An Essay
“Lived Experience with Race”


Written by: Sophia


This is a personal essay I wrote back in March, with a few recent edits, for a course on Race & Power (focusing primarily on the United States). Maybe you will relate, maybe you won't, either way, enjoy!

When I search for memories of discussing race in my household as a child I always come up with nothing. My father grew up in the 1950s in Brooklyn, New York. He lived among second and third-generation Jewish and Italian immigrants. He never referred to himself as “white.” My mother was born and raised in the countryside of Yamagata Prefecture in Japan and didn't move to New York until her early thirties. In a similar way, she was never referred to nor did she ever refer to herself as an "Asian.” It's likely that race was not a salient part of either of their identities, so they assumed it would not be a salient part of mine. Or perhaps they didn't consider it at all. Yet as early as kindergarten I was aware of what I wasn't, and I was not white.

In the playground of PS 29, I sang, “I went to a Chinese restaurant to buy a loaf of bread...Chinese, Japanese, Indian Chief!” I remember watching my friends aggressively drag the outer corners of their eyes towards their ears when they sang ‘Chinese, Japanese." This was my cue to point to my own face and leave my slanted eyes as they were. When we sang 'Indian Chief,' I dutifully put my hands on the top of my head to imitate an “Indian headdress.”

As young as five-years-old, I was engaging in what Trieu and Lee (2018) describe as internalized racial oppression (IRO). More specifically I was using a coping mechanism in response to my racialization as a “perpetual foreigner” (Trieu and Lee, 71). I don’t remember exactly at what point I became aware of this fact, but I already knew that despite my multiracial background my peers viewed me as "Asian." By engaging in games that stereotyped my physical appearance, I was at once acknowledging and distancing myself from the racialized image of Asian people created by the dominant/normative white culture. But wasn’t I also white? I was not provided with the guidance or the tools to unpack my identity from the adults in my life, so I internalized negative perceptions of my racial identity before my sense of self had even fully actualized.

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In an attempt to understand my multiracial self, I desperately tried to see myself through the eyes of others. This only yielded an even more diluted sense of identity. In their research, Trieu and Lee cite Du Bois’ theory of double-consciousness, which he describes as, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois, 1903:3). Du Bois’ (1903) description of this disdainful gaze is connected to the notion that Black people are implicitly seen as a “problem” by white people (p.3). Here, Du Bois is articulating the specific experience of Black Americans in the United States, but there is a sentiment in his definition that resonates with me.

Albeit in a different way than Du Bois is describing here, as a child, I sensed my mixed-race identity was a problem for white people. The difficulty lay in my status as an Other. Usually, white people weren’t actually looking at me, but what they assumed I might be based on my phenotypic features. Within the confines of normative whiteness, or white supremacist ideology, my identity as a multiracial person posed a threat to the easily divisible racial categories assumed to be “real.” I was not one nor the other, and my ambiguity was a menace.

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By the end of elementary school, I knew the only answer that ever satisfied the question, “What are you?” was “Japanese.” Tatum (2017) writes that “particular challenges associated with a bi-racial identity must be negotiated. One such challenge is embodied in the frequently asked question, ‘What are you?’ The insistence of the question is often asked represents society’s need to classify its members racially” (p. 306). Around this same time, I started attending Saturday classes at Lyceum Kennedy Japanese School in Midtown Manhattan. I voiced my resentment towards the kanji worksheets I had to complete in addition to my regular (i.e. American) school and complained that all my white friends had sleepovers on Friday nights without me.

Secretly, I felt relieved. I finally understood what I was. I was not Asian nor was I white, but I was Japanese. When I told people I was Japanese they were impressed, “Oh my god, I love Japan. It’s definitely on the top of my list of places I want to visit in the world. Do you know any good sushi restaurants in the city?” However, my perception of “being Japanese'' relied on vague information about Japanese traditions from my Saturday school or snippets I gained from my American peers or the media. At this point, I believed American stereotypes about Asians to be fact, “As a middleman minority that can act as a buffer between whites and blacks, as a model minority to help hide the history of genocide/slavery, or as an exotic other to display the nation’s tolerant multiculturalism” (Glenn, 2015:69). 

Due to the “model minority myth” or the image as a “buffer” between white and Black people, Asian communities often remain impartial or as aggressors towards Black people/communities on issues of race. While there are activist groups working to resist anti-Asian oppression AND the complicity of Asian communities in anti-Black racism, more often than not the issue goes undiscussed. In order to “be Japanese” I believe I wrongly excused complicity in my Japanese communities as a cultural trait. I clung to a one-dimensional understanding of a country I did not grow up in. When people told me they “loved Japan” it made them feel tolerant, informed, and maybe even culturally sensitive. They did not have to address the difference in the racialization/racial treatment of Asian people versus Black people in the United States. To them, I was not white, but I could still be embraced if my difference appeared to have merit or conformed to exotic ideals. At the time, I accepted being an “exotic other” because it fed me a sense of certainty that made me feel valuable even if I felt as though this identity was falsely claimed (Glenn, 2015:69).

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In high school, I learned it was my father who had pushed for me to attend the Japanese school and not my mother as I had always assumed. When I was younger my mother never really talked to me about her experience with modern Japanese culture. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s (2017) writes, “Japanese Americans as a group are the most acculturated of the Asian American communities… Japanese have high rates of intermarriage — More than half of Japanese American newlyweds in 2010 married a non-Asian — and 35 percent of Japanese Americans identified themselves as multiracial in the 2010 census” (p. 272). Tatum (2017) cites concentration camps during World War II as the primary reason that Japanese people are the acculturated community in America (p. 271) This statistical evidence resonates more strongly with my personal experience with being multiracial than it does my mother’s experience as a first-generation Japanese immigrant in America.

Still, I wonder how much pressure my mother may have felt to assimilate when she arrived in the U.S. Even as a child, I remember discussing with my Japanese School classmates that the majority of us had a white or Black father and a Japanese mother. To have a Japanese father was somewhat of a rarity. To learn that 35 percent of all Japanese Americans in the U.S. identify themselves as multiracial confirms that my experience is even less unique than I had already suspected. It also fills me with an odd sense of discomfort. I can only assume this feeling stems from my knowledge of stereotypes that surround Asian women as exotic brides for, primarily, white American men. The image of the perpetually colonized “oriental” Asian woman who is subject to the will of the white colonizer. Associating these stereotypes with the circumstances of my birth is incredibly unsettling for obvious reasons.

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When considering the discrimination and racism Asian people have faced, I think about the ways in which language can be both powerful and harmful. In describing the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Smith (2019) highlights how creating false hierarchies mystifies the number of sinister ways that white supremacy is enacted upon all marginalized groups (p. 286). She further discusses orientalist logic in the three pillars of white supremacy. Smith (2019) writes how for those who are identified as Asian, “their privilege is not a signal that they will be assimilated, but that they will be market as perpetual foreign threats to the U.S. world order” (p.288).

The inadequacy of language, or perhaps a willful ignorance, forces all people with heritage from the Asian continent to be shoved under the pan-ethnic umbrella category of “Asian.” This denies the need for people, usually white people, to differentiate between cultures and countries. In turn, this breeds resentment between self-identified Asians because our experiences are not the same. This is largely unacknowledged despite the atrocities that have occurred between Asian countries, unquestionably due to frequent involvement of U.S. imperialist forces themselves. One wrongfully diminished example (that was never once mentioned in any history class of mine in sixteen years of private education) being “comfort women,” the common term used to describe the brutality and violence inflicted upon Korean women and girls coerced/forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Asian people exist in the U.S. as a paradoxical group that is seen as both inferior and a threat. Inferior to normative whiteness, but a threat to "white-owned" stolen land. If we are identified as Asian we are marked as “outsiders,” and attempts to “get in” the American white mainstream reinforce the pillars of Genocide and Slavery that Smith outlines (p. 286). As Professor Jennifer Mueller put it, “this is also about a ‘getting in’ on a global imperialist racial order… the threat sometimes being an ‘actual’ one that other marginalized people and countries suffer from as a result.”

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Okihiro (2000) writes about social scientists in the mid 20th century hypothesizing a certain “compatibility (but by no means identity) between the value systems found in the culture of Japan and the value systems found in American middle-class culture… The theme depicted Asians as ‘just like whites’” (p.64). From this information, I am forced to consider further how the specific themes of “acculturation” and “being Japanese” formed, and confused, my understanding of race.

What is it about Japanese culture that is so compatible with American middle-class culture? Is it their history of colonization and degradation of other Asian countries? Is it their erasure of the indigenous people? If Japanese people are “just like whites” and I am both Japanese and white, am I really just a white person who looks Japanese? Or am I an American who is Asian but acts white? I am not fully one nor the other. I am half Asian and I am half white. Am I neither Asian nor white? I am American, yet those who reinforce normative whiteness in America are more satisfied when I tell them I am Japanese. Meanwhile, Japanese people who uphold xenophobic values of purity in Japan will only ever see me as American.

I am both. I am neither. I am Other.

These half-baked thoughts (partially backed by authors who are much more well-read and researched than myself) remind me time and again that, more than anything else, liminality defines my lived experience with race. And maybe, for now, it’s okay for me to just exist in that inconclusive space. 

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References

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Pgs. 2-7 in The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2015. “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation” (pgs. 54-61). Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1(1):54-74.

Okihiro, Gary Y. 2000. “Is Yellow Black or white?” Pgs. 63-78 in Asian Americans: Experiences and Perspectives, T. P. Fong and L. H. Shinagawa (eds.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Andrea. 2012. “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of white Supremacy.” Pgs. 285-294 in We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, E. B. Martínez, M. Meyer, and M. Carter (eds.). Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. [1997] 2017. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Revised edition. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

Trieu, Monica M. and Hana C. Lee. 2018. “Asian Americans and Internalized Racial Oppression: Identified, Reproduced, and Dismantled.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 4(1):67-8

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