When the Ferguson shooting and protests erupt in 2014, I am stuck in my own cocoon, mourning recent betrayals in my marriage. Temporarily checked out of Facebook, Black Lives Matter, and the news, I can’t feel deeply into much else while steeped in my own pain. Still, I volunteer once a week with homeless youth at a daytime drop-in shelter. The volunteers are mostly women, mostly White, with me and one Black woman. The youth are White, Black, Native, men, women, nonbinary, straight, queer. We write poems about our experiences, some hesitant, and some not shying from subjects like trauma and violence. Then, Ferguson gives us a window to write more directly about race. I write about how I have been somewhat checked out. When we go around and read aloud, I consider how insulting it might be to share this with the Black youth at the table. But I always try to model vulnerability in my writing and sharing — we are here to write honestly, not to judge one another — so I take my turn and read, to muted response.
I appreciate these youth so much. It feels so good to be around youth of color — to be around any People of Color, really — for my life in Seattle is so steeped in Whiteness. As I wander each week from round table to table, trying to recruit relative strangers to come join our group (we’ll have pizza! no experience necessary!), it brings me back to old feelings from high school, an embodied awareness of being the mixed Asian/White girl amidst the Black and White kids, the one who silently seeks with a smile to prove her solidarity and worth. Only now I am nearly 40 and could be their mother. And now I am in the teacher role, the role of relative power.
I volunteer for maybe two years. The faces are always changing and I remember only a handful of the youth’s names. Victor, who works for FedEx and has the brightest smile, writes about feeling like a bull in a china shop, simultaneously wanting to destroy everything and to proceed extra carefully when in a store. I advocate for his poem to be included in the anthology that we later put together of the youth’s work; they will eventually get copies, as will the nonprofit’s funders. The two White women I work with on the project aren’t convinced; we have a lot of poems to pick from. I push, “Well, maybe if it were clear that the speaker is Black, the poem would have more impact.” They agree. Maybe I can get Victor to add that. When I finally see and approach him another week as he finishes up his breakfast, I explain how we want to include his poem, but how would he feel about adding, “As a Black man…” in one line? His face falls.
This is how people do harm when they try to help.
Growing up, my first best friend and next-door neighbor was Black. Leila and I played nearly every day — in her yard, in my yard, in our rooms, running around the neighborhood. We pretended we were scientists, naked circus acrobats, private detectives. We crouched under the big cedar between our two lots, creating pinecone worlds for our stuffed animals. We made up skits and performed for neighbors in her garage. We recorded in notebooks details about our yard’s sword ferns, positing theories about their medicinal properties. We pretended the spray paint on the roads by our houses pointed to secret paths and clues. We buried a time capsule of our notes in a jar down the street, but dug it up a few weeks later, not having enough patience to wait and see how much our worlds would change.
I don’t remember my parents ever talking to me about race. Surely I saw race, for I’ve heard that babies see race as early as six months. Surely I saw race, for my father is White and my mother Chinese. But I don’t think I thought about it as a child. Not in a conscious way. Not yet.
I am in China, in rural Guanxi province, in 1997. I am 22 years old, taking a leave from my private liberal arts college, though I already know I won’t be going back; traveling, real life, is where the true learning is. And now, I am in the middle of nowhere, far from destinations that other Western travelers normally go. I board a bus and a baby sees me and immediately starts crying. I am a mixed blood, a hunxue, clearly different from the locals who are shorter, thinner, and darker than me. I have a sharper nose, larger eyes, paler skin, thicker thighs. I am clearly a foreigner, unless it is dark out and they are not paying close attention. Then sometimes I can fool them with my pronunciation — when they hear my voice first, before they see my body — for the Chinese language, its rhythms and tones, has lived inside me since before I was born.
In elementary school, despite going to a mostly White school in mostly White North Seattle, my birthday parties were full of kids of color: Leila, Danielle, Mojgone, Karen, Jennifer — friends from school and friends I’d had since birth from my parents’ Chinese potluck group. Together we lip synched to Duran Duran and Madonna, read the dirty passages from our parents’ romance novels, fell asleep giggling in sleeping bags. So when did I stop being close friends with kids of color? It happened around 4th or 5th grade, after I started being bussed to the Central District for a gifted program. There, the school was way more diverse, yet the classes were more segregated. The mostly White and a few Asian kids (and far fewer Brown or Black kids) were in the so-called gifted classes, the classes from which I met my friends. During recess, I watched the Black girls play double dutch. During class breaks the halls buzzed with the energy of Black voices. I was more exposed to Black culture now, to a more diverse world than the North Seattle neighborhood in which I lived. But “exposure” only goes so far without an antiracist education.
“Why do you talk that way?” I asked the Black girl in my cabin during a weekend outdoor camp in 4th grade. It was an innocent question; it was a racist question. It was me noticing speech differences and trying to make sense of it. I can’t recall what she said in response, but the fact that I remember this moment tells me that my body remembers the awkwardness that followed — and I have collected a lifetime of such moments. Whether conscious or unconscious of each moment’s import at the time, I can recall them now. Whether or not I had the language to name what was happening, racism was nonetheless imprinting a language for me.
Ni shi nali de? Where are you from? In China, everyone stares at me without hesitation. Growing up, people stared too, people also wanted to figure out “what I was,” because depending on where or how tan I was, I could be mistaken for Mexican, Native, all kinds of Asian, or something in between. Most of the stares in the U.S. came from men. But in China, the stares come from everyone. Sometimes they discuss me as I pass by on the streets, not realizing I can understand, and other times they ask me outright: are you Chinese or a waiguoren (translation: “person from the outside world”)? When I am tired of this conversation, I sometimes lie and say I’m Uighur (from the ethnic group dominant in Xinjiang province) —and they believe me. But most of the time I tell the truth. I’m American, I say, and they look confused. But my mother is Chinese, I continue, and their faces light up, relieved at their comprehension: Ahhh, hunxue. They smile, maybe give me a thumbs up. Although they may cast eyes of suspicion the next moment when they hear that my mother grew up in Taiwan, they ultimately approve of the mixing — hunxues are beautiful, they say. Hunxues are smart. Hunxues have the best of both worlds: they can claim roots to the “unsurpassed superior culture of China,” and they can claim proximity to the benefits of mighty America — wealth, glamour, movie stars, McDonalds, pop culture, freedom of mobility, capitalism. As well as this: lighter hair, lighter eyes, fairer skin.
I started middle school early, in 5th grade, with a special class of “gifted” mostly White students in a big middle school that was mostly Black and White. That year, I was one of a few chosen to read my paragraph-long essay for the annual MLK assembly. I didn’t know then that this, 1986, was the first year his birthday was celebrated as a holiday. In my essay, “The Dream Lives On,” I was proud to speak the message of equality in humanity. Now, I wonder how the Black kids felt as they listened to me speak.
Our classes were again largely segregated; it was only in electives like P.E., woodshop, and band where more of us mixed together. Or at school dances or during lunch, even though there was still a clear division between the White and Black tables. I was friends with a few Asians but there were not a lot of us, and as such, we did not exist as a distinct social group. All I knew then was that I belonged more to the White side. To the side that came from more inherited wealth, to the side that attended the better classes, to the side that still did not realize they’d been born into a “side.”
In 4th grade, Leila and I started writing books together, exchanging binders full of handwritten pages, trading off chapters of stories about teenage White girls who had tans and crushes. We consumed books like the Sweet Valley High series, their glossy white covers showcasing the Wakefield sisters, Elizabeth and Jessica, twin high schoolers with wavy shoulder-length blond hair and haughty blue eyes. Our parents chatted amiably and encouraged our friendship. But we never talked about race. Instead, we complained about how mean our elder siblings were; we laughed and talked in our own code on the phone; we carried around fake guns and candied cigarettes in our moms’ discarded purses; we struck poses for photos in our matching pastel T-shirts, stretch pants, and Swatch watches; we read Seventeen and Sassy. We lost ourselves in imaginary worlds.
Then, when Leila’s family moved to France for a year in middle school, we started to drift. We still wrote letters and exchanged mix tapes, but by the time she moved back, our friendship had changed. I’d moved to a new house a mile away and we’d always gone to different schools, so there was that, but now I was also more preoccupied with how I looked, what I wore, whether I was liked, popular, cool. I looked up to my sister, whose friend circles glorified drinking, hooking up with boys, smoking, and rebelling. I began to look down on Leila as boring, immature. She still wore big glasses, whereas I’d switched to contacts. She still was chubby, whereas I was working on becoming thin. And anyone who wasn’t into drinking and boys became uncool in my book. This included my childhood Chinese friends (the children of my parents’ friends, making them doubly uncool). I didn’t think I was distancing myself from Leila or others because of their race. After all, I didn’t think about race. No one talked about race. But, in any case, I eventually ditched Leila and other “more immature” friends as I moved on definitively to my new group of all White girlfriends. To me, they were the “cool” girls, the other girls who had big sisters introducing them to underaged keg parties and bongs. It was all about boys and rebellion and coolness. But, of course, it was also about race.
Marcus had a huge crush on me. He had already graduated, was now a freshman in high school, and I was still in 8th grade. He brought a teddy bear to school one day and gave it to me during lunchtime. We hugged, him towering above, but we had yet to kiss. I remember the way some of the Black girls looked at us, and how I felt their envy — or was it scorn? He was handsome, he was shy and polite, he was a rising basketball star, he was a catch. He was Black. One day he and his friend met me after school and walked me to my house. I remember feeling embarrassed about my privilege — the view of Lake Washington, the sterile white couches and carpet. I must have been aware of the racial taboo inherent in our coupling, but I can’t remember if I saw that as a barrier. Later, when I wanted to go to a movie with him one night, on a double date, my mom protested. I was so pissed. All my other friends got to go on dates. I don’t remember if she knew Marcus was Black; after all, I didn’t tell her much of anything. But I do know I eventually broke it off with him as I started dating Rex again, Rex who was way into smoking pot and Led Zeppelin. Rex who was very White.
Race was always a subtext, always present, always filed away in moments and memories, yet rarely examined. There was that one “Ching-Chong Chinaman” comment made to me during freshman P.E. by a Black girl. There was the way I’d imitate Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles with my White friends, never thinking I was making fun of my own people. There was my comment to my Black classmate about the Black anchorwoman — “She kind of looks part Asian” — maybe my attempt to connect, to name the presence of our respective races interacting, and there was her dry response: “Lots of Black people look that way.” There was my embarrassment when a carload of my Chinese relatives pulled up to drive me home from a movie. There was my silent, subconscious awareness: to be Black or White was cool. To be Asian, however, or to be in this even more unnamed space of Mixed Race Asian, was not cool, or simply not yet knowable, even if some part of me must have also known I was desired for my “exotic,” not-quite-this-or-that looks.
“I’m walking and I’m not moving!” the Black girls used to proclaim in the halls in high school, making it known that you’d better get out of their way. They carried themselves and their disdain for those who were not Black with confidence and aloof distance. I felt invisible to them. I felt White. There was no such thing as a Person of Color. I don’t know when that term was invented, but it was not a part of Seattle’s early 1990s vocabulary. And being Mixed, I felt more or less like one of the White kids who was bussed in from the north end to attend the gifted track at this inner-city magnet school. At Garfield, we were known all over the city for our great jazz band, our great basketball team, our great science program. But we were not yet known as the “slave ship,” a term coined by alumni after I graduated, referencing how the advanced, mostly White classes were located on the second story, and the mostly Black, regular classes were located on the ground floor.
In high school, we were never taught the truth about slavery, capitalism, and the formation of our country in U.S. history — only the faintest of an outline, so little it might as well have been nothing. But. We had racial intermingling in other ways I was proud of — our prom kings and queens reigned from “both” races; our popular football players and cheerleaders did too. Band geeks were band geeks no matter their race. Parties, once they got big enough, were crashed by cool kids from both Black and White crowds. We felt a collective school pride, an identification with our school’s legacy of academic, athletic, and musical excellence — with alumni like Jimi Hendrix, Ishmael Butler, Ernestine Anderson, and Quincy Jones. Our school games and assemblies were charged, with moving performances of songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and unifying chants of Bulldog spirit. Appreciation for Black culture seeped into nearly all of us, even if many of the White or Asian kids were not actually friends with many Black kids, especially outside of school. Still, we interacted. Still, our school paused classes to hold meetings after the Rodney King verdict was delivered. Still, we were aware of our country’s racial wounds, or at least somewhat. We were proud of our school’s diversity, or at least some were. I don’t know what the Black kids thought, the ones who saw us bussed in and out of the neighborhoods they lived in.
In China, I start to dream in Chinese again. That’s when I know that the language has re-entered my body, my full consciousness, my way of knowing who I am in the world. A way that started to leave me once I entered preschool. Once I started hearing and speaking more English than Chinese. Once I started coveting the easy confidence, chatter, and laughter of my White classmates, their place as queen bees in the pecking order reinforced by every doll, movie, or book. Once I switched to speaking English entirely, embarrassed to be associated with my immigrant family, with their social conservatism, fearful parenting, old country ways. Once I started wanting, unconsciously, to be more White.
“You messed up on your makeup,” the White boy I had a crush on in 9th grade said. My cheeks flushed as I laughed it off. “Whatever.” He was pointing out my eyeliner, pointing out how on my right eye I had drawn a dark line in the middle of my lid, whereas on my left eye the line was near my lashes. The reason being, my right eye was single-lidded like most Asians, whereas my left was double-lidded, like a Westerner’s. It wasn’t always this way. Most days, in fact, both eyes would fold with a double lid. But when I was younger and every so often now too — if I hadn’t gotten enough sleep or had been crying — my right eyelid would puff up and become mono-lidded again. I hated this. Sometimes I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning, holding my eyelid in place into its normal double crease, hoping I could train it back into place. Sometimes that worked. But this morning it hadn’t. And since I no longer stepped into public without eyeliner anymore, I had to improvise. I hadn’t succeeded. The boy I liked had noticed, had thought it was a mistake. “A simple surgery can fix that when you are older,” my mom assured me. Assuring me that my mismatched eyes were indeed a problem. Assuring me that the monolid was the one that needed to be erased.
I was a starter on the freshman basketball team, which was pretty mixed — Black, White, a few Asians, me. But soon, Pam, the JV coach, scouted me out. “Are you left-handed?” she asked after she watched me easily make a left-handed lay-up. I shook my head (thus confirming that I could shoot with both hands), and was recruited to the JV team — which was all Black, except for me and one ultra-tall blond German exchange student. On the freshman team, I’d been the star, scoring many points, long shots from the sides that made a satisfying swoosh; I remember the Black guys watching, their “Damn!” or whistles of surprise — mixed Asian-White girl can shoot! (Or did they think: White girl? Or, Asian girl?) On the JV team, however, I was mostly on the bench. The JV team meant business. Garfield basketball, men and women, aimed high, for the championships. I was proud to be good (point guard naturally, being 5’4’’). But I didn’t last long. Saturday morning practices 20 minutes from home and practices every day after school — it was too much. That was my excuse for quitting. I only got to play during the last parts of the games. I felt left out, out of my league. But what I couldn’t say then was that I also felt uncomfortable as one of the only non-Black people on the team.
In China, I see a tall Black man in Chengdu, Sichuan province, the huge, polluted city where I teach English. He wears a cowboy hat and pushes a bike through a crowded sidewalk. I feel the urge to reach out, to extend an “I feel you” nod or glance, because I know how much the locals stare at me, and I am part Chinese; I can imagine how hard it is to be him, here. Maybe I have no right to assume how he must feel, but I do know how racist Chinese people can be. My own relatives. How deeply anti-Blackness informs their psyche. The world’s psyche. My psyche. Chinese women especially prize white, light skin. The whiter the better. Darkness a sign of inferiority, of country peasant roots.
After basketball, I decided to try out for volleyball. The team was almost evenly split between Black, White, and Asian, with a Black male coach. I wasn’t very good, but neither were most of us, so I moved onto varsity by junior year: setter. One Saturday morning as I pulled into the parking lot for practice, a group of Black guys my age came up to my window; I rolled it down to see what they wanted. “I need some money,” one of them said, and I recognized him as Dontae, a guy I’d gone to middle school with. I’d just come from the ATM and had a fresh twenty in hand, but I wasn’t about to just fork it over. “I know you,” I said. “What?” “We went to school together. I know you, Dontae.” He looked confused, like he was trying to remember. Then one of his friends reached across me and grabbed my purse through the window. I held on, but the strap broke. They rifled through it and threw it on the ground and started to walk off. “Wait!” I stepped out of the car and called out. “Can I at least have my wallet? My license?” “Wallet?” they turned around. Oh, shit. That’s when I realized that my wallet was actually still in the car, by the seat. I ran back and got in, but they wouldn’t let me shut the door. “I work for my money,” I said, or something like that, my voice cracking. What was I trying to say? That I wasn’t just some rich girl who had it easy? Someone you could easily rob without giving it a second thought? Only, I was. His friends mocked me, “Ooh, she’s starting to cry.” “Come on, I just need $20, I just need to get to Tacoma,” Dontae said, his eyes slightly glazed. I finally handed it over and they peeled off, laughing.
In slight shock, I pulled farther into the lot and parked, and my teammate drove in after me. “What happened? I saw those guys talking to you.” I explained and she insisted that we call the cops. “They can’t just do that to you.” We went to the corner gas station, and before long I was giving a statement.
That night a Black cop from the precinct came out to my White north end neighborhood. I gave a longer statement, pointed out Dontae in my old yearbook. “It’s good that you filed this report,” the cop assured me. “It’s better that they get in trouble now while they are still a minor than mess up more later.” I wasn’t so sure.
The next time I drove the twenty minute commute back to school, my hands started shaking and I locked my doors. I never used to do that. Even though I’d always been told it was sort of a “bad” neighborhood, even though shootings happened on occasion, I wasn’t afraid of Black people the way people who were never around them were. Or I didn’t used to be, or at least not very much.
Over the next few months I’d receive crank calls from Dontae’s friends; he’d no doubt figured out who I was, maybe went back to his middle school yearbook too. I can’t remember what they said. I think one called me a liar.
Months later, we met again in court. I went by myself. I remember the gray concrete rectangle of a building. I remember that when they gave the sentencing, Dontae’s girlfriend stood up, crying out, those beside her putting their hands on her shoulders. I don’t remember the length of the sentencing; maybe a year? I don’t remember feeling vindicated or happy. I just remember that adults told me I’d done the right thing.
Going to a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, far from my family and home, seemed like the right decision. I needed to get away from my parents’ strict rules and controlling influence, and I wanted to go somewhere that felt elite and worthy of my years of striving for good grades. I also liked how the college was all about “multiculturalism” and international studies. Only now, I am suddenly one of too few “minority students.” And now I am surrounded by homogeneity in a whole new Midwestern way. Once again, I am mostly friends with White kids. I do have a few Black and Asian friends, but they are mostly guys who are interested in me, not my closer girlfriends. I feel more and more alone. But still, I am learning. I take classes like Race and Ethnicity, Native American Lit, Non-Western Religions, American Labor Radicalism, and Women in Pop Culture, where I give a presentation on stereotypes of Asian women in film. I want to major in Ethnic Studies, but our school does not have such a program, and my advisor insists I’d be better served in a specific discipline, like history. So I intern at the Wing Luke Asian Museum back in Seattle on our one-month “J term”; I read up on Asian American history, and try to write about my Mixed Race identity for the first time; I type my full name on my papers, Anne Liu Kellor, heeding the pressure my mom had long instilled (“Otherwise how will people know you are Chinese?”); and I travel to another campus to study Chinese, since our school does not offer it. Eventually, I realize, I need to leave here, leave America, and relearn my mother tongue by immersion.
Who taught me about race? Everyone and no one. It occurred to me recently that I have never had a mentor of color, someone I was close to who I could talk to about how the world might see me and how I might dare to see myself; or how Asian Americans have been pitted against African Americans as a wedge, as “model minorities,” despite also being seen as the perpetual foreigners, strange and not to be trusted. In my thirteen years of public school, I only ever had two Asian teachers, and no Black or Brown teachers, much less any teachers who reflected a Mixed Race identity — although there was one, in college, but she mocked me and my ignorance, so she doesn’t count. Almost all of my teachers — the ones I looked up to, the ones I sought to emulate, the ones who had the power to deem me visible or not — have been White.
At age 21, I take a leave of absence, save up money, and backpack through China and Asia for six months. This experience changes the trajectory of my life. Even before I leave, I vow to come back. So, a couple years later, after finishing college (at a public school in Washington) and learning to call myself a writer, I return. This time, I spend almost three years in China. This time, I fall in love with a Chinese painter. This time, I learn to speak Mandarin with semi-fluency. And this time, I come to see myself as “other” again, only now cast through the mainland Chinese lens. For in China, although I feel more connected to my Chinese heritage than I have since I was young, I am also called out for being different more than ever before.
When you are Mixed Race, and specifically part-White, you are constantly given messages from other people who do not look like you or share your experience about how you should identify or where you belong. “What are you?” everyone asks. “Be proud to be Chinese,” my mom says. “You’re not Chinese,” mainlanders laugh in your face. “You are my Chinese cousin/niece,” White relatives say. “You are my part-White/American cousin/niece,” Chinese relatives say. “You are not anything like me,” Black classmates say. “You should decolonize yourself and stop calling yourself Mixed Race,” Facebook friends say. “You are practically White,” model minority myth believers say. “I don’t see color,” (a.k.a. I have never talked about race with you) White fathers and boyfriends say. “You should be more political about race and racism,” your internalized guilt says. “You should shut up and take a back-seat in conversations,” your shame and internalized racism say. “What do you really know, after all, you privileged nearly-White girl, you silent inferior nearly-Asian girl?”
My memories from early childhood are cloudy. Was there a playground teasing song that involved making fun of Chinese? Was there a comment or two (or twenty?), overheard but then forgotten, stored in the body’s silences, but repressed in the mind? Much later there was Freddie, a White guy I worked with at a cannery in Alaska one summer who made some joke about locking the Japanese inspectors in the freezer. “Anne’s Asian, you know,” my White friend called him out. “Yeah, but she’s different. She’s not like those F.O.B’s,” he said. I stayed silent, ingesting the dual force of the insult and the “compliment,” as I once again processed being inducted into honorary Whiteness: Anne’s different. Better. Practically one of us.
In some ways, I think my racial history of pain comes more from moments like this — moments of overhearing racism, racism not directly lobbed at me, but at those who look like me; moments of being temporarily accepted so long as I keep my mouth shut; moments of feeling like I’m either not present or I’m in hiding — than it does from being directly insulted.
In 2002, after moving back to Seattle from China, I rent a studio near the Central District, near the historically Black area not far from my old high school, that still has a good number of Black people despite the growing gentrification (that I am now a part of). And yet, I am happy that finally I will live in an area that is not all White. I have hardly been around Black people or other People of Color in America since high school, for ten years. I start working in the International District, teaching vocational E.S.L. to Chinese immigrants. I also audit Chinese classes at the University of Washington every morning, Monday through Friday, eagerly committing to hours of homework each night, finally learning to read and write. None of this comes from a conscious decision to interrogate my identity as a Mixed Race American or as an Asian American or as a Person of Color; that will come later, my growing analysis of these terms, my struggle to understand how to embrace them. But it does come from a desire to never again forget I am part Chinese. And to never again forget that I am not White.
Not long ago I realized that I had never seen my Mixed Race Asian identity reflected to me on T.V. or in a movie or a book or truly in any way (beyond my sister or an occasional sighting of someone who kind of like looks me on the streets) until I watched the hilarious series PEN15 on Hulu, where the main character is Japanese and White. As I began to watch, it occurred to me that she might not just be Asian (which is also a cause for excitement), but also Mixed. And that she wasn’t just a token splash of diversity in the room, but that she was bright, opinionated, and the actual focus. I tried to explain to my White husband why this was so monumental. We are talking 40+ years that I had gone without fully realizing what I’d been missing that he, as a White male, took for granted: seeing yourself reflected in the media, in public, in positions of power. Her racial identity was not the main focus of the show, but it was also not absent. Her racial identity was important to her identity, the show conveyed, and yet it was not the only thing she was defined by. In fact, as a middle school girl, it was far from her consciousness. Yet still, of course, it was there.
Invisibility is its own kind of trauma.
In 2018, I finally attend my first high school reunion — the 25th. I have not been interested in going to the past reunions, but now I am excited! I have connected with former classmates on Facebook over the years, and we are old and tired enough now not to care so much about impressing each other. At the rented hall, a deejay spins 90s hip hop and R&B. Groups of mostly White people cluster near the entryway. Groups of mostly Black people sit around the tables. I have flurried conversations, one after another, with my mostly White and Asian classmates. I keep hoping to interact with more Black people, but the truth is, I don’t recognize many of them, and they don’t know me. But before long, people start dancing and a group of us forms a circle. I feel acutely aware of how wonderful and rare this moment is in my current isolated life, joining in on the electric slide and some other line dances, awkwardly following along. It feels so fucking good to be in a room of diverse people, who share a common bond, dancing!
Later in the evening, a friend and I start talking to a Black guy I never knew back in high school. My chatty White friend dominates the conversation. He asks us where we live and she rambles on about Ballard and moving from Santa Monica years ago. Impatiently, I finally interject, “I live in White North Seattle.” Awkward. Silence. And then my friend starts talking again, and I am grateful, leaving me to my flushed cheeks, questioning my intentions. Needless to say, race has been on my mind lately, and tonight. Awareness of my racialized body, of my relationship to Blackness, of my relative rhythm on the dance floor, of old internalized feelings from all my years of schooling. But how very White of me, I realize, to randomly interject race into this surface get-to-know-you conversation. How very White of me to assume that this man would nod with a twinkle in his eye of understanding, wanting to acknowledge race in this moment. How very White of me to reveal how much race is on my mind in a “Look how woke I am” kind of way. I may be considered a POC or BIPOC now, and I may consider myself an ally to Black people and Black liberation, but why should anyone else assume this?
Little by little, as a 40+ year old woman, I have sought out more mentors and communities of color — whether taking classes with Black female mindfulness teachers, or attending conferences on race and equity. I’d grown jealous of my husband who got to attend such groups through his work trainings, jealous of how the conversation around race was evolving, but I (who by now had been reading and writing about race and ethnicity, on my own, for 20 years), was on the periphery, feeling left behind in my development. So I finally pay and sign up for several day-long and weekend conferences. I finally join other People of Color during breakout racial caucusing sessions and tentatively feel included, as one of us. And I finally negotiate that uncomfortable space in me of wondering how the Black people will view me as I take my seat with them and attempt to speak of my racialized identity in a public forum. I want to speak, to no longer stay silent, but I am also acutely aware of not wanting to take up space talking about my own identity issues, when Black people are dying every day. When Black mothers are afraid to send their children out into the world.
Over the years I have wanted to keep evolving as an anti-racist activist and as an ally to Black people and other communities of color, but I have also been stuck in my own shame and its intense hold. Stuck in my fear of being called out for my privilege, or for all of the ways I have been or still am racist. Afraid that I will not be welcomed as a Person of Color once someone knows my full story. That I will be rejected and told I don’t belong.
But if you hear yourself say something enough times, eventually you will get sick of your inaction. After hearing myself bemoan how I’d never attended a racial caucus, or lament how few friends of color I had, I finally realized that I needed to intentionally seek these things out. As a self-employed writer and teacher, no organization was going to “force” me to attend a diversity training. And as a working-from-home mom in North Seattle, developing meaningful friendships with women of color was not going to just happen without effort. Facebook has helped. Here I am connected to so many amazing women and writers of color in Seattle and beyond, seeing all the ways in which our experiences align and diverge. Here I am able to better spread the word about the writing workshops I’ve started to offer for Mixed Race people, and for Womxn of Color. And here I am reminded of all of the rallies, meetings, readings, and events I could attend and learn from, most of which I don’t, but some of which I do. Social media can be an amazing connective tool, but it all depends on how you use it. At some point I had to move beyond the screen into bodily spaces of practice: into speaking with and listening to other living human beings.
Intention matters. Education matters. Awareness matters. Writing and speaking of one’s miseducation, racism, and shame matter. Alone, these things are not enough. But nevertheless they open the door to more direct conversation and action. Less silence. Less pretending you are not a crucial part of the work.
Now, for the most part, I am invited to belong in groups for People of Color, privy to conversations about Blackness and Whiteness that sometimes still feel like I’m trespassing. Am I “of color” enough? What does this even mean, I still find myself asking, as I continue delving into explorations of Asian American and Mixed Race identities, history, shapeshifting, colorism, and passing, a world of ways in which people self-identify and are otherwise named or seen. Is being “of color” about skin tone, about culture, about relative experiences of privilege, power, and oppression, or about one’s own alignment, actions, and awareness? I do not mean to try to answer this question here; I know it is the intersection of many things that allow me to both belong and not belong. And I also know that I have accepted the invitation to belong as a POC, while also acknowledging all of the ways my experiences with racism pale in comparison to others, excuse the pun. And although White supremacy culture may have once allowed me to believe I was nearly White when placed within the binary divide, I know that my heart has and will always be aligned with those who have been made to feel different or “other.”
Over the years, as one of too few teachers of color at a nonprofit writing center in Seattle, I’ve filled my syllabus with nearly all women and People of Color. I am less afraid to bring in texts that might cause people to feel uncomfortable confronting topics of race. For example, the vignettes from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which recount in 2nd person so many of the microaggressions that she or her Black colleagues have endured. They are an excellent study in scene and the use of 2nd person where the “you” is you. And the entire book is a great example of a hybrid form, splicing together memories, fragments, poetry, art, and social criticism in a collage that says much more than a linear redemptive narrative ever could. And. Rankine’s vignettes are also a great example of how to mine our lives for experiences of racism. “Write about either microaggressions that you’ve experienced, or ones that you’ve committed yourself,” I say to my students, who are mostly White. And although they mostly do not share from these free-writes — for they are likely still too embarrassing, too ugly, too shameful, too unexamined for public consumption — they write. And I write alongside them, about being on both the receiving and the delivering ends of racism.
As a Person of Color, it is uncomfortable for me to admit, especially around other POC, how I have been handed and replicated a racist lens throughout my life; I worry that other POC will see me as “less than,” just as I have begun to feel more accepted. It is also uncomfortable for me to confess to my internalized racism amidst White people, because the more that I realize how much I’ve been taught to see myself through the White gaze my entire life, the less I wish to feed this perspective within me. White people are no longer my primary audience. And yet, White people still make up the majority of my classes, the majority of editors who read my work, the majority of gatekeepers who decide whether to publish or hire you — and one half of my ancestral roots. So, I am trying to find a way to write beyond “us or them” notions of audience and belonging. This is not a choice. It is a necessity. Because I am finally learning how to not carve up and deny my own self.
Who is the audience for this piece? It is all of us. All of us who have watched or heard racial aggressions played out before us. All of us who share a legacy of racial trauma and shame, born of slavery and our country’s violent formation. All of us, whether we have only recently adopted a lens to see how racism functions in our society and psyches, or whether we have been taught to see and name what’s happening since we were young. All of us who, no matter what level of practice we have at analyzing history and the dynamics of race, have nevertheless been collecting these moments our entire lives.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: People’s real names have been changed throughout the piece.