I’m Done Pretending I’m White

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 Canada
A white bed sheet drapes over the translucent blinds of my front window; it’s my security blanket. I’ve been hanging it every night to prevent my neighbour from seeing where I live. Three months ago, he spat, “Chinese!” at me as I passed him on our bustling Toronto street. Two weeks later, as I walked down the same block, another man yelled that I belonged in the hospital. “Yeah, I’m talking to you,” he shouted when I turned around, startled. “I’ll PUT you in the hospital.” Even wearing my mask has become a source of anxiety; when my Korean-Canadian face is reduced to my slender eyes.
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The xenophobia unleashed by COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that there will always be people who see me as a foreigner in my own country (anti-Asian racism is embedded in Canadian history, after all). A recent survey of Chinese Canadians found that half of respondents have been called names or insulted since COVID-19 began. Another 60% have changed their routines to avoid racist encounters. This pandemic has been a wakeup call to Asian Canadians that our belonging is conditional, but it's also forced us to realise we’ve been enabling a system that divides us. Whether motivated by a desire to be the “model minority” — the illusion that we can achieve success if we’re polite and industrious — or simply to not “make race an issue,” many Asian Canadians have, for too long, avoided stepping out of line.
I used to be one of them; it always seemed easier to slip racism under the rug. Growing up in Toronto with my single white mum and surrounded by white friends, the only time I really felt Korean was when it was pointed out to me by others. There was the occasional obvious racism, like when a middle-school classmate told me to “go back to China," but it’s been the subtle microaggressions — “where are you really from?” “wow, your English is so good!” or being confused for the only other Asian woman in the room — that cut the deepest.
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There was the occasional obvious racism, like when a middle-school classmate told me to “go back to China,” but it’s been the subtle microaggressions —  “where are you really from?” “wow, your English is so good!” or being confused for the only other Asian woman in the room — that cut the deepest.

“You’re just overthinking it,” some friends would say. Was I? The self-doubt festers at the back of my mind — accumulated over a lifetime, these microagressions take a serious mental toll. Yet I never felt I could admit to myself, let alone anyone else, the pain of my liminal existence, out of fear of seeming too “woe-is-me.” My experiences felt trivial compared to the institutional, deadly racism experienced by other people of colour in Canada and around the world. They still do. But now, as I see Canadians of all shades breaking their own silences, I’m realising that diminishing my experience doesn’t create more space for other minorities — if anything, it creates less, by reinforcing whiteness as the aspirational identity.
When I deny my experiences of racism, I deny my racial experience; silence leads to erasure. Being half-Korean, I always tricked myself into thinking I was seen as white because it seemed like the only path to feeling seen. But when I’m repeatedly reminded that I’m not, it leads to recurring disappointment and shame — an experience so common among the Asian diaspora it’s been coined “minor feelings” by Cathy Park Hong. This inability to fully embody either a white or Asian identity creates a profound sense of loss — a grief many of us didn’t realise we were carrying until xenophobia fuelled by COVID-19 forced us to reflect on it.
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But, as we’ve seen with the collective mourning demonstrated by Black people around the world recently, from the acknowledgement of the pain of racism comes the demand for social recognition. “Racism is terrible. Blackness is not,” Imani Perry writes in The Atlantic. A Black friend of mine recently told me he feels more unapologetically Black than ever before — while our experiences don’t compare, we both see the power in transforming discrimination into pride. Now, I’m responding to racist encounters by embracing the part of my identity I’ve always ignored and I’m inspired by all the Asian Canadians doing the same.
Chinese restaurants are facing financial loss and vandalism, and yet Asian Canadians are proudly cooking the foods they were once too embarrassed to bring to school. I’m useless in the kitchen, but seeing Asian creatives not bend themselves towards whiteness is empowering. I’ve been running to “XS” by Rina Sawayama, watching The Half Of It, and reading Severance by Ling Ma — not because I think I’ll relate to these Asian artists (how could I, we’re all from different Asian ethnicities) but because these creators explore what it means to be human. Their Asian identity informs, but doesn’t define, their experiences.
If there’s any strategy to fighting xenophobia and finding acceptance, it’s not trying to fit into white culture; it’s making minority experiences more visible. And not by simply slotting Asians into white roles, but by enabling them to write their own narratives, to reveal the diversity of our experiences. 
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If there’s any strategy to fighting xenophobia and finding acceptance, it’s not trying to fit into white culture; it’s making minority experiences more visible.

I’m finding validation, not only for my recent racist encounters, but a lifetime of experiences I’ve erased, through anti-Asian racism panels, social-media campaigns, and Asian celebrities speaking out. But also from conversations I’m having with Asian American acquaintances online, like one in Brooklyn who tells me, “I’ve stopped talking about my feelings with white friends because it’s too painful to have to constantly explain myself.” Suddenly, the part of my identity that made me feel alone has become my source of connection.
I’m opening up with non-Asian people of colour too, realizing that my white privilege doesn’t make my experiences of racial discrimination any less valid. Recognizing there is space for all minority experiences to exist together, I see the potential for building racial solidarity.
I still have my nightly blind-covering ritual and I still feel a tinge of suspicion when a passerby seems a little overly cautious with their distance on the street or in the grocery store. But when I feel like I’m not seen as white, my instinct is no longer to hide. I might always be searching for a sense of racial belonging, but I now know my silence will only fuel my marginalization. When I not only acknowledge the racism, but respond to it by owning my messy, undefinable racial identity, I ironically find the very feeling of acceptance I wanted all along.

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