04 February 2014

I, too, am racialized.

TW/Content: Brief discussions of violence and ableism, detailed discussions of racism and racist microaggressions.


I, too, am racialized.

I am constantly expanding my understanding of myself, my identity, my life, and my experiences as a racialized subject—what I mean by this is how I am made to have a race in my society and culture. I am Han and was born in China. I appear to be East Asian. Yet while I identify as a person of color, I am also transethnic. I am a transracial, transnational adoptee. My parents are white Americans of European descent. I was raised in a culturally white neighborhood in a city that is over 96% white. When I was a child and usually physically accompanied by my parents, I experienced the benefits of white privilege through my white parents. It is really only since coming to college and being physically separated and thus, dissociated, from my parents that I have increasingly experienced the violence of racism against me (especially in everyday racial microaggressions). Yet I have also become keenly aware of how I still benefit from the intersections of class (middle-class-ish) privilege, education privilege (I attend an elite four-year university), light-skinned privilege, and sometimes still white privilege (as when people assume from my name only that I am white, as it is not a stereotypically Black or Asian or Latin@ or Native/Indigenous name) and socialization as white.

For example, other people often assume that because my speech/writing patterns come across as articulate or eloquent, I must be educated (in my case, I am), and therefore, must also be upper-class/money-rich (in my case, I am not), and therefore, must also be white (and in my case, am also not).

In another example, I have frequently gone to check-in or registration desks at events or conferences and given my name so the staff person could check me off the list, only to receive confused comments about my not being white because my name was assumed to belong to a white person.

Yet I also had an encounter a year ago with the DC Metropolitan Police Department that at the time left me floored and shocked, but now comes as no surprise to me. After speaking to a white officer for about half an hour (including answering his questions), he excused himself for fifteen minutes and returned with an East Asian officer who spoke to me in Mandarin (a language I don't know or understand). When I said that I don't speak Mandarin, the East Asian officer gave the white officer an annoyed expression and said, “Dude, she speaks English.” The white officer actually replied with, “How is that even possible?” I was standing less than a few feet away from them during this entire time.

(Sometimes people who appear East Asian, and probably are also Chinese, approach me and speak to me in Mandarin, but that presumption on their part doesn’t carry the same baggage as when non-Chinese people—though especially white people—assume that I speak Mandarin or any other East Asian language, or that I don’t speak English.)


Since then, I have also had innumerable incidents during which complete strangers or acquaintances whom I'd met maybe a few minutes beforehand have intrusively and repeatedly asked about my ethnicity, ethnic background, national heritage, national origin, real place of birth, ancestral heritage, etc. This is even after I politely deflected. The presumptions behind these interrogations are that a) I must not be from the U.S., b) they are entitled to this information despite being perfect strangers, or that c) of course, I have a race and ethnicity, but they are just “normal” or “regular” Americans. White people also frequently compliment me on my accent when I speak English, whereas most people who appear to be white would never be complimented on their accent when speaking English without an obviously foreign accent.

Perhaps this is only quasi-related, but I also distinctly remember an experience when a South Asian friend (who is darker than me but also relatively light-skinned compared to many darker-skinned people of color) casually referred to me as a “white girl.” The tone and context suggested that this was an offhand comment made as an observation of fact. Essentially, this person used the same tone someone might use to introduce me as their activist friend, rather than a tone that someone would use for an insult or sarcastic comment. This brief incident also made me more conscious of the fact that I definitely benefit from residual white privilege from my upbringing and socialization as white.

In another example of how I continue to benefit from conditional white-passing privilege, when I called the police to tell them that I would be leading a protest in their jurisdiction, my articulate, unaccented English combined with my name probably led them to assume that I was white, money-rich/upper-class, and educated—and therefore not violent and not dangerous and not a threat. If on the other hand, I had an accent on my English, a stereotypically Black or Latin@ (or maybe even Middle Eastern or South Asian) name, or did not sound as articulate when I speak, I might not have had such a cordial conversation with the police. They may have turned out in larger numbers to intimidate us the next day. They might have treated us as security threats either explicitly or implicitly. Even though there were darker-skinned people of color at the protest in question, because there were several white and light-skinned people (and more of them than dark-skinned people of color), and because I was the person who called in advance, we were probably not interpreted as a potential threat. (There may have been other factors in this presumption, but these were certainly part of it.)


I am also aware that as an Asian American novelist, if and when my novels are published, I may become the subject of dismissive criticism or extremely surprised acclaim among mainstream reviewers for writing about characters from Serbia, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Israel, and Germany on the basis that I am Chinese. Yet white authors who write about characters of races and ethnicities other than their own generally only receive similar, substantive criticisms from people of color, but often receive praise for realistic portrayals of their characters’ cultural backgrounds and identities in mainstream media and similarly are assumed to be able to write from a “universal” perspective.

I am constantly learning and growing in my desire to be a better ally to darker-skinned people of color and to all the POC groups to which I don't belong (of which there are very many) in our quest for racial justice. At the same time, I am continually learning about the many ways in which my intersected experiences of privilege and marginalization have shaped me as a transethnic, transracially and transnationally adopted, Han Chinese American, East Asian person of color. I frequently learn where I have done wrong by my darker-skinned people of color friends and fellow activists and colleagues, and am trying to learn how to hold myself accountable for my participation in racist and white supremacist structures.

For example, in an older post on Autistic Hoya, I referred to Black people/African Americans/Africans as “blacks” (I think while also referring to white people as “whites”), and more recently, a Black friend of mine corrected me. I learned that using the term “blacks” to refer to Black people is dehumanizing and carries racist, white supremacist baggage. Because I am not Black or darker-skinned, I benefited from the privilege of never having had to learn this. In fact, if I hadn’t changed my language and acknowledged the fuck-up, I would have faced minimal to no social or legal consequences. 


My experiences have been complicated by the fact that while I am visibly East Asian/person of color, I have been socialized as white and therefore have benefited frequently from residual white privilege or conditional white-passing privilege, but also experience the reality of white supremacy and racism in my life. Living in the United States definitely impacts my experiences. For example, I know that my ethnic group, Chinese people, remains one of very few specific ethnic groups to have had a law specifically banning us from entering the United States, along with Japanese people, because of racism (and the myth of “yellow peril”). But in another example, I am also keenly aware that the form of white supremacy prevalent in the United States has historically and currently displayed its most overtly violent racism toward Black people/African Americans/Africans, Indigenous and Native peoples, and more recently, Latin@/Hispanic people. Right now, I am studying abroad in Jordan, where the racial and ethnic demographics and politics are radically different from those in the United States. Being a U.S. citizen also means that I must learn how to become accountable for my role (passive, inadvertent, unwanted, or otherwise) in perpetuating U.S. imperialism, especially in majority-POC parts of the world.

Most people who know me are familiar with my work for disability justice and civil rights. Sometimes, I experience the reductionism that happens when people hyper-simplify my identity and work to disability-only. But in the wake of continued racism (systemic and in microaggressions) in the disability communities, it is imperative for me to emphasize that I am not merely disabled but also racialized. It is impossible for me to separate my experiences as autistic and disabled from my experiences as East Asian, Chinese, Asian American, and person of color.

This is why I am frustrated and disappointed when much of the visible leadership of the disability rights community is white (or if not white, able to pass consistently for white). That includes many high-level state and federal government appointees, board members and executives in disability rights organizations, high-profile activists and public speakers with disabilities, and disabled scholars, theorists, researchers, and professors of disability studies. This is also true of the autistic rights/neurodiversity movements as well as the disability rights movement at large.

This is also why I am frustrated and disappointed, as well as profoundly saddened, when cases of violence, abuse, and murder with disabled white victims receive significantly more attention than those where the victims are disabled people of color. Don’t get me wrong—I am happy that over 150,000 people signed the petition demanding accountability after Chris Baker (who is autistic and white) was punished by being put inside a bag and left in a hallway. But how many people in the disability community paid attention to the case of Reginald “Neli” Latson (who is autistic and Black) when he was wrongfully tased, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned? His case received notice, to be sure, but at least a good majority of the people of whom I know attempting to publicize his case were also people of color.

This is also why I am frustrated and disappointed when disability activists speak about racism as though it’s over, or dismiss racism as irrelevant to ableism, as well as when organizers for racial justice are completely ignorant to disability issues, or dismiss ableism as simply non-existent or unconnected to racial oppression and white supremacy. Just as I cannot separate my disabled identity and experiences from my racialized identity and experiences, I cannot recognize ableism without recognizing how it is affected by racism, or recognize racism without recognizing how it is affected by ableism. I frequently center my work on disability justice, but the struggle for racial justice is my struggle too.


  1. You set a great example of growth and willingness to make positive changes in your walk as an advocate by those very thoughtful post (and others). There is definitely a great deal of division in the disability community and in other sectors as well, and the intersections of race, gender, and other factors plays into this a lot more than people like to accept.

    It is my hope that at some point you will also address the statements brought up by the anonymous poster in this thread's comments as well. The poster is actually my oldest child, and I think she makes some very relevant statements about the unconscious discrimination that sometimes exists within many groups (the autistic community is not alone in this). Just as many groups have dismissed "higher functioning" autistics as not being able to understand the perspectives of others and they have rightfully been called out, it isn't right to (knowingly or unknowingly) say or imply harmful things about others, as you did in this older post about the HIV/AIDS community--another disabled community. Just as you owned up to the post about "Blacks" and "Whites" in this new post, I hope you will do so about these statements instead of excusing them away. You are a great blogger with a lot to say and you are an asset to the advocacy movement. Thanks for all that you do; your voice is important.

    1. Hi Morénike,

      Thanks so much for this comment. I went to look through the thread for the comment that your daughter left, and found it there.

      As reference for readers who don't have time or spoons to look, this is the anonymous comment in the thread on the other post (comment located at http://www.autistichoya.com/2012/07/how-autism-speaks-must-change.html?showComment=1342389347761#c1243258004784287966):


      In your post, you assert that statistics comparing the incidence rate of autism to conditions such as AIDS are "offensive and demeaning." On behalf of the millions of people living and THRIVING with HIV/AIDS in this country, I think that it is disrespectful, appalling, and hypocritical that you, a fellow disabled person, are so bothered by being compared to us. Are we monsters? Animals? Lepers? No, we are individuals worthy of dignity just as autistics are. Just like autistics, HIV+ individuals are misunderstood, stigmatized, discriminated against, pitied as children and then treated with disdain as adults, etc. We have a strong, proud international community of HIV advocates working to effect change. I was born with HIV and it is a part of who I am. It affects how I think (HIV crosses the blood-brain barrier and as such can have neurological impact on many), how I live, and I am not ashamed of it. Many of us, like autistics, may need some supports and/or modifications for optimized function (in our case, anti-retroviral medication; in the case of autistics, perhaps means to aid with communication for some, and a variety of other things for both HIV+ people and autistics). But we are here and shouldn't have to endure others' fear and vitriol. I can assure you that however Autusm Speaks intends it, there is NOTHING "demeaning and offensive" about living with HIV! So they might owe autistics an apology--but you owe the HIV community one...for doing the same thing to us that you claim Autism Speaks and much of society does to you.


      I recognize my privilege as a person who is not HIV-positive, and am sorry for perpetuating the disability hierarchy in the "How Autism Speaks Must Change" post. I will be making edits to that statement later today in the language of the original post.

      This is not an excuse or a justification, but I actually did not read the anonymous comment quoted above until now (as comment moderation is something I only fairly recently enabled on my website). I would also like to apologize for any re-traumatization and pain that I have caused to any readers who are HIV-positive or have AIDS.

  2. Lydia,

    Thank you so much for this. I appreciate your maturity, your honesty, and your courage. I wholeheartedly accept your apology, and I hope everyone else does as well. My already high opinion of you has increased exponentially by your actions. Thank you for not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. I hope we can all learn from your example, including myself.

  3. Caution: Hard story

    I'm appalled at how I couldn't get along with many Latin kids, especially girls. They were the only ones who actually giggled at me; I had never felt so insulated in my life. This racial squabbling that kids have been doing for years is sickening, just sickening. Now I feel ignored, horribly ignored.

  4. ANONYMOUS seems to be slightly missing the point here. Autistic people are continuously talked about as though there is an "autism epidemic". Although it is offensive to portray people with AIDS/HIV negatively, the offense is in the perception of people with AIDS/HIV, not the disease itself. Suggesting that Autism is an epidemic isn't offensive because it compares it to people with AIDS, but because Autism itself is compared to AIDS itself. Imagine for a moment that Autism had not been compared to AIDS but to the common cold. The issue isn't that people with Autism are compared to people with colds, but that Autistic traits are considered wholly negative and something to be eliminated. Such as a disease or a virus, such as the common cold. Or AIDs. Even though there is an HIV+ community, I suspect they would like the prospect of not having to suffer through the disease. But many people with Autism are skeptical of the prospect of living without Autism: they don't know how different they'd be without it.

  5. I was enjoying this blog post until I got to this and had to stop to comment: " For example, in an older post on Autistic Hoya, I referred to Black people/African Americans/Africans as “blacks” (I think while also referring to white people as “whites”), and more recently, a Black friend of mine corrected me. I learned that using the term “blacks” to refer to Black people is dehumanizing and carries racist, white supremacist baggage. Because I am not Black or darker-skinned, I benefited from the privilege of never having had to learn this. In fact, if I hadn’t changed my language and acknowledged the fuck-up, I would have faced minimal to no social or legal consequences." I am very sorry you felt the need to change your language based on the opinion of one African-American friend. I will respect their desire to be called that but they do not speak for me. I am Black, here is why.

    As a brown skin woman who is not of Asian descent I cannot accurately call myself brown based on the labels that we collectively use because I do not hail from India, or Bangladesh or, any of those places that we identify as brown. I am called Black. In that group any continental African, person from the Carribean, person who is a descendent of slaves in America, people who know where they come from and people who do not, all fit, more correctly than the use of the generic African-American. The generic African-American is for those that do not know where they come from so must claim the entire continent. This is how the term is used regardless of what the actual term indicates. When I or any other person knows where on the continent we come from that gives someone the right to call us by a continent instead of our country? That is not dehumanizing? That does not speak of some white supremacist baggage? Strip me of my knowledge of self and lumping me in the continent category is suppose to be fine with me? I don't see immigrants identifying as African-Americans, and why should they? Black people themselves don't generally consider immigrants from African or Caribbean nations, African-Americans. There is nothing wrong with being Black. The saying that has been forgotten," I am Black, and I am proud."

    Note the same individual that feels Black is dehumanizing has no problem identifying another individual as White. If black is so dehumanizing why not call others European-Americans? This whole label thing has gotten out of hand. This is an issue in America. Travel to countries that don't have the same slavery legacy and you don't have these issues. Black is more inclusive for reasons too numerous to get into here. In the way the term African-American is actual used, even amongst people of color, separating the decendents of slaves from others, the term is divisive . African-american was presented as being politically correct, as if that would be inclusive of all people descending from Africa. The supremacist baggage that is present is the fact that once again people of color jumped on the bandwagon. Why do we need to be renamed every so often? From negro, to colored, to Black, now African-American, I have to wonder what is in store for us next.

    Perhaps it is a generational issue as well. I do remember being caught of guard as a child being called colored by a woman in a store. I wondered if she was meaning to be racist or if it was just a reflection of a term she was use to using because she was so much older. I will never know, but it did not bother me too much, because I was a child. It also did not bother me too much because I was taught not to let others define me. I was also taught not to speak for others. I respect anyone that prefers to be called African-American. Please respect my right to be called Black.

    1. Just a quick response -- I actually generally use the term "Black people" because most people I know prefer this language because of pride in blackness and resistance to white supremacy. The friend's reaction was to use of the term "blacks" as a noun (i.e. "Blacks face discrimination") as opposed to as an adjective/term of identity (i.e. "Black people face discrimination"). I think as someone who isn't Black myself, and based on what I've been told by actually Black people, it's okay for me to say "Black people" but not okay for me to say "blacks" (as a noun) even if Black people do.

      I'm okay with being referred to as "autistics" (i.e. "Autistics face discrimination") but I would in fact cringe if non-autistics used that language (but DEFINITELY not if they said "autistic people"). I know analogies are definitely not perfect, and can be dangerous, but I think the analogy here is to the in-group defining which terms are used as empowering/reclaimed language, and which can be shared with out-group (esp. those with relative privilege) or which are exclusive to the in-group.


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