You’ve dealt with racism?!
I don’t know why people are always surprised by this, but the answer is, YES.
I debated publishing this. Heck, I even debated writing it, but I woke up this morning to some really racially insensitive remarks posted publicly by someone I’ve known a long time and I realized I had to finish writing and editing this before I sunk back into not wanting to open up this can of worms. And I’m sorry it’s so long, but racism and I have had nearly 34 years of history together, so sadly I have a lot to share.
This isn’t meant to call specific people out, though if you find yourself on the defensive while reading it you may want to consider why. This also isn’t for pity; I do plenty of ridiculous things worthy of your pity, but being born half-Japanese is not. Keep in mind I fully acknowledge that anyone can be racist. This is merely to share my personal story and shed light on the fact that racism has been and very much is alive and well in America.
I am a biracial Asian American (born in the early 80s) that grew up in a predominantly white, quaint little town in Massachusetts—the kind of town they slap on postcards because they’re so “cute”. My dad was the first in his family to marry a white partner and produce mixed kids. I had exactly 2 Asian friends for short periods growing up before one of us changed schools—both Indian—and no fellow Japanese American classmates, ever. I never attended a school with more than a handful of minority students.
Growing up, people pointed out my differences almost daily–my hair, skin, eyes, etc.
My differences seemed to make others believe they had the license to comment on them, to openly discuss them amongst themselves and to go so far as to explore them further—to stroke my cheek or touch my hair. I can’t tell you the number of people that touched me in public—total strangers.
Being analyzed and talked about nearly everywhere I went had its effects. As a kid it made me self-conscious and uncomfortable in public. I didn’t know how to respond to the comments or unwanted touches, my face often glowing hot with embarrassment as I tried to shrink away. I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to melt into the floor or blend into the nearest store display.
At times, it was like being an animal at a petting zoo and it was awful.
Who are your parents?
I think one of the earliest “unintentionally” offensive comments I remember was when a stranger asked my mom, “When did you get her?”
The assumption that I was adopted, and there is nothing wrong with being adopted (my husband is), simply because I didn’t look like my mom was … upsetting. Even if I had been adopted, would that have been an appropriate comment?
When it came to my dad, people always commented on how much I looked like him, which I didn’t mind and actually liked. What I did mind was when friends or the parents of friends met my dad for the first time, did an obvious double-take, then later whispered things to me like, “Oh, I didn’t think he’d look like that…”
Like what? Like a person of Japanese heritage? You already knew I was half-Japanese and you’ve already met my white mom, so… Now I’m confused. What was he supposed to look like?
The only time I felt I could ever just be me in public was when we visited family in Hawaii. Nobody every said anything to me about how different I was because … I wasn’t! Plenty of kids around me were mixed or Asian. Nobody made comments about my dad and nobody asked if I was adopted. Hawaii was the rainbow in my otherwise cloudy childhood when it came to my racial identity.
What are you?
There are 3 little words that every biracial person I know has heard mercilessly their entire lives—What are you?
This phrase has always been posed bluntly and insensitively, as if I owed some explanation for my hard-to-place features and coloring. It has followed me my entire life and to this day, I still hear it.
I don’t think everyone that has said racially insensitive things over the years meant to be offensive, but people don’t seem to understand that intent doesn’t excuse action.
In reality, I was (and often am) different compared to the majority of those around me. I didn’t have brown or blond hair, my complexion was medium in depth, my eyes were almond shaped and I was clearly not “white”. I learned to use chopsticks around the time I learned to use a fork and knife and I ate rice (fresh from our rice cooker) at every meal—yes, even with pizza. I grew up loving R&B and rap even though everyone around me listened to country and pop.
I was different, but why was that a problem?
Cool Asian For School
School, a mix of private Catholic and public depending on the year, was hell for me as a minority in the younger years.
“Go home to China!” (Nobody said you have to be geographically correct to be racist.)
“Hey, Chop Suey…”
“Jap! Jap!” (Always accompanied by some eye-pulling, this was a regular chant by one classmate in particular as our bus bumped along our hilly roads and I tried to focus on staring out the smudgy windows without crying.)
“My grandfather shot your people down in World War II!” (I especially loved the way he turned around during history class and made a gun motion at me when he said it. He didn’t care that I had Japanese family members serving in the U.S. military, others in an internment camp or that I had family in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was bombed because in his mind, his grandfather shot down my family and that’s all there was to it. Bravo to him!)
There were plenty of comments about how I looked, intentionally mislabeling me as other Asian nationalities, the usual racist rhymes and then some very creative and highly offensive things I won’t repeat here because … it’s a family blog. 😉
In fact, one of the first times I ever got in trouble at school was because a boy who was particularly merciless with his racist bullying, who happened to sit near me in 4th grade, wouldn’t stop calling me a “Jap” me under his breath in class. I finally shot back using a swear I’d heard (and had no idea the meaning of) and was immediately marched out of the classroom where I was made to sit next to him until the principal could see us. In the end, I was told to apologize and while I explained what he had been doing I was told it was no excuse for using such foul language. This was the first time I remember realizing that in the end I’d be held accountable for my reactions, but that racist behaviors towards me might not receive the same consequences.
My younger brother received all of the same verbal abuse I did, but with a heavy dose of physical bullying to top it off. Spending time waiting outside the principal’s office in elementary school, my mom inside discussing the latest incident, became a regular occurrence. This pattern continued in junior high for the most part as well. Being 2 of only a tiny handful of Asian kids in every school we attended made us vulnerable and easy to pick out. I tried my best to remain as unnoticed as possible and was somewhat successful, but my brother had a more difficult time.
I was fortunate to form a small pocket of a few close friends near the end of junior high and thankfully ended up in a small homeroom where none of the people that tended to go after me were assigned. I was also in accelerated classes for a few subjects, which allowed me to enjoy a few calmer periods each day with kids who were focused on academics, not race. My brother wasn’t as lucky
High school came around and my brother and I attended a small private school my freshman year. My first day a teacher approached me during lunch and asked what ethnicity my brother and I were. Shocked and feeling obligated to respond, I told them.
“Oh, the teachers were discussing it and it was the consensus you were Romanian,” the teacher said nonchalantly, turning and walking off to share the news with the other teachers as if it was a completely normal thing to do. To this day that incident still blows my mind.
Aside from that moment and one student in my class who came up with the most creatively racist nickname I’ve been called to date, I had a relatively peaceful year and made some lovely friends!
Leveling Up to “Exotic”
The following year, my parents transferred my brother and me into our local public high school. Our public high school funneled 3 towns into it, which mixed things up a bit. Yes, I heard a few of the usual racist comments here and there, but as a biracial girl I found that some guys started to label me as “exotic”, while my brother endured even more of the same merciless bullying—verbal and physical.
Being called “exotic” gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, it felt more positive in a way than the racism I’d endured before, but it also felt a bit gross. I didn’t want people close to me simply to check a box off their lists or because they fetishized my ethnicity. Thankfully high school was large enough that I was able to avoid people I didn’t want to be around most of the time. I had great groups of friends inside and outside of school and a positive dating relationship, all of which made a huge difference during that period of my life.
Celebrate or Separate? – College
College was an interesting experience. I attended a small parochial college my freshman year in my home state that I truly thought would be the perfect fit. I’d dreamt of going there for years despite getting great offers from schools that were even more competitive and would have frankly been a better fit. Hindsight is always 20/20.
As soon as I was accepted to what I thought was my dream college I was simultaneously added to the ranks of their very low minority stats—that should have been my first red flag—and invited to be a part of a group specifically designed for minorities on campus. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the idea of hanging out with other minorities peaked my interest. However, it became very apparent that the group inadvertently focused on not just celebrating, but hyper-focusing on differences between minorities and the rest of the student body to the point I felt it almost encouraged an extremely wide divide. I stopped attending after 2 meetings as did the other girl in my class I’d gotten a bit close with who was Korean and adopted into a white family—she openly and regularly admitted she felt “whitewashed” because she identified with her white family and not at all with her own Korean heritage. That always threw me a bit, but I understood what she meant.
Either way, that group was not for me.
Mixed Babies, Mixed Messages
I got married in my early 20s to one of my best friends, a TCK (third culture kid) who, while not Asian, grew up in Asia for most of his childhood and we related on a very different level because of it.
Being on the receiving end of racism, you kind of hope that as you age or pass into a new phase of life that things will change. I had no idea that having kids of my own would actually inspire a whole new set of racially insensitive remarks.
After giving birth to our boys, it became apparent that having children of my own simply gave people another angle from which to let me know just how different I was. When the boys were little, people regularly remarked on how my children looked NOTHING like me. In fact, people would literally stop me in the middle of stores to loudly and emphatically let me know. It was almost a reverse of what I’d experienced as a kid. First I didn’t look enough like my mother, then I didn’t look enough like my own kids.
You may be saying to yourself, “Well, that’s your generation, things are so different now with our kids.”
Yes and no. Kids learn from their parents and if you’re willing to accept that our generation was/is racist at times, why would our children be all that different? Kids pick up on everything.
One of my saddest moments as a parent to date was when our oldest came home and told me he wanted to share a song someone had taught him because he didn’t get it. It ended up being one of the same childhood, racist rhymes that that I heard growing up. He didn’t understand what it meant. He didn’t understand why the kids pulled their eyes to the sides and made funny faces while they sang it.
My part-Japanese son was taught a racist song used to make fun of people like him, like his mom, like his aunties and uncles… I wanted to cry. I explained it to him and he still looked confused. He hadn’t been exposed to much racism and we’d intentionally taught both our boys about racial diversity and equality. It just didn’t make sense to him.
I spoke with a friend about it and she shrugged it off with something along the lines of, “Well, you know how kids are. They all learn those things, it’s a part of childhood.”
I suppose for some it is just “a part of childhood” they forget like most other silly rhymes. For others, it’s a part of childhood that breaks them down and diminishes any positive thoughts they have about their own Asian roots.
And let’s call a spade a spade, it’s a part of childhood because we allow it to be. Why?
She asked me what?! – Adulthood
As an adult, I’ve been able to choose more and more who I spend my time with and obviously avoid those that choose to take part in racist behavior. Still, you’d be surprised by the number of racist things friends and even family have said without realizing how racially insensitive they were.
I once had a distant family member email me asking if I could help them break into the “Latina” market with their direct-sales beauty business. I stared at the email for a long time, flabbergasted as to how to respond. Not only had this person apparently made the assumption that I was a Latina because she couldn’t place my ethnicity (I’ve found it’s incredibly common that biracial Asians get mistaken for Latinas or Hispanic), but that she was so certain of her assumption that she didn’t even feel the need to ask before diving into her request. I found myself trying to tip-toe around her feelings so as not to offend her in my response.
This wasn’t the first or only time someone related to me through blood or marriage made a racially insensitive comment or judgement. I’ve been at parties, in private conversations and out to dinner while racist remarks have been made towards me and around me by individuals and groups. It doesn’t matter.
Well-meaning people can be racist, too.
Where do we go from here?
So what’s a person to do when trying to avoid making racially insensitive comments?
Here’s the thing, guys…
You don’t need to tell us we look different—we already know! I’ve spent my entire life looking around me where I live and realizing almost no one resembles me in the slightest, with the exception of my siblings. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that can be.
And while you may be asking about someone’s ethnicity out of pure curiosity, unless you know the person or you’re already engaged in a conversation about it and the person is clearly okay with it … don’t ask! And if you do ask, try to avoid the good old, “What are you?”
Try not to attribute every positive or negative aspect about a person to their race. If I had a dime for every time I heard things like, “Oh, you’re just smart because you’re Asian,” or “Of course guys like you, you’re Asian,” I’d be a billionaire.
And please, please stop saying things like, “Oh, I’m not racist. I don’t even see race. Race doesn’t even exist to me.”
Well, first of all, unless you are legally blind you probably see that some complexions are deeper and some features are different. You must realize there are many, many countries with a wide variety of cultures associated with them. Saying you don’t see race and that there is no race in your eyes is almost as bad as judging someone for their race. You’re basically telling me my race (and culture) is irrelevant. And yes, while I don’t want to be judged for it, I would be thrilled if you’d acknowledge and even appreciate it the same way I appreciate the fact you wear green on St. Patrick’s Day and wear shoes in your house.
You have to understand, someone’s racial identity, especially as a minority, can be a very sensitive subject. Someone’s identity as a biracial minority is a complex thing.
Think of it this way. If you’d spent your entire life being judged, called out and treated poorly for one aspect of who you are just by walking in a room, wouldn’t you feel all the more protective of it later on? Wouldn’t you feel as though you’d earned the right to proudly claim that aspect of yourself and identify by it?
Speaking as a biracial person, sometimes it feels like you’re judged for who you are when it’s convenient for others, but you’re not allowed to identify by it when you choose to. Being denied the racial identity you feel deep down hits a nerve because it’s something you’ve suffered for.
You have to allow people to celebrate their own racial identities because it isn’t your right to deny them that.
Is it really a joke?
I often see people posting online about how you can’t say anything to anyone anymore. Everyone is too sensitive. Everyone is so fragile; you can’t even make a joke in this day and age.
Is it a joke if it’s offensive and it makes someone feel bad about who they are? Should you really feel free to say ANYTHING to anyone you please? That seems pretty reckless and insensitive to me. It definitely doesn’t feel like the mark of an evolved, responsible society. We teach our kids that if both people aren’t laughing at a “joke” it isn’t a joke at all. Is that concept that foreign to adults today?
Speak carefully if you care about how you make other people feel because you have no idea what someone has been through. One person may feel completely comfortable joking about something that another person may not.
If you’re unsure of what someone is or is not okay with, ask in a genuine way. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone ask me if I was okay with discussing my ethnicity prior to making a racist comment. I actually have no issues talking about it with someone that isn’t judging me for it.
I’m proud to be a Japanese American hapa!
Keep in mind that it isn’t up to the minorities around you to make you feel better about how you treat them.
If you’re feeling convicted and you have a close friend who happens to be a minority, consider asking them if you’ve ever said something racially insensitive. But only ask if you’re truly open to hearing an honest answer. Asking for reassurance rather than truth isn’t very genuine.
Aside from those here long before this nation was dubbed “The New World”, we are all immigrants. Just because your grandparents came over on boats before mine doesn’t make me any less worthy of respect as an American.
Just because you have the luxury to believe racism isn’t an issue, doesn’t make it true. And trust me, that is a luxury.
And keep in mind, anyone can be racist. I don’t know many biracial adults that didn’t experience at least a little bit of racism on both sides of their family.
It’s okay to be hurt about things that have happened, but it’s not okay to be racist because of them. We can’t end racism if we don’t truly put a stop to it.
This is one of many reasons we focus so much on traveling with our kids. We want our kids to not just hear about, but to experience different people and places. We want to put faces to the concepts of other countries and cultures and all the beauty they hold. We want our kids to be global citizens.
I strongly believe that with everything going on right now it’s an important opportunity for every minority group from all walks of life and those in the majority that support them to stand up together and speak out. We cannot allow racism or prejudice of any kind–based on sex, gender, race, religion, lifestyle–to continue to be a part of who we are as a country. People are talking. Perhaps now, people will listen.
What are your thoughts? What are your experiences?
While we’re completely fine with people expressing their opinions, please keep them civil and appropriate for a family blog. Thanks!