White Washed

“In middle school, my nickname was ‘Asian.’ The people who called me that were not shallow racists — they were some of my closest friends. To them, ‘Asian’ was a term of endearment, not a degrading label. I thought that if I took it as an insult, then I might as well be ashamed of my heritage, which I was not. Any discomfort I may have had was only second to some sense of pride that I was not just Asian, but ‘Asian.’ I prided myself on having white friends.”

“As a child, I never realized that, in embracing the American culture around which I had grown up, I was subconsciously giving something up, too. I never noticed, of course, that my parents were already fluent in English when they spoke to me as an infant, nor did I comprehend at the time how much my upbringing differed from their own, a whole continent and culture apart. I had always perceived my Asian-American identity as inextricably tied to a certain balance of the two cultures into which I had been born; but in the eyes of others, my ‘American-ness’ seemed to translate into not actually being Asian.”

“I was ten when I figured out that I could never achieve my dreams because of my race. Everyone I looked up to, from Hillary Clinton to Hilary Duff, was white. In my mind, that meant that Asians could not — and would not — ever become world leaders or celebrities.”

Growing up as children of Asian immigrants, our notions of identity and sense of self developed as the product of two different cultural trajectories melded into one — so it seemed at the time. Our Asian heritage and American nationality never seemed to be mutually exclusive when we were children; we subconsciously chose English over our parents’ native languages, but our connection to our Asian culture, through its foods, customs and history, seemed perfectly intact. Our preference to be more “American” seemed natural, a childish desire to be more like our friends and the people we saw in the media.

When we were young, before we were even conscious of the political and social implications of our ethnic identities, we were surrounded by a culture that kept Asian and Asian-American role models out of the public eye. In TV and movies, pop culture and politics, Asians were almost always absent, rarely worth more than a few lines of ridicule. When we were present, we offered funny stereotypes like Short Round in “Indiana Jones” or Apu in “The Simpsons,” but our storylines were stinted and flat. Seeing these one-dimensional characters from such a young age, we could hardly imagine ourselves as three-dimensional people, defined by more than our race. From childhood, we were raised to believe that Asians and Asian-Americans were outsiders. Who could we strive to be when the Asian-Americans were constantly in the background?

Ultimately, our subconscious desire to be more like the people around us — most of whom were not Asian — manifested itself in the pressure to be less “Asian.” Our attempts of assimilation were rooted in shame; we downplayed our abilities to speak our parents’ native languages and were intentionally vague when describing our home-cooked meals. However, there was no hiding our skin colors and last names, which came with certain associations in a culture where white was the default. While it was near-impossible to define a white stereotype, Asian stereotypes were prolific and condemning; we quickly realized that these stereotypes would not coincide with our American identities.

To be Asian would mean embodying the stereotype of the “karate kid” or the “silent nerd.” It would mean speaking imperfect English and eating strange foods. It would suggest that we, as outsiders, had no right to political or social power. It evoked voicelessness. Even though America was our home, first and foremost, to be Asian would mean being a perpetual foreigner. Being American would mean being like everybody else — or at least like the people who surrounded us every day. It would speak of normalcy, of agency over how we chose to perceive ourselves and be perceived by others. It would not require explaining our “weird” traditions or our parents’ value systems or being asked “Where are you really from?” It would mean acceptance. The negative connotations of being Asian outweighed our value for our heritage; we opted for the privileges of the native-born and native-looking instead of the alienation of the perpetual foreigner.

Our experiences with race, in the context of identity, stem from a disconnect between the way in which we identify and others see us. Our identities encompass much more than our race or gender, but in the eyes of many, they define who we are. Whenever a person of our race is casually referred to as “that Asian kid” or “that Indian girl,” it connotes a certain acknowledgement of race without any considerations as to how that person’s race has shaped their experiences. The former, without the latter, speaks of an ignorance that is all too pervasive: a lazy, seemingly harmless disregard for inherently multifaceted identities and experiences. We are, in part, our cultures, but we are also so much more — and certainly much more than any one-dimensional stereotype can portray.