A Light-Skinned Asian’s Attempt At Unpacking Her Privilege

The #notyourasiansidekick discussion touched on what I see as one of the biggest hurdle to feminism/POC solidarity, mutual validation between APIs and other POC. APIs feel invisible, hiding and hidden oftentimes by the “model minority” label. Personally, any racial or sexist discrimination I faced I have attempted to write off as not being a big enough deal to make a fuss about. Sure, it slowly chips away at me that there is no voice for API people in U.S. politics, API women are continually sexualized and meant to see it as a compliment, and no one in the media looks remotely like me, but that shouldn’t be a big deal, right? I still “look white,” right? Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t I, a half API, half Caucasian (I describe myself thusly while internally hating the idea of being two halves, two parts continually separate from one another which together make up a split being), be happy that my skin is pale enough to pass, be “accepted,” in a cursory way, for an ethnicity that I partly identify with? Even though this pale skin does not reflect the darker, smoother, shiny skin of my father, I don’t have any right to complain. That’s what I’ve been told, discretely, quickly from anyone I dare mention discrimination to, feeling like lesser than, not a part of.

“You’re not even Chinese,” I’ve been told by many people, them somehow benefiting from dismissing half of my ancestry.

Listening to Miriam Yeung talk during the Google Hangout, she identified the first generation Asian Americans, a group I am a part of, as the bridge generation. 80 percent of ASAM adults are foreign born. 80 percent! I had never dreamed it was that many. She said it’s now our responsibility to bring these conversations about ASAM issues back to our families, but how do you talk to the disenfranchised if your parent’s language was never passed down? If any connection you could have with the disenfranchised was assimilated out? Who are we, those with the features of two races, and therefore the features of none, reaching out to?

I have joked in the past about a “racially ambiguous” title for those of us who are asked “Where are you from?”, have people comment on our features as being indicators of this or that race, and generally feel like an outsider with all racial groups. Perhaps passing as a white woman is particularly hard for me because my father was an outsider in our community. I had no Chinese friends when I was a kid, I rarely ever saw another Asian person in our town at all. I had a few friends who were Filipino, who spoke Tagalog to their parents over the phone, but our mutual Asian heritage was not discussed outside of me asking, “Have you ever been in an Asian supermarket? You know that smell?” That smell was recently killed fish airing on ice chip beds in the back section of the store. I hoped this knowledge, briefly shared, would make my experiences the norm. There had to have been a Chinese girl my age at my school, but our paths never crossed. Shouldn’t I have met her in AP Calculus? Or Mock Trial?

It is our natural state to compare ourselves to others, including who has it worse and who has it better. Sometimes the only comfort is that we have kept going despite adversity, and we don’t want anyone telling us our struggles were manufactured by our privileged perspective, What most likely started as an evolutionary necessity, surviving by being part of the dominant group, benefiting from the pack’s safety, has become a wedge to keep us from truly reaching out to one another.

Now we all have to admit: “We have it better and we have it worse.” Or we will never be able to work together.

I’ll start:

I have it better than a lot of people. I was born in the U.S. where I was awarded privileges merely for having a mother who was a U.S. citizen. I have light skin, which gives me a clear advantage in our colorist society over people who are darker. I am able-bodied without any physical handicaps. I grew up in a community where I did not fear for my safety. I did not want for food or shelter. My Chinese heritage has always been seen as a nice sprinkling of the exotic rather than an indication of instability, aggression, or dishonesty. I am a cis female who has only had heterosexual partners; I can walk down any street and not worry about reactions to my partner and I.

I have it worse than a lot of people. I was born in the U.S. where women are systematically treated as less than men. I am ASAM, which while a “model minority,” is still less than Caucasian. I have always been a little chubby, because of our Western beauty ideals, I have been chastising my body since I can remember. I am first-generation, my father never taught my siblings or I how to speak Cantonese because he was too busy learning English; this has continually kept us from being able to speak with our extended family and other Chinese people. My father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when I was nine, shading my entire adolescence with my family’s need to care for him. After the diagnosis he became increasingly traditional, we lived in a household with obvious patriarchal rules; I was taught my time was always less important than elders or males.

Writing this I see the inherent problem with attempting to unpack your privilege. In order for you, the reader, to see my privileges and disadvantages you need to know everything about me. You have to know my whole story and that of my parents. But no one wants to do this, can do this, so we go off the most obvious indicators. Skin. Appendages. Clothes. Hair. And it leaves me to wonder, what are our true privileges: how strangers see and interact with us? Or the taint of disadvantage we feel as Others, even amongst people who accept us for our exterior indicators of sameness?

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2 thoughts on “A Light-Skinned Asian’s Attempt At Unpacking Her Privilege

  1. I really appreciate this post. This is something I have been thinking about for some time now. My mom is hispanic and my dad is caucasian, and I am very light skinned. Spanish was not passed down to me or my mother and so that has left us both hanging in the wind culture wise. I am now trying to actively pursue learning about the other half of my heritage. My mother’s parent’s refused to teach her spanish to help her assimilate into the caucasian majority workforce, it makes me sad when I hear these stories of them essentially stripping her of any cultural relations and signifiers. I don’t even know how to feel as an individual, I don’t necessarily relate or immediately identify as either culture. I can definitely relate to the thoughts you have shared!! Isabel

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    • Thank you so much for your response Isabel! It means a lot to me that you are able to connect to this. Even though I feel like I was brought up in both cultures, the fact that I can’t speak Chinese has made me feel embarrassed and very cut off from a whole other side of my identity. It’s awesome that you are learning more about the other half of your heritage. I wish you all the best.

      P.S. The pictures on your tumblr are beautiful. Keep up the good work!

      Like

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