Before coming to Northwestern, the topic of race was never something that was on my mind. It wasn’t until I joined an Asian American Christian group on campus that focused on the topic of Social Justice my freshman fall quarter, that I thought that maybe my race meant something more than the color of my skin. Student activism on campus as well as classes such as Asian Americans in pop-culture, continued to further challenge the way I think and made me realize that my identity, as an Asian American, played and continues to play a role in my life. Looking back at my daily interactions in middle school, high school, and even college, I begin to see that what I thought were “normal” interactions at the time, were shaped based on my race and the stereotypes of Asian Americans. Without being aware, the topic of race can be easily swept under the rug especially if blatant racism is not at play. However, race is something that affects our daily interactions because stereotypes are built into our culture and shaped what we consider as the norm.
Since middle school, I have been called “whitewashed” and because of this, one film that really stuck out to me was Better Luck Tomorrow. Specifically the idea of duality which shows that as an Asian American, you have to either accept all the stereotypes of being Asian American, or have to actively reject all these stereotypes, peaked my interest. Growing up, because I liked to play soccer instead of playing the violin, or because I didn’t know how to hold chopsticks the right way made me not really Asian to the other Asian Americans. And although the term “whitewashed” is thrown around harmlessly, I feel that there is more meaning attached to it than it may seem.
One recent interaction concerning this topic was the other day, in the Plex dining hall, I was having a conversation where I mentioned that I was pursuing a Korean minor. The person, a fellow Korean American, seemed very surprised and told me that I didn’t seem like someone who would know how to speak Korean and that I seemed “white washed”- that just because I played soccer, and that I couldn’t hold chopsticks the right way that I also had to not know how to speak Korean. And although this isn’t something I really took offense to, what seemed like a very average conversation still arose from the stereotype of Asian Americans that claims that you have to embrace all the qualities of an Asian American or none of them like in the film Better Luck Tomorrow.
I think something that is interesting to note about the idea of whitewash is the fact that it’s a term commonly used by Asians towards other Asians. This addresses the difference in racism from the dominant group in America (generally speaking, white people) towards the subordinate group, (in this case, Asian Americans) with the racism amongst Asian Americans. Amongst Asians Americans, it seems that people try to find a way to separate one nationality from another and pick at the differences. In class, this was shown in Baby Cobra, where Ali Wong mentions that her and her husband, who are Asian but not Korean, make funs of the Koreans together.
However, on the other hand, for non-Asians, a common source of racism for Asians is the misconception is that there is no differentiation from country to country and as a result, I have constantly grown up going to Chinese restaurants with my white friends and them asking me what I would recommend along with the question “is this place really authentic”? As a Korean American, I don’t know the Chinese restaurant menu better than any white person but they assume I do because I’m Asian. I also have no clue if the take out Chinese restaurant near my house is authentic because as we questioned in class, what does authentic even mean?
However, the real question I want to ask here is why is that to another Asian, I am too white, but to any white person, I’m just grouped in with all the other Asians? This is something that I have grown up facing for a big chunk of my life that I never really questioned until now. Being constantly called white washed and constantly being asked which Chinese food I recommend became so normal that I didn’t even view it as having to do anything with race. Instead, I just viewed it as any other conversation because it was something that became a norm. However, after this class and my experiences at Northwestern, I realized just because something is normal it doesn’t mean that it isn’t something that we need to address. Even without malice and blatantly racist comments, many people are ignorant about different forms of racism because of what our culture has deemed as normal.