Every day I learn from Black women, men, and children who demonstrate self-love and who put their well-being on the line to hold leaders accountable to racial injustices.
by Sophia Har
Some things take a while to sink in. Some things take a while to shake off.
I was sitting with my roommates in our college’s dining hall, eyes shining with excitement. My friend Jenn, who has a knack for sneaking unexpected questions into informal conversations, had just asked us, “Imagine yourself in five years. Where are you, and what are you wearing?”
As I pictured the future me, my enthusiasm gave way to curiosity. What I saw was just as unexpected as Jenn’s question, if not more.
I said, “I’m walking down a street with skyscrapers on every side in a three-piece suit and heels.” My friends nodded, chuckling at the projection of my overachieving self. “And… I’m a tall, White girl.”
Marveling at the words that had just left my mouth, I quickly waved them away, embarrassed. After all, I was about to graduate and had done plenty of work the past four years trying to reconcile my identity issues.
And yet I still pictured my ideal self as tall and White – two things I’m most definitely not.
Rewind eight years. I was getting ready for a Halloween party with a friend. (Before we met, I disliked Sophie because people didn’t realize there was more than one petite, bubbly, Asian girl at our school. It didn’t help that we had similar first names and monosyllabic last names.)
I was forcing myself into a binary that was never meant for me.
We giggled as we assembled our costume. When we arrived at the party, we cried out in unison, “TheSophizzles are in da house!”
I can’t speak for Sophie, but throughout my adolescence I desperately wished I was Black – and had no clue what it meant to be Black.
Fast-forward a decade. I was in Colombia, and I was tired. Barely a month had passed. Was my complexion the only thing people cared about? My “yellow” skin? My “almond” eyes?
Over time I came to understand that race relations in Colombia and race relations in the US are like tangerines and clementines – they have similar origins but different manifestations. But as hard as it was navigating this new racial landscape with its oft-offensive expressions, I ran into something even more complicated: me.
Feeling too much like my young immigrant self, I bobbed back and forth between defending and detaching from my Chinese identity. When friends half-jokingly attributed my various talents to my being Asian, I said, “No, it’s because I practiced. A lot.” But when people pointed out my “chinky” eyes, I immediately said, “No, my eyes aren’t like that” – as if the size and shape of my eyes made me superior.
....I still pictured my ideal self as tall and White – two things I’m most definitely not.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before I returned to the US that I realized the cause of my inner conflict: I was forcing myself into a binary that was never meant for me.
In his 1997 paper, The Black/White Binary of Race, Juan F. Perea stated:
“The most pervasive and powerful paradigm of race in the United States is the Black/White binary paradigm. I define this paradigm as the conception that race in America consists, either exclusively or primarily, of only two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White … If one conceives of race and racism as primarily of concern only to Blacks and Whites and understands ‘other people of color’ only through some unclear analogy to the ‘real’ races, this just restates the binary paradigm with a slight concession to demographics.”
Living outside the US helped me see more clearly the fallacy of the Black/White binary. Fielding questions about my origins, Chinese languages, Hong Kong, and my relatives revived parts of me that I had buried in order to fit in with either White people or Black people. And experiencing Colombians’ pride in their culture reminded me that it was okay and good to embrace mine.
“Nopierdas tus raices, Sofi,” a friend told me. Don’t forget your roots.
In some weird plot twist, I found that hovering in the midst of all the Asian jokes and angst-ridden journal entries was an invitation. It was the invitation to bust the binary.
What does busting the binary look like back in the US?
For me, it begins with acceptance. Accepting my upbringing, accepting my appearance.
It also begins with rejection. Rejecting the temptation to dismiss my struggles with racism because I’m not Black, rejecting the temptation to dismiss my privilege because I’m not White.
Two years ago I participated in my first #BlackLivesMatter protest. I was nervous. Would I appear radical to Whites and, worse, phony to Blacks?
But as I shouted, “Black lives matter!” over and over, I felt liberation. Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
As a member of the Asian American community, I owe many of my rights to the Black community. Every day I learn from Black women, men, and children who demonstrate self-love and who put their well-being on the line to hold leaders accountable to racial injustices.
As a member of the Asian American community, I also walk in the large footprints of Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, who stood alongside Black people and changed the world with their activism and love. They challenged the binary.
Some things take a while to sink in. Some things take a while to shake off. The important thing is that what stays is authentic.
ABOUT THE ESSAYIST
is a Washington DC-based
digital communications officer
and contributor for
Photos by Christopher Flowers, Noah Dobin-Bernstein and Deborah Kim