Legacies “The Community Is Hurting”: Why We Need to Talk About Colorism and Bias in Asian American Communities
It feels jarring to deal with “model minority” stereotypes in non-Asian American spaces while facing negative stereotypes within some Asian ones.
“Stay in the middle of the aisle and don’t touch anything,” my grandmother whispers. The packets of dried fish, cartons of egg noodles, and crates of fresh vegetables swim in front of my six-year-old eyes. The arm I had extended to reach for a box of gummy snacks snaps back, and she hurries us out of the grocery store. I look back to see the store owner staring at us—she had been following us around the store the entire time.
“She thinks we’re going to steal,” my grandmother tells me.
My family is Filipinx, and I am a second-generation Filipina American. The store sells Korean products, and the owner is Korean.
Years later, when I tell friends and colleagues about what happened in that store, they gasp when I reveal that my grandmother, the store owner, and I are all Asian. It’s not what they expected.
This is a story I don’t tell Joanna, my best friend of twelve years, because she doesn’t want to hear it. Joanna is Chinese American, and I’ve already told her many stories she doesn’t want to hear. I’ve told her about the Thai restaurant that served its white customers before my family, even though we ordered first. The Vietnamese nail salon that also served its white customers before anyone acknowledged my mother’s scheduled appointment. The Chinese international student I was partnered with for a semester who expected me to write our essays and explain assignments to her while she failed to listen in class. My sister’s East Asian friends in high school, who told her that “real Asians” have monolids—and that they don’t have “big asses and tits” like she does.
I look back to see the store owner staring at us—she had been following us around the store the entire time.
These are the stories that Joanna takes away from me. She says high school kids say the worst things. She says it must be difficult and scary being an international student. She says it sucks that my family was given terrible service, but stops short of anger over the way I’ve been hurt.
What she leaves unsaid speaks over the stories I give her: Don’t I understand why the people at those businesses acted the way they did? Don’t I understand that they were scared of what their white customers would think of them? Don’t I realize that I’m criticizing our community?
She tries to replace these stories with the ones that are expected, the ones we can share. The white roommate who called me sensitive and let her white boyfriend call me “crazy.” The white mother who rattled off the names of all her son’s Asian American friends to see if I knew any of them. The white college boys who stared at my legs and talked about them because they didn’t think I understood English. She reminds me of these stories as if I’ve forgotten them, as if I can only hold one memory at a time, as if there is only one acceptable source of pain.
I don’t tell my best friend about what happened to my grandmother and me because I don’t want her to ask me whether the store owner was old and therefore deserving of a pass. I don’t want her to excuse the owner’s behavior as a symptom of her culture, as if cultures can’t change. I don’t want her to tell me that she has other Filipinx friends who have never had this happen to them. I don’t want her to say that it was just this one person, this one time. I don’t want her to take this story away from me.
And there are more stories, a flood, that I don’t tell her. The Chinatown vendor who screamed at my three-year-old brother because he was too young to read a “do not touch” sign on a shelf of toys. The person at the writers’ conference who demanded I give her directions to the Asian American organizations, even though I didn’t know what they were. East Asian men who stare openly at me while blushing at lighter-skinned Asian women; East Asian women who veer onto my side of the sidewalk and risk collision, waiting for me to move out of their way. I don’t need to tell her these stories to know her responses. I tell her, instead, that not everyone in the Asian American community accepts me.
“I get that you’re hurting, Monique,” Joanna says. “But the whole community is hurting.”
She clearly believes the external racism aimed at the Asian American community is more important than the intra-community prejudice I’ve experienced. To her, there is only one way to support the community, and it means remaining silent about its flaws.
My family moved into Joanna’s neighborhood when I was eleven years old. She was the first friend I had who lived within walking distance. She was the first friend to show up at my door uninvited, against my parents’ wishes for her to plan and schedule her arrivals. She was loud and curious and opinionated, and we shared everything about ourselves: period pains, lying to our strict parents, questions about puberty and politics. She was the leader, I was the follower.
We turned to each other because we weren’t sure if anyone else would listen to us—first because we were teenagers, second because we were women of color. She told me how her mother was a doctor in China and is now a housewife, and how much it hurts to watch her mother have insults and slurs thrown at her by white racists. She talked about Chinese school on Sundays, the competitive streak in the other students, her feeling that she couldn’t always keep up. We talked about microaggressions from friends and strangers: the ones who told us it wasn’t racist to call all Asians smart and then treat us as search engines rather than people. The ones who said we were “more white than Asian” as if it were a compliment. The ones who didn’t have a problem with the “whitewashing” of Asian characters in pop culture.
My friend called my anger a form of internalized racism and a colonized mindset. She made me feel like a traitor to my race.
After she moved to another state, we continued to share these moments with each other, validating our experiences and helping each other navigate our pain. But as we grew up and became more involved in activist groups in college and after, the differences between our treatment within the Asian American community were thrown into sharp relief. While Joanna found other progressive Asian Americans at her university who listened to her, I learned about many Filipinx stereotypes as they were thrust on me, sometimes by fellow Asians: the subservient babysitter, cleaner, translator, or nurse—lazy, alcoholic, gossiping, dangerous, dumb. It felt strange and jarring to deal with “model minority” stereotypes in non-Asian American spaces while facing negative stereotypes within Asian ones. It doesn’t matter that I don’t come from wealth; white colleagues assume I must be richer than they are. It doesn’t matter to some Asians and Asian Americans that we share in those identities; my brownness is still seen as unsettling.
The poet Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks was assigned to my writing class in my junior year of college. In it, she wrote: “I’m not a ‘real’ black person” with such pain that I held my breath for the rest of the chapter. Derricotte’s confessions as a light-skinned black woman about the various social and racial strata she must navigate due to her skin color helped me to reflect on my own conflicts with my Asian American identity.
Two years later, psychology professor E. J. R. David’s Psychology Today essay confirmed what I had thought was merely a personal observation—that Filipinos “report commonly experiencing discrimination even from other Asian Americans.” David’s article was the first piece of concrete evidence I showed Joanna when I broached the topic of our different intracommunity treatment. When she opted not to read the article in favor of “more interesting” ones, I shared the essay on Facebook, hoping someone else might understand my experiences. By then I wasn’t surprised that Joanna waved the article off—she had already told me that colorism could be solved through more media representation in mainstream spaces, and it’s not an issue that the entire community should be held accountable for. What surprised me was that I received validation from so many others, including fellow Asian Americans of various backgrounds—every person who read and reacted to David’s article was a person of color. Although I didn’t have the validation of my best friend, I learned there were other people out there willing to listen to me.
My partner, a white man, surprises me on Valentine’s Day 2018 with a couples’ tango session. It is my first time dancing tango in years, and I am immediately thrown into using my body as a vessel for communication. I whisper lessons to my partner as he walks me backwards across the dance studio: Find my axis. Can you feel where I’m distributing my weight? Push me with your torso; it tells me what to do.
Tango forces me to think about my own physicality, the way my body can send and receive information in another kind of language, the connection between dancers made possible because each understands the weight of the other’s physical self. It is a dance in which there is a leader and a follower: The leader signals the direction the follower should go, which moves to make, which foot to put behind the other. The follower responds accordingly, listening for a shift in the leader’s chest or an angled hip to know how far to extend their leg back, waiting for the leader to make decisions about where to go next with embellishments, trusting the leader’s forward gaze will keep them safe and make room for them on the floor.
Many of my Asian American friends and other friends of color are supportive, and know it’s long past time to have these nuanced, critical discussions within our communities.
I try not to think anything of it when an East Asian couple shows up halfway through the class and take a spot next to my partner and me, the only other Asian person in the room. They appear uninterested in the instructors’ lessons; the woman kicks her foot far behind her instead of extending from the hip with control, while the man swivels his torso in all directions rather than keeping it steady and straight. For a few minutes, my partner hesitates to lead me forward because of the lack of space they give us. They come close to kicking me, bumping me, stepping on me, and my partner keeps us waiting in the same spot before I ask him if we can move to the other side of the room. Once we do, the couple stops dancing so aggressively, and the line of dance finally moves at a normal pace.
I wonder if I am overthinking the situation, then remember how, a few months before this, a mixed-race, Japanese American friend and I were elbowed, jostled, and spoken over by a Chinese couple who wanted our seats at a coffee bar, repeatedly jabbing my back hard enough to leave a bruise. I remember past times when it was hands laid on me, fingers flicked against my skin, and wonder why others feel entitled to this power over my body.
Later, when I share this and other experiences with friends of color, Joanna no longer among them, they express their anger at this manifestation of the white-supremacist, default-versus-other dichotomy that exists within the Asian American community, and indeed exists in every marginalized space. They acknowledge that work needs to be done so that we can all feel safe within the communities we are part of. “I hope you spilled coffee on them,” a Chinese American friend says.
At tango class, I pretend everything is fine, but I see the couple out of the corner of my eye, watching me. I know what is happening, and I know it is wrong.
“Monique, your experiences belong to you,” my writing mentor tells me. “No one can tell you what did or didn’t happen.”
Around the room, the other mentees nod. I am at a prestigious writing workshop for people of color and have spent the whole week feeling anxious about a particular paragraph in my story, one discussing the colorism my protagonist faces. When no one brings it up in workshop, I ask about it, and my mentor understands I am searching for validation. What she knows I need to do, instead, is to trust myself.
The lesson she teaches me is a simple one, one that unravels the many conversations Joanna and I had, each of us relying on the other’s assurance of what does and doesn’t count as racism or violence. The lesson comes at the perfect time, as well as a year too late—my last conversation with Joanna happened long before this workshop. She told me my experiences and fears within the Asian American community are products of self-hatred that has gone too far. She called my anger a form of internalized racism that comes from a place of confusion, untreated depression, and a colonized mindset. She made me feel like a traitor to my race.
In her words, I could sense her defense of her hard-working immigrant mother, her past fears that she couldn’t live up to the East Asian beauty standards and top scores of the other students at her Chinese school, her pride in the progressive Asian American friends she’s made now, the solidarity and safety she sees within the community and the history of violence against it. “Why do you think you’re special?” she demanded.
What Joanna didn’t and probably still doesn’t realize is that I am not claiming a special status—that I desperately wish I could believe in the same community she sees. In this dance of ours, she has always led. There was never a time when she gave me space to make any moves of my own—there was never a way to tell her about my experiences, because some of them point to real issues in the community that she doesn’t want to see. She “won” all of our arguments because my pain doesn’t exist to her. This is why our friendship ended.
Space should be created in which we address intra-community issues like these, to make sure we don’t perpetuate harmful behavior.
Two years later, when Celeste Ng writes an article for The Cut about the harassment she receives, I feel a strange sense of recognition and relief when she shares how she, too, is called “self-hating” because she married a white man. She mentions there is “the instinct to close ranks” within the community to portray an image of strength, but that “empathy and thoughtful conversation must be the goal”—and that failing to address certain issues within the community can make it a toxic space. As I read this, the fear I’ve held, the anger that Joanna wanted me to keep in check, the alienation from wondering if I was just imagining my trauma—all of these emotions crash down on me like a thunderstorm.
I keep searching for other writing, other moments in which I can see my experiences reflected and my feelings affirmed, wondering where these discussions were when I needed them. After the actress Issa Rae was criticized by some for writing, in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl , “I propose that black women and Asian men join forces in love, marriage, and procreation . . . I’m not talking about Filipinos; they’re like the blacks of Asians,” Anthony C. Ocampo said that Rae was “satirically conveying the truth that we all know: that Filipinos are, at best, a marginalized segment of the Asian American collective, especially when it comes to representation.” In novelist Elaine Castillo’s Electric Literature essay on finding representation in her childhood through anime, Castillo mentions that the East Asian students at her school were “some of the first people I ever heard refer to Filipinos by the n-word.”
I feel the same relief reading these accounts as I did with Ng’s essay—relieved that someone else has put words to pain I have felt. At first, I feel guilty for not taking my writing mentor’s lesson to heart immediately, using these newfound accounts as a way to build trust in my own experiences. But slowly, I stop denying the validity of my own perspective, learning that many of my Asian American friends and other friends of color are supportive, share similar beliefs, and know it’s long past time to have these nuanced, critical discussions within our communities.
I can no longer ignore it when, at the end of the tango session, my partner and I stand facing each other by the snack table, no space between us, and the East Asian woman tries to squeeze through us headfirst as though she’s parting water; as though we aren’t having a close, private conversation.
In a few weeks, I’ll ask my partner if he remembers this couple—the way they took up our space, the way they tried to steamroll over me and control how I moved on the dance floor. But then I’ll catch myself: Whether or not he remembers it, I know it happened, and I trust myself to judge my pain and my experiences clearly.
It is important to have these conversations within our community. Space should be created in which we address intra-community issues like these, to make sure we don’t perpetuate harmful behavior. But for now, in the dance studio, my partner and I stay in our places and grin at each other, our bodies creating an immovable roadblock. In my peripheral vision, I see the woman’s confused eyes turn downward as she steps to the side of me, picks her way carefully around the white couples, and walks out the door. For a split second, I pity her for wanting to feel powerful at the expense of others.