June 6’s encounter with the white devil was a rude awakening. While surrounded by Becky, her white male guest known by the name of Resting Dick Face, and my best friend, a blond-haired, blue-eyed angel with the cuddly personality of a yellow lab, I awoke from a daydream when I heard the words, “East Asians aren’t people of color.”
My attention immediately spiked and it was then that I realized my oppressor’s bedroom looked like an Urban Outfitter’s catalog and smelled like a skinny white girl — cigarettes and rosewood to be precise.
I looked to my best friend in search of a validating, shocked response, only to find a pair of big, dilated eyes that stared out the window, seemingly unaware of the conversation between the two others. Fuck you! I immediately felt isolated.
“I don’t think a person of color house should exclude white people. It’s segregation,” continued Becky. Becky is my housemate at Andres Castro Arms, a co-op in the Berkeley Student Cooperative that is transitioning to become the newly themed “People of Color” house in fall 2016.
“Uh.. “ I fiercely spoke up.
The two turned and glared at me, shining the spotlight on me for a brief, blinding second.
“Yes Maggie, please go ahead,” beckoned Becky, perhaps finally noticing that a nonwhite person was actually in her presence.
Confronted by her politeness, I struggled to move past my hesitance when I tried to explain that a safe space for people of color needed to exclude white people or else it wouldn’t work. I noticed my discomfort when I said that if you really understood the systemic presence of racism, you’d see why people of color feel silenced around white people.
I wish I had pointed out that the current situation we were in was a perfect example.
The two nodded at me but immediately returned to their white savior circle jerk, speaking for people of color as if they held some kind of magical potion to curing racism. I became aware that this situation was the crux of white privilege — being able to talk about racism without ever having to experience it.
Becky turned to me with her wide, eager eyes and excitedly suggested, “I think I want to be an ally to people of color. Wouldn’t it be cool to be that one white person in the POC house?”
It was then that I looked to the heavens and prayed, “Are you there God? It’s me, Maggie. Please, forgive this white person.”
First of all, ally-ship is not self-defined. A person is an ally if and only if the community, which they have taken action to help, has recognized that they are worthy of having their privilege in that space. When white people try to understand racism, it can be triggering for people of color to feel like they have to defend their frustrations when there are centuries of trauma to explain.
Until white people start to openly acknowledge their power and privilege, educate themselves on the history and implications of white colonialism and listen to the needs of people of color, their desire to be an ally only comes off as disingenuous and problematic. This type of ignorance is the same hypocrisy committed by self-proclaimed progressives (aka white hipsters) that gentrify and displace communities of color on a nationwide scale.
In the aftermath of Becky’s microaggressions, I felt powerless and dumb, and I found myself doubting my own internalized oppression.
Who was I to speak when I get enough money to spend and a comfortable home to live in? Who was I to speak when I get to work towards a promising career at a prestigious university? Who was I to speak when I get to be seen as nonthreatening to the police and to the rest of American society? Maybe they were right, maybe I am a white person.
A quick glance in the mirror made me come to my senses. I am not Becky because my education costs more than just the growing student loan in my name — it is an obligation to my family that left its entire community behind so that the next generation would never experience the debilitating conditions of poverty. I am not Becky because when I walk in a room, my Asian features say that I am quiet, exotic and eager to please — a stereotype that is rooted in the history of white, patriarchal rape culture.
Claiming that Asians are basically white people denies us of our heritage, and it invalidates the Asian struggle against racism, a struggle that has been continuously undermined by both the media and the American government throughout history.
What hurts the most is that the cost of systematic assimilation is a loss of personal identity. The problem of never quite fitting into white or Asian culture is confusing, isolating and continues to fester self-doubt in both my intellect and my self-worth.
This summer, I intend to find an understanding as I reclaim my voice. People of color aren’t responsible for educating white people, but as an “Americanized” Asian with the privilege of being invited to white spaces, I must take this opportunity to speak loud and clear.
Maggie Lam writes about reclaiming the Asian-American narrative surrounding the immigrant experience.