Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen an uptick in hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States. Part of the reason is the rhetoric that former President Trump and top officials in his administration spewed, calling COVID-19 a “Kung Flu”and the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus.” Another part is that Asians, in general, are taught to be amicable people who keep their heads down and do not rock the boat.
That certainly describes me, an American of Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese descent, who heads a preschool in Atlanta. We don’t cause an uproar when injustice is served up. Maybe our belief in karma or just being conflict-averse drives us to stick our heads awkwardly in the sand. We are so used to following and being silent that it almost makes us an easy target for racist attacks.
I never thought my race would be a disadvantage until I immigrated to the United States. I work in a field—early childhood education—where people who identify as of Asian descent make up less than 2 percent of the leadership, according to 2017-2018 data from the U.S. Department of Education.
My race has meant inequity and bias. The racism can be as petty as fielding a question about how I learned to speak in English or an exclamation of how lucky I am to be from the land of Kikkoman Soy Sauce. Or it can be more significant—like being passed over for an administrator job because I was not the right skin color.
I fight ignorant and sometimes flagrantly racist comments by laughing them off. Yes, it is the most powerful weapon in my arsenal—sadly. One time a teacher asked me to speak “Asian” to her newly transferred Korean student. And there it was, I turned into an ostrich. I laughed and didn’t bother correcting her. All I said was, “I do not speak Korean.” Did she understand what I was trying to say? Perhaps not, since she looked at me puzzled as to why I couldn’t help her. “You must speak Asian because you’re Asian,” she said.
My growing recognition that it is disadvantageous to be Asian was somehow passed on to my elder son. When he was 4, he argued with his pre-K teacher about his skin color during a session meant to honor racial differences. He vehemently denied he was yellow or brown. He was adamant that he was white, but to meet the teacher half way, he settled, labeling his skin color as “dirty white.”
They say that children have no speech filters so they often describe the world as it is while adults protect themselves from reality. When the shootings of eight people, six of them Asian women, happened last week in Atlanta, our normally light-hearted dinner conversation turned into social psychology class. My younger son, now 11, echoed my thoughts, saying that it is not in our culture to protest. My 13-year-old son (the one who said he had “dirty white” skin) noted that we do not go out and protest because “all the Asians are studying because they need to get good grades.”
My son was adamant that he was white, but to meet the teacher half-way, he settled, labeling his skin color as "dirty white."
Whatever the reason may be, I refuse to engage with people who already have strong beliefs about their racial superiority. In part to avoid conflict, I prefer to work behind the scenes and to keep publicly silent.
Will I ever go out there and protest? No, because I do not think it will make a difference. Will I ever stick this piece of writing in my social-media account? No, because I probably have an echo chamber there. Worse, I might possibly stir up raucous dissension in an arena where no one has power to change racist policies or practices.
So what do I do? I continue to work in the shadows and be as authentic a person as I can be. In the end, I believe that your everyday actions will show your worth and the kind of person you are. Rallying, arguing, or teaching are secondary to that.
No one’s judgment of you counts for more than your own. Unless someone has lived in your space, they will never fully understand what you are going through. You are your best advocate, and living according to your values will bring you the farthest.
Or that’s what I thought until the day after our dinner-table conversation. I was driving my younger son to school. We were replaying our comments from the evening before. He looked at me and said, “I think we need to fight back, Mommy. We need to let them know what they are doing is wrong.”
I paused. He is right.
And that’s why I sought to publish this piece of writing.
Sure, writing a piece will not affect a wave of change. I have no such naïve belief. At the very least, though, I hope it will give voice to some of us who are considered “others.” And maybe, just maybe, it will stir things up a bit.