My mom loved Obama, she loved his measured speech, his cool, his handsomeness, how he reminded her of JFK. She loved that America had a Black president. A few weeks before she died, her stamina wasn’t great, but she stayed up after dinner to watch his State of Union address. Sitting in her tiny rocking chair, she was rapt, nodding at the good parts, making comments like, “so smart” and “so true.” I noticed she was starting to nod off, so I offered to help her to bed. She readily agreed, “Yes, I don’t need to see anymore, he’s got it right.” She died in 2009, confident that America had moved into a post-race era. While I will always wish she lived longer, lately the stronger emotion I have when thinking of her is gratitude. I’m thankful that she died never knowing how wrong she was.
Over the past year, the historic hate against Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders has once again exposed itself. But a few weeks ago, as I drafted a message to my college community after the murders in Atlanta, I experienced something new. I tried so hard to stay in my identity as a leader and public figurehead of our college, which is usually a comfortable skin for me. But this time, for this message, for the first time in a year’s worth of tough messages, I resented being a leader crafting a statement for my majority-white colleagues and students about tolerance, culture, and bridging differences. I understand that what I say can help you, and most of the time I welcome that responsibility. But today, can’t I opt out? How can I speak when I have so much confusion over my own race?
Like many of us, my concept of race isn’t simple and can be traced to experiences over a long period of time and to the people who taught us. My mom fiercely loved America and believed it truly lived up to its promise as the land of opportunity, even when she found many aspects of America “qíguài” or even more extreme “qíguài sǐ le” which, depending on the context and the topic, translated to odd, baffling, perplexing and/or wrongheaded. When I was a child, my mom used to tell me about how hard it had been to come to the U.S. from China, homesick and disoriented. Part of earning her college scholarship was visiting places in Ohio that had never seen a Chinese person before. She dressed up in her qipao, and let schoolchildren touch her, and made small talk at country clubs, patiently correcting assumptions, assuring her audience that she grew up with both running water and books and if the curiosity seemed genuine, she mentioned that those amenities were no surprise in a country that had movable type printing presses and infrastructure at the time when many in the Western world were living in caves. She said it made her skin crawl to be touched, and that presenting felt like being a performing seal, but the scholarship was important.
My mom drew as fluidly as the most accomplished Walt Disney animator. I asked her once how she learned to draw so fast, and she told me that when she was in college, she busked to earn bus fare to visit her sister who had married a man in Florida. Drawing faster meant more caricatures, bigger crowds, and more money. As a child, what struck me most about her description of Florida in 1950 was that when she wanted to go to the bathroom, she had to choose between the “colored” and “whites only” doors. Deeply puzzled, I asked:
Which one did you go into?
I didn’t know what to do.
So which did you use?
I waited until we got home to go.
Couldn’t you ask someone?
I didn’t want to ask.
Couldn’t you wait to see what the other Chinese people did?
She shook her head and laughed.
What ‘other Chinese people’? There were no other Chinese people.
What did Aye say to do?
She said, ‘don’t drink anything so you don’t have to go until you get home.’
Are we white or colored?
Well, we aren’t white.
So are we colored?
Maybe, I don’t know. But you don’t have to worry about it, it’s one of those strange things that happened a long time ago and no one cares about that anymore.
To Mom, race didn’t matter but culture did. Chinese food, not American, was comfort food. All those cool things my friends did that I wasn’t allowed to do, hanging out at the mall, having sandwiches for dinner, calling grown-ups by their first name, treating report cards cavalierly, were all off-limits to me. The default reason was always “because our family is Chinese.” For all those reasons and more, I’ve known since childhood that I’m not white, yet I’ve never known if that meant if I was in Florida in the 1950s, would I use that door marked “colored?” Let alone answers to even more haunting questions: If that door still existed today, would I use it? If there is an equivalent metaphor for that door, have I been passing by it or through it without conscious choice?
A few years ago, planning a diversity training, I disagreed with the much younger white woman who was in charge of the program. I can’t remember what the issue was, but I remember her dismissal of my viewpoint “since you aren’t really a minority.” It’s true that I’m hardly the only Asian walking around my campus, but it’s also true that the Asian perspective is not part of the dominant white culture. The first time I was in a majority-Asian event, my freshman year of college at a Chinese volleyball tournament, I walked around in a daze, wondering to myself “What is this feeling? Look at all these Asians and not one of them is my cousin or someone I know.” It took me many more of these events over a couple of years to identify what I was experiencing was a tiny part of me relaxing, a consciousness of difference didn’t need to be held. The feeling was a missing tension, a release of pressure to try to see through white eyes; I didn’t have to be vigilant that something I said might be heard differently because of my Asian face.
A few weeks ago, sitting down to craft the message to my college, I felt an unexpected resentment. Why can’t I be that freshman at the volleyball tournament, able to speak as just me – a Chinese-American person in a crowd of Chinese-Americans. I felt burdened; I yearned to be that Chinese-American daughter being reassured by her Chinese-immigrant mother that America was the greatest country in the world and race no longer mattered. I felt insecure, as a leader that people look to for answers to complicated questions, how can I talk about this if I don’t know for myself the answer to the simple question – which door would I enter, the one marked “colored” or “white”? When my university excludes Asians from the category of “underrepresented minority,” does that close a door that I might want open, if not for myself, for my students or faculty?
In the end, I know if my words can help my college community, my built environments community, I will always take the opportunity to talk or engage about race to an audience willing to listen. I know my actions matter in a different way from my white colleagues as we work on the systemic issues that impact all historically marginalized people. But today, I’m taking the time I need to work out some things for myself. And I’ll let you know if I have answers to share.
Renée Cheng, FAIA, DPACSA, is Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. She is the lead researcher for a multiyear project resulting in the American Institute of Architects Guides for Equitable Practice .