because I am not white, I will rarely see people of my color starring in roles in movies. I will never not have someone ask me “where are you from?” or question if I was born here. I will always have to explain my parents’ culture and really my culture to others. I will always represent Asian-Americans if I walk into a room full of white people. I will always have to be the token Asian person who needs to explain Asianness to the non-Asians.
Yet, this blog was difficult to write because, like my husband’s friend said, in some ways, I am “basically white.” I live in a part of America that has tons of Asian-Americans, as well as a diversity of minorities. Thus, the norm here where I live is sometimes to be not-white. It has become so easy for me to forget my non-whiteness in a city where I will never really walk into a room where I am the only person of color. And so, when I want to speak up and advocate for people of color, I have to remember that I speak not from a place of power and privilege as a white person, but I speak from the place in solidarity of those who are oppressed, even if I wear this “model minority” hat. My experiences of non-whiteness pale in comparison to the injustices that befall my black brothers and sisters on a daily basis, but my solidarity in non-whiteness is important. My solidarity as an Asian-American is necessary in the strength of the movement because it is a reminder that whiteness is not achieved through socioeconomic success. Whiteness is never achieved, but an respectful cultural understanding between all races is.