[Image description: Illustration from ‘Where Are You From?’ by Yamile Saied Méndez and Jaime Kim. We see the feet of a crowd as they stare at a multiracial person, insisting “No, where are you really from?”]
Raising Luminaries is free and accessible for readers who can’t afford a paywall. Posts may contain affiliate links, which allow me to earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Check out the full affiliate disclosure along with my statement of accountability. If you’re into supporting libraries (please do!) more than consumerism, you can also support my work directly:
How White Supremacy Perpetuates Myths of Racial Purity
Anti-Racism For Beginners 103: How division & disqualification silences voices of color
Who has the authority to talk about race?
I don’t mean who’s talking about race the loudest. I’ve got white folks throwing their ideas* on how to solve racism at me from every-which-way. So many recommendations!
I mean really who is entitled to talk about our experiences with racial discrimination without being disqualified as unreliable and irrelevant? (Aside from white people, as mentioned above, whose reliability is rarely questioned, plus they’ve had their say).
*Ideas include: derailing action with white tears, DIY saviorism, and tips and tricks on how to invade and derail BIPOC affinity spaces. White friends – I get that you’re upset you are about racism … (for) now. We’ve learned to carefully monitor your perspective and emotions as a survival skill. So we’re already well aware of how it impacts you. I don’t need any more articles on how you suddenly woke up and racism existed. These frustrate and depress me, so maybe live your truth on your blog and share it with your white friends but stop asking me to center, read, and promote more white feelings & savorism. Thanks!
White communication is not superior, nor more reliable
In searching for Books For Littles, I prioritize #OwnVoices stories. It’s not just because lived experience gives our stories nuance that outsiders miss when they tokenize us (truth tho). It’s not just because white folks gate-keep the publishing industry and the stories of targeted folks need an extra thousand boosts to achieve the same visibility (very important!)
We need to center #OwnVoices stories because in a culture that trusts whiteness and values white modalities of communication (scoffing and eye-rolling at anything else), we’ve been trained to hear voices from targeted people through a critical filter. People who are targeted and exploited have to fight to be believed.
Who defines our racial identity?
I talked with the Earthquakes about our racial identities with the Something Happened In Our Town family discussion questions. And it was…complicated. As a family of Chinese/Irish American settlers (plus whatever my white partner is – he’s not sure because he’s never been forced to think about it), being multiracial means our racial identity isn’t just about our ethnicity or heritage, or even how we self-identify. We’ve got to factor in how outsiders perceive us. And by outsiders, I mean the white people who say shit like “Oh! You don’t look Asian!”
Similar to the word-fart “But you don’t look Autistic!” This is supremacist code for “You don’t look like my narrow stereotypical idea of what over half the world’s population looks like. I thought you were one of us normal people.” This is intended as a compliment. It doesn’t feel like one.
White people with economic and social power created and still maintain control over the definitions of racial identity. It’s just another tool used to exhaust us and keep BIPOC on our toes so we can’t organize together. Once we finally define our identity outside of reductive stereotypes and stigma, we start to get a grip on accepting and affirming who we are and where we come from. But this can be revoked and denied by white folks on a whim. That is really fucking exhausting.
Back to the discussion questions: “What is your racial identity?” And my kids were like…uhh. Lemme think about it.
All this work we do with the Earthquakes – owning our white racial identity and privilege without buying into whiteness, celebrating and refusing to other our Asian-ness. Owning our responsibilities to dismantle the model minority myth and integrate anti-racism into our daily lives. And it turns out they still struggle with the same questions I had as a kid. What are we? Do we count?
Disqualified: Too white
The 5-year-old decided he identified as white. Over half of his ethnic heritage comes from Europe, so why not use that as a safety blanket? He’s got my features, but his dad’s light coloring. He knows he lives in a society that values and protects white people. He knows whiteness releases him from challenges that the rest of us need to navigate. He’s still years away from having to defend his masculinity in a culture that insists on feminizing his Asian features.
Identifying with whiteness gives him chances to get out of tricky situations unscathed. He has the privilege of being perceived as white,* so why not? Knowing he sees me as Asian – I had to work to keep my expression neutral. It felt like he was rejecting me. But it’s not my job as a parent of a mixed race kid to tell him how to identify.
*Passing is the first word I thought to use here. This phrase is problematic term that centers white as the ‘default’ human.
At the same time – I know it’s going to hurt one day – when this kid realizes that the light coloring he benefits from will also drag him down, and be used against him to disqualify him from speaking up about generational trauma, growing up Asian American, and this will be used to pressure him into denying Asian identity, a huge chunk of who he is that defines more about our lives than his eye color.
So I’ll keep Allan Say’s ‘The Favorite Daughter’ on hand for when that day comes. When those same tired old disqualifications show up. When he’s used as a token to prove his white friend isn’t racist. When he challenges a racist joke and is shot down for being too sensitive and making everything about race. When he challenges a slur and is shot down because it doesn’t hurt him because he doesn’t ‘look’ Asian. When people feign shock that he celebrates Chinese New Year and Qingming.
I don’t know what’s waiting for him in a life that gives him full access to whiteness. I worry about what this kind of power could do to inoculate a kid against empathy and make apathy easier.
Divide (and then disqualify): Not enough of either
The 8-year-old, identifies as ‘Light Asian,’ explaining it the same way you’d mix in 1 part red paint to 3 parts white. He explains it this way – you can’t claim whiteness in this country because whiteness is based on a (nonsense!) notion of European purity. And our whiteness does come with benefits, privileges, and responsibilities we can’t ignore. Q has had a couple extra years learning about white supremacy – he’s aware that he just can’t drop a huge chunk of who he is to get the benefits of whiteness. Not without consequences – to himself, and to others.
But that doesn’t guarantee they won’t feel that unsettling disorientation that comes with living as a shade of pink in a world that only talks about race as if it’s experienced as a hyper-saturated either/or. When these conversations come up – I find the book ‘Spork‘ by Kyo Maclear helpful to validate this ambiguity and frustration.
As for the term ‘Light Asian’ – oh, that makes me cringe. There is that whole colorism issue within the Asian community – used to divide us and prioritizing our proximity to lightness (eww), but it’s more than that.
White folks have disqualified my reports of racial discrimination by telling me that I’m not ‘Asian enough,’ or ‘a real Asian’ because I’m American-born Chinese, because I’m multiracial, because I was raised by a white mom. That the aggression against me could be worse (no argument there), so it doesn’t count (nope! It’s still shitty and exhausting!). Of course, under no circumstances would I ever be able to speak about discrimination as a white person.
So without validity of being enough, or having the presumed dispassionate authority of whiteness (hah!) – that’s such a convenient way to silence any person of color. Since qualifying people of color by shades never serves us and only serves to divide, denigrate, and silence us – I get a little touchy about qualifying us by shades.
You might also like: Microaggressions Against Multiracial Kids – Books Where Kids Can Belong
Disqualification: Not White Enough
White supremacy, and the entire concept of race – it’s new to humans. Which means it took a lot of work to create, and will take a lot of work to dismantle.
We sustain white supremacy as a norm because we’ve been trained to think in discrete divisions. Good, bad. Heroes, victims, and villains. Black, white, and…those other brown folks. So long as we stay separated, we can’t grow large and powerful enough to overthrow the tiny group in power who keep sucking up resources at the cost of everyone else. I’m not saying stop talking about or acknowledging racial labels of the consequences of them. I’m saying name them and take responsibility for dismantling them.
Scarcity, rich and poor, racial superiority, gender binaries, all this junk isn’t inherent to humanity or biology. It’s made-up! Kids learn this shit from movies and books – and even in school. We teach our kids this is just the way the world is and we’ll have to navigate through it. But they’re not circumstances to navigate around before we get to the problem, they’re the problem. These thing are whiteness. We can’t dismantle white supremacy without lifting the veil – these are the pillars of white supremacy.
Folks with power and cunning built the concept of white supremacy and have been feeding us psychological tricks to sustain it. It’s such an efficient system we’ve grown to perpetuate it even when we disagree with the premise. And it’s integrated in stuff that should be great, but instead just perpetuates racism. Who doesn’t want specially trained courageous forces to protect and serve us? Who doesn’t want quality free public education? I want those!
But I don’t want them if these institutions are only protecting wealthy white people from Black people who want freedom. I don’t want education that tells my kids the only ‘classics’ that count are the ones from Europe.
Remember above? My kids get a choice on how they identify. There are some margins of ambiguity we are free to work within.
US lawmakers and land-owners designed that one-drop rule with intention – to maintain a pretext of acceptance in enslaving Black folks. Disqualifying a single drop of African ethnicity from claiming whiteness made it easier to enforce slavery. A quick-reference law to eliminate ambiguity, make enslaving other humans easier.
Bonus: dissuade poor white folks from cross-racial mixing or organizing against white elites. Early laws designed to stigmatize, punish, and disqualify basically anyone who couldn’t claim 100% whiteness. Divide. Disqualify. Maintain power.
All this division – it doesn’t apply equally. These social rules of division are applied if and only when they benefit rich white folks. For instance – in the landmark case of Loving vs. Virginia, (Ex: The Case For Loving) the fight was whether a white man could marry a non-white person. Our laws allowed for non-white races to intermix somewhat freely. Mildred Jeter herself was of African, European, and Indigenous ancestry. Richard Loving was marrying a woman of European ancestry! But the targeted part of Mildred’s ancestry disqualified her claim to her white identity. White supremacy denied both of these European-Americans from benefiting from whiteness.
This was all to maintain white bloodlines, and by extension – authority and supremacy of a select few.
You might also like: Diverse Family Constellations In Kids Books
Disqualification: Perpetual Foreigners
It doesn’t matter how many generations my family has been here or my habit of slipping into a Boston accent when irate – I’m still perceived as an outsider. People still ask ‘Where are you from? No, where are you…your people…uhh…what…are you?”
As an Asian American, 4th-generation Bostonian, having never set foot outside the land currently known as the Americas, I’m still a perpetual foreigner. (ex: Where Are You From?)
I feel like we’ve gone over this – how subtly othering non-white people, treating us like outsiders in our own communities is psychologically taxing and docks our ability to speak with authority.
So more on that about othering multiracial folks and BIPOC existing in primarily white spaces. No matter who they’re surrounded by, no one assumes a white person with an American accent is an immigrant. They’re not an outsider, despite the fact even European settlers are the outsiders ’cause this is Indigenous land.
Disqualification: Discontinued People
One of the nastiest lies I learned from white teachers was that ‘The Native Americans’ (Indigenous people of Turtle Island) are all dead now. And sure, it’s sad what ‘happened’ (translation: What we did) to them, but they are all gone and no longer suffering. (Totally not true – Indigenous people are still here!)
My teachers taught me that white people are now (by order of a Christian God and manifest destiny) the rightful and primary people of this land, spiced with a few model minorities to prove bootstraps individualism and capitalism work, and we’ve got to watch out for foreigners who could spoil the whole country.
Labeling folks based on our ethnic identity as outsiders or foreign is an ironically foreign thing to do, as from what I’m learning, Indigenous nations weren’t really as fearful and awful to immigrants as settler Americans. What colonizers saw as a weakness, I just see as…well, basic human decency? You meet a stranger, you say hello. You don’t shoot them and move into their house.
You know what the opposite of supremacy is? Respecting the human rights and belonging of all the humans! Focusing less on how to divide-and sub-divide each other, and more on working in collaboration as members of shared humanity.
Oh – collaboration isn’t easy. Inclusion is super hard. But folks with racial privilege could just nibble a tiny bit of bitterness to make space on the plates of BIPOC (the Mental Vegetable of Inclusion is an acquired taste).
Anti-racism must be practiced alongside decolonization, otherwise it’s performative and toothless. White supremacy was originally designed to steal stolen land – to dismantle Indigenous ways of being, divide the People, and kill everyone off. So following Indigenous guidance and leaders in dismantling white supremacy seems like an obvious and necessary step.
And you know what I keep hearing from progressive Indigenous leaders? That Indigeneity transcends ethnicity (ex: Fry Bread), and that this blood-quantum thing was created to divide and disqualify Indigenous people from their rights and eat away at their land rights. The guidance is simple (although yes, hard in practice), as in The People Shall Continue – come together, and resist.
You might also like: Kids Books To Acknowledge Indigenous Day Of Mourning
We are enough
Our education, employment, government, and media institutions train folks with less social power to remain submissive by teaching them they’re not enough – not smart enough, not strong enough, in a culture that shames them for failure and shows contempt for curiosity and caring about consequences.
Pair that with cancel culture, in all the ways being ‘cancelled’ means a small fine and a come-back tour for the rich, white, and powerful men – with long-lasting and devastating effects for multiply marginalized people.
That’s a self-sustaining recipe: compliance training to keep those denied power insecure and afraid about speaking up about injustice.
This leaves a vacuum of silence. A vacuum where only people with social power feel entitled to talk about oppression.
Where only white people have a reliable platform to talk about racism (most often as the heroes who will solve it, of course). Where only abled parents of disabled kids feel entitled to talk about disability (and what a burden we are to them).
This division, disqualification, and focus on punitive justice is a vacuum where only the most braggart, boastful, entitled, and oblivious folks who haven’t had experience being smacked down with ‘you aren’t enough’ dare to tread.
This is why we need books destigmatizing our identities – speaking truth to bullshit about reductive stereotypes and allowing us to be complex, vulnerable humans. This is why we need books validating our experiences – showing our kids that we are not alone, we are not the only ones. This is why we need stories normalizing us showing that we have a right to claim ownership to our humanity beyond our targeted identities.
And this is why we need books of affirmation (ex: I Am Enough) created by and for #OwnVoices authors. And we need lots of them. Because we’re all different and we all need different affirmations for our unique identities. Let’s not erase or ignore those differences. Let’s accept them, talk about them, celebrate the ways we overlap and the things we share. Learn from the stories outside our lanes, and believe those who we have power over.
White supremacy seeks to deny permission by flattening us into either/or. Qualified or unqualified.
We don’t need permission. We can reject that nonsense. We can refuse to to divide, qualify, and deny some folks at the expense of us all.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Collaborate
Hey settlers – do you know whose land you’re on? Check out this working map of Indigenous territories.
Find out whose land you’ve invaded, do a quick google search on how you can support local Indigenous-led efforts to decolonize your community. (If this word is new to you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. No one expects you to give away your earthly positions and jump into the ocean. Punitive justice is a white supremacist modality and we can reject it!)
Together we can collaborate and ignite a generation of kind & brilliant luminaries.
If you want reminders when I update these resources and publish new podcasts, join the email list.