Mosaic Community Essays

"Even as a child, I remember wanting to be white."

Even as a child, I remember wanting to be white. I didn’t have the vocabulary then but there was a sense of inferiority I associated with my Asianness. This hollowed-out feeling arose whenever my mother spoke in broken English to the store cashier, or when I ate from a Zojirushi lunch thermos packed with rice, or when the guys in my class said they would only date white girls. 

My parents immigrated here in 1989 with no more than $500, even less according to my father. Whenever I brought up any of my racial qualms, my mother would say, “Your grandfather” who I called lao ye, “climbed three mountains without shoes to go to school every day. Both his mother and father passed away when he was a teenager.” Lao ye would become a CEO and travel to over fifty countries. My problems paled in comparison. With a mental image of my grandfather, I began placing academics ahead of my grapplings with race.

In my freshman year at Brown University, I planned on majoring in statistics. But because of our school’s open curriculum, I also decided to take my first sociology course with Professor Itzigsohn. It was called “Race, class, and ethnicity in the modern world.” His research and all of his data fascinated me. And when he mentioned how the Asian American population in the United States could use further exploration, I took the opportunity to propose a project with him. Our goal was to discover how Asian Americans fit into the racial and class structure in our country. 

I worked with thousands of cases of Asian Americans and understood their lives through data and I saw how Asian Americans who are allowed to immigrate to the United States have higher levels of income and education. They are heralded for their hard work and attainment of the American Dream. Under the guise of the “model minority myth,” the illusion of equality and prosperity in our country is sustained.

But it is an illusion. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I witnessed how Asian Americans can still be deemed as foreigners in the same place that heralds their success as the cause of others’ failures. The surge in hate crimes in our community shows that Asian Americans are still first and foremost seen for their skin color. The news article from which I learned about the killings in Atlanta said the shooter’s motive was unknown. He was a sex addict who hated women. I had the fleeting thought that race could have also been a coincidence in this case–the situation was complicated, right? There were so many factors involved in this tragedy, but I could no longer ignore that race was the driving one.

For all the times I was hurt, scared, enraged, and struggling with internalized racism, I have finally recognized who I am in America, an Asian woman. It’s a lot to take in–all the recent violence and the realization that it’s the right thing to challenge unjust systems. That it’s right to address racial inequities and call discrimination by its name.

—Michelle Liu
Chinese
New Jersey
Patrick May

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