Back in the 1980s, my grandparents were not initially thrilled that my mom had married a Black man. My mother is Chinese American, born and raised in Pasadena, California, by parents who emigrated from China in their late 20s, and my parents’ relationship with my grandparents was tense, to put it lightly.
But the tension between my parents and grandparents began to fade when I was born, when my grandparents laid their eyes on me and embraced me. I was blood, I was kin, I belonged. Embrace was my first interaction with the Chinese American community in my life. However, since that first embrace, my relationship with the Chinese American community has been complicated.
In my third year in college, my friends and I were settling down and waiting for a meeting to start. We were all student leaders of our Christian fellowship, and my friends were laughing and reminiscing about what sounded like a fun evening. When I walked up to them and asked what they were talking about, they responded “We’re just talking about our Asian American hangout night! It was so much fun!”
Clearly something happened in my body language and facial expression, because after a brief moment of silence, both of their eyes got big, their hands covered their mouths in shock, and then one of them said, “Oh my goodness Matt … I’m so sorry we forgot to invite you.”
It’s amazing how just some melanin can make people so forgetful. I get it. I don’t look remotely like I’m Chinese and I never have, so I have never faulted people for assuming otherwise before they got to know me. I’ve been mistaken for Brazilian and North African amongst several other wild guesses; two celebrities I’ve been told I resemble are Bruno Mars and Seattle Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson. My mom went through the frustration of people assuming she was my nanny or babysitter for much of my childhood. But even something as innocent and non-malicious as forgetting I’m Chinese was something I internalized in the long run, because I would realize in hindsight that while I thought I was talking to a brother or sister, in their mind, they were just talking to a friend.
But then there were other instances that pointed to more sinister explanations. As a third-generation, mixed-race kid who passes as non-Asian, my parents thankfully made it a priority to connect me to my Chinese heritage. I did what many Chinese kids do: I went to Chinese school.
Unlike most Chinese schools that operate on weekends, the one I went to only operated during the summertime and pretty much functioned as a summer camp, and I absolutely loved it. I attended every summer for seven years and then was a teacher’s assistant for the next two years after I aged out of the program. Despite how much fun I had and how much pride I took in this rich heritage that I had inherited, there was one battle I constantly had to fight: the validation of my Chinese American identity. I didn’t look Chinese, my Cantonese and Mandarin were both awful, and there were certain mannerisms and tastes that I was apparently supposed to have but didn’t. Because of these “deficiencies”, I was often viewed as a lesser Asian, if I was viewed as Asian at all. Kids have no filter, and you’d better believe I heard it.
“Yeah, but you’re not REALLY Chinese.”
“Hey, this basketball game isn’t fair! It’s five versus four-and-a-half!”
“Why are you and your brother even here?”
“You know what you are? A Chigger!”
I knew it was in good fun, and it’s an easy joke to make, but there were times I got into fights because of comments like this. It’s only when I grew up that I could see that they had thought I had somehow leveled down by being Black. Throughout a lot of my upbringing, any of my positive mental characteristics would often be attributed to my Chinese blood, like the spelling bee I won in eighth grade, whereas most of my physical characteristics such as speed and strength would be attributed to my Black blood.
Any shortcoming I had in either area could be attributed to the presence of one of my ethnicities as well. If I got a bad grade, maybe it was because my Chinese blood was tainted with something inferior. If I missed a jump shot, maybe it was because my Black side called in sick that day. Knowing that your ethnic kin can either claim you or distance themselves from you or your behavior at any given moment depending on what’s the most convenient, flattering, or shameful didn’t necessarily foster psychological safety and stability in all circles.
It reminds me of how Asian Americans get treated in the U.S. throughout history, painted as a model immigrant when it serves our political position, and the enemy when it doesn’t. Except these were Asian Americans doing it to another Asian American.
In many ways, I spent a lot of my childhood overcompensating, trying to prove how Chinese I was, from knowing where the best cheap dim sum was in Oakland’s Chinatown to pretending I loved boba (I genuinely do love it now, but boy did I hate it for a while). I was clearly capable of being friends with other Asian Americans, but what was preventing me from experiencing that deeper level of kinship, love, and mutual understanding that can exist between individuals who share a common background? That kind of kinship is often unspoken and hard to describe but is very real; it’s one of the reasons why most groups of friends are relatively ethnically homogenous. I grew to understand that there may be an additional contributing factor to the lack of acceptance I felt at times: the prevalence of anti-Blackness in the Asian American community.
Things like my friends forgetting to invite me to Asian American hangout night were things that hurt but also things that I had learned to not be fazed by anymore.
It was the things like pervasive anti-Blackness or complicit silence toward racial injustice that directly poses a threat to me and people I love that became more difficult for me to reconcile with my connection with the Asian American community. When I walk into a room and see an Asian American stranger, they might give me some degree of psychological safety in knowing I’m not alone, but I know that my presence is probably not giving that to them. Subconscious fear manifests more obviously than people think it does. People might think they’re not being obvious when they clench up when you walk by them or keeping their eye on you in case you’re up to no good, but it’s pretty obvious; and it’s especially hurtful when it comes from people who you consider kin.
I remember when Black Lives Matter started to become a real movement in the United States as the public became more aware of the injustice and violence carried out on Black bodies due to camera phones and social media. I was disheartened by how much of the Asian American community, including some people I was closer to, opted to stay on the sidelines, avoid the topic of conversations, side with the authorities, and blame the victims.
If part of me cannot be honored, dignified, and trusted, then even the parts of me that can be will feel disingenuous and tainted in my heart. It forced me to ask the question of whether my Chinese identity was constantly challenged as a child because of my lack of proficiency or because my Blackness was disqualifying, making me less than whole.
I recognize that my appearance does shield me from some of the negative stereotypes that Asian Americans face. The de-sexualization of East Asian men in American society is not something I really have to work against for myself; I get to be unsexy on my own merit and I’ve seen how society treats me differently compared to my East Asian American brethren. Our experiences aren’t always the same, but damn it, I’m still Asian American! This is still my heritage, my history, my blood! When it came to having my Blackness affirmed by other Black people, I didn’t really run into those same problems.
The thing about Blackness in America is that for most of us who identify as Black, our knowledge of our specific African heritage was taken away from us. For a majority of Black Americans such as myself, the very beginning of our ancestral knowledge begins with slavery. Through the generational abduction and dispersal of Africans around the globe, being Black can look like a lot of different things: light-skinned, dark-skinned, Afro-indigenous American, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, and more. And in the midst of all the cultural differences, all of it is Black. Our history of being enslaved, raped, and genetically manipulated in ways outside of our control expresses itself in this diasporic approach to ethnic identity that is inherently more inclusive of mixed-race people when defining who is Black. So my Asian heritage was seen as interesting, but not negative in the context of my Black identity.
If I showed love for the Black community and identified as part of it with pride, that was pretty much good enough for most; but amongst the Asian American community, the internalized pressure I felt to constantly prove myself while not feeling good enough was always there. At some point, I got tired of it. I had to learn at a young age that the affirmation of my Chinese American identity would have to come from my family and from within myself, and frankly, I learned how to do that with the help of the Black community. Society has constantly told me and other Black people that we’re not beautiful, so we say to and for ourselves that we are. Aren’t we all beautiful children of God though? Is that not the call of Jesus?
White supremacy has largely pitted East Asians and Black people against each other since around the mid-1960s when the model minority myth (MMM) began to be perpetuated in the United States. One of the tenets of the MMM is the false idea that East Asians are doing better because they are culturally superior and harder working while Black people just want handouts.
Because of the Asian American buy-in to the MMM, generations of Asian Americans have largely opposed affirmative action, been indifferent about criminal justice reform, and sided with law enforcement when unarmed Black men and women are gunned down in the street. The deafening silence from the Asian American community startles me when it comes to the injustices that other people of color face in America.
Even if people could see past my Blackness to love me as a Chinese American brother, I don’t want them to. I don’t want people to have to pretend that a big part of me doesn’t exist in order to embrace me. Over time, when I stopped putting in as much effort to stay connected to large Chinese American communities, I slowly began to grow more distant from them. In fact, I once caught myself saying “they” instead of “we” when talking about Asian Americans. Sometimes to stop the pain, it’s easier to stop loving something as much when that something doesn’t love you back the way you want it to.
“Asian American” identity is not and should not be monolithic; the same should be said for the “Chinese American” identity as well. Could it be possible to get to a place where I’m not treated as a lesser Asian — kept at arm’s length — just because I’m also something else? Could such an inclusion and embrace of more Chinese Americans who look like me also be a gateway to a closer proximity to and less fear of Blackness itself? Can we get to the point where mixed people like me don’t feel trapped in between or stuck on one side, but rather openly accepted and comfortable on both? I’m grateful that I can be your friend, but can I also be your brother?
I know such acceptance is possible for mixed people because I have felt it amongst the Black community. I hope that one day when I wholly and publicly embrace my Chinese American identity and community, that I will also feel fully and wholly embraced back as an Asian American who is Black, but nonetheless Chinese American for it.