As A POC, I Thought I Couldn't Possibly Be Racist (And I Was Wrong)

by Virginia Duan
Originally Published: 
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I lived a typical American upbringing. Or, as typical as any American upbringing could rightfully assert itself as being. I was born to two Taiwanese immigrants in Hayward, California, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was seven, we moved to a nicer — and whiter — suburb 20 minutes east for the incredibly good public school system where I attended and excelled. I was taught by my parents — and the incredibly good public school system — that America was the land of the free, the home of the brave, and where everyone was equal — where everyone got a fair shake.

What a lie that all was. What a lie it is still.

Were you expecting that I was raised by some peculiar Asian version of racism? No, friends. I came by my anti-Blackness the way we all do — from the very culture in which we are steeped.

I learned anti-Blackness from school, from the media, and from our very nice white community. I learned it from the pulpit and from our country’s leaders. I learned it the way we all learn how to be good citizens of the United States. Anti-Blackness is the very backbone of our nation.

The thing is, I have never felt as if I were anti-Black. I have never felt as if I, personally, was a racist. I have always tried to judge people by their character and their deeds instead of what they looked like. My family didn’t even come to the United States until 1976, so how could I (or we) possibly have done anything? That was a white people problem — and even then, most of them were nice people. It’s only the men in sheets we had to worry about, right?

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America, I learned, had moved past its racist history. After all, didn’t America venerate Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I was a good-ish person. Not the best, but not actively bad. Certainly not racist, sexist, or terribly homophobic. I was a tolerant person. But what I failed to realize in my paltry understanding of racism (and really, all of these -isms), was that it isn’t just saying the right words or making the right sounds. It isn’t just not saying the wrong words or making the wrong sounds.

It’s about changing an entrenched mindset. It’s about changing a way of viewing the world.

It’s about completely upending and rewriting everything you thought you knew about how the world works — and it is terrifying. It is scary and makes you question if you ever deserved anything you worked so hard to earn. It feels as if it’s a personal attack because haven’t you also experienced prejudice — and if you’re a non-Black person of color — racism?

It’s paralyzing because you realize you are complicit.

I am complicit.

It is a fact that Black folks face real risks. Because of medical bias and institutionalized racism, Black Americans die younger than white Americans and have higher rates of death from a multitude of diseases. Black women are three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. Black Americans are approximately three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.

And as non-Black people, we have choices. We can willfully unsee. We can see and not care or give up. Or we can see and willfully, mindfully, actively cut out our old lenses and grow new ones — however slowly — and see rightfully.

I choose to carve out the rot — that cancer in my mind.

The thing is, I am ill-equipped to recognize the ways I have internalized anti-Blackness. After all, if Black folks have to struggle against internalized anti-Blackness and trans folks have to struggle against internalized transphobia, why wouldn’t I — a person who does not deal with that type of marginalization — struggle with it?

Even when confronted with my anti-Blackness, I do not always respond well. I’m getting better at it — but that’s nothing to brag about. That’s more a testament to the many Black women who choose to be generous with their time and emotional bandwidth. But I actively resist anti-Blackness as an Asian American woman — not only because it’s the smart and self-interested thing to do as a non-Black person of color — but because it’s the right thing to do.

So many Black women sowed into me when they did not have to. They were gracious and kind to me — and sometimes they were rightfully furious and frustrated — as they pointed out the systemic racism rampant in me and our society. And though I would not be in my current state of awareness and mindfulness without them, I don’t fight anti-Blackness because of these Black women.

Otherwise, it would be akin to when men say they are feminists because they have mothers, wives, and daughters. No. Women deserve to be treated as fully human — full stop — not because they are related to men.

Black folks deserve to be treated as fully human. Full stop.

It’s not about changing your profile pic to all black or choosing a “woke” frame or retweeting a viral tweet.

Just like you have to reprogram yourself from negative self talk, you have to reprogram yourself to see the world as insidiously anti-Black, which props up the lie of white supremacy. You have to practice. It’s awkward — like practicing pronouns. You have to decondition yourself from the messaging that Blackness looks a certain way and recondition yourself to see Black folks as they are — human.

As a non-Black person of color, it also means examining both how we are and have been complicit in perpetuating anti-Blackness — and how anti-Blackness ultimately harms us and as Scot Nagawa wrote, is the fulcrum of white supremacy. It means dismantling a lot of cultural trauma of how we, too, are both oppressed and oppressor — as colonized and colonizer.

It looks like changing the people you follow on social media, changing the kinds of narratives and stories you read or watch, changing the artists and music you consume. It looks like quashing that very human response of discomfort and dis-ease. It looks like listening and not rushing to erase the myriad experiences of Black people — who are not a monolith.

It looks like training yourself and your kids to recognize anti-Blackness and how to resist it. Even if it means having your children lose their innocence. Black moms have to speak frankly about the risks their children may have to face. Should we do any less to build a world where people are not bullied and systematically targeted because of the color of their skin?

From the time I was born and until the foreseeable future, I soaked in anti-Blackness. It is hubris to think that one “woke” article or moment is enough to countermand a lifetime of programming. It requires a lifetime commitment to unpack, unlearn, and resist anti-Blackness because Black lives matter. Period.

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