Who am I? Denying and discovering racial identity

by Karin Lin, ARP guest contributor

“How do you pass on your ethnic heritage to your children when you grew up in an immigrant household focusing 100 percent of your energy on making yourself as mainstream American as possible?”

This was the question posed in a recent New York Times article and one that, as a second-generation Asian married to a Caucasian, I struggle with frequently.

I grew up in a university town in Kansas as the only child of Taiwanese immigrants. Assimilation was a matter of survival, and I learned from an early age that my acceptance depended on my ability to act as white as possible. I denied my race and ethnicity whenever I could, even to the point of repeating playground taunts like, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” without realizing that they were directed at me and my few fellow Asians.

Trying to be white was not as difficult for me as it might have been for some. I was “blessed” with fair skin, a double eyelid, a Western first name, and the ability to speak unaccented English. When my classmates would ask me to teach them words of Mandarin or Taiwanese, I demurred, not wanting to call attention to the fact that I and my parents spoke such an “exotic” language. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to convince myself that I was just like my white friends.

Though I didn’t fully understand it as a child, I also developed a perverse self-hatred of myself and my race, absorbing the message that my ethnicity was a burden and that my social acceptance was a fragile gift that could be revoked at any time. When a sixth-grade classmate and friend, in a jealous snit that I’d been chosen for a nationwide talent search, remarked, “No offense, but you and Brian [a fellow Taiwanese-American] don’t really belong here”, I nodded—yes, nodded! I didn’t really belong here, but if I was unobtrusive and tried as hard as I could to be like everyone else, maybe they’d let me stay.

In adolescence, I was inevitably attracted to white guys. When the interest wasn’t reciprocated, I had to wonder if I was being rejected for my person or my race—but I didn’t dwell on the idea too long, because it was too hard to accept that there might be something about myself that was anathema to my romantic life, something that I couldn’t change no matter how desperately I wanted to. There were men, too, who were attracted to me because I was Asian, but I didn’t dwell on that, either. I took what I could get.

By the time I got to college, my “act white and admit to being Asian only when absolutely necessary” mentality was ingrained. Even at MIT, with its huge percentage of Asian students. I had no use for, and was somewhat baffled by, the multitude of Asian religious and cultural groups around campus. When my new (white) boyfriend revealed me to his mother and she grumbled, “Well, at least she’s not black,” I didn’t see the blatant racism in her remark; my only response was relief. Yes, thank goodness I wasn’t black; I was “only” Asian. I was close enough to white to be acceptable.

Eventually I married a different white man, and we had two beautiful daughters. In the back of my mind it nagged at me a little that they would end up more white than I am—I feared my Asian heritage would be diluted into nonexistence within a few generations—but I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.

Then, a little over a year ago, I was introduced to the anti-racism movement, and my world changed completely.

For the first time ever, I understood why I’d been trying my whole life to be something I wasn’t. Why would I want to be Asian when all around me were images of white beauty and white power? Why would I honor my ethnic heritage when all the heroes of my English books and history books were white? The problem wasn’t me. This realization was accompanied by anger, relief, and determination. I immersed myself in the writings of minority and anti-racist authors. I read Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism and Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I devoured Phoebe Eng’s Warrior Lessons and Frank Wu’s Yellow: Race In America Beyond Black and White. I had a new world view that was tremendously empowering because it gave me a reason to value myself for who I was, not for my degree of success in pretending to be white.

I feel very fortunate that I came into this understanding early enough in my life for it to positively affect my daughters’ identities. Because I can now embrace my Taiwanese heritage, they will learn to do the same. They won’t have to look in the mirror and hate what they see, or be embarrassed to speak another language with their grandparents. They will have books with pictures of kids who look like them and learn that people of all colors made great contributions to history.

As for the original question posed at the beginning of this column, it is hard to pass on my ethnic heritage to my children when I spent the first thirty years of my life trying to deny it. It feels a little contrived to be learning Taiwanese history now from books, and to be studying Mandarin formally instead of having learned it all as a child. But I’m in what Tatum calls the “immersion/emersion” stage of racial identity development, and I hope my daughters are reaping the benefits. We’re lucky to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are many Asians. I’ve joined the Asian/Pacific Islander identity group within my mostly white church and an organization for Taiwanese American professionals. There’s even a Taiwanese American center less than five miles from my home where the girls take Mandarin and Taiwanese lessons once a week, and where my family has been warmly embraced by the mostly first-generation community.

And we’re all going back to Taiwan next month—for me, it will be the first time in eleven years. I can’t wait.

Karin Lin is a Silicon Valley software engineer and mom to two girls, ages 5 and 3. She is an anti-racist activist within the Unitarian Universalist church, an amateur classical violinist, and a language lover. Karin resides in the East San Francisco Bay with her family.

Image courtesy of Dawn M. Armfield on Flickr.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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