I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.
MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.
WW: Oh…how horrible.
MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.
WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.
This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.
As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.
And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.
Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.
In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents? These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.
Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.
You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.
If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?
And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?
I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.