“I’m not a racist, but…” — an honest account of my ignorance

Photo credit: Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I am ashamed to admit this but I used to minimize Black strife in America. I am immigrant from Malaysia and for years as an Asian immigrant, I believed that it was easier to be Black than an immigrant. I thought my struggle to obtain a driver’s license or to find a job was comparable, if not worse, than the racisms faced by Black Americans. These assumptions weren’t challenged until I had a Black roommate.

“Do you prefer to be called African-American or Black?” I asked, with some hesitation. My roommate looked at me and in that instant, I could tell that he could tell that I had never interacted meaningfully with a Black person before.

“Um, Black,” he said.

I grew up in urban Malaysia and my parents, like many others, warned me that Indian men would abduct me if I didn’t behave or stop crying. This discipline tactic was repeated to me from before I even learned to tie my shoe laces. It is lodged so deep in my subconscious that I had to come to abrupt stop to realize my stereotype of Black people as dangerous was as learned and automatic as being able to hold a pencil, button my shirt, or brush my teeth.

It took an American liberal arts education for me to first recognize racism beyond just physical violence against minorities. One of my favorite readings, The Racial Contract, taught me important lessons on systematic and institutional racism. I took heavy introspection after reading the book, taking the first glimpse myself and recognizing that I may be internally a racist despite my lack of outward violence against minorities. I grew up agreeing with many policies that systematically excluded Indian minorities and Indonesian immigrants from fairly participating in the Chinese-Malaysian dominant economy. I came to slowly acknowledge, quietly, the deep-rooted racism that I bore in me, despite considering myself “not a racist” and a fellow racial minority in America.

When I headed out to protest for the 2017 Women’s March, my roommate did not come along but I went anyway and felt like a proud activist. It was my second protest in my life and I marched proudly and confident I was doing the right thing. I came home giddy from the adrenaline of protesting and also a surge of feel-goodness being an active participant in a righteous society. I showed my roommate the pictures and gushed about the turnout.

He was supportive but wondered aloud, “Where were all these people when we needed you…”

Photo credit: Jesse Costa/WBUR

I was defensive back then, saying something along the lines of, “well I didn’t see Black people coming out to protest for Malaysian democracy when I was fighting for that.” The conversation didn’t go far from there, as he sensed my resistance. We resumed talking about relationships and friends, and I pretended as if I was still not-a-racist.

“Where were all of you” stuck with me through all these years. Through all the horrific news of police violence against the black community, it rang truer and louder each time.

I couldn’t silence the “where were you” when I saw the first protest in downtown Pittsburgh being organized. After sitting out so many BLM protests, I could not sit this one out too. Not now when the America that I loved seemed to be burning to the ground.

My husband insisted we stay home, as he and I both knew arrests or brushes with law enforcement would endanger my legal status. But I knew with some certainty that as a 5' 3" Asian woman, I had the privilege of being often profiled as benign and innocent. At any time, I could throw my hands up, announce my innocence, and be exonerated much quicker and easier than other fellow protestors of color. I had privilege and thus no excuse to not show up.

I carried my protest sign that afternoon and yelled as an Asian Woman, angry of this shit. I was angry at the police violence but I was also angry at myself as I chanted with the crowd “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”. Why did I wait 7 years to show up? As my chant joined the crowd, my eyes welled— this is a type of racism I am foreign to. I’ve been pulled over many times but always let off once they saw my Asian face. I’m always passed off as a careless driver and I always got off from just smiling and apologizing earnestly.

I thought of the Black teenager my husband and I have been mentoring as part of a foster care program. I imagined him, just shy of 15, being placed in a position where “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is a reality. I feared for him in a way I never feared for the safety of my teenage siblings.

Racism has been baked into me by my upbringing but it is not an excuse for me to not work extra hard to pick out these capillaries of racism that run quietly in me.

Fighting for racial justice is not just about convincing others to fight racism, as I incorrectly did before. It is also about questioning our own deep-rooted stereotypes and prejudices against other people of color or country of origin.

In this sea of online outrage and these historic street protests, many of us still have a long way to go despite showing up. We have to be honest in our own reflection and be brave in acknowledging the small hand we have played by not showing up or speaking out before. Do we support our colleagues of color at work? Do we support local Black businesses? Do we avoid living in Black neighborhoods?

We have to solve racism not just by outward demands on our state and federal government, but also on the local level that is within our subconscious and our sphere of decisions. I urge my fellow Asian friends to recognize that many of us are part of the problem and we have to work hard to change ourselves too.

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Health & Sustainability | Pharmacy | Activist | Immigrant

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Melinda Lee

Melinda Lee

Health & Sustainability | Pharmacy | Activist | Immigrant

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