White Supremacy, Assimilation and My Time as “One of The Good Ones”

I was raised in a small suburb in Los Angeles County, an hour east of the city. When I tell people about the racial demographics of my hometown, they often respond with some version of “oh that’s interesting”; because my suburb consisted predominantly of Chinese and Korean immigrants. Once my family moved out of the neighborhood, shortly after I went to college, we were the last non-Chinese family on our block. My High School was slightly more diverse, but still predominantly Asian. It was different than most schools, apparently, because we didn’t really break off into racial groups as much as we broke off into groups with similar interests. If I were to put my High School friend group into a category, it would probably be “the creative kids who blog”. We all had one physical journal we’d pass around and draw in, and each of us eagerly awaited every new Myspace or Xanga post a person in our friend group would make. While we were diverse, we didn’t have any white people in our friend group. They were a decided minority at our school, and frankly the few white kids that were there, quite often transferred out. To my understanding, in the 80’s, when our neighborhood was established, there were more white people in the community, but it had since become more of a haven for, frankly, rich asian immigrants. I can only think of one white family on our street growing up and by the time my family left, they’d been gone for a very long time.

Unfortunately, I’m a theater kid and was all through Middle and High School. For whatever reason, theater, more than any activity I participated in, was heavily populated by white students. I was the only black kid most of my Thespian career and that was always a bitter sweet experience. On one hand, people had this way of assuming I was more musically inclined than I frankly was, and there were a handful of roles I immediately got when they called for a black actor. For example, when we went to DTASC, a High School theater competition, I got to play Gary Coleman in our rendition of Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. I was a first tenor, after all, so I suppose it was perfect casting. On the other hand, there was something quite odd about doing a performance about race with my High School theater troupe, which was predominately white. Theater was where I started experiencing what Derald Wing Sue would describe as “microaggressions“; The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.

If you’ve ever been the only black person in a mostly white theater group, you’ve probably heard the same old tired joke. You’re back stage, the lights are off and someone bumps into you purposefully and says “wow! I’m sorry! I couldn’t see you!! You disappeared in the dark!”. The joke of course being that you’re soooo dark skinned that when the lights were dimmed, you faded into the background. Sometimes this joke would be followed up with some comment about how you’ve transformed into the Cheshire Cat; your teeth floating in the middle of the air because they’re just so much brighter than the color of your skin. The N word was their favorite forbidden, yet entertaining word, especially with a hard “er”. When they’d use it, they were sure to tell me that it wasn’t racist, nor was it referring specifically to me. “Nigger” meant ignorant and apparently it was a term that could apply to everyone, regardless of race. I wasn’t ignorant though, I was one of the good ones. In this situation, if I said they were being racist, I would be immediately ostracized, which isn’t a teenager’s favorite experience. Their standard defense would be “it’s a joke” and I’d be laughed at for taking it seriously or describing it as hurtful. Acceptance among my peers was so important back then that I coveted the role of the “cool” black person. The black person who wasn’t so easily offended. The black person who didn’t get “triggered” by the n word or other negative things said about black people. So i took it in stride, internalized it and normalized the idea that standing up for myself probably wasn’t something I should do.

It wasn’t until I went away to college that I started existing in predominantly white spaces beyond singular elective activities. The habits I established for myself in High School would start to wear on me in College and I would struggle to really figure out why. College was a time of growth for me, but I was 17 my first year and still learning about the world. Valencia was decidedly white and still quite far from the city. We were the strange kids on the hill in a very conservative suburban town that was, frankly, unwelcoming to us. We tried not to let that get to us though. Desert raves were fairly common back then. Someone would drive out into the middle of the desert, bring a generator and a DJ table and we’d all go out into the darkness and party until the cops broke it up. These were the days of my youth I reflect fondly upon now. By then, I’d been through a lot, but I was still so wet behind the ears, innocent and naive.

One time, a group of students were protesting some politician a few towns over who was a known White Supremacist. I think that was the first time I had heard of an actual, White Supremacist running for public office in the modern era. I know that sounds naive in a country where we’ve got assholes like David Duke, but back then the idea was shocking and honestly scary to me. It was my first time really seeing that people like that still existed, and wanted to legislate against me in a very tangible way. Even though it felt so outside of what was happening at our school, I was scared.

One week, one of the DJs at our school decided to throw yet another desert rave. I wanted to go, but it was crunch time for us Character Animation students, as always. Besides, I couldn’t get a ride out there anyways. But when I heard how the party went the next morning, I was really happy I hadn’t gone. Apparently, a group of white supremacists showed up to the party and threatened people with crowbars and other weapons. They trashed some of the party and tried to get the kids at the event to go home. I remember how scared everyone who was there was, and it was yet another example of this whole racism thing being more tangible and current than I had previously understood. Growing up in my tiny little town, the idea of interacting with a white supremacist still seemed so foreign to me.

I grew up like a lot of kids in the 90’s with a “post-race” view of racism. We learned a version of racism that began and ended at acknowledging each other’s races. The way I’d learned about racism was that it happened forever ago, but wasn’t nearly as impactful now. I’d learned that these days, racism was pointing out that your friend was black, nothing more than that. I was sheltered, so of course this meant that, especially given my circumstance, it was easy for me to dismiss claims of racism. When I moved to Valencia, I had several experiences that felt like racism, but because of how I’d grown to accept microaggressions, actually calling out racism was hard; especially when I barely understood it. I’m adopted, but my parents are black and they made a pretty deliberate decision to raise me in a non-black suburb where I could go to a good school. My mother was a military brat who grew up around the world and ultimately graduated from Harvard. My father grew up in the projects of Boston and from what he tells me, his youth was rife with incidents of police brutality and racist incidents between the black and white projects in Boston. It’s clear that when my parents moved out of Boston and to Los Angeles that they wanted me to have what they didn’t. I can understand why they made that choice, but at the same time, I also see how that strategy meant that I was disconnected from the realities of racism and white supremacy. My closest connection to a larger black community was my extended family; most of whom reject me because I’m transgender. So I have indeed, through various phases of my life, not exactly preferred the company of other black people; because I didn’t prefer experiencing transphobia. However, this has allowed me to enter into my adult life with an embarrassing unawareness of the realities of racism. It didn’t help that the community I grew up in wasn’t really one where racism was ever discussed beyond the classroom. I can’t remember my asian friends ever speaking to me about their own experiences with racism, but then again, unlike me, they were functioning in a community composed of mostly other asian people. Like most small towns, it’s not terribly uncommon for the people who grow up there to never leave. Leaving my town opened my eyes to the realities of racism and going to college meant that I finally took history classes that were less about patriotism and more about telling the truth. The truth being that racism is indeed systemic. That even though legally, things like slavery and segregation are off the books, that these things very much still exist and are perpetuated in some very insidious ways. That is what systemic racism is; a collection of sometimes blatant, often plausibly deniable actions that exist to maintain the trappings of white supremacy in this country.

This became particularly relevant to me as conversations around police brutality became more common. As news articles about unarmed black people being murdered by police started coming across my feed, I saw many of the same white kids from my theater classes who discouraged me from calling out their racism, say absolutely disgusting things about people who looked like me. They would look for every reason to justify the police’s actions, even when completely indefensible. They’d take these conversations as a chance to vent their true feelings about black people all while still remaining connected to me, their token. And when I would say something, much like all of those times backstage, they’d simply repeat the mantra that I was different. But in these instances of police brutality, it didn’t matter how well educated or well spoken the black person was. In most of these situations, the police simply saw a black person and decided that they were in danger; so they killed them. Implicit biases like that can make it tempting to feed into the narrative of the exceptional negro who is so unlike the other blacks; but the very idea of living to counteract that narrative requires you to live life in a way where you constantly focus on avoiding the racist ideas projected onto you because you’re black. That mindset breeds self-hate and self-loathing and it’s a subtle way in which white people reinforce their supremacy over you by handing you a narrow script and punishing you for not properly delivering your lines. These conversations and the reactions some of my peers had to them made it perfectly clear to me that quite a few people were walking around with ignorance around race and racism.

Towards the end of college, I made a point of taking courses in school about race in America. I learned a lot of things that shocked and surprised me; like the construction of “whiteness”; something that sounds completely made up if you haven’t read beyond your High School history books. I learned about Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American who argued that his assimilation into American culture meant that he should be legally considered white. Being “legally considered white” is probably, again, confusing, but believe it or not, for some time in this country, the requirement for naturalization was that you be a “free white persons of good moral character”. This meant that if you wanted the right to, for example, own land and accumulate wealth and have upward mobility in this country, you had to be legally considered white and free. So Takao Ozawa challenged the United States to petition for his right to be legally defined as a white man, despite being Japanese. He would ultimately, predictably, fail and the case would conclude that “white” was technically a term used to describe “caucasians”. This case gave way to yet another similar case of a man named Bhagat Singh Thind, a man who was born in India, but immigrated to the United States who wanted to similarly argue that he should be legally considered white. Since he was technically from the Caucasus region, he was, by definition, caucasian, and this gave him more ground to stand on than Ozawa. Yet, his case was similarly rejected and his naturalization denied. The reasons? That people who immigrated from India could not properly assimilate into whiteness and thus be defined as white.

When you look at cases like this, you can very easily start to see the foundation of systemic racism. Asian men, who were already actively working, producing and functioning in this country were denied their right to naturalization and all of the various things that come with it all because they could not properly be defined as white men. When you look into these cases, you hear both of these men argue that they had, in many ways, been “one of the good ones’ ‘. Ozawa argued that his Christianity made him more palatable, and Thind highlighted his Aryan heritage and vowed not to mate with a dark skinned woman. These were things used to argue that they were closer to white than they were their own races; but this wasn’t without reason. Back then, being considered white meant being able to move through society with more freedom and access. There were tangible reasons to argue for a closer proximity to whiteness. And beneath my own acceptance of the racism my peers expressed towards me, was a similar desire for a proximity to whiteness that was socially rewarded. I had to have some of those conversations to see things more clearly and learn to stand up for myself and against the racism that harms me.

After graduating college, I started taking Youtube far more seriously and started producing videos with a lot of the information I learned about systemic racism. I wanted to spread the information because I felt many people were still ignorant about the realities of what race and racism has been in this country. I took all of the respectability I knew the privileged appreciated of me and put it into video projects where I very politely spoke about systemic racism in a way that I thought was accessible. I educated a lot of people, but the majority of people who saw this content rejected it outright, because I was the one delivering it. It might sound confusing, but I’ve learned that white people very often do not want to hear about racism from anyone other than other white people; which is one of the strange and paradoxical ways in which white supremacy materializes a lot of anti-racism work, but I’ll discuss that in depth in an upcoming entry.

For now, I’ll leave you with the acknowledgement that those kids from my theater class were never my friends. I was simply their “black friend” they could reference when they were being racist and I’m glad I stopped being flattered by that and started seeing it for what it was: simply racism, with more steps.

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