I am not white.
Don’t laugh because I know some of you might. I’ve heard the laughter. When I’m invited to speak on the topic of race and racism I often start out my presentation with that line, and it often is received with laughter.
There is a hint of righteous indignation in the laughter because even though I am fair-skinned to the point of already nursing a sunburned back, my facial features, as beautiful as they are, do not fit whiteness. I am obviously not white, but I know and live the reality of the model minority myth. The myth, imposed on me and 19.5 million Americans of Asian heritage, has shaped internalized biases that want to frame me, my words, and my actions into categories of “dangerous” foreigner who might be a spy, steal your white child’s rightful spot in university, give you a nasty look when you catcall or say “hello” to me in an Asian language, be the nail tech who might be talking about you in her native tongue. I could also be the “safe” foreigner who speaks English, opposes affirmative action, and repeatedly, patiently, answers the question from fellow Americans, white, black and brown, “No, where are you really from?”
I am not white.
I am a naturalized U.S. citizen. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight months old with my parents. They gave me an American name not so that I could become honorary white but because it would be easier on the white people. The education system here is not known for its foreign language requirements. My parents emphasized education because we had no legacy here, no history, no family roots beyond those who had come a few months before us, no connections, no bootstraps to pull.
The danger in continuing with that narrative is that somehow Asian Americans—the whole lot of us—might believe we have inherited white privilege through assimilation. The reality is that the model minority myth puts us in our place outside of America history and America’s present as perpetual foreigners. It creates a false sense of safety inviting us and demanding we embrace hyper-invisibility by self-silencing, advocating for others but never for ourselves while the myth simultaneously whispers to us that we have sold out.
So I am reminding myself as much as I am reminding my audience.
I am not white.
I will learn about the rich, varied histories of Asian Americans that are largely ignored in U.S. history classes. I will remind people that immigrants came through Ellis Island and Angel Island. I will correct people who mispronounce my last name because if my parents can learn English people can learn to pronounce my last name. I will acknowledge the inherent privilege I have as a college-educated, upper middle-class, heterosexual woman with fair skin, but I also will engage you in a lively discussion about disaggregate statistics, profiling of Asians and Asian Americans (because we aren’t all fair-skinned, by the way), and immigration policies and patterns if you say that my success (or the success of the Asian-American community) is an attempt at whiteness. I will write and speak using illustrations and idioms that will add to the richness of America by including the richness of Korean Americans. I encourage my children to embrace their Korean heritage and understand their American-born privilege. I give my children and their friends language to talk about differences, race, and racism. I remind my children they have “American” names and Korean names. I teach them how to pronounce their Korean names and the stories behind all their names because it adds to our roots here.
I know what and who I am outside of the construct of whiteness.
- I Am Not White - June 13, 2016
12 thoughts on “I Am Not White”
I’m just at the beginning of what you describe in your last paragraph. For so long I only saw myself in the construct of whiteness- the ways I didn’t measure up, the ways I could never fit in- but I’m learning to see the value in who I am as a Korean-American woman. I’m learning more about our history, our privilege, and our rights through you and others leading the way, so thank you for going ahead of us with confidence!
I’m typing this from a computer so I don’t know how to get the heart emoji.
Thank you for reading, for committing to your own journey, and for learning in community.
There is so much self-hatred that we internalize. I don’t think I even understand it completely, but I’m still learning, too.
This is such a great post Kathy. I love that your kids have two names – how powerful. Our musician at church is a Korean, and yesterday she sang a hymn in Korean, that had been written by someone who had lived along the border of North Korea and China, and it was so beautiful.
I wasn’t always sure they appreciated being reminded of their names (they also have my last name as a second middle name), but recently my cousin came to visit from Seoul. She brought all of us Korean name stamps – small ink stamps that were used as identification for bank statements, etc. These were modern versions – so beautiful; the kids all loved them and asked for the meaning of their given name.
Your question really makes me think, Kathy. And I’m not sure how to answer it for myself–I’m wondering, do you think white people can and should answer that question for ourselves? As I understand it, there’s ‘whiteness’ of white supremacy, “normalcy”, the default, and then there’s our actual European ancestry, that is rich and ours and fraught. Are you asking if I know who I am outside of the first, and within the second?
Also, I think that first whiteness is blind, at least for well-meaning white people who haven’t thought hard about race. It’s an invisible marker. So maybe I can answer your question–I am so so glad to begin to understand that white blindness for myself, because it has made the world and its grief make more sense, helped me to figure out how to stop (in faltering, imperfect, and in-process small steps) how to not add to it, and also opened my eyes more to my sisterhood with people who are not of European ancestry–and how to build on that. I am grateful to not be blind, and to feel both reality of my ancestry–all its implications, good and bad.
Heather, I’m so glad the question has you thinking deeply. I have often wrestled with the idea that we place different values on assimilation. It’s the way to the American Dream. It’s selling out. It’s an attempt at whiteness. Could it be as simple as survival with the hope of not losing everything that is unique to one’s culture(s) of origin when there is still access to it, which also is a privilege?
I guess I am asking both though, to be honest, I had not thought of the question in terms of starting with whiteness. 🙂
I’m’ not sure that i do, nor am I sure that I CAN know the answer to your last question. I am white. I am old. I am female. I am rich, by the standards of the world. I am educated. I have also been overweight much of my life, with dreadful skin and a strange vascular system — all of which has led to tons of self-hatred and negative self-talk. I have a deep and growing sympathy (empathy, maybe, too?) for the beautiful variety of cultures in our huge melting pot of a nation and the myriad ways in which they have been made to feel ‘other.’ And I am embarrassed by the ways in which my own lack of knowledge has made me complicit in ways I didn’t intend and often still do not recognize. I hear your anger, your fatigue, your frustration and I’m sorry for any way in which I, and others like me, have contributed to that. But I still do not understand that question. So . . . help a sister out here, okay? Because I believe we are sisters. Do you?
I certainly believe we are sisters.
What would you be known as, for if your privilege and access and history was stripped of its whiteness? How would you explain that question or how do you understand that question as someone who sits within it in comparison to someone like me who sits outside of it?
This is a tough one because I am white also. I’m too Asian for whites to think I’m just one of them and too white to really feel like my Asian roots are planted very deep. So as a child, I internalized it all. I didn’t have a language for those questions of who am I in relation to the default of my youth which were my white peers. The girls on the television screen and in the magazines were all white. The girls in my school were primarily white or latino so I fit nowhere. It’s taken me years to begin to unpack some of those experiences in light of being a multi-racial Asian-American woman and finding that my identity is less about fitting now or having a seat at someone else’s table but in making space for justice in the areas where white is still the default and the ideal. Thanks for using your voice to continually broaden this conversation. When Grace Cho and I met up we mentioned you several times and we’re glad for the ways knowing yourself has helped us know ourselves better as well.
Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I love it that your children have American and Korean names. Our heritage is a part of who we are. As for your question, I like to think that I do know who I am apart from my “whiteness” because I know, regardless of my race, that I am a child of God and that he loves me. He doesn’t choose us on the basis of our race, but out of His goodness and mercy. I am glad God created such a variety of colors in the world and in people. Just think how rich we are when we all work together in harmony utilizing our differences as we worship and serve God. Blessings to you!
This is very good. I would like to recommend a book called Raising Mixed Race by Sharon Chang. It explores all these issues. However, Ms. Chang also very intelligently raises Indigenous issues and explores those parallels. I would like to see more Asians be like Ms. Chang, and realize that Asians and Indigenous have many things in common in terms of racial identities. I hear black brought up a lot by the Asian community, but not so much about Indigenous. Also keep in mind that Indigenous peoples and Asians also sometimes look quite similar. Lots to think about and explore there. Do Asian settlers still have more privilege than North American Indigenous people who have been targets of genocide? Most Asians still can speak Chinese or Japanese or Korean: their language was not taken away, they don’t have to try to learn/invent the language and culture from scratch. We have Churches for Asians and Asian Americans, but do we have Churches for Indigenous peoples?
Well, your example of language only holds for certain generations and East Asians and isn’t entirely accurate. My husband is an American-born Korean American and he and his siblings for the most part cannot speak Korean. There is no single narrative for Asian Americans, a term designed for political and social power and access.
Your questions about more privilege also come close to oppression olympics. If the degree of oppression also determines the space at the table to talk about oppression and freedom, we are still focusing on whiteness.
As for churches for Indigenous peoples, I believe there are very few because of the intentional genocide and then the intentional displacement of Indigenous peoples into reservations which lack the connections to broader societal infrastructures designed for “success” and flourishing. We also have churches for Asians and Asian Americans because North American english-speaking congregations do not want to bother learning other languages.