Part 3: An unraveling and a beginning
When I look back, I realize that my friends and I shied away from important topics on race. It’s what makes this moment feel so overwhelming when none of this is new.
For the last decade, I’ve focused on other things and settled into the comfort of a life I carved out for myself. Every so often something would pop up (a casual comment at work, a joke in a living room, or a piece in the news) and I would brush it aside because I was too busy to deal with it. These instances were wrong, of course, and took a piece of me every time I heard them, but I just swallowed them because I had to get on with life.
But then 2020 ripped away the safety blanket we all had. For the first time in a long time, I’ve had race occupy the forefront of my brain.
2020: the undoing
I took a trip to Vancouver in February before COVID-19 really hit in Canada. I could see the start of what was bubbling beneath the surface. Most things carried on, business as usual. But when I went for lunch with an old friend to catch up on our lives, the normally busy Peaceful Restaurant was dead.
When we walked in, there was only the staff, a stark contrast to our past visits where there was always a constant flow of customers. I couldn’t help but question why the rest of the city seemed to be carrying on as usual, while things were far from normal inside those four walls.
Since Covid-19 transformed our lives, I’ve heard about Asian friends or people in the news who have had to face the xenophobia laying dormant in Canada. They’ve been told to go home or had things thrown at them. Because I didn’t look like many of my family members or friends who would have these things said to them, I wasn’t a target.
And then George Floyd happened and I couldn’t stop crying for a week. I dissolved into a puddle any time anyone asked me how I was. I was angry, sad, disappointed, scared, and frustrated all at the same time.
Angry that it was 2020 and something so brutal could still happen.
Sad because I didn’t know if this would be like all the other stories where there was footage of Black men being killed by police, but no repercussions.
Disappointed in friends and coworkers who said nothing and or were so slow to say Black Lives Matter.
Scared because for the first time in a long time, I had to think about being Black.
And, frustrated because for some reason I had let this and so many other things go.
I still look back at that week and wonder how I made it through without being fired. For the first time, I felt like I was wearing a mask at work. I was quickly drying my tears before every call and remaining silent whenever I could to avoid the risk of my colleagues hearing any hint of a waver in my voice.
I told myself over and over again that no one could see my pain. Suffering in silence was simply a test of my strength, I thought. I didn’t realize in that moment that I was actually minimizing myself for others.
“Strength” and vulnerability
I haven’t shared much of this with my parents. We’re not the kind of family that talks about feelings.
If you’re familiar with being told to be humble and strong, this is the stoicism that’s been passed down through generations across many Asian communities. We’re taught that our own personal feelings are second to the family. This filial piety is how we find ourselves in spaces that we didn’t choose for ourselves. It’s the reason I’ve seen so many peers tell the now familiar story of being unhappy and eventually switching careers.
Even at 30, I still catch myself struggling with certain decisions and wondering whether it will embarrass my family or make them proud. Mention my struggle to my parents though? Absolutely not.
For the Black community, there is also an expectation to be strong. In my case, I’m unlearning the strong Black woman trope. The idea that we must weather every storm but be balanced in doing so is asking too much of anyone from any background.
How do we hold ourselves together through overt instances of racial discrimination?
How do we hold ourselves together when we behave in a way that makes others comfortable in order to protect our own safety?
For Asians, the family we uphold and protect is our immediate one, but as a Black person, it’s a much larger family I worry for : the Black community. The consideration of how I act in this case, will reflect on my entire community, not just my immediate family.
I’m not sure which side has influenced me more, but I do know there’s a problem in both communities. By prioritizing this type of “strength”, mental health is an ongoing issue for both communities. Because without space to be vulnerable, we bury things deep down and they end up rearing their heads in ways we don’t expect or want them to. Avoiding vulnerability isn’t strength; it’s a weakness, and a damaging one at that.
Colourism and me
I don’t get to choose between saying something about Black people’s lives right now. Even with all our individual struggles, there’s as much privilege in choosing whether we stand up for the rights of other groups as there is in walking through life feeling safe.
But my skin tone places me in an interesting position in both of my communities.
“In high school, I never thought you could feel how I did,” a friend recently confessed to me, “I used to think you didn’t have any problems; you were a pretty light skinned girl.”
I’d never thought of myself as light skinned because I was too dark to fit into my Asian family. I still thought of myself as the little girl who spent every day in the summer outdoors. Looking at more recent pictures of myself with certain friends there’s no denying it and I’m left thinking, when did I become light skinned?
Growing up with a lot of white and Asian friends, I saw myself within the same shade range as my friends who were also POC. Meanwhile, my white friends were thrilled to announce that their day in the sun left them looking like me as they held up their arm next to mine proudly.
But they were still many shades and worlds apart; the rest of us dealing with colourism in very real and different degrees.
I’ve always been shocked and mildly hurt about the need to have white skin in Asia. I’d find it hard to look away from girls whose faces clearly did not match the much deeper shade of the rest of their bodies. I made jokes in order to deal with the feelings whitening bars and creams brought up for me, rather than tell my mother who never had to think about it.
Through the lens of the West, I initially thought the obsession with pale skin had to do with Eurocentric beauty, but that’s far from the truth. A standard set on wealth, it made a strange type of sense in a third world country. To this day, when my mother’s friends comment on my appearance, nodding their head in my direction with a smile and a soft “cantik,” I still don’t think I’m beautiful based on what I see women do for beauty when I’m in Indonesia.
Black men and women deal with colourism on a whole other level. It’s a cause for division between the community, going back to slavery. Put frankly, with the shade I am, I would probably be in the house and my father would also double as my owner.
In both cases, it’s a matter of privilege within our communities and society at large. And as someone who exists in the context of both perspectives of colourism, I’m set on using the privilege I have to reframe the conversation in both communities so everyone has space to feel beautiful and so we stop valuing others based on skintone.
The silence of the model minority
When George Floyd was murdered, I started to see something happen. White people around me started speaking out against what had happened. And not just one or two of the people I knew who cared about what was happening in the news, but a lot of people who I wasn’t expecting it from.
Meanwhile, the Asian community took longer to get on board. Frankly, some of us still aren’t fully there.
I’ve heard phrases like “if only they tried harder” or “if they just behaved” when speaking about the Black community. These are common phrases from the model minority myth that upholds the Asian community as the supposed better minority. While it seems potentially harmless at first, it severely undermines the reality of the Black community, policies surrounding Asian immigration, and silences voices of Asian communities that don’t fit the image.
Immigrating to a new space and facing your own adversity and racism is difficult. As an immigrant, people keep their heads down and tell their children to do the same.
But Black people have told their children how to behave with white authority for years. Every Black boy knows what they need to do in order to get through an interaction with a police officer.
Getting by isn’t enough anymore, though. It can’t be enough for any of the communities today. And this means that it’s time to have difficult conversations within the Asian community and address harmful beliefs. This is something for all of us to overcome.
To have difficult conversations
Lately a lot of people have been confronting the fact that they get to feel safe as a default while many others don’t. It’s a huge revelation to them, while the rest of us look at each other and nod our heads, assuring them in soft tones, that yes, many of us get ready to do battle every day to some degree.
The past few months have further highlighted the differences between life experiences. And in how bluntly our lives are contrasted, people can either avoid the discussion or lean into it.
I think my best friend said it best: “This is a traumatic experience. And normally when we see someone going through trauma, we reach out and say something. But a lot of people don’t know how to deal with this.”
I’ve been inspired by those words to open rather than avoid conversations. I’m muddling my way through all of this as well. There is no script for what to do when battling systemic racism. So I’m just starting where I can, with loved ones who are open to it, co-workers who want to know more, and here, with you.
Because, well, it’s been too long since I’ve said anything about race.
But I can’t do it alone. It took one person at work to say something and start the difficult conversation and inspire me. When I wrote to him, I got a response where he thanked me for reaching out and giving him additional strength.
COVID-19 has isolated us all. And right now, we need the strength of all of our communities to navigate all of this, including those across boundaries of race.
It starts with us
I’m committed to doing what I can. For me, this means starting the conversation when others won’t, lifting as I climb, holding space for others, sharing the weight of trauma, and reaching out for support.
But if we want to see change, it needs to come from everyone.
So what are you doing?
We all have something we can do in our own lives at work or at home to build a more inclusive world.
Could you give someone an opportunity or even just dignity?
As part of your own identity, what do you want for the world and for others?
2020 has been a wake up call for all of us. I think the core of the intensity and confusion of current events is that it makes us really examine our identity and value system. People are now asking, Who am I and what do I hold sacred? How did I not see this? Did I participate in this? Why did I let this go on for so long, although I knew?
That last question is me.
I’ve lived a privileged life where I got too busy and ran out energy. I want so badly to be able to stop talking about race. I would have thought that as 31 hits in a couple of days that I wouldn’t be writing a series like this, but here we are.
After all the years of searching and a wild 2020, I’m now proud to have the Black and Asian communities as part of my identity. And for now, I can’t stop talking about race, and I don’t know if I ever will. All I know is that my parents are too old for this and it’s my turn to shape the world.
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