Eugene remembers his white friends making blatant racist remarks about his face. Now, those same people are marching in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations
In my high school yearbook there is a photo of me smiling with wide open eyes. It’s a prefect’s photo – I went to a private boys’ school – and I’m wearing a navy blazer with gold trim, adorned with badges and symbols that said I was a leader in that community of largely white and wealthy boys.
Earlier in the year, I was laughing, and in that happiness I heard a group of white friends say, “Eugene, open your eyes when you smile”. I went home and smiled in the mirror, and saw how my Asian eyes almost disappeared. I took their point. So in that prefects’ photo, where I wanted to look like the person I thought I was, the leader I was so proud of being, I tried to open my eyes.
The same white people who told me to open my eyes in that moment of blatant racism are now on Instagram telling me about racism. They’ve gone to protests and are sharing resources about how to be an ally. They’re celebrating headlines about the defunding of the Minneapolis police and laughing at videos of the Edward Colstan statue being thrown into the River Avon in Bristol, United Kingdom.
I’ve tried to rejoice like they do, but I can’t. If there is one thing that this movement has revealed to me, it is how deeply cynical I’ve become.
White fragility is a term that tries to explain how white people can’t handle talking or even thinking about racism because it makes them feel too bad, and why they end up avoiding it by denying it, expressing outrage at accusations of it, or just walking out of conversations about it.
I’m scared because my cynicism can only see white people at protests and on social media as a new rendition of white fragility: walking out of ugly confrontations with racism in their past and potential future, and exclusively towards the comparatively invigorating and exciting pursuit of dismantling and disarming racist institutions.
I’m sad because the hard work of acknowledging our own racism can be invisible, and I’m too cynical to hope it’s happening.
But I get it. Confronting and accepting the idea that you can be or have been racist is scary, ugly, and hard, because it is a fundamental betrayal of what we want to see in ourselves.
Racism is built upon hate, anger, resentment, bitterness, and other feelings directly at odds with the values we hold to ourselves. It’s so much easier to split those qualities from ourselves and project them onto something else. Accepting that we can stumble into racism is an admission that we are not who we thought we are, nor the families who raised us, nor our dearest friends and loved ones, our communities, and our nations.
To confront our own racism is difficult, ugly, and painful because it destroys our sense of self.
But so many people of colour have to do this anyway, just to live a life unburdened by internalised racism and self-hatred. A part of me so deeply resented and hated the shape of my eyes that I tried to tear them open.
I failed to do that, clearly, and that led me to tear apart other things. The first was the idea that I was, or one day could be white, that I could be completely assimilated. Soon after came my sense of belonging, the trust I placed in my friends and the trust I could place in new people I meet.
Next came my aspirations and ideas of what I could be in a world where I was, ultimately, an outsider.
I threw a lot of pride into darkness, but while I was there, I also pulled a lot of shame into the light. I now see beauty in that old shame, like my family, our food, and the shape of my eyes and the tone of my skin and the different shapes and tones of the people who’ve been made to feel like the Other.
That was the most unexpected thing to find, that the racism I had to myself was racism I threw to other people because they, like that part of me I resented, were not white.
I speak to so many people of colour raised in the West who have, in the same way, had to tear, rip, pull, cut, slice, and otherwise dissect themselves into tiny fragments just to break free from the shackles of assimilation.
Part of me is angry because I feel like, through this movement, this reflection is indebted to us. If white allies want to tell me – us – about racism, then this tough and ugly work is the bare minimum that they can do, but I was not brave enough to hope for it.
One source of solace has been James Baldwin, who said that if the word integration means anything, it is “that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it”.
Part of my cynicism comes because I’m Asian-Australian. I live in a body that is relatively safe from the violence of racism but in other ways still in its teeth, and it’s often hard to know what I can or should do.
But at the very least, if I may take the liberty to include myself in Baldwin’s “we”, and include the people of all genders I want to forgive within his notion of “our brothers,” I can find the bravery to hope that my cynicism is wrong.