The Racism We Never Discussed
"Have your parents ever talked to you about being biracial?" my therapist asked me. We had talked about my internalized racism, the conflict that had occurred in my brain in my youth: I was not white enough. I wasn't Asian enough. I did not pass a race and was deeply afraid that I would not fit on both sides of my family. I never felt comfortable.
"... no?" I answered confused. I asked myself: What would this conversation look like?
My (white) father firmly believes in the idea that racism no longer exists. "I don't see color" is a line he often announces, and "I mean, I married your mother." He never spoke to my brother and I about racing because he never saw a reason for it. My mother's family was similarly indifferent and believed that, for the most part, enough progress had been made for Asians in America. And everything else could be overcome through hard work.
Yet here, almost 30 years after I was born, we are facing the largest settlement of races in the United States since the civil rights movement - which was held only 50 years ago. But while millions are marching for Black Lives Matter, there are others, like my father, who are convinced that we have "solved" racism and that most Americans, and especially American institutions, are not racist. This belief and the silence that goes with it are dangerous.
Racism against Asian Americans also increased before the protests. Almost 80 years after the internment of Japanese Americans, we were targeted and the stereotypes (which have always taken two forms: "the exemplary minority" - robots, steamed worker bees and the "uncompassionate savages" - the dog eater, the merciless barbarians and Kamikaze pilots all too easily flowed back into American colloquialism. As a community we have learned that racism has always been there and just lurking beneath the surface. And we are the fools when we are surprised to discover that these new attacks were just the tip of the great old racist iceberg.
When I was growing up, my family didn't talk about the racism we experienced every day or the racism of other minorities - we just pretended that it didn't exist. When we discussed racism, it was in the past tense: our family was discriminated against at the time, but it is now being treated fairly. Back then, black people were forced to use different water fountains, but we all use the same fountains now. Our silence can be attributed to both our Japanese-American culture and the myth of the post-racial world. But it is undoubtedly part of the broken foundation of modern America that recently gave way by the police after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless others. Because if we weren't talking about racism against ourselves, we weren't talking about our experiences in the broader context of racism in America. We haven't talked about the anti-black history of Asian Americans in Southern California, where I grew up. We haven't talked about the experience of black Americans. And with our silence we failed ourselves.
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I only found out about the internment of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children (including my relatives) when my older brother wrote a history paper in high school telling me that 120,000 fundamental rights had been violated due to xenophobic fear. I later wrote about racism in Southern California before and after World War II. It was the first time that I saw racism in America as something that was not limited to the experience of black and brown people in our country's past. But anti-Japanese propaganda, internment - none of that felt personal to me. Even when I interviewed my grandpa as the main source of my work, he didn't convey any trace of emotion or anger. "We were sent to Arkansas. We have bred. I was drafted into the military from the camp. I came back. "There was never hostility, no just anger toward Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who enacted the executive decree that deprived his family of their land and livelihood. No resentment that he, after being thousands of miles from the only one A place he knew as home - Southern California - was drafted into the US Army and sent to war in Europe, and he might as well have described the summer camp.
So, no, we didn't talk about my biracial inheritance when I was young or the brutal racism that my grandparents were exposed to. I believed my father when he said that liberals complain about racism just to make white people feel bad. And I smoothed the thick curls I had inherited from my Japanese side every day and wished my eyes would turn blue overnight.
A few months ago, as racist attacks against Asian Americans increased in the face of the pandemic, I called my mother. We talked about violence, about Donald Trump's obviously racist language, about the subtext of an attack announcement published by his re-election campaign, and assumed that Joe Biden was negotiating with the Chinese government because he was with former Washington Governor Gary Locke , was friends. an asian american. She gave a shock. I expressed my resignation from what I saw as inevitable.
"Haven't you seen racism in your life?" I asked. She danced around an answer and clearly felt uncomfortable when she acknowledged that she had ever received something that could be called such. "I don't know that [racism] held me back," she said. "You know, life happens," she continued. "I think you can't let [racism] stop you from doing the things you want to do."
"Right," I countered, "but sometimes."
A pattern emerged when we talked about my grandparents' experiences in this country and my mother's childhood: Nobody in my Japanese-American family spoke about racism. Not even when our experiences with it developed over four generations of life here. It was less a refusal to talk about suffering than a refusal. But racism was still there and consumed the youngest generations: all of us Yonsei or fourth generation Japanese Americans, my brother and my cousins, had no way of explaining how we felt when children tugged at their eyes and "Chinese! Japanese! Siamese! "So we suppressed our anger and smiled because the adults in our lives told us it was" just a joke. "My mother says that her parents" weren't really talking about racist incidents they had in Southern California "Because ... you don't. You just work very hard, you think you'll get ahead, and people will realize that."
And there has been less talk about her experiences in the internment camps that my mother chalks up to a generation-to-generation mindset. "[My parents] were just talking about it when it was something it was," she says because "they were Nisei" or second-generation Japanese Americans. She said they were happy when President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology on behalf of the United States government in 1988 and made amends to the survivors. "I think we're lucky that that happened." Not talking about it, however, meant they weren't talking about how nothing like reparations happened to black Americans. Not until today.
My mother was proud of her family's strength in overcoming the discrimination she faced, and although she grew up more culturally than not, she says, “I liked being Japanese. I never wanted to be white. I don't think I wanted to be considered Asian, which is a disadvantage. “Like my father, she spent her youth believing that she existed in a post-racial world. She straightened up her thick, unruly waves, but unlike me, she did what she thought a real Asian woman should look like. Only in the last few years, when she started to pay more attention to the dialogue about racism, did she look back and identify some encounters in her life as racist, from the mocking "dirty Japanese" rhyme in her mostly white elementary school to the overlook at one Job said that she would never be a leader because traits are due to "cultural differences".
Despite all these flashbacks, she was still nervous about sharing her stories with me. She feared that her pain was nothing compared to what other minorities in this country had experienced, and that she was seen as ungrateful for her success or as an attempt to excuse her own shortcomings. As a young adult, I even wondered if my family's experiences with racism were so bad - a form of gas light both inside and outside my family.
"I gave a speech about the internment and said how bad it was for all those Japanese-American citizens who went to the camp," said my mother, remembering a college communication course. "And that was a bit eye-opening for me because [when] people gave feedback, many said, 'Well it seemed fine because you never knew who would be a traitor. 'I was surprised that people said, "Well, it was okay to take Japanese Americans to internment camps to prevent something really bad from happening."
When she told me the story, I thought of my eighth grade history teacher who told me not to use the word "camp" to reflect the Japanese-American experience in places like Topaz in Utah, Rohwer in Arkansas, and Manzanar in the To describe distant California desert because "it was actually not that bad". I thought of my Italian great-grandparents on my father's side, who had immigrated to the United States in the same decade as my Japanese ancestors and who were doing business in California when Mussolini merged with Hitler. I think of the people on crowded subways who would refuse to sit next to an Asian-American person this spring but don't think twice about getting a little closer to the white man in business with a JFK luggage tag Press suit. I am considering the effects of the virus on Chinatown in New York City, although it is believed that most of the infections in the United States come from Europe.
Like many people our age, my brother and I became aware of the racism that we only encountered when we entered adulthood and left our little hometown behind. As children, we didn't see any "us" group in our mostly white and Latin American school. We did not see our desire to be perceived as "white" as internalized racism. Because our parents never spoke to us about race, they never told us that white is not "better". My brother and I never spoke about our mutual insecurity - or that he secretly envied me to look "less Asian" - because we both believed that we could change a little bit and adapt if we tried harder We believed that all the insecurity we felt for being in our own skin was something we invented in our heads "because there is no more racism".
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In connection with the increased racism against Asian Americans in 2020, we recognized the source of our social concern: our country had a history of racism against Japanese Americans. Our country had a history of racism towards the Latinx people with whom we were so often mistaken, and it was this racism that often led to more blatant hatreds: a drinking cup that was thrown on my brother's head when he hit the street went along; The father of a friend who reluctantly drove me home from soccer practice while making derogatory comments about who he thought was my father - an illegal "alien" who works as a gardener. (The guilt to answer, "I'm actually not a Latina," is the feed for another essay.) These suggestions that we were treated differently because of our appearance were not symptoms of hysteria. They were valid.
My mother, who is only now grappling with microaggressions, explained the dichotomous experience of being Asian in America as follows: Although we are discriminated against, citizenship denied and by Dr. Seuss himself was portrayed as soldiers ready to betray In America we have never seen the level of racism that black and brown people continue to face every day. Even though we were put into camp, Japanese Americans were not exterminated like the Jews in Europe. And yet, how bad must our experiences be before we say anything? How many more hate crimes need to be committed before we speak openly about it in our families?
Until we talk about our experiences, we cannot fully understand the gravity and context of those who are worse off. Our power as allies is not to believe ourselves that we are doing well, but to connect our pain with that of others, to openly acknowledge everything, and to say that none of it has ever been right.
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