During a road trip several years ago, my family decided to stop at a gas station in southern Georgia to fuel up. My father handed me some cash, and my younger brother and I entered the convenience store to buy ourselves some ice cream. We picked our cones from the freezer and waited in front of the cash register to make our purchase.
We weren’t paying any attention. All we were thinking about was having some cold ice cream after hours of Georgia heat. Our father entered the store after ten minutes of waiting.
“What is taking you guys so long?” he asked in Korean. He saw us standing in line to pay and after seeing the owner, a white lady, ignore us completely while helping other customers, he quickly understood what was going on.
“Eunice. Peter. Put your ice cream back.”
Confused, Peter and I put our cones back and went inside our car. We were little kids who had just experienced racism for the first time.
When I read about the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, my initial reaction was to stay silent because “others have gone through worse.” I began to look back at the intentional racism and implicit biases I faced growing up and my eyes started opening up to the imperative need for change.
However, I realized that this common Asian mentality might have brought us to this mess in the first place. There is a general lack of understanding in this country and racism has unfortunately become a Manichaean and partisan issue — with one side being “good” and the other being “evil.” The truth is more complicated than that.
Many are ignorant of the experience of a person of color and we need smarter, meaningful discussions about issues like race and culture. So, I will be sharing my story as an Asian American woman to provide more insight into the silent truths embedded in our society.
My story is one that people of other ethnicities and cultures may relate to. I’m not speaking for other Asian Americans, and I’m definitely not here to be a voice for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans. They have their own voices. You can listen to them.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and former President Trump’s “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” rhetoric have raised the temperature (leading to an exponential rise in Asian hate crimes), racism is nothing new in America.
When I was little, my late grandfather in Korea often proudly told my brother and me that “You are not Korean during our Skype calls. You are American.” I remember feeling hurt by his comments, but now I realize that he was right. I wasn’t Korean.
Yet, I wasn’t purely American either. No amount of hamburgers and pizza would change the fact that the first thing people label me as when they see my face in this country is Korean or Asian. Asian Americans are viewed as foreigners even if we are born and raised in America because, for some reason, we don’t belong. We’re outsiders in this black and white country, stuck amongst the binaries that partition America.
Other children teased us for our monolid eyes and we were self-conscious whenever we brought ethnic food for lunch. Even as a young child, I remember feeling like I had to protect my parents from other adults who dismissed them because of their accents. Whenever my brother and I have an issue at school, it’s always me who takes care of it. We don’t have parents calling the principal or counselor for us. We write our parents’ emails and schedule our own doctor’s appointments.
I got used to microaggressions from both children and adults. Most of the time, they are casual and awfully subtle, such as asking, “Where are you really from?” instead of asking for my ethnicity. For some reason, we will never be seen as “Americans.”
These comments usually come from ignorance. When people say things because of implicit biases they hold without realizing what they just said, I often find myself just sitting in discomfort because I don’t want to be “that person.”
One of my teachers began a class discussion on individual freedoms and how we don’t have the freedom to do whatever we want. He used me as an example for his hypothetical scenario.
“Eunice can think whatever she wants about me, but she doesn’t have the freedom to curse me out or go to my house and eat my dog.”
The class stiffened.
“Uhhh, Mr. [last name]. That was kind of racist,” another student said.
“What? How is that racist? Eunice, was that racist?” my teacher asked.
“A little,” I told him.
My brother and I were even jokingly referred to as a Mongol once by another teacher, and these teachers just had no clue what they were saying. They are not racist people, and I continue to have a great relationship with both of them at my high school in Macon, GA because I understand that we are all imperfect people who hold implicit biases and stereotypes.
I find people who discuss racism without acknowledging their own biases dishonest and unhelpful because progress can only be made when we educate ourselves and work on the stereotypes we hold. Woke-ism is offensive to me because it is just a way for white liberals to feel less guilty about themselves. People of color do not need to be talked to in a different manner, and we certainly do not need to be babied. It’s time to “get real.”
When I first transferred to my high school in Macon, the largest club advisor in our school saw my transcript and continuously scouted me to join his student organization chapter. I was excited to compete for our school, and when I expressed to him my interests in public speaking, he replied:
“What our school needs right now is higher test scores. If you could come in and take some business math and business communication tests for us, that should be enough.”
I was not even going to receive a chance to prove myself. I wonder what about my face just screamed “test scores” to him.
I once had an upperclassman who was co-president with me for one of my clubs, telling me that I would work for people like him because I lacked emotional intelligence.
Without hesitation, I absorbed his words like a sponge. I assumed he was right because society told me that Asians lacked “personality.” My internalized racism told me that I was always the problem—no question about it.
I watched him lead our meetings at the front of the room, read the script I wrote the night before, and present the PowerPoint I pulled an all-nighter for. I sat in the back because co-presidents should split their duties. If I was really good with administrative and organizational tasks, I wasn’t going to be allowed to conduct meetings as often. Sitting down “was my place” because I was two crimes: Asian American and a woman who gets things done no matter who receives the credit.
Again, I will reiterate that my teachers, students, and peers are not racist people, though I will be keeping their names anonymous because I still attend this school and because my younger brother might get penalized for this article. I am sharing my story while knowing the risks I am taking.
It doesn’t matter how Democratic these people are or how many times they posted #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate on their social media pages. My brother and I have been called Asian slurs like “Ching Chong” several times since we moved to Macon, and the comments were all from Black people. Anti-white racism also exists and should be acknowledged, but in no way should it be used as an argument to downplay white supremacy and racism against people of color. Nuance is important, and over-balancing is deceptive.
“I don’t see color” is a lie. Diversity is overrated. Diversity is the bare minimum of checking a series of boxes. Let’s stop praising people for doing the bare minimum. Inclusion is what we need right now, and to have that, we need honest and constructive discussion and meaningful education.
The bottom line is that racism is complicated in our country. Oversimplifying it to be white vs. black or Republican vs. Democrat is not always helpful. There continues to be division among Asian Americans and other people of color due to historical events like the 1992 L.A. Riots and the recent affirmative action lawsuits in higher education admissions.
The model minority myth has driven many Asian Americans to be complicit, and we can be our worst enemies in staying silent while our POC brothers and sisters are suffering. The lack of concern inside the Asian American community is frightening, but I have optimism for Asian Americans standing up for each other. I am grateful to non-Asian Americans who are standing in solidarity with us at this time. Racism is real, and racism kills.
For America to heal, we need to listen to other people’s experiences, educate ourselves on our own biases, and never assume someone’s story by labels. Asia, like Africa, is a continent — not a country. There are historical and cultural divisions separating people of color, people of a certain race, and even people of a single ethnicity. It’s perfectly fine not to know much about a culture or another human being as long as you ask and learn. To do so, step out of your paradigm and understand that your experiences don’t constitute everyone else’s. America, let’s tackle racism the correct way. Progress is long overdue. It’s time to “get real.”
Written by Eunice S. Chon
Edited by Karina Fathani & Mahitha Mamilla