This summer I joined the world in celebrating Michael Jackson’s memory by cuing up the iPod and listening to some of his songs. Despite his weirdness, Jackson was always the consummate performer—his dance moves and songs still dazzle.
But when I heard the song “Black or White” and reflected on the song’s lyrics—“It don’t matter if you’re black or white”—I was caught by the rather narrowness of its vision. The phrase sounds PC, like a phrase we should rally behind, yet it actually leaves out most of the earth’s population—brown and yellow people are far more of a racial majority than black and white people! And today, although the face of America has long been just black and white, Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States; they are even the majority in Los Angeles. And Asians are the fastest-growing minority in the United States.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s omission isn’t all that surprising. I remember watching films as a child and observing that they always had one token minority, yet that person was always black. I imagined the producers defending their casting decisions, saying something like, “Well, Allen, you’re represented. We have a minority person in the show!”
Now, of course, Hollywood has increased the visibility of Asians in movies and TV, but they are still typecast, often playing the role of martial artist or gangster. And have you ever seen an Asian male as the romantic lead? Despite our apparent proclivity for kung-fu, we Asian males are strangely emasculated on the big screen, whereas Asian females, perhaps because of their exoticism, ironically seem to be more accepted in mainstream cinema. So it seems we’ve made it into the conversation, but only as an occasional one-dimensional parody of ourselves.
To the majority culture, we’ve become something of a model minority. But this perception doesn’t necessarily come with any perks. For instance, consider affirmative action. There was a firestorm of debate when universities such as the University of California at Berkeley started putting a quota on the number of Asians accepted. When the total enrollment of such universities hit 40 percent, administrators justified the cap by explaining that Asians represent only 4 percent of the U.S. population, so they were already admitting ten times the national percentage. But this meant that many Asians whose GPA and test scores qualified them for acceptance into these universities were rejected, whereas blacks, Hispanics, and even whites with lower numbers were accepted. Reverse discrimination? This is a side of affirmative action that often goes unnoticed.
Another shadow side to our image in contemporary culture is the inevitable comparison to other races. Imagine a parent of two children who says to the less “successful” one, “Why can’t you be like your sibling who always behaves well and gets good grades in school?” Of course, the child who is berated then begrudges both their parent and their sibling. Similarly, white people sometimes operate under the assumption that all minorities should flourish like the stereotypical Asian, who immigrates here with nothing and still manages to live the American dream. Not only is this paternalistic attitude false and condescending, but it also results in resentment toward both the whites who say such unfair things and the Asians who unconsciously, and perhaps by their mere presence, give whites the ammunition to say such things.
This pro-assimilation perspective, this idea that in contemporary culture you’re either black or white, is contagious. It’s an idea that’s been bought hook, line, and sinker by much of the Asian community, including me.
Sometimes I feel black, and sometimes I feel white. I’ve been educated in the top universities in the world, and I can hold my own with the biggest Anglophiles and the most educated, privileged elites anywhere. My résumé will afford me respect wherever I go.
And yet people notice that my skin color is different; they make racial slurs at me. The parents of the white women that I date have a hard time accepting me. People think of me as a foreigner.
This sense that I don’t belong is present in even my most basic conversations. I’ve found that one of my least favorite questions is “Where are you from?” not because I dread discussions of culture and geography, but because I sense that the question is usually a thinly veiled matter of racial curiosity. So when people ask me, “Where are you from?” I am intentionally vague. I say, “California.”
And they persist, “No, I mean, where are you from?”
And then when they ask again, “No, that’s not what I mean. . .” I will reply, “Oh, you mean China? Sorry, I never lived there. I was born in the United States—I speak English better than I do Chinese.”
My frustration with this line of inquiry, besides its insipid predictability, is of course the myriad of underlying assumptions it suggests. Do I ask white people what country in Europe they’re from? Do I ask black people what country in Africa they’re from? And yet, it doesn’t matter if I speak perfect English, it doesn’t matter if I am a second-, third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation American—people cannot accept that I am fully American. Instead, I am a hyphenated American, an Asian-American.
I could regale you all day with the ridiculous statements I’ve encountered, and not just from white people. I remember when I was studying in England, I met a man from India who asked me where I was from. When I replied, “Los Angeles,” he said, “You don’t look like you’re from Los Angeles!”
Apparently, in America you’re either black or white.
I remember asking an African American man who worked at New York City’s JFK airport where to find the rental car, and he replied, “You see those phones over there? Just pick one up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Mr. Wong, and I need a car,’ and a shuttle will come get you.” And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had white people saying to me as I walk by, “Ching ching chong chong chang chang!” or “Go back to the country where you came from!” (that’d be the United States, I’m afraid) or “I’m glad my country beat your country in the war!” (except that my ethnic background is Chinese, not Japanese, so nice try).
Because of my ethnic heritage, I am a perpetual foreigner, never at home where I am. When I am in the United States, people think that I am from elsewhere. When I go to China, people can tell that I’m not a Chinese national by the way I speak or dress, and they ask me where I’m from. If I say, “The United States,” they say, “You’re not a real American” because, again, I’m not white. And so will turn to my white friend who is traveling with me because they want to meet a “real” American.
I might as well be a nomad. Indeed, I tend to think of myself as a citizen of the world. I can travel in many parts of the world that resent white people and not feel personally threatened, and I like to travel because I don’t truly feel 100 percent accepted in any one place.
This lack of ethnic identity is perhaps the greatest travesty for Asians living in the United States. The cultural factors that cause us to so easily assimilate within the American culture also cause us to become “white-washed.” And so we have established an entire vocabulary around the various stages of acculturation. We call some Asian Americans “twinkie” or “banana” to indicate that they are yellow on the outside but white on the inside, that they have sold out to become white. Conversely, Asians who still speak with a thick accent and can’t seem to fit into mainstream American society are referred to as FOB or fresh off the boat. And we describe other people in these terms as well: white people who have an Asian fetish are known as eggs, black and brown people who think they’re white are coconuts or Hostess cupcakes.
This confusion about whether we do or do not want to be white leads to a lack of concrete identity among Asian Americans. So if you go to a black or Hispanic church, you will see their culture evident in the songs they sing, the way they preach, and the way they interact with one another, but if you step into an Asian American church, it feels like a white church. There are no cultural distinctives that make it Asian.
Race in America is a very complicated thing, and I have merely touched on a few issues from an Asian American perspective. I hope my words can spark more dialogue and that such dialogue occurs from a new starting point. Michael Jackson was significant not just for his music but because he exemplified a breaking down of barriers between blacks and whites as people united behind his music. However, that was only a beginning, and certainly not the end of the conversation. My hope is that Michael’s mantra that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” can be even more inclusive. When we speak of race, we must learn to speak multidirectionally; we must find a conversation space where there are no outsiders, where the question of race isn’t just talk between blacks and whites.