I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.
I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”
One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.
It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.
At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.
For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.
Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.
Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.