Recognizing my white privilege

The Half of It

Growing up in China, I struggled to see my whiteness as a privilege over other people.

At school, I felt alienated from my classmates who often excluded and ridiculed me for being mixed. In fourth grade, a boy made fun of how my “Jewish” nose made me look like “yellowfin” for an entire semester. I was known as the “weird” kid so my classmates rarely invited me into their social cliques.

This treatment made me view being mixed with white as shameful, rather than a source of privilege. I didn’t understand how white supremacy was historically and socially constructed, so I didn’t have the tools to comprehend my own white privilege. My classes never discussed the complexities of race and colonialism.

So when I first encountered the concept of “white privilege” in the United States, I didn’t fully understand how it operated in my life. I thought that by admitting I had “white privilege” I was erasing my Chinese identity. I saw myself as Chinese, and “Chinese” clearly falls under the person of color umbrella. So I thought that if I acknowledged my white privilege, I would no longer be a person of color.

I didn’t begin to recognize the power of my white privilege until I saw how my whiteness gave me an opportunity over a nonwhite womxn of color.

In my junior year of high school I interviewed for a position to represent our school at a conference intended to bring womxn into state politics. I thought that I wouldn’t get the position because the other applicant was a more qualified Muslim South Asian womxn.

The next morning, I was shocked to hear that I was selected for the role. My guidance counselor justified my being accepted by saying I was “just more relatable” to the three old white womxn who interviewed me.

At the time, I didn’t quite grasp that these women related to me because of my whiteness. But on my way to the conference, I realized that the girls attending from my area were predominantly white. The lack of ethnic diversity made me realize the old white womxn were trying to cultivate a specific type of (white) female leader –– my competitor simply didn’t fit the bill.

I was white enough to make these white women feel comfortable. I knew how to navigate predominantly white spaces using language and mannerisms that were similar to that of white folx. I had the privilege to say I wanted to attend an elite private university on the East Coast, which one of the womxn’s sons also attended.

Having white privilege, I then realized, was not related to my cultural identification. While I may identify heavily as Chinese, the world perceives me as white. As a white-passing mixed womxn, when I carry myself in a palatable way for white people, I am considered white. My white name has often influenced how people perceive me before they even meet me –– when applying to jobs and internships, interviewers frequently tell me that they thought I was white.

During my senior year when I had to apply to colleges, I was concerned that I might have to choose one race on my applications. On tests like the SAT, which didn’t allow me to check all of my races, I usually checked “other” or “Asian.” I felt that picking white would erase my Chinese heritage.

I decided ultimately to check “other” and expressed clearly in my essays what my ethnicity was. My mixed identity is a central part of me, and if I neglected any part of it, I would not be fully representing who I am to colleges. While I was fortunate to be able to check both the Asian and white category on my college applications, I had the privilege of even being able to only check “white.” Because of my white last name, nobody would question me if I selected “white” as my race.

Being Asian can often be a choice to me, while it is something that monoracial Asians live with every day. Although I frequently experience microaggressions directed at my ethnic ambiguity and mixed identity, I only experience discrimination for being Chinese when I choose to reveal that I am Chinese.

I am still learning what it means to be white and a person of color simultaneously, and how to acknowledge and utilize my privilege to uplift those at the margins. Now, I always try to make a clear distinction between how I self-identify and how society categorizes me. I recognize that while I am deeply connected to my Chinese heritage, my lack of visible Asian traits allows me to benefit from white privilege. My white features, light skin and white name all give me resources and opportunities that most people of color are systematically excluded from accessing.

As I unpack the implications of doing racial justice work as a white-passing womxn, I realize that recognizing my white privilege does not invalidate my identity as a Chinese womxn and a person of color. Rather, by being conscious of that privilege, I am able to gain a deeper understanding of how to articulate my own racialized experiences and to be a productive ally to systematically marginalized communities.  

Genevieve Xia Ye Slosberg writes the Monday column on being a mixed-race womxn in China and the United States. Contact her at [email protected].