Or maybe it was those casual hall conversations that too often were “oh haha all Asian women love white men!” and not “I miss hearing multiple languages.” Or maybe it was having to explain that I honestly do not think I look like Sandra Oh. For reasons I could not explain at the timeI found myself drawn to the Women’s Union and the Asian American Mentoring Program,
and following those instincts were two of the best things I’ve done in my 3 years here.
To be honest again, I am biracial. My mother was third generation Japanese American, she never learned Japanese. And to make things more complicated, she died when I was 14, so throughout high school I felt distanced from the API/A community, growing up with a White father who was mistaken for my adopted parent at Japanese restaurants, I struggled to fully identify as an Asian American woman.
And honestly, questions of identity didn’t really emerge for me until I got to Pomona. As I began to explore those questions, I was faced by a slew of new ones. What does it mean for me to engage in local community partnership programs coming from an upper middle class background? What does it mean for me to be raising awareness about Asian Pacific Islander American issues as a biracial individual? That much of those issues I discuss have not personally affected my life? I would be lying if I told you I found a definitive answer to all of these questions. But I found a word for these issues, “privilege.” The emotions that came with the acceptance of that word in my life were just as muddy: guilt, shame, defensiveness.
Thinking back to those awkward feelings first year, maybe it was the casual rejection I heard of mentoring programs in the halls that made me feel uneasy. Maybe it was the fact that I had to constantly defend the organizations I increasingly drew my strength from. The Women’s Union? We hire people of all genders! AAMP? Well did you know that Asian American women aged 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate in the United States? But those accepted answers didn’t include the most important part to me: personal experience, which leads me to a question I would present to you all:
How does asking others to approach forms of difference, “rationally,” as I’ve heard multiple times in the past three years, limit and silence discussions about identity?
I have been caught in this situation from both sides, questioning and defending the legitimacy of certain organizations, ideas, groups with the added handicap of excluding my own personal experiences. It has been said that one sign of privilege Is your ability to ignore your own privilege, to take it for granted, so I ask you: What does it mean to ask individuals to constantly defend the groups that provide them with a needed extra sense of community in rational, non-emotional ways?
For me, I am still struggling to deal with my class privilege, my white privilege, my heterosexual privilege, the ability to take things for granted. But I want to make it clear that that internal struggle is what I want. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m done examining the benefits or detriments that my identity affords me. And sometimes it’s not clear which are which.
One of the best things I have found at Pomona College is the Asian American Resource Center but I never would have applied to be an intern there if it weren’t for the unwelcome raciailzation, those uncomfortable comments I heard in the halls freshmen year.
The feelings of guilt, defensiveness, shame that often come with discussions of privilege should not be ignored, but they are not productive. I wish I knew the answer but, since I know you are all smart, I want to ask you how can those emotions be used positively?
So I’ll end by offering you this: don’t shy away from examining your identity. Don’t devalue emotions or personal experiences yours, or those of others. Those big buzzwords, “privilege,” “positionality,” “intersectionality,” “racialization,” “community,” that you’ll hopefully hear a lot of in the next four years don’t only apply to certain people, they surround all of us. Know that nothing exists in a vacuum, especially the Pomona student. You’ve spent the past week hearing about all the resources available to you and I will add myself to that list. You can find me at AAMP events!