My father’s and my last names are the same in Chinese, but different in English: his is spelled Li, and mine is spelled Lee. The reason for the change is that Australians kept pronouncing his “Lie”, which, he tells me, was not only inaccurate, but also made it sound as if he was a liar. So, to make my life a little easier, our family name was reformulated into something more readily pronounceable.
That is just one of many anecdotes that illustrate the way in which white ignorance, ranging from banal misunderstandings to overt discrimination, has shaped my relationship with my parents. Racism makes people of colour ashamed of their own identities, and tells them to adopt a guise of whiteness in order to find acceptance. When parents internalise that shame, they pass it onto their children, and the family unit becomes co-opted by the poisonous beliefs and stereotypes of white supremacy.
I cannot count the number of times when my parents, annoyed by someone’s bad driving, would chalk it up to them being just another “Asian driver”. Usually, they tried to verify their accusation by either peering into the offender’s side window as they drove past, or analysing their licence plate: a string of 1s, 6s or 8s, lucky numbers in the Chinese community. Their friends would regularly share, with a combination of intrigue and disgust, stories about the faults of Chinese immigrants, ranging from their gaudy fashion sense to their supposed inability to maintain clean restaurant kitchens. “This is why gui lao (Westerners) hate the Chinese,” would always be their conclusion.
Having immigrated in the 1980s, my parents were regularly exposed to the kinds of racial discrimination that is today widely ridiculed and caricatured. Lacking any real ability to fight the racism they encountered, they understandably took the easier way out: they tried as hard as they could to integrate into the white community, and distanced themselves from other da lou ren – people from the Chinese mainland – by adopting the same views they had been subject to. And, believing that doing so would protect from the harassment that they had once endured, they attempted to pass those views onto me.
Yet even their best attempts at integration have not always been successful. For as long as I can remember, my mother has been signing up for, and dropping out of, English language courses, not for any lack of determination or ability, but rather because of a fear of being judged by her white peers. Merely trying to speak up and engage with the white community instantaneously identifies her as one of “those” Chinese-Australians, who don’t “speak the local language” and “adopt local customs”, so often it is easier to remain silent and not try at all. Unsurprisingly, I was never encouraged to keep trying to read and write Chinese as a child – that wasn’t important to someone living in Australia, after all.
This isn’t to say that the discriminatory nature of my parents’ beliefs should be downplayed or excused. Nor could I ever accuse them of being bad parents. But when, as a result of the shame and isolation forced upon them by white society, racism is perniciously perpetuated by people of colour, they impart that same shame onto their children. In that way we are, from a young age, discouraged from ever choosing to accept our identity, and are told that we ought to instead pursue whiteness in order to be accepted.
When I speak to others who come from migrant families about racial discrimination, I’m frequently told that it isn’t worth worrying about. Often, I hear that stereotypes, like those that suggest that Asian women are bad drivers, are true, and that I should just learn to accept them. Or, worse still, I’m told that I shouldn’t be surprised when I see Chinese people being treated like they don’t exist, or that international students are excluded from student activities: what else do I expect when they can’t even properly speak the language?
There is, perhaps, some value in non-white communities reclaiming ownership of stereotypes about themselves and reinventing new meanings from them. But that cannot explain the degree and extent to which those communities replicate the racism which they are subjected to. When whiteness is intergenerationally taught as the correct mode of behaviour, that replication is inevitable. Ending racism has to start with people of colour believing that they deserve better, and that they have something to fight for – and that starts with parents telling their children that they ought to be proud of who they are.
Image: Kim Hunter