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On being “Whitewashed”

After George Floyd’s death, many exploded with outrage and calls for justice across social media. The Black Lives Matter movement experienced tremendous growth as people committed themselves to active anti-racism, whether that was through limiting cultural appropriations and microaggressions, attending protests, or signing petitions. 

I personally have begun to learn more about the history of racism and how it has resulted in the current inequalities for people of color. In doing so, I had to confront the model minority myth and what it truly means to be an Asian American. 

The latter has led me to question the use of the word whitewashed. Within the model minority myth, Asians are the model minority in America because they study hard, work hard, and keep out of trouble. They seemingly do not have to worry about discrimination, leading to what some call the freedom tag, the idea that to succeed, Asians must assimilate as much as possible and accept the microaggressions and inequalities present in our society. 

While racial justice and the model minority myth are such broad topics that could be their own article, the “keep your head low and assimilate” got me thinking. This idea, which is perpetuated by the systematic racism in mainstream society, directly contradicts another prevalent idea: that being whitewashed, losing bits of your culture to assimilating, is inherently bad. 

I am proud to be Chinese and hold onto these roots dearly. I am fluent in Chinese, have learned to cook Chinese dishes, love the culture, and celebrate the holidays. Yet to many, I’m considered whitewashed. I wear crop tops, have white friends, and refuse to lock myself in my room to study— I value social-academic balance. I understand the model minority myth is just that, a myth, so I do not feel like I must assimilate if I do not wish to do so. But, isn’t it only natural for someone born and raised in America to have some so-called “white” tendencies found in American culture? 

In the purely denotative meaning of the word whitewashed, yes, I agree, I could be whitewashed. As someone balancing both an American and Chinese identity, sometimes the values and practices of the two cultures clash. For examples, outspokenness because you believe in yourself is valued in American culture, but being reserved to show respect for your elders is valued in Chinese culture. In these cases, I’m grateful for both cultures so I can have a greater understanding of why each culture may have each of its respective values. I am able to choose whatever value or practice that resonates with me more, and that is sometimes the American one.

Adopting American practices, however, does not mean that I have thrown away my ethnic culture to embrace a “nonexistent” culture like the connotative meaning of whitewashed would imply. The word whitewashed is often used with the attitude that you had a perfectly good culture and you chose to stray from it for a culture that’s “nonexistent”.  But in assimilating, I am not disrespecting my roots, in fact, I am valuing them more as I get a more objective view on them. 

Though a short article, I hope I have given you some food for thought, whether that be about your racial identity, our society, or your use of the word whitewashed. I am not saying to never use the word whitewashed, heck, I still use it jokingly, but perhaps be more mindful about the implications that can come with that word.

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