Readers of this blog and friends & colleagues might have known that I am originally from Taiwan, growing up as a racial majority, upper socio-(but-not-economical) class, and never having to figure out my racial identity as a marginalized child, teen, or young adult.
When you grow up occupying only a small slice of the population pie (less than 1/16 for Asian Americans of varied country origins,) your self-image and self-worth must rely not only on your family’s heritage and conviction, but also on your school environment, your neighborhood, and media representation.
For the last few years, I have identified myself as a Person of Color so I could unite with my Asian American, Brown American, and Black American brothers and sisters to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism they (we) must confront and rectify together. However, I must confess the hesitation, the discomfort, and the sense of being an “imposter” in many of such groups that I insert myself in at work, at professional settings, and social gatherings. I attend the monthly Faculty of Color meetings to discuss and strategize how to make my school a more inclusive and just environment for everyone. I go to the annual People of Color Conference for educators to glean and share new knowledge and lesson plans. I read books and articles and discuss about all sorts of sub-topics related to the systemic oppression so many of my colleagues, friends, and students have to contend with on a daily basis.
Every so often, I say to myself, “But you have never personally experienced any of these, except for perhaps once in a while someone jokingly (or seriously) thinks that you can do math a little better or that you are probably quite docile.” The last point could be exasperating since I am so far from being docile or gentle but the misconception or stereotype never gives me an iota of emotional stress. My racial identity could be easily just part of my whole being: like that I’m short or I am near-sighted and that I am a mother and a librarian. I am more and more aware of how much a luxury it is that I can go about my day, moving in all sorts of spaces to not be keenly aware of my racial identity.
This is the kind of luxury (privilege?) that I imagine many of my white friends, colleagues, and students have. And I also imagine that this is why so many of them are still struggling to figure out why their brown/black/Asian counterparts cannot simply “let this racial identity thing” go, or cannot simply train themselves to not allow racial identity to dominate one’s self-image or as the main influence of one’s notion of self-worth.
The more I think about my own identity, the more I know that I cannot claim to be a Person of Color in 2017 America. Instead, I feel like I need a different category — a different label, perhaps. My socio-economic status, my immigration status (naturalized citizen by marriage,) my work stability, and my lack of external threats from law enforcement, etc., makes me, if not 100% equal to most upper-middle class white Americans, close enough to Being White. This explains why I often do not have the “ouch” reaction that many people of color have when encountering media misrepresentations, lack of representations, or grossly inaccurate stereotypical expectations — all because I have not experienced years of being misunderstood or being reduced to a “type” and not being seen and valued as a unique individual. If there is some sort of continuum of Racial Identities — then I would drop my pin (when it comes to how privileged and how socially resourced I am) somewhere in the “White” section. Since I cannot claim to be actually White, I will from now on think of myself as Off-White and hopefully can use this identity to help my White colleagues, friends, and students to figure out how we can help advance the anti-racist and social justice causes.
I welcome comments and thoughts — am I being completely off here? Am I usurping anyone’s identity to claim myself as Off White or is it somehow accurate and perhaps even rings a bell for other Asian Americans?
2 responses to “Musing While (Off)White”
(apologies if this is duplicated, I am having issues…)
Hi Roxanne – I hope I’m staying in my lane here, all I’ll say is that when we talk about white privilege, what we need to do is a power analysis. (Maybe we could be better/clearer about this at Reading While White, you’re challenging me to think deeply on that.) An important mental shift (as I constantly remind myself) is to point the spotlight not at groups of disempowered people, and say “what is it about them?” but to point the spotlight at the people, and systems, in power and say “what’s going on here?”
One good tool to help this kind of thinking is this old piece from the New York Times called “The Faces of American Power” ( https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/02/26/us/race-of-american-power.html ). I regularly visit, the page, scroll through it quickly (just looking at the images) and let that sink in (and of course, it’s even more skewed now, particularly the government sections…)
I don’t intend to shut down any of your introspective self-assessment work, but to add another dimension to how you think about whiteness. It’s about individuals, AND, it’s about power and the systems that keep power located in the hands of white people.
Thanks, Allie. I am totally in agreement with you regarding every point you mentioned here. Also keenly aware of the “internal self” vs the “external image” — No matter how I “feel” within (a majority Chinese person, with lots of knowledge and love to offer, sometimes quite lazy, sometimes quite passionate about all the social injustices, etc. etc.) it is NEVER how others (especially random people) view me. They see a small, middle-aged, Chinese American woman who might or might not be this or that. And yes, I definitely am NOT white, neither am I sharing the kind of Power that is the oh-so-entrenched White America. I wrote this piece mostly to proclaim that I cannot speak for most Asian Americans and other POCs who grew up having to struggle against overt and implied racism and that my views on books for children and teens tend to be coming from a different perspective. What I have to do is to not make the mistakes of presuming that I know how POCs feel and continue to learn and to consider their perspectives.
Does that make sense?
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