This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics, who writes about herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."
I am, technically, “Asian.” I grew up mostly in Asia, but I went to international schools (with a North American-based system) for most of my life. This meant that I grew up thinking I was American or Westernized. I spoke English as my first language. I grew up feeling the subtle and not-so-subtle arrogance of Westerners (English speakers in particular) and of other expats (e.g. Japanese) in general towards the locals, and I didn't like it. But that dislike for the arrogance of others did not exempt me from thinking that I'm better than other Asians who don't speak English (which means that I carried internalized racism).
This was an ugly attitude.
My mother dealt with it at one point by threatening to pull me out of school, since that's what school was doing to me -- a lesson I am forever grateful for. But while her threat went a long way in making me more aware that I should avoid using English or the Westernized aspects of myself to take the upper hand while relating to others (because Asians can often feel intimidated when faced with this kind of attitude), somewhere inside I still felt as though white people/Westerners were better. (Quite ridiculous of me, huh.)
This means that somewhere deep inside, I still think that those who are less Westernized than me are not as good as me, even though I don't act on this, and even though I try to act the opposite way.
A while back, a comment from an ex-student hinted that I may still harbor this attitude, and that it comes out unintentionally, and subtly. This student, who is also Asian, said to me, 'I was standing next to John (white, not real name) just now. and you said Hi to him but you didn't say Hi to me. You didn't notice I was there. It's because he's white isn't it?'
I think I might have responded by denying that I only noticed John because he was white, and explaining that John is physically much bigger, that he was closer to me as they passed me by in the hallway, and that he's just generally more talkative and loud, and hence noticeable.
All of this was indeed very true. But it made me think that just maybe, racism was also a factor. Now I think it was a factor, and I don't like having that inside me. It's ugly and damaging to myself.
So one way that internalized racism manifests itself is in a simple 'lack of interest' in people who we deem as 'uncool' or not interesting enough to talk to, simply on the basis of their racial, ethnic or cultural origin. (And I'd even include class, gender, etc.) I'm in the midst of unlearning this attitude myself.
Recently, I also learned that one of the most damaging parts of all this is that deep inside, I seem to believe that I'm not as good as Caucasians. (I don't consciously believe this, of course! No way!) I knew that these thoughts weren't good, but until recently, I didn't know that internalized racism can actually hurt you inside. It makes sense, though, since it basically means that you think negatively of yourself, and that can bring about all sorts of symptoms.
I've experienced the effects of this attitude in a lack of self-confidence when faced with white Australians who harbor stereotypes or prejudices (even those who are very nice otherwise. Yes, I'm of the camp that believes most of us, white or poc. . . even the nice ones, harbor some prejudice or another towards others). I succumb to their stereotypes and turn into a quiet, docile Asian in their presence, even though I don't want to. (Maybe that's why Chuck, an swpd commenter, thinks that Asians are “quiet.”)
Sometimes I stumble with my words. Or when white people do put on a bad attitude with me, I don't know how to stand up to it. I think it's because in a racial way, I don't know who I am or what I'm worth.
It's different with the rest of my family (all of whom did not grow up with white people, as I did). They're pretty sure of who they are and do not in any way think of Asians as any less than Caucasians. So if it's necessary, they can stand up to it. If it's not necessary, they may keep quiet, but white racism doesn't seem to affect them as deeply. (Well, at least that's how I see it. And of course, personality might play a part in this too.)
The process of unlearning all of this, for me, also calls for an understanding of systemic racism, and finding the words and ways to deal with it. Living in Australia has made me very angry at the subtleness of racism. In the past, I didn't dare mention the 'r' word outside our home. As my friend says, one of white Australia's national pastimes is to talk about how multicultural and tolerant they are. This self-congratulatory talk basically hushes up anyone who thinks otherwise. I often think that the situation in Canada is way better, and even the US is still better (but then again, I’ve never lived in the US). At least quite a number of people talk about it in North America. And at least (based on my impression), there are more people there who aren't that great at hiding their racial prejudices, making them easier to point out.
And then one day, I came across a white lecturer who said out loud that (institutionalized) racism is still an issue in Australia and that we need to do more about it. I gasped. She used the ‘r’ word. I was shocked, thinking the white audience in the room were gonna stage a walkout. They didn't. That's when I realized that it's okay to talk about it. Then I came across Homi Bhabha, Fanon, Peggy McIntosh, etc. For the first time my experience (systemic & internalized racism) were put into words.
But I was still a novice at it. I had a fallout with a close white friend of mine because I didn't know how to talk about racism. I also had a racist encounter with a couple of people who kept pushing my buttons till I lost it, while they just kept smirking and didn't take me seriously. I wonder if it's a common white tendency to push a POC's buttons while staying calm themselves, so that in the end the POC is made to look emotional and over-reactive (and a little bit 'coo coo')? I suppose it's like trying to pick a fight, but getting the other person to punch first. Or perhaps it's the POC's fault for not being able to handle the situation wisely? Probably both, huh?
These incidents impacted me deeply, particularly the fallout with my friend. Reading swpd is helping me get over this saga. Helping me understand what happened, and digesting it. It's amazing how those incidents contained so many of the themes raised in swpd and other blogs.
I think white privilege works on a global scale because in much of Asia you can get instant celebrity-like status if you're white, thanks to the aftereffects of colonialism. As POCs, it's our responsibility to stop acting as though someone is better because they're white. It does no one any good.
It’s important for both whites and POCs to acknowledge our own prejudices and unlearn racism, whether it’s towards others or ourselves. For myself, learning to know my worth (‘race’ wise) without turning bitter is the first step.