Asian Heritage, Privilege and Bias

There’s a racial reckoning in America right now. I’m the daughter of Chinese immigrants. There have been 3,795 reported hate crimes against Americans of Asian and Pacific Island descent in the past year, including attacks in public spaces across the country and a series of brutal murders in Atlanta. Black Americans are killed by police at more than double the rate of white Americans. My heart is breaking for America. No more George Floyds and no more Vichar Ratanapakdees. It’s time to level up.


Personally, I am levelling up from assimilationist to antiracist. Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi eloquently explain in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You:


“Assimilationists are people who like you, but only with quotation marks. Like… “like” you. Meaning they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are antiracists. They love you because you’re like you.”

Assimilationist past

I spent 40+ years of my life trying to assimilate into a white male model of American success. I was the perfect eldest daughter. The hyper-achiever. The perfectionist. The geekiest kid in the room with her hand in the air and the right answer on her tongue. I collected the letters of a white male pedigree -- BA, MA, PhD -- thinking they were my ticket into the room, but it wasn’t enough


So I became a leader. I founded and led a new department at Cal State University, Chico. I was awarded over $2.25 million in grants. I presided over departments, committees, and nonprofits. I adopted the bold, know-it-all, confident stride of the good ol’ boys and won accolades in leadership as a school superintendent. But leading like a white male wasn’t enough.


I’m done with that. I’m done trying to get people to “like” me if I’m acting white and male enough. It’s never enough.


It’s time to be an antiracist. Like Keala Settle in the Greatest Showman, I shall take a stand and declare, “I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be. This is me.”


I am a proud, powerful Chinese American female. And it’s time to speak out against those that want all of us beautiful black, brown, red, and yellow humans to be white enough. No more.


I am enough. We are enough, just as we are.


No… we are more than enough.


My Asian bias

Allow me to pause to acknowledge both the Asian privilege benefits I’ve reaped as a “model minority” and the prejudice I’ve experienced within a culture that values whiteness, maleness, and the impossible standards of white womanhood.


I grew up in Dallas, Texas. A very white, very suburban part of Dallas where refrains of “But where are you really from?” and “Ching Chong" name calling were commonplace. I remember a playground incident of some kids sing-songing “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, Look at These” while pulling the corner of their eyes into a slant and touching their knees and baring their nipples. My best friend, and only real friend, was the only other Asian in the school. I donned little white lace gloves for my cotillion classes to be more white and fought tooth and nail against going to Chinese school on Sundays because that marked me as other.


By college, I adopted the label of “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) with pride. I spent my entire lifetime pushing away and hiding Asian identity and still resist speaking Chinese to my kids in my own home for all sorts of tangled up emotional baggage related to my identity. Did it matter that I never saw Asian faces on TV, in movies, books, school curriculum, or on the news? No, because I assimilated.


As an Asian woman, I’ve unfortunately played straight into the role of the exotic, subservient, sexually alluring woman of color. Sex was never discussed in my household growing up and I still barely have language to speak of it. So what did I do when I fell asleep studying in a friend’s dorm room in college and woke to find him dry humping me? Did I fight or take flight? Nope, I froze and feigned sleep hoping he'd stop. Later, what did I do when a man sitting across from me on a bus in San Francisco propped his dirty boot in between my legs with a wry sneer? Once again I froze, dropped my eyes, and rushed off the bus at the next stop. Both times I could have screamed or made a scene, but instead, I was paralyzed with fear and indecision, and inadvertently assuming the role of the meek Asian flower.


My Asian privilege

Every instance of racial bias is seared prominently in my brain, but what about the privilege I’ve been party to? Privilege is so much harder to name. There’s a cognitive bias in our brains called the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. The challenges and barriers you face in your life command your attention because they’re something you must overcome. In contrast, the benefits and resources you receive are often accepted with little fanfare; they’re simply there and thus can be ignored. I am acutely aware of Asian bias but largely take for granted Asian privilege.


Peggy McIntosh’s work on white privilege has been really helpful to me to reveal my privilege. She presents an “invisible knapsack” of unearned racial assets that those with privilege are granted by nature of the color of their skin. These VIP passes are invisible until brought into the open. Here are just a few of the hidden privileges that I’ve enjoyed from the McIntosh’s Privilege Checklist:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.

  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

  • If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

  • I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.


An Antiracist Future

Had I explored McIntosh’s list two years ago, the list of privileges would have been longer. The surge of Asian bias in the past year since COVID pandemic rocked the world caught me completely off guard. Things that once were once solidly in the category of Asian privilege have now shifted. No longer will I freeze. It's time to act.


I was accustomed to never having any fear that teachers might exhibit bias against my kids, yet my niece was asked by a new teacher whether she’d been COVID tested because of her Chinese heritage. I’m now mentoring a Girl Scout for her gold award to develop a game teaching kids and teachers about bias.


I was accustomed to not needing to speak for all the people of my racial group, yet a friend’s Facebook post displayed ignorance about how Dr. Seuss’s early works dehumanized people like me. I spoke up to share my story with my friend and invited her to lunch to discuss further.


I was accustomed to feeling safe from the dehumanization and hypersexualization of Asian women in my community, yet at a small gathering of good friends I heard a man jokingly say, “Me love you long time.” When I see him next, I’ll pull him aside to let him know how that comment made me feel and invite him to a conversation about race.


The struggle is ever more important and present today with the approach of the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and with May as Asian Pacific Islander Month. Each and every human is beautiful, worthy, and more than enough, just as they are. There’s a future worth fighting for in which each and every person is seen and valued for the human they are and the contributions they make to this world we share. Join me.


“Another round of bullets hits my skin.

Well, fire away 'cause today, I won't let the shame sink in.

We are bursting through the barricades and reaching for the sun.

We are warriors.

Yeah, that's what we've become.


Look out 'cause here I come.

And I'm marching on to the beat I drum.

I'm not scared to be seen.

I make no apologies.

This is me.

-- Keala Settle


Read more

Learn more about why the surge in Asian hate crimes is happening through this excellent article from the Greater Good Science Center and about the hypersexualization of Asian women with this excellent NPR article. Or explore the wonderful programs assembled by the Smithsonian in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month.


The Stanford Medical School offers a set of excellent, curated resources for people of all colors to walk the path of anti-racism together.


Going Further

If you know me at all, you’ll know that my modus opperandi when it comes to conflict and divisiveness, whether politics or religion or abortion or gun control, is to lean into relationship. Since January, I’ve joined several “Living Room Conversations” that bring together three Republicans and three Democrats to talk about politics. They have been incredible opportunities to bridge differences and see the humanity behind others with vastly different views. Would you be interested in joining a Living Room Conversation on race? This is my free gift in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month. If so, email me at irene@irenesalter.com


This September, join two powerful Asian American leaders (myself and Tutti Taygerly) for a women’s leadership retreat in gorgeous Mendocino, CA. This woman’s leadership retreat weaves together three strands -- group leadership coaching, free form adventuring, and optional fun -- into an unforgettable four day, three night experience. Early bird tickets are disappearing quickly. Email me at irene@irenesalter.com for more information.


Quick! Last chance to join Synergy, a mastermind group for rising educational leaders seeking to rekindle their passion and create work-life synergy after an incredibly challenging year. Sign up for an hour on my calendar ASAP to discuss. We start in just 3 weeks!


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Image courtesy of Tribute to Asian-Americans.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0



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