18 Years of Wishing I Was White: Internalized Racism within the Asian-American Community

By: Jillian Peihua

For the first time in my life, I don’t want to be white.

Although I was born in China, my entire world growing up was filled with white people and white culture. My adoptive parents are white. All of my friends were white. All of my extended family is white, aside from my younger sister, who is also adopted from China. Everyone I saw on TV, in movies, my favorite musicians that I idolized- were all white.

For a long time, I straddled the fence between Asianness and whiteness. I felt “too whitewashed” to hang out with other Asians, but “too Asian” to hang out with white students. Among Asian classmates, my reputation was that I hung out with only white people. In elementary school, kids asked me why my eyes were like this, as they peeled their eyelids backwards with their fingers, giggling. Throughout school, I endured increasingly worse racist teasing like most people of color do growing up.

At home, my parents tried their best to connect me to my Chinese culture. They took me to Chinese school, went to Families with Children from China events, and talked openly to me about my ethnicity and history of China. They sent me to Chinese school, where I was mortified to be in a class with preschoolers due to my lack of proficiency in Mandarin, despite being in the 3rd or 4th grade. I felt isolated from my other Chinese peers because I wasn’t Chinese enough. I couldn’t speak the language; our families and cultures were different.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I didn’t want to celebrate or acknowledge any of my Asian heritage. I figured I wouldn’t fit in with other Asians, and I turned to assimilating into white culture instead. I quickly learned that I wanted to be deemed acceptable in the eyes of my white classmates, ignoring the fact that they were the same people who made fun of me. By the time I was thirteen, I proudly wore the badge of being called a “banana” – “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” When my friends told me I was “basically white,” I would gloat the rest of the day, as it was the best compliment I could possibly receive.

Despite being an introverted person, in front of others I was loud and assertive. My natural instinct to be shy was overruled by the social fear that people would think I was quiet, nerdy, or didn’t speak English. I pretended to be stupid, and laughed along when people called me a “dumb Asian.” Each time I met someone for the first time, I instinctively tried to prove I wasn’t like a ‘typical Asian’ within the first thirty seconds of conversation. I swore, loudly. I talked about being adopted by white people. I talked about how much I hated school and my teachers. I talked about music I thought was cool and other pop culture references. I would do absolutely anything to separate myself from my Asianness, even if it meant downplaying my intelligence and encouraging my friends to perpetuate stereotypes. I completely adhered to European standards of beauty. I accepted the false idea that my Asianness eliminated the chances for anyone to ever find me pretty or desirable. Instead, I gazed upon my white friends jealously, wishing I were white so I could be as pretty as them. I was deeply ashamed of my Asian heritage, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

‘Internalized racism’ refers to the phenomenon I experienced growing up, and continue to experience today. I believed in the racist stereotypes and beliefs about my own race, and perpetuated them. Internalizing such heavy, hurtful ideas about Asians took a toll on my self-esteem – everyday I catch myself thinking racist thoughts about myself and other Asians.

Joining ASA in February of last semester was the first time I had spoken to other Asians. I met the Executive Board and Officers at a Panel Discussion about Asian-American adoptees at UPenn. Despite how cliché it sounds, I felt at home chatting and getting to know them. For the first time, I didn’t feel self-conscious about my Asianness. I didn’t worry that they were judging me, thinking I was foreign, thinking I was shy, or nerdy – I didn’t feel like I was the odd one out. Since joining the organization, I’ve grown more comfortable with my Asian ethnicity. I no longer wish I were white. Rather than ignoring and disrespecting my ethnicity as I did in high school, I want to dedicate my life to empowering the Asian-American community.

By nature, internalized racism affects one’s internal feelings and self-perception. However, it also affects how Asians are regarded and treated by society. Due to internalized racism, some Asian-Americans tend to believe the false sentiment that Asians don’t experience racism and prejudice as other minorities do.

Consequently, Asian-Americans constantly let others get away with racist behavior aimed at marginalizing Asians. As a result, racist incidents are frequently deemed ‘just a joke’ and that we’re being ‘too sensitive.’ For example, strangers come up to me, ask me where I’m from, and tell me I speak English well. Drunk college kids saunter up to me and say ‘konichiwa’ or ‘ni hao’ before proceeding to condescendingly bow to me at parties.  TV shows get away with white actors poking fun at Asians by wearing yellowface, with How I Met Your Mother and Saturday Night Live being recent examples.

Although these incidents seem minor, allowing the perpetrators go unpunished contributes to the common idea that they can get away with more serious instances of racism in the future. For example, history has forgotten about Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man killed because of his race in 1982, whose murderers did not see a day in jail. Hundreds of Asian-American women at Harvard University received death threats, emails full of racial slurs, just a few weeks ago. These instances represent how severe anti-Asian sentiment can be, and how dangerous it is to not take anti-Asian racism seriously. The public eye rarely deems racism committed against Asians as unacceptable.

Asian-Americans and our supporters should try their best to call out racism and other instances of hate-based prejudice against Asians, despite how minuscule they seem. Doing so not only lets others know that there are consequences for anti-Asian discrimination, but also can be a preventative measure to discourage more grave/dangerous situations from arising in the future.

I can’t overemphasize how important it is for my fellow Asian-Americans to recognize internalized racism within themselves. Doing so increases one’s self-worth, allows one to analyze it effects their perception of Asian-American issues, and begin to take a stand when these incidents happen. Up until recently, my internalized racism prevented me from understanding why someone mocking my native language is wrong, or the cause of my sadness when I looked in the mirror. Only now that I’ve thought more about the source of my desire to be white, and my rejection of my Asian heritage, I understand why I have to speak up for Asian Americans and other people of color. I no longer comply when someone asks me what math class I’m taking, and I am disgusted instead of flattered when men tell me they have a ‘thing’ for Asian women. Unlearning internalized racist beliefs was a huge burden off of my shoulders, helped me love myself, and inspired me to get engaged with current social issues in the Asian-American community and beyond. I strongly believe that tackling internalized racism on an individual basis is the first step in building a stronger Asian-American community.

I open the blog with the hope that by sharing my experiences, the readers may recognize the possibility of indifference as a result of internalized racism within themselves. By first recognizing the climate of Asian-America today, the blog can successfully open the floor to other personal experiences or social issues that other blog contributors will write about in the future.

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