The Rebel Minority is Chinese-Canadian writer Diamond Yao's bi-monthly column.
Growing up in a very white environment, I was disgusted by mainstream white society. The white people around me laughed at anybody who bought clothes from thrift stores and excluded people who were fat. They publicly shamed women who didn’t want to marry or have children. They relentlessly policed the way barely-teenaged girls would dress, yet sexualized their underage bodies. Extremely insecure, they lashed out at anybody who was more successful than they were. I hated the isolating, sedentary, repetitive, consumerist lifestyle.
Every day, in casual conversation, they dropped slurs against Indigenous, Black, Muslim, and Jewish people. They created hateful Facebook groups and assembled real-life mobs to attack people from minority faith communities. Those who did not share their beliefs were treated with cruelty.
If being white meant being such an awful person, then I wanted no part of it. I found comfort in being Asian. Kid-me was extremely relieved to not be white. Why would people pour so much effort into achieving this horrible American dream? It seemed much more like an American nightmare. Because I felt so disconnected and detached from the values and aspirations of the white people around me, I felt no need to please these people I disliked so much.
In my spare time, I spent hours looking at world maps and binge-watching the Travel Channel, trying to imagine a different way of life. I longed for warm, supportive communities and exciting adventures. When I finally had the means to leave, it was an easy decision. I never felt homesick because there was no “home” to miss.
Navigating a barren media landscape, it was frustrating for me to hear the narratives of diasporic Asians who suffered from identity crises. It seemed like a rite of passage for Asian children to seek belonging and acceptance in the white mainstream, which required us to forfeit all the things that made us different. But I could never relate to any of those stories because I never believed that my differences were wrong.
I don’t, however, begrudge the writers who recycle this narrative. After all, this is the only story nonwhite people are allowed to tell in the Western world. Nonwhite writers, who are already paid less than their white counterparts, need to make a living like everybody else. Mainstream white society is to blame for creating economic market conditions that only allow the existence of these specific nonwhite stories when so many others are left untold.
It seems I am not as alone as Western mainstream media would have me think. “I wholeheartedly stand by this. [...] I’ve been blaming society since I was 3 years old”, said Chinese-Canadian Celina G. Han, a recent sociology graduate and gender equality advocate. Having grown up in a diasporic Asian community in Toronto, Han has seen this desire for assimilation among her peers firsthand. She does not condemn them for their misguided thinking. “Is this their own fault? In most cases no, not at all. Being unable to see that society is the reason for all or most of your struggles can be taught, and unfortunately, the opposite can be and often is taught, especially to Asian folks,” she said.
In her gender equality and anti-oppression advocacy work, Han places great importance on teaching BIPOC women and femme-identifying individuals how societal systems are a major contributing factor to their struggles. For many, working with her was the first time they were able to hear their problems contextualized and grounded in the realities of the world in which they live. Having more narratives around diasporic Asians that do not describe assimilation as a positive can be extremely beneficial for them.
One is the novel Native Speaker by Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee. Henry Park, the Korean-American protagonist, works a secretive job as a corporate spy who is hired to ruin the mayoral election campaign of Korean-American candidate John Kwang. Because Henry only heard spoken Korean at home, he was bullied at school by his classmates for his bad English. Out of necessity, Henry resolves to sound like a native English speaker and tries to do everything he can to assimilate into Western society.
He even works for a private intelligence firm that hires people from first-generation immigrant backgrounds to spy on their own communities. They were tasked with squashing possible instigators like radical organizers, activists, and labour leaders in order to preserve white supremacy. The book does an excellent job at depicting Henry’s relentless quest for assimilation and acceptance into Western society and the dark and unenviable place this has led him to.
Writer Ayishat Akanbi perfectly encapsulates those dangers of assimilation in the following insightful tweets:
“Seeking belonging instead of trying to relate to others is risky. Belonging may provide a sense of community and solidarity, but it can also make you prioritise approval over honesty.”
“Belonging may feel like a palace but it can quickly become a prison.”
Assimilation can become an isolating prison of false superficial community and solidarity. By engaging in it, we imitate all the actions, world views, and practices of the dominant society without feeling that they hold any meaning for us. It’s performative. It’s like practicing worship rituals for a religion whose gods and scriptures we never believed in, while we are outwardly supported by a community that knows nothing of our lack of faith. And the whole time, we risk betraying our true beliefs.
White settler society’s dogged insistence that anyone who is different must assimilate stems from its own identity crisis. Unlike many other cultures around the world, white people in white settler societies such as North America and Australia do not have thousands-of-years-long histories and traditions to anchor their own identities. Mere centuries ago, their ancestors arrived ill-equipped to survive in these lands and their unfamiliar environmental conditions. It was at the mercy of Indigenous peoples that they were able to remain on these continents, build their own societies, and construct white histories through plunder, theft, and oppression.
A settler-colonial society will, by default, have a very fragile identity that can collapse once the people and resources it exploited stop upholding it. Nowhere is this more evident than last year, when a global pandemic exposed the multiple ways in which the entire societal structure was already failing, with unprecedented resistance from historically marginalized groups. This was not a new problem that suddenly sprung up last year — it was centuries in the making and that has been dealt with repeatedly throughout that time through the oppression of the marginalized to uphold the status quo.
Instead of examining the bad history, bloody legacy, and uncomfortable present implications of their identities, many white people react defensively to keep their white identity intact, and have done so for a long time. In fact, white settlers have a long track record of forcing oppression and forcing assimilation on marginalized groups each time a facet of their white identity is exposed for being built on exploitation. The destruction of POC identities are an inherent part of white identities.
This cycle of oppression has created identity crises in marginalized groups. Many of us are forced to grapple with questions of belonging, worthiness, culture, history, and legacy. Identity crises in marginalized groups are an insidious form of colonialism, where settler white people with unexamined identities push the labour of that identity examination onto the POC they oppress. This should never have been our burden to bear because it was never any of our responsibility.
Time is running out. As marginalized groups gain more power and refuse to uphold the oppressive tenets that make up those settler identities, white settlers must confront their own identity crises and take responsibility for the damage they have caused.
They must acknowledge that the cultural rituals and traditions that they hold dear — such as celebrating Thanksgiving, celebrating national independence days, buying large single-family suburban homes, owning sprawling cottages in the woods, among others — are built on the exploitation of POC and nature. They must acknowledge that the institutions that are central to their lives — such as prestigious universities, churches, banks, and governments — are built on the blood of others.
And once that has been recognized, they must give up the disproportionate amount of power they hold in all of these places and pay restorative reparations to all of the people they have historically oppressed for centuries that are proportionate to the harm they have done with the full knowledge that some things can never be truly replaced or repaired.
In doing so, they are giving back to marginalized people the power and resources that were always ours, with which we can build a fairer, better, and more equitable new world.