“Yeah, Chinese people are so weird. They eat the strangest stuff.”
I whipped around to see who was responsible for the offending comment and found myself looking back at the only other Chinese-American in the class. Several of our classmates surrounded him, giggling as they looked to him for reassurance before offering their own prejudiced comments.
My face burned, yet I didn’t try to correct him because I knew exactly what he was doing. I had done it myself after all.
When I first entered my new, nearly all-white school system, I quickly realized the power I had as the only Chinese-American example. Most of my classmates didn’t have daily interaction with another person of color (POC), much less an Asian. Suddenly I was the spokesperson for all Asians, all 4 billion of them. Despite being only seven or so, I was an expert on all Asian cultures from China’s to Vietnam’s.
With my new-found powers, I manipulated my heritage to suit me. I confirmed and denied stereotypes while weaving in my own lies. When asked if I knew Chinese, I replied “yes” when I wanted to appear exotic and all-knowing and “no” when I wanted to reinforce the fact that I was just as American as my classmates. When someone made a racist joke, I made a point to laugh so that I wouldn’t be seen as an outsider. When we studied China in Social Studies, I learned to chime in whenever a teacher glanced my way. During one lesson, my teacher asked me for my thoughts on the current dispute over Taiwan. As a ten-year-old preoccupied with Harry Potter and lacking any interest in current events, I had the faintest idea what was happening in Taiwan, but I ad-libbed a comment anyways.
I suppose that these incidents were a perverse sort of empowerment in that these actions did help me in the short term. My popularity increased ever so slightly when everyone became obsessed with writing their name in Chinese, and I offered to teach them despite having no clue how to do so. I did become more comfortable with my background when I was able to throw it off and on at will, like a cloak. However, the cost was that the people I had lied to came away from these encounters with incorrect notions of China.
I look back at these episodes, and I cringe a bit but also laugh at these antics. I do so because I know that I have outgrown the mentality that I have to accept and confirm others’ bastardized versions of my own culture.
The problem now lies in encountering those who continue to degrade their heritage. Determining an appropriate reaction is difficult since I know they are not doing it out of malice. A person insulting their own culture usually doesn’t do so because they believe it, but because it is their defense mechanism against the daily microaggressions they face. Consequently, trying to assign blame makes the situation even more complicated.
For example, when a Chinese-American actress takes on a role that requires a “fobby” accent, is she excused because she didn’t write the role and just needed the money? Or is she partially to blame for perpetuating all of the racist stereotypes associated with Chinese immigrants?
A few years ago, journalist Julie Chen confessed to receiving plastic surgery to give herself the double-lidded eyes characteristic of many non-Asians. She claimed the surgery helped kickstart her career as she had received criticism for her eyes beforehand. Most would find it hard to fault her for doing what she could to advance her career and increase representation of female Asian journalists. However, for many young Asian girls who may have been self-conscious about their eyes, her choice also confirmed the idea that double-lids are more attractive than monolids.
So what makes one action excusable and the other not? I suspect the answer varies with each different situation, and in most, the answer isn’t even clear.
Of course, the only way to truly solve this issue would be to eliminate racism. Make it so that POC don’t feel the need to assimilate and degrade their own race. Make it so that an aspiring journalist does not have to undergo surgery just so that her eyes will look “television-ready.” However, seeing as we have not yet found the magical formula to get rid of racism and will likely have to instead spend generations chipping away at the institution, perhaps it’s time to look inward.
While we can only do so much when we encounter someone displaying internalized racism, we can make sure we don’t internalize these toxic ideals ourselves. This is a lifelong process that requires constant reflection, and mistakes are inevitable. However, through embracing our own identity, we make it easier for others to do so as well.