Checking the ‘Asian American’ Box With Pride
Race In America Is Not Just Where You Come From or What You Look Like
If you really want to know what it means to be Asian American, or any other person of color in this country, don’t just look—listen.
Part of the answer lies in this hidden dimension of race. Yes, Ms. Dolezal may identify with black culture and issues, and may even present herself convincingly as a Black person (I will now raise my hand to admit that I am no expert in that regard). But what she can never truly claim is to have lived her entire life as a Black woman, and to have experienced everything that comes with that reality. Without that experience, how can she truly lay claim to that identity?
Some might argue that she did experience some level of what it’s like to be a Black woman when she was presenting herself as such to the world. But even in that case, that reality is recent and reversible for her, rather than an inescapable one that has shaped her since birth. To be able to shapeshift at will is a privilege that no person of color can ever enjoy. We cannot choose to discard our skin or eyes or hair like costuming and so even for a moment escape that reality. Ours is a persistent and daily state, one that shapes all that we do from the start of our very lives: how we speak and whom we speak to, how we look at ourselves in the mirror and what we see therein.
If there is anything that I would like people to learn during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is this: race shouldn’t be viewed solely through the myopic lenses of physical attributes and global geography. If race is to be understood at all, it is best understood through personal story, through narrative. Being Asian American isn’t just about having a uniquely beautiful eye shape. It’s about the second time someone mockingly slants their eyes at you, because it’s only then that it dawns on you that the first time was no accident. Being Asian American isn’t about eating incredible delicious and decidedly non-Western food. It is at one stage of your life hanging your head in shame because of what you eat at home, and later, hearing a 20-year old White guy explain that you have been eating it the wrong way your entire life. This is what it means to be a person of color in this country—it is not skin and eyes and hair, but stories: stories of confusion and laughter, rejection and acceptance, rage and resignation, our love for ourselves lost and rediscovered, again and again.
So if you really want to know what it means to be Asian American, or any other person of color in this country, don’t just look—listen. Take some time to listen to the stories of the Asian-American experience, and I don’t mean the white-washed Asian stories that Hollywood insists on peddling (yes, we’re looking at you, shoddy Ghost In The Shell remake). Because you won’t know we’re Asian American just by looking at our eyes, but by hearing our stories. Only then can you understand why we check that box off with such pride.
Peter W. Chin is a pastor and writer in Seattle whose ministry has been profiled in the Washington Post, CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Tell Me More. Peter’s first book is called Blindsided By God, a memoir of his wife’s fight against breast cancer while pregnant with their third child.
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