A white person in the US is assumed to be an American.
The European-American label is never used.
A black person in the US is assumed to be an American.
The African-American label is used for etiquette.
An Asian person in the US is assumed to be an immigrant.
The Asian-American label is used as an indulgence.
An Asian person is never referred to as a yellow person.
Even by name, an Asian person stays a perpetual foreigner.
I was born in Missouri, in the very heartland of the United States, and I have had roots in Georgia since I was three years old.
But, growing up, it was obvious how people saw me.
I was a Southeast Asian kid in America, never an American kid in the Southeast.
What’s insidious about the racism that I experienced (and experience, and will continue to experience) is how it reinforces feelings of dislocation. It amplifies that uncertainty that we all have, the questioning of belonging.
“Where are you really from?”
“Have you been here your whole life?”
“You speak English so well.”
“What other languages do you speak?”
“I’m just going to call you ‘Mike’ instead.”
This form of racism, the kind that we all casually accept, is subtle and, unless you experience it yourself, rarely registers with most people.
A level above that, there’s the type of racism where people pull their eyelids in mimicry. Where they joke about eating cats. Where you get asked to figure out the bill because you’re good at math. Incomprehensible noises like “ching chong” are used to communicate with you. Speech goes out of sync with mouth movements to imitate kung-fu movies. Imaginary karate poses are held to threaten you. The women in your life become fetishes and objects to denigrate. The diverse cultures around you blend into one homogenous monolith, where the myopia sees everyone as Chinese, and lo mein and sushi and phở all come from a single place.
This form of racism can be detected by people who are more sensitive and educated.
What’s happening right now, as attacks escalate from sea to shining sea, is the pure and undiluted form of racism.
This type of racism tastes like the blood when I was punched in the mouth. This type of racism feels like the rocks that were hurled at me when I walked through an unknown neighborhood. This type of racism sounds like “chink” and “gook” when people I don’t know want to scream at me.
This form of racism is the familiar, unmistakable display of bigotry that everyone knows and understands.
The real torment, however, is that, even when the racism is blatant enough for everyone to see, it is still unworthy of widespread concern.
The inattention fortifies the separateness. The indifference compounds the suffering.
No matter how the racism presents itself, the underlying sentiment is always apparent: “You are not one of us.”
The sad truth is that I get it.
Majority translates to importance. Black and white are the colors of focus here in the US, so that’s where we tend to polarize ourselves. Unfortunately, that also means that we often become blind to other experiences.
The debate on motives here around the Atlanta shootings is a good example. Race may not have been the sole factor, but it was absolutely a decisive factor.
Whether it was a hate crime, or whether it was just “a bad day,” as the sheriff’s captain offered, disregarding the consequences of race deepens the feeling of insignificance.
I’m curious to see if the national perspective will evolve from this point. If the pain will continue to be minimized. If the terror will continue to be dismissed. If the violence will continue to be excused. If Asians will ever be seen as Americans.
In the meantime, counteracting the hatred and exercising inclusivity can be as simple as asking ourselves the following:
“How can I find genuine concern for my neighbors, to view them as worthy of my compassion?”