Friday, March 1, 2019

Seeing Wrong, Saying Something, Watching Nothing Change

Okay, here we go. Into the super uncomfortable parts of white passing!

I grew up in the Bay Area, Fremont for almost all of elementary, and then Brentwood (the northern one) for my early adolescence. I was surrounded with people who were different from me in religion, race, class, etc. It felt normal. I had friends from many backgrounds. 

Honestly, I felt more comfortable around people of color as a kid and teen. I didn't really know why, but it might be because of where I grew up and my Maori culture that seeped into me in ways I didn't realize (that's another post in the future). I felt at ease with them, at ease listening to them speak in a different language with their parents. Maybe it reminded me of my grandma singing in Maori. Those different languages and cultures represented love and comfort for me.

I remember there being some arguments or missteps on these differences (my Baptist friends constantly wanted to save my Mormon soul, for example), but I was taught early on from my family and at school that we could all respect each other. In 6th grade, I remember vividly my history teacher discussing every major world religion. It fascinated me, and the amount of respect in our classroom after was palpable.

I grew up in a small apartment in Fremont, in a questionable part of town at the time where we weren't completely poor but not really secure in finances either. Currently my old neighborhood is now top school and swanky? It's hard to reconcile when I remember the constant penis graffiti at the elementary they had to clean up, or the known drug house on the way to school, or the terrible case of a toddler being murdered just down the street. When my father graduated with his masters and got a good job, we moved to a very middle class place in Brentwood. I was comfortable in modest circumstances, in having enough but not more than we needed. 

So when I moved to Utah in 1998, I was not prepared for what was waiting in a more homogenous area (white, LDS, upper class). As I walked the halls on my first day of school there (indoor halls! what???), I was taken back by the sea of blonds, by the single shade of skin color, and even the strange way everyone seemed to have the same body shape (knobby tallness for the boys, elven svelte for the girls). 

Though I might have blended in more than ever before (except I was already far curvier than most), I had never felt so out of place. 

Kids made fun of my California accent and "beach clothes." They were great at immediately pointing out what made me different from them, from my interests in Anime to my outspoken manner to the different things I thought were important about our shared religion. They didn't know what to do with me—and I didn't know what to do with them. 

Because, though we might have looked the same, I was very different on the inside. 

For example, I had chosen drama for one of my elections that 9th grade year, and it was one of those classes with a laid back attitude. The teacher hadn't started class right when the bell rang, and kids chatted amongst themselves. I felt slightly out of place not only as the New Kid, but as a person who'd never been in drama and didn't like the spotlight. 

So I was keeping to myself, drawing like I usually did, when I over heard a conversation. 

"What do you call a Mexican who..."

I stiffened, shocked at the "jokes" that proceeded to come out of this boy's mouth. These sort of "jokes" would have gotten him a fist in the face at my old school. I had heard them before even—but they were almost always called out for what they were. Then he moved on from Mexicans to Jews. No one around me seemed upset. No one did anything but laugh. 

"Dude, that's racist," I blurted out, angry at how long everyone had let this go on. 

The boy looked at me in horror, as if I had mortally wounded him with my accusation. "It's just a joke, dude. Can't you take a joke?"

The mock surfer accent was not lost on me. 

"If it's so funny, would you say it in front of a Mexican person? Or a Jewish person?" I asked. 

He didn't have a snappy reply to that, and his face grew red. The whole class had grown quiet. I would have gone on chewing him out, but the teacher jumped in and decided to start class right then. She made no effort to correct anything, though she had to have heard the conversation. 

I wish I could say that someone learned a lesson from this, but I was the one who paid for speaking out. 

That kid I stood up to? He was mean to me for years after. Every class we had together, he would call me names and whisper about me to others. No one stood up for me. No one did anything. Finally, at some point in high school, I finally asked him, "Why do you hate me do much?"

"Because you were born," was his answer. 

It hurt, but looking back it makes me sad for anyone who was different in that area. Whether it was exaggeration or not, I feel like his reply was incredibly telling of the underlying current of the community I moved into. Of course it wasn't everyone, but there was an attitude, a set of "beliefs" that came with being an upper class white kid in a nearly all white community. Everyone patted each other's backs, telling each other they all earned what they had. There's this sentiment easily shared that if "others would just work harder and stop being lazy or degenerate..." There are many instances of the phrase, "I'm not racist, but..." followed by some terrible statement. 

I think that kid really did hate me because I was born—because I was born female in a misogynist society and I dared to stand up to him in public. To him, the "shame" I'd put on him was more than what anyone else would have to suffer ever in their lives, and he would make sure I paid for it. 

I didn't understand that at the time. It's taken years of adulthood and lessons from other people of color to make sense of what I saw as a kid. 

That's the weird thing about being a white passer. You see. You see racist stuff all the time, because you are coded as white on the outside and thus you are automatically "accepted" as someone who would agree with all the crap some can spew. 

But the moment you speak up, they know you're not "one of them." 

You might think this would cause change, but it doesn't. It only causes you to be isolated. You're a danger to the system. You don't comply with the code. 

And that was the thing—I knew if I spoke up, nothing would change. 

Maybe they stopped telling the racist jokes in front of me, but I knew they were still telling them in spaces where they thought it was "safe" to tell them. I could stand up until I was blue in the face, but I was one teen girl against a messed up system I didn't fully understand. 

Because I didn't fit in the system, nor outside of it, I have never belonged anywhere. Because as a white passer, you see the racism a lot...but you never experience it directly. 

You can't be in the white community fully because you can't comply with their assertions on a ton of things, and you make them uncomfortable when you let them know. And you can't be in your own cultural community in America, because you know it's true that you don't get the same judgment and persecution. It's like getting the benefits of white privilege AND the benefits of your heritage—and according to pretty much everyone that is not fair. (And even I myself feel like it's not fair, and thus I have an internal reluctance to embrace my heritage. Feels very much like having cake and eating it too.)

Another example: Anime was not a normal interest in late 90s Utah, let me tell you. And having that interest was another window into racism. I say a window, because once again I saw what people thought of Asians...but it was never directed at me. 

"You like Japanimation??" A kid would stretch his eyes at the sides. "Ching chong chang?"

Like, seriously. The levels of terrible are mind bending. This was just me as a blond girl drawing Sailor Moon fanfic. Again, I would say they were being racist. 

"It was just a joke, gosh." They would stomp off, never to speak to me again, but happy to do the eye stretch in the hall when they saw me. 

Always, always "just a joke."

Another another: "You have a crush on him? But your kids wouldn't look like you!"

Me staring blankly at the level of racism in the girl's assertion. "Uh, they would? And that's pretty racist..."

"No it's not! It's true!" Yet another person who would never be my friend or talk to me again.

When these things happened to me, they hurt, but I would always think of how much worse it would be if I looked Maori on the outside. Would I get random hula comments? Talk of coconut bras to double down on sexism and racism? I thought of my Vietnamese, Black, Latinx, Jewish friends in California and ached for how it would wound them so much more than me. I knew they would hear it like I had. I'd seen this my whole life, and I knew it was wrong, and I had no idea how to make it any better. Calling it out hadn't helped—I was alone in doing it, no one ever backing me up—so what else was there?

White passers don't have tools. And they don't have a full understanding when they're growing up. If their parents are white passing, too, there is often no one to give them context, to provide that other side of the story they feel but don't have.

I don't know about everyone, but it always left me lost. It left me trying and failing a lot. I had pieces that were right, and I still had the system of privilege teaching me lies as well (for example, I might have been sensitive to race because of my background, but I was utterly clueless about how homophobic my world also was and how much I had absorbed). I knew some things were offensive, but others slipped my grasp. Still, there were things I knew felt wrong, but I didn't have the words or experience to say why.

And yet, every now and then, there would be someone who would find me eating alone in the halls. 

They would come up to me and say, "Thanks for standing up to [insert name here]. What they said was terrible."

"You're welcome," I would say with a measure of relief. So it had mattered to someone. 

On my worst days, I would want to ask, "Why didn't you back me up?"

But I never did say that. Many of these people (not all) who thanked me were people of color. And I didn't fully understand it then, but now I get that they had a lot more to lose when speaking out as the very small minority (we are talking there was only one Black kid at my whole high school of 1500 students, and the others were in handfuls.). These students likely couldn't afford to draw any more attention to themselves.

It's still hard to talk about this stuff, because I know many will get defensive. I've seen it time and time again in my community. I don't want to make excuses, but I have come to learn that for every unapologetically racist person there is another who wants change and learn. And there is some genuine ignorance even still. There have been terrible moments like those I've given, but there have also been moments when I've said, "Um, so 'oriental' is now considered an offensive term, if you didn't know."

And the person turns bright red not with anger, but with embarrassment. "Oh, I had no idea. Thank you for telling me. I feel so bad!"

Because of my strange position as a white passer, I sometimes wonder if my appearance "softens the blow." I have learned since my childhood that telling a white person they are doing something "racist" never goes over well (even when it's true), but offering correction when they know me and know my background often brings a greater measure of reflection. 

Yet...I think people like me are frequently reluctant to offer advice or stand up, because we are so acutely aware that we are not experts, nor are we directly impacted like those in our culture who look as expected. I'm always stepping on toes, no matter where I go or what I do. I wouldn't say I'm fully used to it, but I have come to terms with it for the most part.

I wish I could say that all of this was in the past, in those long ago 90s, but I think we all know that isn't true. And even in my own writing community, I hear things that shock me at times. 

"Right now, you can't get published if you're white," said a writer in a small group.

My eyes went wide. I had thought everyone was welcoming of the push for more diversity, and yet again I was reminded that Utah has a long way to go. "I think that's far from true."

And I was right. People of color still make up less than 10% of children's authors. There's a whole study on these stats. But because of the visibility of the movement, people "see their spots being taken." 

Anyway, I admit I still don't know how best to traverse every situation, but I do know I have a unique perspective and I try my best. I think that's all we can do, even when it sometimes feels like nothing around us changes. Maybe I am viewed as unsettling or unsafe to the majority in my area, but I would rather be seen as a safe place for those who constantly go unheard. 

This is the third post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.


  1. I'm sorry that you were treated like that school; those kids, especially that racist bully who said those cruel things to you, were wrong to do that. I can relate to what you went through, when you went from living in diverse California to Utah. I used to live in Chicago, and I moved to a small town in Tennessee for work. It was definitely a culture shock to move to a place where looking "different" was treated as if it was a crime. One of my international students confided in me about how some of the white students ridiculed him because of his accent; I felt sorry for him and wished I could have done more to help him.

  2. I think it's cool you are tackling this, especially since I feel it would be extra difficult to express due to varying perspectives of what that area was like. Living in that area during that time myself I feel that many kids in that area acted poorly out of ignorance and lack of kowledge (though not all, some were just jerks). Also, as a kid it felt like many of the people who moved there from California liked to shove the idea in your face that they were better and the best because they were from California.I remember myself and some of my peers who hadn't moved expressimg feeling that way. With ideas like that floating around you may also have (unfortunately) encountered predjudice because you moved from California. It's lame, but that was a thing in that area. I also expreienced issues with things I thought were important about a shared religion and that was without moving. I also think it can be difficult to understand the importance of claiming a culture when you are someone who falls into or is lumped into the -rude racist privileged mainstream white person group. Who wants to claim that? It isn't positive. If you are in that group you may feel you don't have a culture to claim which makes it harder for you to relate to or understand what is happening. Some lumped in that group really do care, but are ignorant. That is why it is so cool that you did speak up back then. That is why it is cool that you are talking about your experience now. I was afraid of intentionally doing things that would be racist and tried not to be that way, but my knowledge and understandung was limited and I probably inadvertently added to the problem.I also took for granted the "rightness" and "normalcy" of the culture I was in. I didn't understand that some of that should not have been normal and was not right.

    1. Looking back, I understand this as an adult, but I was using my point of view in that time period to tell this story. There is so much we don't understand as kids, and it's totally true that I was unaware of the "from California" thing. I was unaware of a ton of stuff. And I was that super annoying kid who thought they knew everything and how everyone should live, so;) Not claiming any perfection here.

  3. It's tough moving/entering a homogeneous group and not having the same beliefs/ideas/culture/history as the group around you. And while I understand your frustration with people not being more accepting of those that are not like them, I really don't like this movement of framing this as all "racist". It pigeonholes the problem and undermines its success. This problem isn't a white people problem. It's a human problem. If we're not used to things, then we don't like it, no matter the skin color.

    For example, I lived in Japan for several years and despite trying to fit in, learn the language and figure out the vastly different culture to mine, I was constantly seen as "the outsider" and was subjected to their own jokes of outsiders and cultures that were different than theirs. What you described could easily describe some of the people I knew in Japan. Same in Italy when I lived there. Even when living in America, in a culture I understood, and could outwardly pass "as normal", I didn't think like other people did (and sadly had no ancestral culture to blame it on) and was ostracized because I "thought wrong".

    This is why I don't think we should label this problem as a "racist" problem that affects only white people because it affects everyone. Put a white kid in a school full of blacks and that white kid will go through the same experience as you did. Put a white kid with a bunch of other white kids, but who acts differently than the others, and they'll still go through your experience.

    So, I think it would be better to frame this as a problem of humans not liking change. If everyone, of all races/creeds/religions/whatever could focus on the fact that someone different from you doesn't automatically make them bad, and that you can respect and be their friend without having to agree with everything they do/believe, then the world would be a lot better off. We'd actually move forward instead of withering into camps of "they're not acting like they're supposed to be acting." Because calling someone "racist" is really you saying "you're not acting how I think you should be acting." Which is ironic since that's the same problem they have of you.

    So maybe next time, instead of saying "That's racist," we can say "That's rude. Would you like it if someone said that about your race/religion/creed/whatever?" Then all of humanity could be helped to be more accepting of each other.

    **And so ends my two cents on this topic on the vast internet.

    1. I did not say my approach was correct, only that I did it and saw the consequences for it. I was 14-17 at the time of these occurrences. I have social anxiety and didn't understand many societal cues or expectations. If you notice later on in the post, I describe that I saw this wasn't a good approach and I changed to something softer. I realized that not everyone saw one way and there were good people trying to learn.

      I agree that all cultures have a racism issue in some form (Maori face racism in NZ similar to indigenous peoples across the world), but to be afraid of the term "racist" or "racism" is sort of avoiding the issue. I have done racist things, and I can say that out loud. I have tried to correct and learn every time I can. We all have to learn, we all have only our single view of the world to start with, and it is hard to expand it. We are all bound to misstep along the way, and that is okay (though society sometimes makes us feel it isn't!).

      It is true that racism is a very human and very worldwide issue with deep roots, roots that require different methods of untangling in every country. Some prefer to rename the issue and avoid the word, but I will continue to take on the word so I don't forget how important it is to make these changes in myself and hopefully do better at explaining myself to others.

      It seems I was unsuccessful in conveying the flaws of my own teen thinking, and I'm sorry for that. I will leave the post as is for reference, but I have learned from your reply that I need to more clearly show that I was far from perfect in my approach as a kid. Especially given my community. It just shows how much I didn't understand the area I moved into—which I did learn overtime and grew to appreciate in its own quirks and ways!

  4. It's not you, specifically, or your flawed teen thinking that I spoke up against. It's the movement you're a part of; the reason you wrote your posts. It's this sense of "American white people are racist because of X, Y, and Z" that I've been seeing across social media, in the news, and in daily life that I wanted to address. It's frustrating to see a movement complain of being belittled and marginalized when they focus on belittling and marginalizing the group they oppose. If we want to succeed in accepting more diversity, we shouldn't use the same tactics we claim we oppose.

    Like your posts, you're hoping to create some change and open someone's eyes to the problems you've seen. My comment is the same. I just think the movement would do better if we framed it as a humanity problem instead of a white problem. A lot of people say "I pass as white but actually am not," but really, what they're saying is "I look like I could fit in, but inwardly I don't." That latter phrase is far more inclusive than the former phrase could ever be and it starts a conversation instead of assigning the person as "racist."

    I realize the "passing as white" is how you filtered your experiences as you grew up. You needed something to blame and your Maori heritage was different from those around you, thus an easy scapegoat. But blaming whiteness is also how the movement is framing this thus focusing on an aspect no one can change (their skin color) instead of on the fact that we, as humans, all have the tendency to judge quickly and should stop being afraid of someone that is different (no matter the reason for that difference).

    So, basically, I just wanted you to not follow the movement of assigning whiteness as the problem. Or at least not further this misconception since I fear it will send the movement to a self-destructive ending. Let's nudge it toward a better direction instead :)