“Your racial consciousness determines how you show up.”
A few weeks ago, a small group of teachers—all of us teachers of color—gathered for dinner with Tony Hudson, an Equity Transformational Specialist from the Pacific Education Group (PEG). This year, our district partnered with PEG to facilitate the courageous conversations about race that our schools—and really, all schools—need to have in our classrooms, buildings, systems. During our conversation, Tony pointed out this simple truth: “Your racial consciousness determines how you show up.”
I wrote that line down and have been turning it over in my head ever since.
What does it mean to “show up” in anti-racist work? What does it mean to “show up” in educational spaces—educational spaces which (of all places) should be inherently anti-racist but are often not? And why not?
As long as teachers continue to show up in classrooms racially unconscious, educational institutions will continue to be spaces that perpetuate racist systems and inequities.
Because your racial consciousness determines how you show up.
Here’s another line I’ve been turning over in my head: “I never thought of you as a person of color.”
I’ve started to lose count how many people have said this to me. As an Asian American woman and 2nd-generation Filipina American, with dark hair and golden skin, I’m always surprised by this comment. When it’s White people who say this to me, it’s usually because I’ve framed something I’ve said in conversation specifically (and intentionally) “as a person of color.” I had dinner a few weeks ago with a good friend, a White woman and fellow educator whom I’ve known for almost two decades. Like others, she also admitted that she never thought of me as a woman of color, that she never thought of me that way.
To be clear, most of the time this happens, I don’t think there are any ill intentions, just a genuine curiosity that I identify racially this way. Is it because we tend to think of “people of color” as being Black or Latinx, but not Asian? Is it because they see me as “just like them”? Because they see the parts of me that are the same but not different? The parts of me that align with being White and Whiteness?
The thing is, I understand their reaction. After all, I’ve spent much of my life hiding who I really am—not wanting to be seen.
My parents, like so many other immigrants, came to this country in pursuit of better opportunities. Here, I could tell the story of how they came with nothing but a suitcase and achieved the “American Dream”—but that story is misleading in the way that all whitewashed narratives are. Because my parents also came to the United States with engineering degrees and spoke English, advantages that served them well at a time when explicit anti-Asian racism was on the decline (although this racism simply evolved into a damaging, pervasive “Model Minority Myth”).
Fundamental to my parents’ “American Dream” was education: our family moved, and my brother and I changed schools three times, each school with better test scores than the last one. Because we all live in a segregated society, this also meant that I lived in predominantly White neighborhoods and went to predominantly White schools. It meant that most of my friends in elementary and middle school were White—and like most middle school girls, all I wanted to do, desperately, was to fit in.
The more I reflect on my early school experiences, the more I see how powerful, how formative those years really were.
Because it was during those years that I learned to hide. Nearly every experience I had with White classmates related to my racial and cultural background was a negative one: every time someone assumed or asked me if I was Chinese, every time a “friend” pulled back their eyelids, every time someone commented on the food my family ate. Some experiences still stand out decades later, like when my friends slept over and, in their middle-school giggles, they joked about how my grandparents couldn’t speak English—Ima and Tatang, who moved across the world to help take care of my brother and me when our parents worked. I want to scream at 12-year-old me and I also want to hug her tight and tell her it doesn’t matter. But I will never forget that laughter—and how I said nothing.
And I said nothing for a long time. The truth is that there are countless more moments like this, but I learned to push them aside, to enact a kind of self-preserving, self-inflicted amnesia. All young people want to fit in, to belong, but it’s a different level of contortion for people of color. And as a high-achieving Model Minority, I excelled.
Coming into greater racial consciousness can be a painful experience: once you start to unpack one memory, once you start to pick at the loose thread, the whole fabric of your identity starts to unravel. And as an Asian American, it’s especially hard to come to terms with the real racism you experience when you live in that in-between space of the racial binary.
As an Asian American, I’ve spent my entire life in White adjacency. Although I’m not White, I’m also not Black. I’m somewhere in between, not sure exactly where I belong, and where I am along this racial continuum depends largely on contexts sometimes beyond my control. When I identify as a person of color, it’s not just White people who are surprised. I’ve also heard this same surprise from Black people, and even from fellow Asians. Many of my Asian American students have admitted to experiencing racism but feeling unable to talk about it, much less complain about it, because it’s “not as bad” as what other groups go through.
I know what they mean. That was my experience growing up, and really, in so many ways, it’s still my experience now.
Even as I write all this, I feel the urge to point out that none of my experiences were that bad. After all, in most of the ways that society measures success, I’ve made it—the “American Dream” goes on, we can tell ourselves. And growing up, I was filled: my family instilled in me a deep and abiding love for my Filipino heritage. At home, this love, loyalty, and sense of family sustained me. I felt safe and loved and my whole self. But out in the world, I learned that many of the things that made me who I am were also vulnerabilities—that at any moment, my racial and cultural identity could be minimized, tokenized, or ridiculed. So I hid, setting aside parts of me away in what Gwendolyn Brooks once called “little jars and cabinets of my will.” I don’t remember when I first read Brooks’ poem, but it resonated immediately. Now I know why.
“I never thought of you as a person of color”? Of course not—because I didn’t let you.
Coming into racial consciousness, while painful, can also be empowering. In high school and college, I forged friendships with other Asian Americans, most of us 2nd-generation kids who knew-without-having-to-explain what that meant. In these friendships, we didn’t just find solidarity, we found family.
It was in college that I also found the language to name the “double-consciousness” I’d felt my whole life when I read DuBois for the first time. I got involved in Asian American student groups, and I was fortunate to have mentors who helped me see what it meant to be an Asian American activist. I met Grace Lee Boggs and learned what the word diaspora meant. I celebrated shared experiences and the great diversity within the Asian American community. But as a Filipina American, as a brown-skinned Asian, I also learned what it meant to be in the margins within the Asian American community, a community that too often focuses on the experiences of East Asians. So I took Tagalog classes, the native language of my parents, with the first and only Filipino teacher I would ever have. Growing up, I had been sometimes embarrassed by my parents’ accent, but then I realized this meant they were multilingual and I would wish, desperately, that I was too.
I wish I could say that this his how the story of my racial consciousness awakening ends, with me affirming my identity and living happily ever after.
But then I became a teacher.
Those early years are hectic for all new teachers as you try to find your footing. But as a teacher of color in a predominantly White space, my 12-year-old self came back to haunt me. Without even realizing I was doing it, I put up walls around those parts of my identity that would be vulnerable. School taught me that. In reflecting back on my early years of teaching, I did not bring up my culture, race, or ethnicity in any meaningful way, not with my colleagues and not with my students. To protect myself against the types of experiences I had growing up, I carried myself in a way that encouraged others to not see my racial identity. I hid.
“I never thought of you as a person of color”? Because I didn’t let you.
As a person of color, being seen and not seen is a tension that I still don’t know how to navigate. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much navigating White spaces as a person of color is about trust: Do I trust you with the parts of me that matter the most? Have you shown me that I can trust you?
I think about all the students of color who walk into our buildings asking these same questions. Sadly, I think I know the answer. Every decision we make, every system we set up is an answer to these questions.
But what I also know is that I’ve somehow arrived at a point in my life where I don’t want to hide anymore, where I care less about what people think and would rather just be who I am, fully.
As a teacher, I want students to be able to walk into the building and have a different answer to these questions. If I want students to bring their whole selves to class, I need to do the same. Every day, the news and the world reminds me of how important it is to show up in this work.
And as a mother, I feel the fierce urgency of wanting that same thing for my boys. I want to be a role model for them in how to be actively anti-racist in a world that will make it easier for them to take the path of the Model Minority. I wonder how I can use my own experiences to help them: I’ve been there, I want to say, but careful not to project my issues onto them, I watch and listen. I want to give them what my parents gave me: a sense of self that can sustain and buoy them when they need it.
But when you spend so much of your life assimilating into Whiteness, how much do you have left to pass on to your children? How can I show up for them?
Because your racial consciousness determines how you show up.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by my dear friend Sherri Spelic (you can catch up on the rest of the posts here).