“Asians are people of color!” This is one of the many sentiments that came about after the wave of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also a phrase I am repeatedly trying to jam into my brain because it doesn’t resonate with me.
I had never thought of myself as a person of color. I grew up in a small suburb of Indianapolis, known for having one of the best public-school systems in Indiana. The town also happens to have a median income of $137,377 and a population that is 90.7% white. For reference, Ann Arbor has a median income of $65,745 and 71.1% of its population is white. I, however, am half Vietnamese and half white. And I’m going through an identity crisis.
I’m confused! How could I not be? I’ve been getting mixed messages from white people my entire life. I’m convinced I don’t remember much of my childhood because it is not worth remembering. What I do recall hurts. The “cool” English teacher would consistently mistake me for one of the few other biracial girls in my grade. In my speech and debate class, I chose to argue against affirmative action because I (naïvely) believed in meritocracy. But I was taken aback when no one was willing to argue in favor of affirmative action. I was encouraged by peers to select “white” on college applications (back in the day, you could only select one) because I would have a better chance of being accepted. I was told I have yellow skin and slanty eyes. I was told I am exotic. And as a native-born American, I was told I have an accent.
Clearly, I had to leave.
Beginning my undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh was a breath of fresh air. Although still not diverse ($48,711 median income and 66.8% white), I enjoyed living in a city with a blue-collar vibe. It felt more real and approachable than the prim and proper institutions I grew up with. But I struggled to find my own people. At first, I latched on to the first friend group that would have me. Naturally, they were all white – which never registered as odd at the time because I was used to that. I imagine this is what I had been excluded from in high school: friends that celebrated my birthday, gossiped about boys, and hosted elaborate themed parties. But after a couple years, the excitement faded. Perhaps I had assimilated too well, because my inner dialogue shifted. Boyfriends told me that I act like a white girl and “thank goodness too, because Asian women are crazy.” Here’s the embarrassing kicker: I was proud of that. If it took erasing my life experiences to continue being accepted by my (white) peers, I was willing to endure anything to not relive the “othering” I experienced growing up. I just smiled and laughed through the pain. A model minority.
The recent wave of AAPI hate crimes and subsequent support of the Asian American community was a turning point for me in that I can now acknowledge my own pain and isolation. I started talking to my mom and grandma to understand their experiences and where I come from. My grandma fled from North to South Vietnam to escape the communist regime, only to evacuate her entire family from Saigon to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. I realized that starting over from nothing has a generational impact. Time spent supporting us with food, clothing, and shelter, while navigating a systemically racist and sexist world, meant my mom had less mental and emotional energy to devote to my sister and me. We didn’t have the time or the energy to talk about, or even pay attention to, the discrimination we were facing. I’m not sure my mom would be equipped to do that regardless. I mean, where would she even have learned how? Certainly not from my grandparents – they didn’t speak English and relied more on my mom than anything. I can’t speak for my sister, but I certainly feel like I raised myself.
The outpouring of care for the AAPI community helped me realize that there are other people who have been through similar experiences and don’t subscribe to the Asian monolith myth. I know that there are valid reasons I’m confused. Now I am working on accepting myself that way. It’s still very challenging. Some days I wake up and feel so privileged: I have my health, friends, family, and a successful early-stage research career. But I try, and often fail, to remind myself that that doesn’t erase the discrimination I’ve endured, and will continue to endure, even if it isn’t always visible.
Sharing my story has been difficult because it is still a work in progress. I am still doing mental gymnastics to try to erase my own bias against my own people. I am learning to support other women and minorities instead of competing against them because we all belong in these spaces. If I had friends with whom I shared some of my experiences, maybe I wouldn’t have accepted all the negative things I was told about myself. We need more women of color in the room—at every stage. They are resilient, strong, and compassionate. If they’re not “qualified” upon evaluation, perhaps we need to change how we judge that. The institutions we are all a part of were built by white men, for white men. To change that and include everyone, we must band together. Women and women of color need more organizations that do more than just connect us. We need tangible support like facilitated discourse, workshops on how to climb the career ladder, and sounding boards to help determine whether a situation is acceptable or not in the workplace. There is room for all of us at the top and I believe the way to get there is together.
We need representation not just at the top, but at all levels, because it makes a difference for young girls and women like me, who otherwise might have to navigate the world of STEM alone. I cannot stress enough how much this diversity matters. When I see someone who looks like me or who has a story like mine, it empowers me. Sharing this story empowers me too in the hopes that at least one person reads this and feels a little less alone.
Elizabeth Bottorff is a PhD Candidate in the department of Biomedical Engineering where she studies neural engineering therapies for female sexual dysfunction. She is passionate about dismantling the patriarchy, mental health and well-being, and K-12 outreach. In her free time she likes to play video games, listen to murder podcasts, and stare into the abyss.
Article edited by CD and MRB.