These past few months have been eye-opening, emotional, frustrating, and most of all sad for me as an Asian-American. Every day there seems to be a new headline about hate crimes directed at Asians. I’ve had family and friends reach out and tell me to be safe. I’ve learned to become more aware of my surroundings, to question going places by myself, and most of all, to be scared for my daughter’s future.
The other day, I was out for a run in what you can describe as a very typical, white-dominated subdivision of Milwaukee. A van pulled up next to me and a man drove very slowly right behind me. Normally I would just think it was someone who was lost or needed directions, but this time it was different. I had an immediate pit in my stomach and was terrified that maybe this man was going to attack me because I’m Asian.
I started shaking–trying to unlock my phone and call my husband but luckily this was just a service van that ended up pulling into the driveway in front of me. As scary as this experience was, it was also eye-opening for me.
Is this what many African Americans have felt all their lives? Is this what Asian Americans have felt their entire lives? Has being adopted into a white family, distorted my perception of the racism that’s been happening in America for generations?
I’ve slowly realized that even though I was born in a different country and am 100% Asian, have I lived under the shadows of “white privilege”.
I’ve struggled with what to say about this topic and how I feel about America today. I’m of course outraged at the violence and racism that minorities are facing in America today. But I’ve also realized that I’ve played a part in this too. Even though I’m Asian, I have white parents, grew up in a white-dominated city, married a white man, and a majority of my friends are white. I grew up celebrating my heritage, learning about the culture, visited my home country of Korea, but how “Asian” am I really?
The best way I can explain this is through one of the toughest experiences I faced in middle school. In 8th grade, I transferred from a small private school into a public school. I was so nervous for my first day. I went from a small school where I grew up with everyone to a school of hundreds of kids where I didn’t know anyone. When it was time for lunch, I looked at the sea of the kids. No one invited me to eat with them. I sat at a table by myself until an Asian girl told me to follow her. She led me to a table of all Asian kids who all spoke Hmong. I remember feeling so small and confused.
Here I was singled out as Asian– there weren’t any white kids who invited me to eat with them–expected to sit with the kids who look like me. Even when I don’t understand their language.
At that moment I felt like I didn’t belong in either world. Not Asian, Not American.
I finished my meal as fast as I could, went to the bathroom, and cried until the bell rang when it was time to go to class. I remember my mom picking me up from school and crying in her arms. Not knowing how to explain what happened to me and not understanding that kids, whether they knew or not, let my race dictate where I belonged.
No one was violent to me, no one said anything “mean,” but this is a reality of America today. After a few days, I started making friends with other white kids and found my friend group. It was so easy for me to forget about that first day and distance myself from how those other Asian kids felt. I look back on this experience and feel so much guilt. How could I do that? Have such an awful experience and then ignore it and act like it didn’t happen?
Did I ever pursue a friendship with other Asian kids who were not adopted? Did I let my “white” privilege become a shield of what was happening right in front of me?
I hear and see so many people saying “I’m so tired of everything being a race issue” or “Can we just make things not be black vs. white”. What I’ve experienced and realized is that minorities don’t want their race to be an issue! The way that America has treated minorities has made them feel like their race is the issue.
Imagine being so hated for your skin color, your culture, who are born as, that people what to hurt you. Now imagine having to explain to your kids. Imagine them having to see that on the news, online, and hearing those conversations. This is our America today. It’s easy to oversimplify, ignore the issues of racism we encounter. I know this because I’ve been guilty of this. I don’t have a clear solution but I do know that we need to address it, educate ourselves, and reflect on our past actions.
I’ve been asked and also asked myself what can I do to change this.
The first thing we all need to realize, including myself, is that we aren’t doing enough. We’ve made too many excuses, ignored things we shouldn’t have, and let our privilege get in the way of creating change. Next, we need to realize that we are not the experts, that we need to continue to educate ourselves, learn from others and create a space where we can have tough conversations and evolve from them. You can’t solve this with a feel-good donation, or sharing a meme on social media. We need to do the hard work. That takes time. Finally, I ask that we create the change. I’ve learned change means something different for a lot of people. The change I’m asking for is that you teach your child to invite that Asian girl at school to eat lunch with them.
Let’s teach our children to be better and be kinder. Our goal should be that our children can look back on this time in America and not recognize it. I don’t have the solution for all of this, but I do know I’ve failed my fellow Asian Americans and BIPOC communities. I’m working on changing and I hope you will evolve with me.