I have had a lot of time lately to reflect on my own experiences with racism in America, as the country is in the midst of a much-needed awakening. I write this not to take away from the current injustices faced by Black communities, but to add another dimension to the conversation. I hope it can open some of my friends’ eyes to the many layers of racial injustice, inequality, and privileges that some of you may still deny or refuse to acknowledge altogether.
Racial injustice is deeply rooted in all aspects of America today. From the police, to the prison system, to education, politics, and everything else you could imagine. And all things considered, I still consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. As a Filipino, I’ve never had to deal with racial profiling in a way that could end with my life being taken. While the shocking scenes of racial violence and police brutality is what sparked the current Civil Rights movement in America today, racism exists with or without the shock factor. Maybe that’s why so many of us refuse to acknowledge that racism is still prevalent today. Some would rather falsely attribute it to “bad apples” and a few isolated incidents, instead of accepting the reality that it is so deeply-rooted in our society, and has been since the beginning of time. The way we vote, the way our communities are divided up, the way police target certain communities, the way our prison systems are set up, how education funding largely ignores minority communities, and so on and so on and so fucking on.
There have been so many things growing up that I’ve just accepted to be the way things are. From small town New Hampshire to rural Missouri to business school to the overwhelmingly white backpacker scene, I often found myself as the only non-white person in almost every group I’ve ever been a part of. Growing up as a Filipino immigrant in predominantly white spaces has led me to subdue huge parts of my identities to fit in with a status quo that never cared about me. I admire my parents more than ever for navigating a racist America with grace and modesty, content to be well-behaved as “model minorities”. But I am sick of that label and being pit against other races for a spot higher up on America’s totem pole as if all of us should aspire to be white and well-behaved.
For decades, I’ve bought into the mindset that I should just keep my head down and work my ass off, and I will be rewarded with a fulfillment of the American dream. If I did the right thing and did them well, then I would see success. All the while, I watched around me as mediocrity thrived thanks to generational connections, old money, nepotism, and other bullshit barriers that I knew was unfair, but didn’t think I could change. God, grant me the serenity to accept things that I cannot change, read the prayer framed in my family’s apartment. So I accepted it.
I look back on my time in the American education system with such disdain now, realizing that despite excelling academically, I would still not get the same opportunities granted to others around me. I refused to believe that it was because of my race. I was brainwashed to believe that if I acted white, then I would be accepted. I made my first quarter million dollars at age 19, and sought out the entrepreneurship professor of my university to seek guidance. How many 19-year-olds has Mizzou had that made $250,000 in a year? Not as many as they have white rapists in each fraternity, that’s for sure. I sought out the professor with optimism and left devastated.
“Just sign up for my class,” he constantly repeated, as he cut me off every time I tried to speak. “This is one of my students. He made a website already.” I never got to mention that I, too, had a website, that raked in $90,000 in its first month due to advertising alone. I was a 19-year old on the verge of something great, just searching for a little bit of guidance and encouragement. Instead, I was forced to navigate a volatile industry believing I had no one to turn to but myself. If I had been white with a family member up on Cornell Hall’s wall of donors, I wonder if I would have been met with the same apathy. I approached him in April, and the only advice he gave me was to take his class next semester in the fall five months later. My company and I stood on the sidelines as the same professor later stood beside a white person who sold bracelets as she became the pride and joy of the entire business school. Why were my white peers always lifted up by the university, while the few BIPOC in the school were solely responsible for lifting ourselves up?
I lost faith in the system and in myself after that encounter. I begged my parents to let me drop out, and surprisingly, they said yes. Do you know how much bullshit has to happen in order for ASIAN PARENTS to allow you to drop out of college? Whew. In the end, I stayed in school and I continued to play the game just for the degree that society promised me would make everything right.
Junior year, I had a flash of hope. I was accepted into a business fraternity, and I saw it as my in. Maybe I can have a lot of white friends now and then I’ll get the same connections and benefits that they all have! I foolishly thought. I started neglecting my business, believing that this was the real way to succeed. Ha. Imagine. Making a quarter million dollars in a year as a teenager, and then abandoning it because you had been left so discouraged and disheartened by the people you thought were supposed to uplift and support you. I started playing the game their way, again foolishly believing that who I hung out with would change the color of my skin.
I went to career fairs and job interviews, eventually just to fulfill requirements and feign effort, intentionally keeping my hair long and my shirts floral to automatically disqualify myself as a job candidate. Don’t even get me started on the bullshit standards of professionalism that immediately discredit people with unruly hair who couldn’t afford nice suits, and had the audacity to show a little bit of personality. Why would I try to change myself for a job that clearly didn’t want me or people like me? I’ve since worked with companies all over the world and not once did any of them require a firm handshake or a shaved face.
In the end, it was for the best as I fucked off and just started traveling the world, deciding that I was the only person that I could rely on to get me further. It was a toxic and unhealthy mindset to have, but one that I adopted nonetheless as I quickly realized that I would never get certain benefits that my white friends would.
It genuinely pains me to write this, because I wanted to believe that I had a fair shot at everything. I desperately wanted to believe that the playing field was even for all of us. But I came from a brown family of immigrants, where our family of six once had to cram ourselves in one room on the top floor of a family friends’ house just to afford living in New York. Meanwhile, I have friends today who live in New York who still get their rent paid for by their parents.
I was the first of my entire bloodline to go to college in the U.S., dating back to the beginning of fucking time. My high school teacher suggested that I apply to more colleges, but I was scared to ask my parents for the application fees that would run well over $100 sometimes, yet another discriminatory barrier to BIPOC individuals in a broken system. I applied to only three, my dream school, a fall-back, and one that didn’t have an application fee. I interviewed for Dartmouth, my Ivy League dream college in my then home state of New Hampshire. My academics were stellar, but one question stood out to me.
“Do you have any family members who went to Dartmouth in the past?”
And excuse me if there’s a legitimate reason why they ask that, but what the fuck? No, I was an immigrant and a first-generation college student. They’ll claim that questions like that don’t affect the application process, but then why ask? Anyway, I didn’t get into Dartmouth despite having crushed everything in New Hampshire from spelling bees to math competitions to golf courses and tennis courts. I even was awarded first place in the entire state by Johns Hopkins in math, and third overall academically. Again, overqualified and overlooked, as many BIPOC tend to be.
And once I settled for Mizzou, I still entered with the belief that each individual was responsible for their own future, blissfully ignorant to the external factors and privileges that put my white peers lightyears ahead of me. I had such optimism, so much optimism in fact that I thought I’d have a shot at pledging a fraternity. At the time, I remember thinking that I’d be content even to just be their token minority. I devalued myself so much, as I grew up being devalued. Every one of my achievements was discredited with “oh he’s Asian, he’s supposed to be smart.” All the while, I would just keep my head down and be humble, like my badass of a mother who deserved to have been named Medical Director 10 years ago, as opposed to just now. Side note, we moved away from New Hampshire after she found out she was being paid much less than her white male colleagues, but that’s a rage post for another time.
I never learned how to be proud of myself, or how to speak about myself with confidence, and that still plays into why I continuously undersell myself to this day for fear of disappointing people. I was a quiet kid until high school, and even then, I learned to communicate mostly through self-deprecation and sarcasm to try and show people right away that I wasn’t one of those stiff, serious Asians. I tried to distance myself from my Asian identity to be more “white,” ignorantly believing that the way I acted would ever wash away my skin color.
It hurts to write this, and I genuinely didn’t think I would have so much to say. There have been a lot of demons and injustices that I’ve refused to confront, and in the midst of an awakening in America, I’ve inadvertently had to come to terms with some of those that I’ve faced myself. And all things considered, I’m still quite privileged. This wasn’t meant to compare my experiences with other BIPOC, but to shed some more light on the many facets of racism and privilege rooted in our system that my white friends might not be aware of. Racism comes in many forms. It comes in the form of police officers, professors, and presidents.
I’ve done my fair share of reflection over the past few weeks, and it’s been both eye-opening and infuriating. We as a country have accepted so many things as “just the way things are” without really taking a step back and wondering if that means that’s the way things should be. A lot of the ideas I’ve seen floating around sounded crazy at first. Abolish prisons? Defund the police? Then you realize, our governments have had no problem defunding education, transportation, healthcare, environmental initiatives, and so many other things that would advance our society much more than armies of police officers with inflated egos and military equipment. Our governments take away funding from underserved, predominantly BIPOC communities in order to fund the prisons and police that intentionally and maliciously target us.
White supremacy hasn’t gone away. It just hides quietly in positions of power; in our police chiefs, our prison wardens, our local politicians, all the way up to the president of our country himself. BIPOC people face hardships that most white people couldn’t even imagine facing. From the micro-aggressions and subtle racism to the times where we genuinely have to fear for our lives due to factors that we have no control over.
It’ll take generations to fix what’s broken, but it is up to us to be the catalysts for those changes.
I find myself at a loss for words more often than not these days, which is a stark contrast to me usually not being able to shut up. But when I started writing this, I couldn’t stop, despite the painful memories that genuinely punched me in the gut as they resurfaced, and all of those times when I imagined how different things could have been if I were white.
Change is an uncomfortable feeling at every level, but if the last few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that we have to push through no matter how uncomfortable things may be. Things have started changing, and I have the most optimism I’ve had in a while that they will continue to change.
I know a lot of people want things to go back to normal, but realize that normal was not working for a lot of us. I’ll see white people and the president himself screaming on the news “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” oblivious to the fact that America was never great for some of us.