The Innocence of Yesterday

The Innocence of Yesterday

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The Innocence of Yesterday

When my dad sees a black person, he always says, black dude. He says it with a bitter taste in his mouth. He utters it to me as if to make sure that I take note that the person is black and therefore also a dude. There is no purpose in his saying this, yet he says it without concern for what it reveals about his racial attitudes. Or rather he does not care what others think of his stereotypes. He may be the only person I know who speaks his mind so recklessly, but stereotypes are pervasive throughout society. All of us attach images and experiences to people we have never met. When I was a child, I absorbed negative views on every race and culture. Hispanics are lazy. Jews are untrustworthy. Blacks are inferior. Indians are dirty. Asians are cheap. When I discovered that I was Asian, I did not know what to think about that.

Until elementary school, I did not notice the color of my skin. I, like everyone else I knew, was colorblind. The notion of race did not exist. My friends had brown, blonde, and black hair, and mine was black, too. Straight, poofy, and always gelled to a gleam, my hair should have tipped me off that I was not like everyone else. I assumed that everyone in my family just happened to be born with abnormal hair. There was no reason to think that my friends at school were different from the miniature community of my home.

Before school, my mind was innocent of discrimination. I cannot recall one moment where I looked at a person of color and thought of a racist stereotype. I was in a protected state of naive bliss, unaware that the fragile shelter of my colorblindness was soon to collapse. Discrimination forced itself into my life.

I remember the first time I felt discrimination. It caused my chest to ache. I was seven, and one of my friends put his index fingers on the corners of his eyes and tugged outwards. He said, "hey Dexter, look. I'm you." I laughed at first. Then the little gears in my head clicked into place, and I stopped. I turned to the mirror behind me and gasped in disbelief. Almond-shaped eyes stared back. It was true.

I looked around me, and almost all the kids were white.

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I was not. Their eyes glistened with roundness, and I wished to be like them. They were so carefree in their skin, running around with Legos and plastic horses without a worry in the world. I was almost like them. I too had plastic toys, but I could not look at a Cabbage Patch Kid or a Ken doll or a He-Man figure and think, this looks like me. The Master of the Universe did not have straight black hair and almond eyes.

Images in my mind began to materialize in a series of revelations- images I had seen of Asian people in movies and pictures, some of them kung-fu fighting, some of them picking rice and the rest eating food. Next to those images was a picture of me and my family. I was Asian.

I ran home that day frantic for evidence that it was all a lie. I hunted through my parents' drawers for pictures of long-lost relatives who just might have been white. I looked at my birth certificate in search of the words "Not Asian" or "certified white baby," anything to save me from my skin. There was nothing. I sat down in my little sweatpants and looked closely at the handprint of my former, smaller self. The fingerprints were slightly smudged. I glanced down at the fingertips of my right hand and then gingerly placed them against the imprint. It was me.

I still had one hope. I hurried down the stairs and opened the refrigerator door. The door light made strange silhouettes of the food inside. Bread, eggs, green vegetables, meat, milk, more eggs. I paused. More eggs? I bent forward and put my little but big head into the second shelf. The eggs were grey and floated in a jar full of mysterious brown liquid. I eyed them carefully and rotated the jar until I could see the label. Chinese characters greeted me. I quickly retreated, closed the door, and put my back to the fridge door. Asian food for Asian people, I thought.

My mom came into the kitchen and bent down to hug me at my position. I closed my eyes and tried envisioning my mom as being of another race. I imagined her hair color as blonde and red and brown. The brown almost fit as I made the tint darker and darker. Eventually it became black, and I gave up. My mom was perfect as she was. I opened my eyes and returned the hug.

I went upstairs and sat down on my bed. My little brother was sleeping in it. I laid down next to him and thought about who I was. I was Dexter Ang, seven years old, in 2 nd grade. I had three brothers, a mom and a dad, and a cat. I was Asian, and I did not know what to think about that. I looked at my brother. He was Asian, and he looked like he was fine with it. As that thought settled in my mind, I fell asleep.

My mom woke us for dinner. As my family sat around the table, I looked at the round faces and almond eyes resembling mine. I thought about the times I was the only yellow face in a sea of white. I thought about how I did not want to be like everyone else. I thought about how my race made me special. While chewing my beef and broccoli, I accepted my identity. It wasn't so bad being Asian.

My race is ingrained in my identity. I cannot part from it either physically or mentally. It forms the lens of my experience and influences how others view me. As a child, I traded the race I was born with to pretend to be someone else. My life's stage was full of homogeneous characters, and I was wearing a disguise to fit in. Seven years of closing my eyes to the image reflected in mirrors. Seven years of unconscious acting and then the false comfort of homogeneity disappeared. The curtain of my identity rose to reveal to me my true race. I rejected my membership to this race and reached for my worn-in costume, but could no longer grasp the illusion.

It has been difficult to understand this realization and feel unashamed of being different. Struggling to define the two halves of my identity, one as American and the other as Asian, and to balance their coexistence has woven open-mindedness and empathy into my personality. I am a man apart from the convention of race. My appearance is only as shallow as my skin but my identity lies deep within my heart.

The cultural origin from which I emerged was different from what I was exposed to in society. Growing up without an extensive Asian community to support and affirm my identity, I was for a long time unable to internalize my race. I absorbed the attitudes of my friends and accepted them as my own. My friend's joke about me was funny because I did not recognize the irony. Outside the confines of my home, I forgot who I was and what I looked like. I was in denial of my racial identity.

While the realization of the truth was abrupt and uncomfortable, accepting and embracing who I am filled a void in my personality. My identity is no longer empty of the truth, and I do not close my eyes to race and hope for childhood naivete and innocence. Acknowledging reality formed in me a deep understanding of how race influences the person that I embody. I cannot be defined or simplified by my race nor do I think that others can be. Race does not determine who we are, but is a layer contributing to our individuality within the collective identity. Internalizing the struggle to accept race allows me to empathize with similar issues others may be facing. It is not the concept of race that is dangerous; it is the baggage of our associations and prejudices that weighs down the pursuit of our identity. We should all be unafraid to discover who we are.
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