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Choosing myself over white people

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JUNE 23, 2016

On the night of the summer solstice, I sat on my co-op’s lower roof with my new housemate Emily as we stared off into the fading sunset, admiring the rainbow haze that lingered after a long, overwhelming day of sun.

Although Emily and I had only interacted a few times before, we knew we were similar in obvious ways. In addition to our East Asian heritage, we also shared the appearance of having unconventional, “give your grandma a heart attack” facial piercings — I have a septum nose ring and she has a medusa lip ring.  

Our similar aesthetic provided an immediate connection, sparking a conversation about which stereotype belonged to a pierced Asian. Maybe we were seen as badasses or just Asian hipsters. Whatever it was, we definitely weren’t seen as the type that was good at math.

Emily took out a cigarette and began lighting it with one hand, shielding the flame from the wind with the other. Blowing out a cloud of smoke, she spoke with a tone of acceptance as well as a hint of remorse. “My mom said that she felt sorry for me, that in this American society I could never truly fit in with white people or with my own group of Asian people — Koreans.”

The truth of these words struck a chord with me, and I nodded in eager affirmation. Although I am Chinese, our identity crises as “Americanized” Asians were so unique yet similar that it felt like we were long lost twins.  

Perhaps it was her attentive posture or the serious expression on her face that conveyed her genuine interest and care, but from her validation, I felt comfortable enough to reveal personal moments of weakness, shame and internalized hatred.

I learned to give preference to white people partly through my immigrant parents: Their idea of success meant conforming to the dominant culture in the white suburbs of Northern Virginia. Conforming meant going by the name “Maggie” instead of my Chinese name, which I refused to reveal out of shame. Conforming meant rejecting my Asian features, deeming them as ugly compared to my round-eyed, tall-nosed peers. Conforming meant silencing myself while appealing to those whom I saw had more power and privileges than I could ever attain.

Addressing race as a person of color involves being vulnerable. It involves talking about our negative self-image and our depressing place in the world. This trauma can be easily understood by all communities of color; much of our self-doubt is eliminated when there is no need to explain the source of our oppression.

Trying to explain the source of oppression, let alone the validity of how it makes us feel, to a white person is always awkward. When privileged, white people say they can talk about race but become uncomfortable or disengaged in the face of truth, it transfers a message to the person of color to pick up the blame, as if their discomfort is now our responsibility. This is also known as white guilt, a defense made by white people to still feel “progressive” for having the conversation while feeling entitled to our already limited energy.

Person-of-color-only circles are healing and necessary because of how inherently supportive and affirmative they are. Sharing experiences with people of a similar background reaffirms that we aren’t alone in our experiences of oppression. Without feeling the need to protect white people’s feelings, the conversations in POC-only spaces flow more freely and misconceptions within our own communities can then be addressed.

In my conversation with Emily, we came to an understanding as to why people of color in white spaces could easily fall blind to their own oppression. After all, why would you fight to recognize your differences when everyone’s goal is to be treated like a white person?

The fight for equality means that people of different backgrounds should be given the same opportunities. Part of this means that those with unfair advantages should have their privileges stripped away, and part of it means giving basic rights to people who never had them.

The mutual frustration I shared with Emily was a confirmation that a systemically racist ideology is what dictates our society; we couldn’t be alone in our struggles if our wounds were cut so similarly. Talking with her made me realize that I wasn’t at fault for my internalized racism, and with conscious effort, these seemingly ingrained biases were something I could overcome.

My healing process involves self-love, but it also at times involves the painful process of removing myself from oppressive relationships. I want to give priority to people who don’t discount my very real struggles. I want to give priority to people who will help me understand who I am and who I need to be.

I’m thankful for the healing spaces that have existed for me in the Andres Castro Arms, the Berkeley student cooperative for people of color. From simply recognizing my passivity to leading my first POC circle this past week, I am proof that transformations can happen from being included in supportive and understanding spaces.

Maggie Lam writes about reclaiming the Asian-American narrative surrounding the immigrant experience.

JUNE 23, 2016