How the Black community gave me strength to assert my Asianness as a white-passing Asian

Being mixed is a unique space to navigate. 

Anyone of mixed heritage understands that it’s hard to feel enough of any of their cultures to feel like they belong in their communities. You feel perpetually rejected from cultures that you identify with. 

I’m a white-passing Asian, who connects more with my Asian heritage than my white ancestry. Because of this, I self identify as Asian or Asian American.

MY ROOTS

Growing up, my Asian heritage was always a part of me, but I saw myself more as white. I think it was a combination of my mixed household incorporating our Asian ancestry in subtle ways and my friends being white. 

Living close to my grandparents allowed me the most access to my Taiwanese heritage. I have fond memories of foraging fresh seaweed, watercress, and blackberries that my Nana discovered on the side of the roads. 

I remember her feeding my little brother and I, always putting another spoonful up to our mouths. I remember the simple yet delicious meals she makes that give me glimpses of my ancestry. Glass noodle dishes, Sweet red bean and mochi dessert/soup, and tri-colored (red, green, and white) jello dessert are a few I can think of. 

I learned how strong and resourceful she is after surviving Japan’s invasion of Taiwan where she fled to the woods and survived by eating tree bark. I discovered that she was given a Japanese name and learned how to speak another language other than her own because she was forced to. I greatly admire my grandmother. I’ve felt this innate pull to her out of curiosity, admiration, and love that grows as I age.

At home, I grew up with white rice with every meal and we celebrated our Asianness when we could – educating my classmates and bringing them red envelopes for Chinese New Year throughout grade school, going to dim sum, and enjoying holiday meals that included my Nana’s drool worthy egg rolls. Growing up, my time with my Nana allowed me to get to know my Asian heritage as well as feel supported as a member of the Asian community. She planted the seeds that I belonged in the community despite being white-passing. My Nana watered my cultural roots to ensure my Taiwanese heritage was a part of my identity.

CULTURAL INFLUENCE BY BLACK COMMUNITY

Interestingly enough, I grew up in a very diverse environment where the Black community really influenced my youth and further watered such seeds planted by my Nana.

I picked up ebonics, fashion trends, and pop culture interests through my privilege to be exposed to the Black community. Looking at me, people probably wouldn’t guess that Rap and R&B were/are a couple of my favorite genres of music.

For many years, I strongly connected with Black culture because it was front and center to my daily life. For anyone who grows up in diverse environments, you understand that you may start to mirror those that are around you (the dominant culture) as a way to be accepted. 

My appreciation for those from different backgrounds stems from my mixed upbringing and the communities I was able to have insight into. I was forever changed by it and ended up pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Communications with a concentration in Culture and a minor in Diversity Studies. Learning about my own and other’s cultures was a passion of mine, it enriched my life and made me a better person.

Photo Credit: bruce mars from Unsplash

As I’ve gotten older, the desire to learn, celebrate, and embrace my Asian heritage has pulled me towards understanding myself more. But I felt conflicted as someone who doesn’t “look” Asian. Culturally, my life is strongly influenced and connected to my Asian heritage, yet I didn’t really feel like I was allowed to embrace it as much as I wanted. 

A couple of years ago that changed.

One of my colleagues at work was unabashedly proud of her beautifully dark melanin skin and her Black heritage. I wondered “why can’t I celebrate who I am too?” I realized I was the one holding myself back out of fear of others’ judgment. 

She opened my eyes to embrace my identity the way that she does hers. I built my confidence through the notion that no one will see me the way I want to be seen unless I demand to be acknowledged a certain way. 

I needed to give people a better understanding of who I am through the words I use to talk about myself, my communities, and how I present myself to the world. My colleague both inspired and freed me and I am forever grateful.

A STEP FORWARD

In 2019, I attended the first ever Summit empowering the Asian women and gender non-binary community in Brooklyn, New York by The Cosmos. I was excited, but scared for this large public event. 

I was scared that I wouldn’t be accepted, that I wouldn’t be seen as Asian enough. I even wore a modern floral cheongsam which added a whole other layer to my self-consciousness.

The event was powerful. Being in a room full of people who culturally understood you, who could relate to your experiences and interests is quite therapeutic. 

I cried during one of the exercises with my group, sharing my insecurities around being seen as a member of the Asian community as someone who is biracial. It was powerful and a relief to have another mixed woman in my group relate to my feelings. A lot of us cried that day, sharing in our emotions and therapeutically letting go of ideas and experiences that didn’t serve us. 

It was a significant experience for me in stepping out as Asian woman in the community in which I wanted to be accepted. The womxn there welcomed me, they complimented my cheongsam; I felt like I was home and that I belonged.

My Nana instilled my Asian cultural identity within myself, but my friend, and the Black community gave me the courage to vividly express my identity to others. They motivate me to unapologetically live in my skin, and to not be held back by my skin. Think about that.

My heart breaks that still, in this time in history, the Black community faces such discrimination based on theirs. 

Like the old adage “treat others how you want to be treated,” I want to return to them what they give to me – encouragement of self expression without fear. Embrace and celebrate who you are and where you come from.

REFLECTION AND CALL TO ACTION

I greatly admire the Black community for paving a path centered in a strong sense of self, in community. For a mixed girl who felt her identity pulled in one direction while the world perceived and pulled her in another, I attribute my confidence as an Asian woman today to the Black community for showing me the strength in identity, perseverance, and community.

I stand in allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement because it’s simply the right thing to do. But also because the community has been so influential in asserting my Asian identity.  

In my opinion, the movement is the acknowledgment that people aren’t as civilized as we think if we continue to believe and act in ways that categorize others as less than us based on superficial observations. 

I understand that this sounds ironic since colonialism is rooted in a dichotomous superior vs inferior system, but the idea of being threatened by others based on differences is barbaric in its own right. We’ll continue to self-sabotage our evolution as people until we let go of the notions that because you are born of a different race, class, gender, sexuality, or are different in any other way you are less important than another.

My goal for myself and others is to live a life as the most authentic version of yourself, however you identify. It’s hurtful that some can’t safely do this based on how they look or who they love. We must do better because we rely on each other more than we realize.

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