When did you first realize you were white?
When did you first realize you were black/Asian/Latino/Native American/multiracial?
When I pose the former question to people who are white, I’m often met with blank stares. Not always, of course — some people talk about being raised in environments where they were the minority, seeing friends of color being treated differently in high school, or taking classes in college where they learned about privilege and systemic racism — but often, people look at me as though I’m asking when they realized that the sky is blue or the sun is hot. In contrast, when I ask people of color the latter question, I almost always get a concrete answer: an age, usually accompanied by an anecdote about the moment when they were first made aware that they were different. These stories are most often from early childhood, and the aftermath of these moments — shame, rage, self-loathing — can be heartbreaking.
In time, these feelings may give way to appreciation of and pride in their heritage, but that transformation usually takes years of exploration and self-reflection. The process by which people of color come to terms with their racial identity has been studied for decades, and because many people seem to go through similar stages, researchers have come up with a few models to describe it. These models don’t fit everyone perfectly — not everyone goes through all the stages or traverses them linearly — but they can be a helpful tool to understand the different ways in which people can experience their race as they make sense of it.
This is how it went down for me.*
Stage 1: Conformity. In which the person prefers the dominant culture and feels negatively about their own racial group.
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. The Detroit metropolitan area is diverse in many ways — African Americans are the majority in the city proper and in several neighboring ones, and the area has the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East — but there aren’t a ton of Asian Americans, as is true in most of the Midwest. The ones who do live in the area are highly concentrated in Troy, a suburb that’s approximately 20% Asian. But where I lived, about 10 miles west, the demographics were very different. I was one of 5 Asian Americans in my high school graduating class of 300.
But just as most kids start out blissfully unaware of how they’re different — that their parents are divorced, that they don’t have any money, etc. — I started out with little inkling that I was Asian. Obviously, I knew on some level that I was — I knew that my parents were from Taiwan, I knew that we spoke Chinese at home — but those things didn’t mean anything to me. Most of the kids around me were white, and I didn’t assume I was any different; after all, when I looked around, I saw only them, not myself in the picture with them.
But then I went to summer camp, and everything changed.
I was 5 years old, and I was sitting at a long, cafeteria-style table in a home ec room at the local middle school. A few feet in front of me stood a long counter with an overhanging mirror, angled to display the wares on the countertop to the rest of the room. A woman behind the counter — middle-aged, dark-haired, slightly heavyset — wordlessly gathered and organized her ingredients.
Since both of my parents worked full-time, I spent most of my childhood summers at Super Summer Day Camp, where I rotated between classes like T-shirt/Sweatshirt Art and Cheerleading. I was waiting for my cooking class to start, and as other kids trickled in from Swimming and Rocketry and Sports USA, a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl pulled into the seat across from me. She peered at me, her glasses magnifying the curiosity in her eyes.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
I stared back at her for a moment, thrown off by the question; no one had ever asked me that before. “Kalamazoo?” I answered with hesitation, naming in the city in Michigan where I was born.
“No no,” she said, clearly dissatisfied with my response. “I mean, where are you from?”
I paused again, uncertain why my answer was insufficient. Wanting to please my new Aryan friend, I flipped through my mental Rolodex, searching for a more satisfactory answer. I drew a card at random. “Taiwan?” I said slowly, naming the island from where my parents had emigrated 16 years before.
Her eyes lit up. Clearly, this is was the answer she had been looking for. “Cool!” she said, with palpable enthusiasm for her new foreign friend. “How many days of school do you have?”
Now I was stuck. I had two choices: I could opt for accuracy – as a student in the school district sponsoring this day camp, I went to school 5 days a week. Or I could opt for consistency – in Taiwan, students go to school 5 and a half days a week. Both choices made me uncomfortable.
Reluctantly, I chose the latter. “Five and a half?” I said, the inaccuracy making me wince.
“Cool!” she said. “We have 5.”
I KNOW, I thought loudly in my head. But then the woman behind the counter called the class to order, and our conversation abruptly ended. I was left completely bewildered about what had just transpired, my cheeks slowly growing hot, feeling frustrated and deeply misunderstood.
As I tried to process what had just happened, I could glean only one conclusion: There was something about me that had made this girl think I was different. And it was probably my face.
Parts 2 and 3 of this story will be posted tomorrow and Thursday. In the meantime, if you have a story about when you first realized that you were white, black, Asian, Latino, Native American, or multiracial, I’d love to hear it.
* The stage model I use here is the Racial/Cultural Identity Development Model by Atkinson, Morten, and Sue (1979, 1989, 1993, 1998).