Off-White Privilege: My Reflections on George Floyd & Race in America

On May 25th, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was arrested by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His crime, allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby convenience store. Somehow this warranted Derek Chauvin, the arresting officer, to kneel on his neck for more than eight minutes, despite protestations that Mr. Floyd couldn’t breathe. The […]

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On May 25th, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was arrested by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His crime, allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby convenience store. Somehow this warranted Derek Chauvin, the arresting officer, to kneel on his neck for more than eight minutes, despite protestations that Mr. Floyd couldn’t breathe.

The incident was fatal. George Floyd lost his life in another example of how law enforcement officers use excessive force most often on people of color with impunity. This time, however, things would be different; George Floyd’s murder was caught on video. You don’t need me to tell you what happened after that video went public — it sparked a movement that set the world on fire. People are fed up with injustice. We’re ready to see changes.

The Other America

Watching the murder of George Floyd was heartbreaking in more ways than one. Like Black Americans, Asian Americans have been subject to racial prejudice and discrimination for generations, despite the contributions we’ve made to this country. We’ve both been the victim of racist stereotyping, the butt of racist jokes, and, in many instances, the target of institutional violence. One need only look at how Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps by the federal government to see how Asian Americans have been persecuted.

Here’s a story of the other America: On June 19,1982, when Detroit’s auto industry was plummeting, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American was bludgeoned to death with a metal baseball bat by laid-off autoworkers as they said to him, “It’s because of you motherf — ers that we are out of work.” Chin’s killers were fined $3,000 and never received jail time.

Chinese American activists, with the help of Black civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, marched the streets holding signs calling for an end to racial violence.

Progress, But A Long Way To Go

It is because of the work of Black activists that Asian Americans are no longer called “Orientals” or “Chinamen.” Black Americans spearheaded the civil rights movement, opening doors for people of color that weren’t possible before. It has even allowed Asian Americans to live in White neighborhoods, and without them, Asians could not apply for official citizenship so that we are protected under the law. This is why I’m proud to stand with the Black community.

Yet even in the face of all the depredations, Asian Americans have suffered alongside Black Americans and other people of color, I was also struck by the privilege I have as an Asian American. Yes, both of our cultures have experienced everything from microaggressions to overt discrimination, but I’ve never been made to feel like a criminal because of the color of my skin.

I don’t fear for my life if I’m pulled over by the police, or that I’ll have them called on me if I linger too long in a Starbucks. I can go for a jog in my neighborhood without ever raising suspicion, and I’ll never know what it’s like to worry that my children will be taken out by an overzealous cop who sees them as “thugs”.

At the height of xenophobia, I didn’t worry about the safety of my husband and our family when they left the house — because they are White-passing. But his Japanese American grandparents often reminded us of their experience in internment camps so that we understood the consequences of ignorance. None of us can afford to stay silent.

This Is My America

When I was growing up I felt like I fit in everywhere and belonged nowhere at the same time. I wasn’t Asian enough, yet I’m seen as a perpetual foreigner in a country where I was born. I learned what it means to be Asian American after leaving home for fashion school at 18 — though not for very long, I dropped out and moved in with some friends in Long Beach, California.

It was the late 90’s and Bradley Nowell, lead singer of Sublime, just passed away, but the legacy of their music never died. Their music was Long Beach (or the one I knew), and they were the main reason I chose LBC over Irvine, where my other friends lived while studying at UCI. I also worked in Newport Beach full-time as a stylist, so I craved a new perspective. I recognized my privilege after noticing I had access to different circles and traveled among them freely.

I’m culturally Chinese Thai-Laotian and ethnically Chinese Vietnamese. My parents came to the states as refugees during the Vietnam war; their parents helped plan their escape while they were away at Chinese Catholic school by secretly dropping off jewelry to each of their kids in case they needed to bribe soldiers to leave the country. But when they got here, they faced other challenges like racial discrimination within the family. A piece of my heart also belongs to Paris, France. My grandfather, of (Fujian) Chinese descent, married Laotian royalty and that side of my family has lived there for generations. So, needless to say, I was a third-culture kid.

I grew up pretty sheltered…until I heard the Beastie Boys (Check Your Head album) for the first time in middle school. I got really into fashion and music after that. And it took me on an adventure. My friends and I started flying to New York on weekends to watch The Roots play at the Wetlands in Tribeca and went to parties in L.A.— it was like something out of “Almost Famous” except I wasn’t cool like Penny Lane, I was the writer kid who was too sweet for rock n’ roll. From there on, my world was never quite the same, and I wasn’t even old enough to drink yet (yikes!).

We Become Our Choices

Those teenage years shaped who I am today, nonetheless. It changed my worldview, for the better. Meeting good people from different backgrounds inspired my curiosity for other cultures. I think people are scared of what they don’t understand, and it can hold them back from exploring new ideas.

It wasn’t until I realized the world was forcing me in a box that I wanted to tell my story. I lost myself for a while trying to live up to how I was perceived: as a model minority. Then my integrity was challenged one day. Had I gone along with the crowd and compromised my values, I knew that I’d lose myself forever; that was the moment I remembered who I was.

Even if it was a lifetime ago, some experiences stay with you forever. I stumbled into a world where creativity is celebrated. I’ve had the privilege of meeting people from all walks of life. They gave me access to their lives, which ultimately showed me that people, at their very core, are similar.

No matter where I am in the world, I still find pieces of that life that I adored so much — it will always be a part of me. Creativity can transcend race, culture, class, or other perceived differences. When I see the next generation embracing those values, I can’t help but be excited about the possibilities ahead.

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

I understand my privilege. No one’s taking to the streets right now holding up signs that say “Asian Lives Matter” because Asian Americans aren’t being victimized by these extrajudicial killings at the hands of the police the same way that Black Americans are. We still experience racism, and often quite virulent forms of it, but racists perceive Asians (and Asian Americans) differently than how they perceive Black Americans.

There’s an expectation for Asian Americans to be more socially mobile than Black Americans. It’s as if we’re expected to be the “good” minority, the one that obeys authority and doesn’t cause trouble, while Black Americans are seen as dangerous and subhuman. It’s not a compliment to who we are and our cultural and ethnic identity.

We didn’t ask for other people of color to model their behavior after us — it’s a role that was given to us in the game of systemic racism. Side-note: It’s easier to achieve upward mobility when it’s expected of you. Being used as a comparison point to further degrade and dehumanize Black Americans is vile, and I won’t allow it. I may not be marching in the streets, but as a mother, I can make an impact by planting the seeds of change in my home.

Strength In Solidarity

We will never be free of racism and bigotry unless all of us are. While I’m willing and eager to use my Off-White privilege to draw attention to the struggle that Black Americans have faced for far too long, we can’t stand up for Black Lives Matter unless we fight for the equality of everyone who’s marginalized.

As an Asian American, I know if I don’t stand up to racism for all people of color, it’s only a matter of time before we are the target of racism — again. Though I’m saddened to think that progress can take many lifetimes before we see real change, I want to focus on the impact our communities have as we come together in solidarity.

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