At first it’s probably not obvious that you are their only nonwhite friend. Maybe you can’t remember them hanging out with any people of color except for you, but you don’t know all the people they know. All those tiny thumbnails of white faces, commenting on their political status updates and praising their selfies on Facebook — that’s Facebook, what can it really tell you about someone’s life? Sure, you might go over to your friend’s place for a barbecue or a Super Bowl party and realize that everyone there is white, but that’s still a small sample, ten or twelve people, and at least no one seems visibly weirded out that you’re there, too.
Then, a few years later, you go to their wedding. You’re in a crowded reception hall with the two hundred and fifty people your friend is closest to in the world. You’re the only person of color who made the cut. Maybe this doesn’t actually bother you all that much; maybe you can guess all the reasons already, and some of them seem valid. But as you talk to the people around you, making friendly chitchat at the open bar (how did you meet the bride?), you can’t help but wonder if any of them have noticed what you’ve noticed. (It’s not as if you can ask. There is never a good way to ask white people why their party is so white.)
The funny thing is, you don’t spend a lot of time wondering what it is about your friend’s life that has led to you being, as you so often are, the only nonwhite person in the room. Instead, you ask what it is about you. How did you — of all the brown people in all the towns in all the world — slip past their usual defenses? What is it that made you acceptable?
The girls in my class at Sacred Heart were almost uniformly pale, blue-eyed wisps with hair that ran the gamut from light blond all the way to dark blond. I never understood why, but looking back now, I suppose all the Scandinavian blood in the Pacific Northwest might have had something to do with it. In any case our school was tiny, and I had the same kids in my class year after year, the same boys with saints’ names, the same pretty, fair-haired girls. I desperately wanted to look and be just like those girls. I aspired to friendship with them, but even though they didn’t hurl racial slurs like the worst of the boys, I knew my place, and it wasn’t with them.
Still, when a group of girls came running up to me one day in sixth grade and climbed up close to my perch on top of the monkey bars, the part of me that was capable of feeling deliriously hopeful wondered if they might change their minds about me. For one glorious moment, I pictured myself walking down the hall with those white girls, sitting next to them in the cafeteria, being asked over to their houses to play. One of them, whose blond hair was more ashy than golden, climbed up and settled herself just a few feet away from me. Her voice sounded strange, suspiciously friendly as she said, “We have a question, and you’re the only one we can ask. We were wondering…”
I felt sure it was a trap, but curiosity got the better of me, and I waited.
“…Do you have a sideways vagina?”
“What?” I had no idea what she was talking about, which didn’t prevent me from flushing hot with embarrassment. What she’d said made no sense. “Why would you ask me that?”
“My brother told me Asian girls have those,” she said, beginning to laugh.
I don’t remember if the other girls laughed, too; I think one of them might have tried to say something to me, something nicer, but I’d heard enough. As I dropped down from the bars and ran off, I heard the questioner call after me, “So is it true? Are you going to check?”
Rules for getting along with white people, practiced (sometimes consciously, but often not) from early childhood until my twenties:
Always sound reasonable.
Never sound bitter.
If they ask whether you think something they said, thought, or did is racist, the answer they’re looking for is No.
Don’t remind them that you’re different.
If differences happen to come up, act like they don’t matter.
If they seem to accept you, feel grateful.
For those who truly believe themselves to be “colorblind,” there may be no person of color more approachable, more accessible, than a transracial adoptee. I’m not one of you, but I was raised among you. Who else could be more inclined to sympathize with, give the benefit of the doubt to, well-intentioned white people just trying to make sense of this perplexing “race” business? I can’t possibly have a chip on my shoulder if nice white people adopted me. I can’t be one of those angry hyphenated Americans if my assimilation began just weeks after my birth.
Over the years I met white people who said things such as “you’re not like other Asians” or applauded me for “not caring about political correctness.” Sometimes they called me “refreshing.” Many would look at my transracial adoptive family and see none of its challenges or complexities, only a beautiful postracial vision of what family could be when race was barely acknowledged and never discussed.
I wonder to what extent my assimilated adoptee accessibility functions at the expense of other people of color; I wonder how many of my relationships provide safe ground from which people can claim not to be racist. In short, I wonder if I really am a token.
Sometime in college, I think during my freshman or sophomore year, a friend said to me: “You know that everyone who looks at you sees ‘Asian’ first, ‘woman’ second, and everything else after that, don’t you?” I thought about her words for days, weeks, turning them over and and over in my mind, embarrassed and fearful and a little bit angry, too. That might have been when my view of myself began to shift, I don’t know — I just know that it didn’t happen all at once. I had been raised not to think about these things, had learned to feel grateful when my friends didn’t seem to notice (or mind) the face I presented to the world. For years I had believed that if I talked about race, I would be setting myself apart from everyone else I knew, drawing a line that no one who loved me wanted to see or acknowledge.
Today I think a lot about my complicity in racism, then and now, and what living a life just adjacent to whiteness meant for me as a kid. I think about the white people who still feel comfortable saying racist things to me (“you won’t take this the wrong way”), who invite me into all-white spaces and assume I won’t notice or care. I wonder to what extent my assimilated adoptee accessibility functions at the expense of other people of color; I wonder how many of my relationships provide safe ground from which people can claim not to be racist. In short, I wonder if I really am a token.
As I’ve aged, I’ve found that I don’t always know what to do with some of the people I became close to before I started asking these questions, back when I was still just trying to keep my head down and my mouth shut. Some of them clearly don’t know what to do with me, either. “I know your views on race have evolved,” one old friend said to me several years ago, “but have you ever considered that maybe some white people are hesitant to talk about race because every time they try, some minority bites their head off?”
Another friend engaged me in a conversation about adoption, only to inform me that racial issues and “identity politics” weren’t relevant to her or her transracially adopted kids. I tried to be as tactful and empathetic as I could, but I left the discussion feeling certain that I had disappointed her. I had moved from my designated mark. I had been the one to put distance between us.
Whether or not it’s my fault (and I am certain that sometimes it is), I wish I could be less aware of the distance. I wish I could feel it less. A part of me often wishes I could say I’m not a threat or a disappointment to you. I’m not even a real Korean. At times, to my great embarrassment, I still feel more comfortable with white people than I do with Asians. The former might have the ability to make me feel invisible, but with the latter I sometimes feel deeply inadequate, as if I don’t have the knowledge or the tools or the experience to be the person I was born to be.
Things Korean people have said to me upon learning about my adoption:
“Were your parents married?” [For a while.]
“So that’s why you’re such a banana!” [I suppose.]
“You don’t look full Korean. Were both your parents Korean? I guess maybe you don’t know.” [I do know.]
In middle school I finally made friends with white kids, who were still just about the only kids around, but I also met two Asian boys. One was Vietnamese, the other white and Japanese, and their presence in the halls of my glorious new public school seemed nothing short of miraculous. Where had they been? Had someone beamed in their families from some other place, a wonderful place where absolutely everyone wasn’t white? Would more show up if I prayed hard enough?
We had more classes together in high school. They insisted that I join their team when we had to form competitive exam review groups in history, joking that we’d wipe the floor with the white opposition. It was the first time I’d ever witnessed Asian jokes made by Asians, and I was startled by the difference it seemed to make. Wow, I thought. We are allowed to do that with one another. I didn’t really know how — I knew I wasn’t Asian in the same way way they were. I had identified yet another way I didn’t measure up.
Mostly, these boys and I talked about upcoming exams and college applications and who was dating who. We did not talk about racism or not being white or our feelings about it, and I never told them how much their friendship meant to me. But when I pointed out a boy from my old school who’d taunted me with the old “ching-chong” routine, one of them offered to kick his ass for me. And when another guy asked, clearly with no offense intended, “Are you from North Korea or South Korea?” and I started to answer (because that’s what I always did back then), the other jumped in: “Dude, you can’t ask her that!” That was how I knew they understood without having to ask; it was how we talked about racism, and around it, without ever naming it.
I was in my early twenties when a white colleague proudly informed me that he didn’t care about race, personally, and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about anymore. “I just think it’s completely irrelevant nowadays, what matters is the kind of person you are. Like, I really don’t see you as Asian, Nicole.”
“Oh,” I said. “You really don’t have to say that.”
This person and I did not have enough history (and I did not yet have enough confidence) to have a long argument about colorblind racism. But a few weeks later, on the phone with one of my best friends from high school and still thinking about that exchange, I asked if she had ever “forgotten” I was Asian, or thought of me as white. Even in high school this friend had never minced words; she always seemed to draw from a bottomless well of self-confidence, and I was sure she would tell me the truth.
“I never thought of you as white,” she said. “If anything, I think a lot of us saw you as the representative of all things Asian, because you were the only one we were close to.” For a moment she sounded as if she wanted to laugh at everyone’s foolishness, but she didn’t. “I’m sorry if I ever said or did anything that made you feel that way. Like a token, I mean. If I did, that was really ignorant of me.”
I told her not to be silly, because I couldn’t remember her ever saying anything of the kind, but I still appreciated her words. Growing up, I wanted so badly to talk to my white friends and family about how it felt to be different — I wanted to ask them, does it matter to you? — but I was never brave enough to bring it up. I didn’t even know what I wanted them to say. The fear of being my group’s Yellow Power Ranger/Asian sidekick was always a fear I had back then, a fear I didn’t know how to vocalize.
I know what it is to assume whiteness is the default because whiteness is all you ever see. If any of my white friends were ever guilty of pretending I was white, I know that I was guilty of it, too. And then there were the confusing times when it really had nothing to do with pretending, when I quite honestly almost forgot that I wasn’t — until the next question, the next double-take in the grocery store, the next Where are you from?
Recently I had an illuminating conversation on Twitter with Rohin Guha and others about race and relationships and changing views. We talked about the fear of being viewed as a stereotype, even by close friends and loved ones, and how hard it can be to know what to do — when to educate, and when to step back for the sake of self-preservation.
“So much of getting into my 30s has been this idea of…reasserting my value,” Rohin wrote to me, “and telling people [I] am not your token.”
If any of my white friends were ever guilty of pretending I was white, I know that I was guilty of it, too. And then there were the confusing times when it really had nothing to do with pretending, when I quite honestly almost forgot that I wasn’t — until the next question, the next double-take in the grocery store, the next ‘Where are you from?’
For me, I find it’s easier to assert myself in these matters, draw the necessary lines, with strangers and new friends. Old friends, after all, knew you one certain way, and asking them to see you another way is asking them to adapt. It would be wonderful if the kindest and loveliest people always found this easy to do, and the ones who resisted were just the most unfortunate, unregrettable assholes — but of course it doesn’t work that way. None of my friends, new or old, are assholes; if they were, we wouldn’t be friends. And I tend to want to be patient with people, because over the years many, many people have been patient with me.
Rohin told me his choice just depends on the relationship. “Is it a friendship you care about? Then sit them down. Explain their harmful language [and] its consequences.” Honesty, he added, “is the cornerstone of any lasting friendship.” I agree that it’s impossible to maintain any kind of real friendship without honesty, and the best friends will try and listen. But what if you are honest when you feel offended, or when something is just objectively wrong, and your friend doesn’t react well? What if they feel betrayed and label you the bad guy? Do you throw away those five or ten or fifteen years of friendship? Or do you keep challenging them, trying to reach them? How long do you keep trying?
I know there are people in my life I should try to bring along, and I know there are people I may one day have to jettison if they don’t drop me first. The problem is that I still haven’t figured out where my line is – it moves around so much you couldn’t truly call it a line at all. I sat and talked with the white friend who breezily said, “oh, I haven’t been following Ferguson at all,” and gave the person who took umbrage when I explained why she shouldn’t refer to Asian people as “Orientals” a very wide berth. The choice to stick with one whilst quietly withdrawing from the other had far less to do with the weight of their actual words or opinions than it did with our history, the quality of our friendship, the depth of my attachment.
Still, there’s no tried-and-true formula I can use to determine when a relationship is worth fighting for and when it isn’t. And sometimes it’s not my friends, but my family members who test me the most — the ones who still insist on calling me an “Asian princess,” who don’t understand why I needed to search for my Korean birth family, who complain about “a flood of immigrants” and “people taking over the country” with no acknowledgment that I am also the child of immigrants. They say things I wish they wouldn’t, and then I say things I occasionally regret, but for all the fuss I make, for all my determination not to let these things go unchallenged, we seem to end up exactly where we started, none of us willing to budge.
These days I speak up more often than not. But sometimes it doesn’t feel entirely safe. Sometimes it feels beneath me. And sometimes I can’t just walk away for good, no matter what the person has said. Maybe that’s weakness, maybe it is conditioning — I know at least part of it is love. So I’m left rallying useless arguments and wondering how many times I can have the same debate without changing someone’s mind. How many times I can bite my tongue, or accept a change of subject, without feeling small or resentful. I suppose I’ve been grappling with these questions more frequently of late because life has been so much busier, so much more challenging, and I feel the need to protect myself; to make hard but necessary decisions; to prioritize some relationships over others and — most importantly — choose who gets to spend time with my children and potentially have influence over them. I know I could try harder to educate and maintain relationships with some people; I could give up and allow others to drift away. But the variables that go into all of these choices are so many and complex, and I suspect that pat answers and real peace of mind may long prove to be, as my own history was for so many years, just out of reach.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.