I’ve only had a racial slur directed at me once in my life. It was so unexpected, so rare, that my reaction was pure confusion.
“Did that redneck just call me a ‘coon’?” I asked my friend. “That’s bad right?”
We were in high school, at a church beach retreat, and some older boys had gotten into the hot tub we were in. When I said something one of them didn’t like, he replied with, “Shut up, coon.”
I am not black. That particular summer I was incredibly tan, and it was dark out, and I do have kinky, thick, dark hair. I convinced myself that he was either really stupid or really drunk, or both. But I couldn’t shake it. Because I’m not, technically speaking, white.
This experience was one of maybe only a handful of times racism seemed to affect me, personally. I was born more resembling my white mother. My sister was born looking more like my 1/2 Filipino, 1/2 Italian father. I look white to most white people. And indeed, 3/4 of me is. Because of this, I’ve almost always considered myself white. Race isn’t about accuracy right? It’s about perception. Prejudice. Overcoming systemic disadvantages and injustices, and dealing with frequent microagressions. These didn’t happen to me.
They did happen to my grandfather, and my father, and my sister. My grandfather was segregated when he left the Philippines to join the American Navy (illegally) at 16. They made him a cook, like the other “coloreds,” and he served captains and white officers. When he met my Italian grandmother years later, they married and settled in Italy. They moved to America when my father was ten. My father met my (white) mother in the 80’s, they married, and I was born. My childhood was normal, and happy.
When my little sister came along, six years after I was born, women would sometimes stop my mother in the grocery store or on the sidewalk. They’d coo over how cute my sister was, then pause, their voices lowered to a hushed tone. “Is she adopted?” I remember feeling confused and angry each time this happened.
My sister and I both grew up surrounded by languages we didn’t speak or understand. At family get together’s there were buffets of pasta dishes lovingly made by my Italian Zia’s, sitting next to Pancit and Lumpia cooked by their Filipino husbands. Tagalog and Italian were spoken just as much as English. This was nothing but normal to me, so I never considered it wasn’t, for a “white” girl.
It honestly wasn’t until reading Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed essay on white writers pretending to be Asian writers that I even began to reflect on my childhood, through the lens of which kind I am.
Am I a white writer? Or an Asian one?
Up until reading her essay, I considered myself a white writer. I look white (to most white people) and the only prejudices I’ve experienced have been due to my sex and size. So when I would come across campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I’d think, Absolutely, I hope more non-white writers get published. I would intentionally seek out books written by non-white authors. Sometimes I’d even feel guilty, wondering if my novel, written about an “olive-skinned” teenager, was too-white.
When I clicked on Zhang’s Buzzfeed essay, I expected to feel the familiar sense of obligation and anger that I normally do when I encounter stories about racism. The same thing most white liberals feel. But then I got to the part where she talked about the significance of writers with Asian names, and I paused.
My surname is Asian.
“Timbol,” my grandfather always told me, is like, “Smith” in the Philippines. In the U.S., I have never met another Timbol I wasn’t related to. But if you search Facebook or Twitter for “Timbol”, you’ll see a sea of easily identifiable Asian faces, and me. The fact that I’m “Emily Timbol”–a very white name paired with an “unusual” last name, means that I have no Google doppelganger. It’s just me.
For this reason, Zhang’s essay shook me up. I felt confused by my role in racism, for the first time since I became socially aware of its toxicity. I always assumed I was part of the problem, not someone suffering the consequences. But if an editor sees my name when my submission comes by their desk, and they recognize it’s Asian, am I really a white writer? I’m certainly not a white writer like Michael Derrick Hudson. So what am I?
It seems easy to say I’m, “mixed race.” But I’ve always been extremely hesitant to claim this identity. Racism is such an acidic, destructive poison, that it felt wrong to claim a role that comes with vitriol I never felt. I didn’t want to be like those white people who claim to be 1/16 Cherokee, as if to say, “I can’t be racist, I’m not even white!”
When it comes to writing though, I’m not as hesitant. Because like many writers, I mine the past for inspiration. I write about what matters to me, what effected me. And my past is not filled with white family and experiences. My name reflects that. Timbol is a name that was segregated. It’s a name shared with a sister with the same DNA, who was frequently asked, “what are you?” by friends and strangers alike. If, as a writer, I’m being judged just as much by my words as my name (as many women are) it’s a name that’s slightly confusing. It matters.
The subtitle of Zheng’s piece–which I very much enjoyed–notes that there’s a long tradition of white voices, “drowning out those of color in the literary world.” Before reading her essay, I would have nodded, and agreed, and secretly hoped I wasn’t one of those voices doing the drowning. But now? I’m not sure which side of the boat I’m on.
None of my confusion changes the truths in Zheng’s piece. Neither does it erase my responsibility–as someone who has benefited from white privilege–to promote and support writers of color. It does though, give me motivation to not neglect this part of me, in my writing. Just as there are not enough books written by and about non-white characters, there are also not ones featuring characters with varied backgrounds like mine. Lots of little girls grew up surrounded by food and languages foreign to their friends, even if you couldn’t tell that just by looking at them. Their stories matter too.