When I was in college, a friend told me, “Peter, you’re just like us, you know a white person”. She meant it as a compliment. Our group of friends were all white apart from two of us Asian folks who according to her, were just like the other white people.
Although she intended well, it left a indelible mark on me. What did that statement mean? On the surface, it meant I have similar interests and background as them. I was sort of middle class, educated, and spoke the way they spoke. My race as Asian American did not stick out to them. But, of course, if I truly was like a white person then there would be no need to tell me that I was just like them.
The underlying insinuation in that “you’re just like us” means that if I start asserting my race in unacceptable ways then I’m a problem. My race is a problem. Don’t mention your race and then it’s okay. Be just like us and then you’re accepted but always different.
The burden that people of color suffer from is that we never get to choose to reveal our race. It’s always the first thing people notice. And with that noticing of race, there’s a cascade of assumptions and expectations. We never get to be individuals first. We are first and foremost our race.
Even those people who go abroad and face racism abroad as an “US American” or a white person don’t truly know what it is like. Because they can always go back home. They always have a normal home where they are truly like everyone else. Truly as in no one has to tell them “you’re just like us”. They weren’t raised always being different for reasons outside their control.
The one question Asians always get from people:
“Where do you come from?”
Well, I just moved from Philadelphia.
“No, I mean what country did you come from?”
Saying I was born in the US is never enough in a way that other white people never have to face.
I’ve had other women tell me, “You’re not like most Asian men I meet.” They also mean it as a compliment. The sense that I’m social, have odd interests, and can lead a group. Or, to put it another way, I can be confident in a group of non-Asian people.
To be fair, all of these people are well meaning and good people. The lack of diversity and real conversations about race are the problem.
So, what do you do instead?
One white friend told me once with a lot of guilt that he can’t help but notice I’m Asian first and foremost when he looks at me. It hurt me to hear that. But, it was also a relief, a starting point for further connection and conversation. He was honest, and he knew it wasn’t fair to me. And he had the courage to tell me. And, so, I trust him even more.