“My favorite chink.” As I flipped through my dad’s high school yearbook, I couldn’t believe how many of his classmates left racist handwritten messages. In shock, my sister and I confronted him. How could he be okay with his friends using slurs against him? My dad responded with a laugh. “It was a joke. It’s all in good fun.”
As a fourth generation Japanese American, this is how I was raised. Blend in. Don’t make white people feel bad. And when you feel bad, keep it in. Your grandparents survived Pearl Harbor and the Tokyo fire bombings — keep things in perspective.
I was a shy and timid kid. Inside my head I had grand dreams of being on SNL, but I had come to the early conclusion that it was impossible. Hours of television had taught me that 1. Asians couldn’t be on TV, 2. Asian people couldn’t be funny, and 3. Asian characters weren’t interesting enough to be the main character. I could be the yellow power ranger, but never the pink ranger.
Growing up, I was mostly friends with the other Asian kids in school. It was always easier that way. Then my nightmare happened. I found myself in a middle school where I was the only Asian girl in my class. Alone, I immediately connected with the only black girl. Our friendship was somehow pre-determined by the fact that we were the only 2 POC girls in 6th grade.
It was in this majority white environment that I learned how to interact with white people. I learned that my sense of humor was a tool. By making people laugh, I could prove my worth to the white kids. I was no longer just Asian, I was also fun. At one point, my crush even said that I was “hot for an Asian girl.” S w o o n. I couldn’t believe he thought I was hot, despite my crippling Asian-ness.
What I saw on television and my daily interactions convinced me that I was destined to be the fun, less pretty, ethnic best friend in a white character’s story. I played the role well. Throughout my young adulthood, I worked hard to downplay my Asian-ness and align myself to whiteness. I surrounded myself with white friends and was careful to avoid talking about my feelings. Sharing my feelings would center me and unfortunately that wasn’t in my character description of “funny sidekick.” My job was to support, listen, and make jokes. After all, it was a privilege to call white people my best friends.
In my mid-20s, life seemed perfect. I had made the greatest group of friends via improv class. The word “improv” should be enough to know that my new friends were mostly white. I was going out, doing dollar store quality bits, and laughing more than I ever had. But then the strangest thing started happening. I began having meltdowns regularly. I would cry all day, unable to move. I felt so deeply lonely, which was weird because my social calendar was packed more than it had ever been.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked rage, self-reflection, and education. I had always felt I had no place in the discourse of race, but I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Upon learning more about the model minority myth and having lots of conversations with POC friends, I realized my own role in white supremacy. I had lived my whole life making white people comfortable. I suppressed myself and bent over backwards to center white people. I was operating in a world where whiteness was the ideal and I was desperate to be accepted.
I had made a huge breakthrough (shout out to my Asian therapist!). But I realized I had a breakthrough thanks to my non-white support system. Why weren’t my white friends talking about race with me? Why weren’t we trying to learn and grow together? Do they realize that I’m not white despite my love for Vampire Weekend? My dad warned me that bringing up race would be a surefire way to lose my white friends. I optimistically ignored his advice and decided to bring it up.
What unfolded was a series of surface level conversations about how to talk about race rather than discussions about race. They focused on the fear of cancel culture and the problem with the progressive movement’s messaging. Increasingly frustrated, I tried to send resources to shift the discussion. Then it happened. The moment when you fully experience white fragility. My friends shot back.
“You’re on your high horse trying to school everyone.”
“You need to come to the table with a clearer explanation.”
“Your role in the conversation is problematic.”
I couldn’t believe it. My closest friends couldn’t see what I was seeing. I did the one thing an ethnic sidekick wasn’t supposed to do: make white people uncomfortable.
I felt abandoned. Crazy. Worthless. Like I was screaming into a black hole with the hopes that after years of friendship they would finally care about me, my experience, and my hurt. But in a room full of white people, I was the no-longer-fun-easily-triggered-needlessly-angry minority.
I want to make it clear, I think they are good people. But this was a real eye-opening moment. They live in a society where they are the norm. Where their ethnicity doesn’t immediately define them. Where they don’t have to calculate how to prove on a dating app that they’re more than a stereotype. Where they have been told their whole lives that they are the main character. Where, historically, their comfort has been prioritized over my comfort. I have lived accepting that framework, burying my own self to maintain harmony. It took 29 years to realize that quietly hiding parts of myself only led to secret meltdowns and profound loneliness.
Since this moment, I’ve focused on being more honest with my feelings in the hopes of having open and productive conversations. I don’t expect agreement, but I do ask for respect. In the process I’ve learned that taking up emotional space in places you didn’t before is not always welcome. I’ve been told that I’m selfish, only focusing on myself. That calling something into question is in itself a personal attack. I understand how it can feel that way when I didn’t say anything before. But I know now that feeling important enough to voice my opinion is a small step in untangling generations worth of invisibility and pain.
I live with an immense amount of privilege as a Japanese American. I don’t deal with the same struggles as black and brown people. But no matter how hard I try, I will never be white. I will always move through the world in this Asian body, a body that will forever shape my reality.
This Asian body was something I believed made me inferior, not relatable, and unworthy of being the main character. Now I see that that belief in itself is succumbing to white supremacy. So from here on out, I will try my hardest to be more than the best friend. I deserve to be the protagonist of my own poignant, A24, slightly funny, tender, Oscar-bait movie with an original soundtrack by Phoenix.