Bian: My fight against “whitewashed”

Andrea Bian, Opinion Editor

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I’ve written a few columns about different aspects of my identity —  mostly, I’ve written about being an Asian-American woman. The opinion desk has empowered me to write about my experiences as a woman of color, and my complicated relationship with that part of myself.

I’ve gotten used to most people seeing me as Asian first and American second. It’s something that isn’t necessarily easy, but common. I’m used to people demanding I speak Chinese to them or laughing at the Chinese food I used to bring to school. I’m used to being the only Asian person in a room, and I’m used to people assuming that because I’m Asian, I must be quiet, weird or good at math.

I’ve grown accustomed to explaining my Asianness to people. I struggle with it sometimes, but it’s something I’ve learned how to do as an Asian American, despite being born and raised in the United States.

What I haven’t talked about fully, however, is my experience of being labeled as “whitewashed” in predominantly Asian communities.

I remember growing up and meeting other Asian-American people, and feeling connected to them because I knew their experiences as Asian Americans were very similar to mine. Every time I hung out with them, I was proud to be Asian-American — a feeling that I lost when I was in a predominantly white group of people. This began to change in middle school when some Asian-American friends of mine started to question how Asian I was.

From that age on, I encountered groups of people who would accuse me of being “Americanized” or whitewashed, saying that my parents didn’t raise me correctly and that I was losing my Asian identity. Because I didn’t speak Chinese or participate in a lot of the same traditions that my Asian-American friends did, I became singled out for being “less Asian” than everyone else. I remember a group of girls calling me a “Twinkie” in middle school, saying I was yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

Not all members of the Asian community did this, but enough of my friends teased me about being “basically white” that I began to believe it. I believed I was fundamentally different from other Asians, simply because I didn’t go to Chinese school as a kid and didn’t read anime or listen to K-pop.

On the outside, though, I would laugh along with my friends, who said they were only joking. I would often make fun of myself before they could, hoping to beat them to the punch so that their jokes would hurt a little less. I would tell others I wasn’t a “real Asian,” trying to accept that label because I believed it was all I had.

These sweeping generalizations defined my identity through high school. I felt completely trapped and like less of a human being. I never felt like myself, whether I was hanging out with non-Asian people or with Asian people. I convinced myself people only saw me as one of two things: white or Asian.

This led to me wanting to whitewash myself in high school, in which I attempted to appear less Asian so that I could at least adhere to one of my identities. For the first few years of high school, I actively hid my family life and cultural traditions because I wanted to abandon my Asian heritage.  

I’ll admit that at times, I do feel more connected to my American identity. I’m a first-generation American, a phrase that I am proud to identify with. It’s also easier for me to feel connected to this identity because I don’t speak Chinese, I’ve lived in the U.S. for my whole life, and I don’t have a lot of family or relatives living in this country.

But I think what hurt the most about all those years of being labeled as whitewashed was that I trusted the Asian-American community. I gravitated towards them because I felt their experiences as Asian Americans would be similar to mine, even if they weren’t exactly the same. I looked towards them to show me that the customs that I did participate in weren’t weird, that my Chinese heritage, no matter how close I felt to it, would be enough.

Especially when we were younger, saying that I was white or whitewashed may have just been a way of saying that I did things differently than some were used to. As we got older, however, the phrase morphed into a way of saying that I was somehow less than. People would very pointedly mention that my whitewashed nature meant I wasn’t “really” Asian American. Those kids had been fed a very specific narrative: anyone who didn’t speak Chinese like them or engage in the same traditions as them was automatically whitewashed — and therefore automatically less of a human.

“Whitewashed” is a term that still carries a lot of pain and baggage for me now. It reminds me of all the times I felt ashamed of throwing away my Asian identity just because I appeared less  Asian in the eyes of other Asian-American people. Whitewashed is a demoralizing word, one that makes me feel reduced to the way I act and speak, and not the person I am.

Here and there, I’ll still meet a few Asian Americans who will give me a funny look when I tell them that I can’t speak Chinese. But largely, I’ve met so many more members of the Asian-American community — some who have similar experiences to mine and some completely different, but who all accept and support me for my background and personal experiences.

My battle between my two identities has and always will be something I’ll have to deal with. As Asian Americans see increased representation in the media and in popular culture, I hope we can acknowledge that not everyone’s experiences are the same — or should be. I shouldn’t have to explain why I deserve to be acknowledged as Asian, and nor should anyone else.

Andrea Bian is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at andreabian2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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