By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It can be uncomfortable to look in the mirror and acknowledge, “Yes, I am privileged.”
I am eternally thankful that I grew up in a household with two parents, had a modest middle class upbringing, had the opportunity to live in several countries across the world, received a college education that my parents funded, and held jobs that I (mostly) loved that I applied for and got with ease, jobs that paid enough to allow me to live a comfortable life. I have never worried about my next meal, or paying the rent or mortgage. For the most part, life has always worked out for me.
I never feared getting gunned down or being choked to death when I walk down a street, or jog outside, or sleep in my bed; never worry when I see cops, never worry when a cop pulls me over (aside from getting a hefty fine and a ticket), and I never get questioned for driving a nice car. I never had to school my kids on how to act, what to say or not say if they ever get pulled over by a police officer.
People are nice to me so often that it is jarring and shocking when someone is not.
I am blessed and I am privileged.
Upon reflection, I know that my father faced discrimination as an indigenous person, and his marriage to my Chinese mother was perceived as “scandalous” back in the 1970s. I recall as a young girl living in England, sensing my father’s growing frustration waiting for a table at a restaurant, while white customer after white customer was seated first, even though my family had arrived earlier. I remember getting passed over for college scholarships despite excellent grades, and those scholarships going to students with poorer grades but were of the “right” race.
Then there were my family members’ own biases. My mother never understood why I liked being in the sun and would scold me if I got too dark. She herself would shield her skin by wearing long sleeved blouses, even in the sweltering tropical climate we lived in. I recall my grandfather exclaiming, “Oh my God! You’re so dark!” when I would come home for school holidays, after spending months in the outdoor pool swimming laps as I swam competitively.
The message was clear: dark skin = bad. Perhaps not so much racism as it was a sign of social class, especially in Asia… dark skin has long been associated with working in the fields and, therefore, the peasant class. Pale skin is associated with living a more comfortable, cosmopolitan life indoors, out of the sun.
Just a few months ago, we were preoccupied by the impact of COVID-19 xenophobia and bigotry on Asian communities. Yes, Asian Americans face bias and discrimination. It is also true that—in comparison with Black Americans—we have privilege.
And with that privilege comes responsibility. Being a non-Black person of color in America, it’s vital to recognize that being Black in America is not the same as being any other race in America. Were it not for the civil rights movement led by Black Americans, we would not even be in a position to ponder whether or not there is Asian privilege.
Asian Americans have a particular role to play as allies to the Black community in 2020. In the past, our silence has been used as an example of a “good minority” that doesn’t protest and doesn’t rock the boat.
I make mistakes where I don’t recognize my privilege until after questioning it. And I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as I learn. But this reflection is sorely needed. Reflecting on one’s own privileges will bring about the change in how we treat others every day.