I recently submitted a poem for a pan-Asian magazine about how aesthetics prescribed to Asian people (a convenient term to compartmentalise all the different peoples of an entire continent), and women in particular, are derogatory, abnormal and insufficient when compared to white standards of beauty, culture and civilization.
It got me thinking about how angry I felt when writing about those memories and how I am in the process of un-teaching those negative messages and re-learning to love myself. The anger comes from years of feeling ashamed about my skin colour, my language, my clothes, and essentially my entire being in a space not built for me to thrive in, let alone barely survive. Why is my being so difficult for you (white supremacy)?
Growing up in the United States was more about nurturing all the internalised racism and oppression rather than developing my confidence. It was about not being pretty like the white girls. It was about believing that if I was just a few shades lighter, I wouldn’t be so bad looking. It was about not speaking my language openly. It was about being conscious of the fact that people would stare at me as I walked out in my salwar kameez from the house to the car for a family gathering. It was about ignoring who I was inside the home, compared to what was expected of me when I stepped out. Maybe my carefulness would feed a little less into the stereotypes that weren’t so kind.
Why not just ignore it, you ask? How does a fifth generation Indo-Fijian ignore it in a white utopia (dystopia) called suburbia? They don’t know my complex history, so how can they understand it? It was deeper than my identity. It was rooted in my sole existence that they didn’t see nor include, but destroyed along the way.
Yes, this is another story about cultural annihilation. I wonder if white people get tired of hearing about cultural appropriation. Then again, I never get tired of hearing first generation immigrants speak about their trauma and assimilation in the US. Because honestly, how can one get tired of hearing the truth?
You have to resist. And resist some more. You have to tear down the hierarchy. Break from expectations. Voice our truths. Live with a daily consciousness that white supremacy has poisoned life, as we know it. And act on how you can work to dismantle it in your own life.
All of a sudden the “other” was cool. Wearing a bindi is cool for a white woman but the “dot on her forehead” gives every South Asian kid anxiety knowing it doesn’t stop right there. Attending yoga classes taught by a white woman is fun but lacking the ability or courtesy to learn how to correctly pronounce my name is no big deal. Asking me for the best Indian restaurant in town so you can eat some chicken tikka masala makes you cultured but asking me why Indians smell like curry is a valid question.
White folks, just because you’re capitalising on the same things you destroyed doesn’t mean you despise us any less. I see you.
So now what?
Well, this is for my non-white folks. Especially for all the young girls trying to fit in so badly, for the young women trying to navigate how to break free, and for all those somewhere in between. Your skin is beautiful and covers you with pride. Your heritage is full of stories, laughter, battles, pain, memories, community, and love. You are all the revolutions, revelations, and realness you ever imagined. You choose how you want to move. You choose how to be and know that just being is all that wonderful. You realise that whiteness is not the standard for greatness; rather you are your own potential. Your skin, language(s), family traditions, community knowledge, resistance, and healing are so valuable to you being whole.
Whiteness invades. It invades space, time, being, and growth. It holds you down because it doesn’t want you to thrive. It’s time to reclaim and heal. You will constantly have to check yourself because it’s hard to shrink white standards from filling up the centre of the universe. Some days you will not want to fight. Accept that. It’s a process that will need your time, care and support. You are brave, fierce, intelligent, and all things, love. This is your work – hold it close to you.