A Biracial Woman Reflects on Building Bridges in the Time of Trump
As a half-white, half-Asian woman from South Carolina now living in New York City, I’m privy to, but not quite a part of, many perspectives.
As a woman born and raised in the heart of conservative South Carolina, the idea of a Donald Trump presidency never seemed like a joke to me. When my friends from the Northeast and West Coast laughed his campaign off, I reflected on growing up in a Republican-dominated landscape, where my neighborhood was plastered with Bush-Cheney signs. I was shuttled to church for years by friends worried about my salvation and lived blocks from the Confederate flag flapping above my state house. For the 20 years before I moved to New York, I nodded along to conversations peppered with words like “sinner” and “truth,” denouncing climate change, same-sex marriage, and abortion as evil, liberal nonsense. I was no stranger to the South, but as a half-white, half-Asian woman with parents from the West Coast, I never had the luxury of fully relaxing into any one identity. I have always been in flux, shifting between people, regions, and rooms.
Around my white, Christian friends, I worked to blend in. I took cotillion classes, straightened my hair, wore as much American Eagle as I could persuade my mother to purchase, and bought a “F.R.O.G.” (Fully Rely On God) bracelet. I silently accepted the notes my best friends passed me in class, that told me in earnest strokes that they cared for me, but that I was going to Hell if I didn’t “accept the Lord.” I attended youth-group sleepovers and struggled to stay awake, cramped on a couch, a Disney movie projected onto the wall, all the while wondering what any of this had to do with God.
Though I knew my friends never considered me to be white, I didn’t completely identify as Asian. On standardized tests, I hovered over the “race” box. Caucasian? Asian? Pacific Islander? Other? I certainly wasn’t immune to prejudice, or the layers of hurt subtle racism builds over time.
At home, my parents’ relationship felt normal. My father, a 6-foot-4 white man from California who walks with a cane, towers above my mother, a 5-foot-tall Chinese and Okinawan woman from Hawaii, but I never much noticed their physical differences. My favorite family tradition was one where we got sushi on Saturdays and sugar cookies after, then drove around aimlessly, looking at houses and birds, while I drifted off to the sounds of opera on the radio and my parents poking fun at each other.
But when my family went out to eat at any typically Americanized establishment, we’d often provide the only diversity in the restaurant. That feeling you get of everyone looking at you as you enter a room, even as they carefully avoid eye contact, is one that never fully goes away.
To this day, I hear people ask my father if my mother is his “mail-order bride.” They compliment my mother, a fourth-generation American, on her English—the only language she speaks. People call her “cute” and “Mama-san.” When these strangers aren’t demanding to know what she “is,” as if she’s a dog breed, they completely ignore her. To them, my mother seems to serve as a decorative cultural oddity—a Buddha statue relegated to a shelf, or an obedient nail-salon employee.
Yet I knew my personal experience wasn’t the same as someone who is fully Asian. My whole life, I’ve fielded guessing-games about my ethnicity. Catcallers yell “Konichiwa, Mulan!” and “You speak Mandarin?” Drunk men at bars tell me they’re “down” with what I am because their ex-wives “are Filipino.” I’ve always struggled with how to respond to compliments about how “exotic” I look. When I note that labeling someone “exotic” implies that she deviates from “normal”—meaning white—beauty standards, I am often dismissed as incapable of accepting appreciation.
To my white friends and colleagues, I sufficiently stand in for Asian-math, yellow-fever, and bad-driver jokes. But the Asian friends I made in high school and after would, half-jokingly, remind me that I’m not really Asian. I only speak English, barely know my extended Asian family, and struggle to remember the difference between dim sum and dumplings.
All the same, I’m often allowed into conversations people of color have about the discrimination they face from white people. One of my best friends from college is a Muslim woman from South Carolina. Like me, she listened to her white friends discuss her sure path to Hell. She’d wake up to her family’s mailbox bashed in by baseball bats. My good friend, who is black, grew up with curious strangers touching her curly hair without asking, and getting told she was pretty “for a black girl.” During college internships, we were both told by other interns that we’d only gotten our jobs because of our races.
When my black classmate in an improv class was made the servant in a scene on a rich white woman’s yacht, she opened up to me. When, after a year, I was still confused on a weekly basis for the two other Asian women in my 40-person office, I turned to my friends of color to vent. It is a relief to have a community of people who understand first-hand the way racism reduces you into a vague, one-dimensional outline.
I have always valued the perspectives my groups of friends have shared with me. It’s as though by possessing the features that I do, I’m granted half of a pass to different, competing clubs. Still, I’m never quite a full-time member of any of them.
For much of my life, straddling this line of sympathy between white and minority, South and North, has felt exhausting. How nice it would be, I’d think, to have one culture, one allegiance! But my feelings began to shift as the intensity of this presidential campaign grew, and I became a bit less of an observer and a bit more of a mediator.
About a month before the election, one of my childhood friends visited New York so she could see Hamilton. We were best friends for years, bonding over the silly stories we’d co-write and boys we liked. The only thing that distracted from our friendship was her faith. Her family was the one that drove me to church three times a week and gave me a luxurious, silver-paged Bible with my name sewn onto the cover. This friend routinely reminded me that my lack of repentance was a strike against God. Over time, our friendship faded as my discomfort with her church grew.
My friend still lives in South Carolina and works for a Christian organization. I was nervous about how conservative she might be and skirted religious talk. The morning of Hamilton, we bought bagels and ate them on a bench. After a pause, my friend said, “You know, I want to apologize for the way I treated you in middle school. I made you a project, and that was wrong of me. I’ve since learned more about grace.”
“Grace” was a word I imagined she’d learned from her pastor, in the way that I sometimes hear devout Christians refer to religion as the “Way” or the “Faith.” I was moved, though I felt that on some level her real lesson was that kindness is a better strategy for conversion than guilt.
The word “grace” stuck with me as the election finally arrived.
Since Nov. 8, I’ve heard and read countless rounds of finger-pointing and blaming about the election between people of color and white people, Democrats and Republicans. Blame white voters! Blame black voters! Blame the GOP! Blame “liberals/Democrats espousing hundreds of meaningless words,” as a person I know commented on an article.
A white friend posted a video arguing that Democrats should work to find “common ground” with the alienated, white, working-class voters who elected Trump. Another friend, who is Asian, asked if the poster of the video was an “idiot” and said it was not the job of the oppressed to “hold the hands of their oppressors.”
Hurt, my white friend deleted her post and texted me, “I am not trying to say my plight is worse. We all need empathy. If we only listen to people like us, we will never grow. What are we doing to educate middle America—to get them better teachers, more diversity?” She added, “I know you get me.”
And I did. I felt for my friend and her struggle to maintain a relationship with a best friend who voted for Trump—for other friends whose parents supported Trump, and who are grappling with how to talk to their families over the holidays. Because of my background, I know how it is to care for someone who seems to operate with a different set of assumptions and ideas; what it is to stay quiet when you reach a topic where agreement is out of reach and argument will only deepen your divide.
But I also know how it feels to be a called a “chink” at the laundromat. To be asked about “your culture.” About the defensive wall that treatment provokes you to build between yourself and others who might react in the same way.
So, I tried to explain to my white friend the root of my friend of color’s anger at always having to accommodate the ignorance of white America. At living in a society that, at best, treats you like a caricature. At worse, a threat.
And I tried to explain to my friend of color that my white friend is trying to educate her loved ones about the damage their refusal to acknowledge racism causes. As she said to me, “I understand that some people think, because I’m white, I can’t understand. And I agree. I have empathy, but can’t directly understand. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a voice.”
“I get it,” I wrote her. “It is the burden of being half white and half not.”
Now more than ever, I feel this huge need to make the various facets of my identity understand each other. I have to believe, through honesty and grace, that there are relationships worth saving, relationships worth forging.
My family’s love for each other reminds me of such grace every day.