I’m a person of color, and I’m ashamed I haven’t done more to help
The conversation gets more heated as Victor, an Asian American man, questions whether Molly, a Black woman, is overreacting about being racially profiled. He says he experiences racism too, but how he reacts to it is his choice. Victor’s wife, an Asian American woman, steps in to mediate. This is what white people want –– to divide us, she says. Victor agrees and says you have to know when to pick your battles. Molly’s furious.
“That’s easy for you to say. You only consider yourself people of color when it benefits you.”
That was my immediate reaction to that three-minute scene from Season 4, episode 7 of HBO’s Insecure. The fictional-but-oh-so-real exchange stuck with me all day and over the next few as I watched anger, frustration, guilt and helplessness pour out all over social media, news reporting and my text messages.
Like so many others, I felt deep sadness and rage as more details emerged about the murder of George Floyd –– but there was something different this time. I felt intense guilt, and I didn’t understand why.
So I started writing. I haven’t attempted to write something like this to process my feelings about such a *big* topic in many years –– so thanks in advance for your patience as I bumble through my thoughts. Now that I’ve written a draft, I’m continuing to edit it with this goal in mind: I want to share this essay with my family and friends –– some of whom I’ve talked with about my identity and many of whom I haven’t — about why I identify as a person of color and what that means to me in the context of this moment.
Growing up, I identified as an “ABCD” (American Born Confused Desi) and a “coconut” (Brown on the outside, White on the inside). They weren’t identities I sought out, so much as ones that were thrust upon me as a second-generation Indian American in a rural Southern town that was predominantly White and Black with a sprinkle of other Indian families. My entire childhood was spent not feeling Brown enough for the Brown people or White enough for the White people. So calling myself an “ABCD coconut” was an attempt to confidently own an identity –– any identity.
But, spoiler alert, it’s pretty difficult to confidently own an identity that’s rooted in confusion.
That’s why, a few years ago, when I first learned and understood the term “person of color,” everything just clicked.
You got teased for the strong smell of leftovers you heated up in the school cafeteria microwave? So did I! You were tokenized whenever anything about non-White culture was taught in school? Yep! Your friends told you that your house smelled funny and they couldn’t understand your parents’ accents? For sure, me too.
It was empowering and relieving to finally learn of an identity for me to wear that could articulate the feeling of being “othered” by White people. I cringe so hard when I say this, but it’s true: Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was White. Well, more accurately, all I ever wanted to be was normal, which, in my world, meant White.
I only keep in touch with a handful of people I grew up with, and one was the only other Indian American person in my class. She texted me the other day and asked, “This is gonna be a potentially odd comment… do you ever have to remind yourself sometimes that you’re not White?” I replied, “Oh. All the time.”
I was raised to be colorblind, but I was socialized to be White.
I used to think my parents preached that “skin color doesn’t matter” because they and others in their generation genuinely believed it shouldn’t. But now I realize, for White people, it was a tool to mitigate against any risk of being perceived as racist, and for my parents and other immigrants, it was a form of assimilation used as a coping mechanism.
So it makes sense that any time I was forced to acknowledge I was different, I felt deeply, deeply embarrassed. Like the time I was the only student sitting in a school assembly in which everyone was asked to stand if they accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Or when the White hairdresser would passive aggressively complain about how long it takes to blow-dry my hair. Or dating my first White boyfriend and being called “Oreo” by a white girl. The list goes on.
There’s so much I can relate to other non-White people when it comes to trying to fit into a White person’s world. But if a close analysis of my feelings the past few days has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much I don’t understand about being a Black person.
As one of a handful of Brown people in my Eastern North Carolina hometown, I was treated differently; but I didn’t face any significant hardships compared to other people of color, particularly many of the Black people I went to high school with. I also grew up with wealth privilege, which sheltered me from many of the struggles that so many other people of color face.
I can grieve George Floyd and empathize with Black Americans, but I will never be able to feel their pain. I will never truly know the fear of being Black and getting pulled over by the police; raising a Black child; going to a protest while Black; calling out racism in front of my co-workers as a Black employee.
In other words: My struggles as a person of color are not the same as the struggles of a Black person. There’s this recognition more widely now too. It’s why you’re likely seeing the phrase BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color and was created to acknowledge that Black and Indigenous folks “face the worst consequences of systemic white supremacy, classism and settler colonialism.”
Understanding my identity has always been hard, and there’s still a lot I will continue to grapple with, but for now, this is what I know for sure: Identifying as a person of color has given me a community of people to relate to, and I’ve unwittingly hidden behind being a person of color as a reason to not do the hard work of fighting racism and white supremacy.
In other words, Insecure’s Molly was right: I’ve only considered myself a person of color when it benefits me.
Being a person of color cannot only be an identity — it should be a political statement about what you stand for in a White dominant culture. To be clear, I don’t think that means I have to share the exact same political opinion with all other people of color. But I should be publicly committed to fighting White supremacy, racism, prejudice and any other inequitable treatment that people of color face based on the fact that they aren’t White.
And even though I will never know the injustice that Black and Indigenous Americans have faced and continue to face, as a person of color, I can relate to their struggle, and I can, and should, use the power and privilege I do have to help.
Hiding behind being a person of color is the primary reason I feel ashamed I haven’t done more anti-racism work. But I’d be remiss to not acknowledge other reasons I haven’t more explicitly fought for racial justice. Maybe you’ll relate to them too.
I was taught to be an objective journalist.
Opinions were hammered out of me from day one of my first journalism class in undergrad, and ever since then, I’ve been terrified of not appearing “objective,” otherwise I wouldn’t be trusted. White readers already had plenty of reasons not to trust me, so why wouldn’t I adhere to this cardinal rule of journalism?
But objectivity has been “weaponized” against marginalized and oppressed people, writes journalist Lewis Raven Wallace. “The ideal of neutral, impartial journalism has also led to false balance, been used to uphold racism and transphobia, and served to deny legitimacy to oppressed people reporting on their own experiences and communities,” he writes. And he’s right.
Fortunately more conversations about the illusion of journalistic objectivity are happening now. And since I no longer work in a newsroom, it’s easier for me to let go of traditional notions of objectivity and, frankly, advocate for whatever the hell I want. So I should.
I was raised to be cynical about “handouts” and activism.
My parents, like so many other immigrants, were taught the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. That’s the idea that, in America, if you work hard, you’ll succeed. It took me a very, very long time to realize this is not true for everyone. But that philosophy was so deeply ingrained that it drove a lot of my thinking about giving to others.
I thought people mainly donated to charities and nonprofits to make themselves feel good, not to make any real impact to solve the problem. I’ve also seen so many nonprofits doing duplicative work that it’s hard not to think they’re wasting resources rather than achieving their organizational missions. But I recognize that many nonprofits are doing work that won’t generate significant revenue and therefore will never have significant support from the marketplace, and so, it is up to people who have the financial means to support that work.
My upbringing in journalism also contributed to my cynicism about social activism. Journalism, as a craft and as an industry, has a pretty obnoxious superiority complex. Journalists tend to think they’re above it all because they get to dig deep into the truth, shine a light in dark places, and every other journalistic cliche you’ve heard. Yes, many journalists’ work is necessary in holding the powerful accountable, but it’s not the only way to push for social change.
I get frustrated by small actions and not being able to solve bigger structural problems.
This one is really hard for me because it’s not just a worldview, it’s baked deep in my DNA: My greatest strength and greatest weakness is seeing problems and having a never-ending urge to fix them. (I promise this is not a humble brag –– it can be truly debilitating sometimes).
So when someone asks to donate to this fund or sign that petition, I end up feeling like, what’s the point? It’s just helping one person. It’s not changing the system. Intellectually, I know that it takes a lot of small efforts to coalesce into bigger ones –– it just seems so inefficient to me. But, hey, that’s why I’m not a social organizer.
Seriously though, I recognize this is an instinct I need to fight, because not doing anything at all is much worse than making any sort of effort, however seemingly small it may be.
In summary (yes, I just used that lame transition because I have no idea how to move into a conclusion here) I’m proud to be a person of color and am actively trying to better understand the responsibility that comes with that. I’m also trying to unlearn some of what I’ve learned about journalistic objectivity, how change happens and the impact I can realistically make. It’s a long road, but I think the first step –– articulating the shame I’ve felt and share that with close friends and family –– has empowered me to commit myself to fighting racism and White supremacy.
There have been a lot of lists floating around about concrete steps to take to better understand and fight racism. I think they’re all really helpful suggestions, and it’s also useful for me to make a list of my own that feels like things I can truly commit to doing.
By the end of 2020, I’d like to:
- Better understand my parents’ experience. Interview my parents and write their immigration story, including their relationship and thoughts around race as immigrants to this country. This is important context for me –– can’t know where you’re going ’til you understand where you came from.
- Better understand whiteness and my relationship to it. I’m listening to the second season of a podcast called Scene on Radio. The season is called Seeing White. I’m also reading a book by Sharmila Sen called Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America.
- Volunteer for a Black-run project or nonprofit. When I cofounded a local Seattle news publication, I met Mozart Guerrier, the executive director of 21 Progress, a nonprofit in Seattle that develops young leaders of color across sectors and communities to fight for social change. When I was a journalist, it was easy to look at that project and say, ‘That’s cool!’ and move on. But as I reflect on how I want to learn and help, this nonprofit or a similar project feels like a good place to start.
- Not be afraid to have tough conversations with family and friends about race and racial justice. This one is by far the hardest on my list. But if I’ve sent you this piece and you’re not someone I regularly talk to about race and identity, then know that this is my attempt at a conversation opener with you. I don’t expect us to agree on everything, but I do need you to try and understand my journey to identifying as a person of color and why fighting racism is deeply important to me. Please also know that in talking about race with me, you’ll very likely say something to offend me and I’ll very likely say something to offend you. It’s ok! I’d be worried if that *doesn’t* happen because it means we aren’t having the right conversation. I definitely do not have all the answers, and while some social justice activists dismiss good intentions, I don’t. You trying means the world to me.
Thank you so much to my close friends for reading and giving feedback on this. I appreciate you.