By: Tiffany Wong
One of the first emotions that I felt when I started on my race and identity journey was embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I was so late to the game. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know about Model Minority Myth or the Chinese Exclusion Act. And then I was angry that nobody told me about these key things that I embodied. Nobody told me that our society is intentionally designed to uphold white supremacy. Nobody taught me that however hard you try, you won’t ever measure up to the default standard if you’re not white or white passing. I would never be seen as truly belonging to where I was born. No one told me that in order to “succeed” in this society, you need to come off as white as possible to disarm white people from seeing me as foreign. Nobody told me how objectified my body was seen as “exotic” because I am an Asian woman.
Like many of us in this country, I was exposed to violence against black people starting with #blacklivesmatter in 2013 when Trayvon Martin was killed, and then again when Trump was elected. There was this collective movement (at least in the more liberal parts of the nation) of being more “PC” and being on the “good” side, and it prompted me to think more about my place as a Chinese American. How do I align? Am I more on the white side? Would people laugh if I said I’m a person of color? Is that offensive for black people? Would people roll their eyes if I start claiming my identity because I seem so whitewashed?
In 2017, I did a year-long weekly series called #connecttuesdays where I interviewed a new person every week about their passions and fears and then painted a piece inspired by them and their answers. The goal was to bring together things that are easy to relate to with abstract art, because I felt like abstract art seemed too hoity toity for the everyday person. That year, lots of things were brewing in me about my racial identity and I was very aware of my place when race came up in conversations. So when #connecttuesdays came to an end, I decided to dedicate my 2018 project to memories and exploring grounding – what are the pieces that makeup how I make sense of me and the world – and then painting a piece inspired by the memory. I named project #TWmemorymondays.
It started with the intention of going through different phases of my life and also my parents’ lives, but it quickly took a form of its own. I grew up in the Bay Area where I was born and raised by my mom and dad, who immigrated to the States from Hong Kong in their 20’s. Within the first month or two, it had a very specific purpose: I was going to dissect memories from my past that had to do with race and point out the different dynamics and systems of oppression that permeated the memory. I felt like my past was a jumbled up ball of contradictory elements that seemed too intimidating to untangle – and maybe too painful to see with fresh eyes. Shame was underneath it all, and it was scary to know that pointing it out was inevitable if I carried through. The reason why I continued was because art was one of the few safe spaces I had. It gave me just enough structure that I could explore freely, it provided a bridge between my mind and my body that grounded me, and it gave me an emotional release through color and movement.
Ever Monday for the entire year, I would talk through a memory from my past on Instagram Stories, I would paint the piece inspired by what I just talked about, and then I wrote down the memory and shared it on Instagram. For so many of the weeks, a memory would come up and it would expose why I had shame for being Chinese – because it didn’t match the expectation of beauty and success in my environment. Things that were applauded were ways of siding with whiteness, and things that were looked down upon were my Chinese-ness. It also led me to many places I didn’t think it would, like how my body image and relationship with weight was intimately tied to my shame as a person, which isn’t separate from my racial identity. It led me to my responsibility to speak up and develop courage. It led me to finding my voice and confidence in all of who I am. And my favorite part was that it connected me so many WOC that felt similarly and who shared their own experiences and perspectives with me. The project made made me feel less alone and more known by people online and also with friends in my life.
An example is week 36:
“Today is week 36 of #TWmemorymondays. I mentioned this memory in passing awhile back, but I thought to dedicate a full memory Monday for it.
For most of my young adult life I’ve worn my signature cat eye or winged eyeliner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a graphic black eyeliner that comes to a point beyond your eyelash line. And in college I felt like I got a lot of attention for it for some reason. This memory is one of many others just like it.
In college, I was getting lunch at the cafeteria, and an acquaintance came up to me. A girl that I probably met once and have seen around alot (it was a small school) came up to me. And she said “I love your eyeliner! It looks SO good on you! I wish I could pull it off. Your Asian eye shape really goes with it.” As she makes a slant eye motion.
So I replied and said “thank you.”
I felt kind of flattered that she went out of her way to give me a compliment, but I also felt a bit insulted and demeaned.
Back then I didn’t have language or the tools to know what was happening. But now I can break it down!
The person who would say these kind of things to me (usually white female/male – yes men has made this comment to me) would notice something they liked about my makeup. They also saw that I was Asian simultaneously, and made an unconscious mental note about a caricature feature of all asians: they have slanty eyes. Then, they couldn’t separate these two things from each other – so in delivering a compliment about my makeup, they can’t help but also bring in my race.
It’s so insulting to my culture and to me when the Asian culture is distilled to these attributes – especially knowing how almond shaped eyes have been used to oppress and make fun of Asians historically in America.
With good intentions, ignorance/racism reigns yet again. I’ve said and written this a million times, but systematic oppression is best protected by “good hearts.” I think there is always room to grow and to even make mistakes, but brushing it under the rug because their intentions are good is so damaging.
In this particular situation about my eyeliner, what should have been said is, “I like your eyeliner!” Period!”
Image credit: Tiffany Wong