A couple years after we moved to a pretty White Boston suburb, my bi-racial 5th grade daughter shouted to a Chinese boy while biking, “Well, you know I don’t have any White friends!!”
Frankly, she had almost no friends since moving to town. I attributed this to her extreme shyness, introversion, striking prettiness (shy+quiet+pretty=girls think you’re stuck-up), and moving after most girls already made their friends.
But she clearly thought it was her race. She saw herself as the only Chinese kid in her class. While this wasn’t totally true, it was almost true—most other Asian kids were boys.
Rebecca Cusey just blogged Let’s Talk about Race, Baby: A White Girl Experiences Minority, where she explored both how it feels to be White and a minority in her ‘hood, and her perceptions of Blacks’ loudness. I’m taking her up on her dare!
I grew up in the majority since Hawaii is 70% Asian/Pacific Islander, but I’ve been on the other side ever since moving to the Mainland for college. A challenge of being the minority is you never quite know what’s really going on with others. When I was an average looking, low on the social scale adolescent in Hawaii, I just attributed where I stood to my bad hair and overly intense geeky personality.
But on the Mainland, everything was called into question. Is no one talking to me because I’m boring/unattractive/have spinach in my teeth or because I’m the only Chinese girl in the room? Am I dateless because of me or because White/Black/Latino guys think all Chinese girls look alike (as one guy said)? Or conversely, do some guys want to date me ONLY because I’m Chinese and they have “yellow” fever?
Years ago, I wrote a dissertation on The Interracial Friendships of White and Asian College Students. Although my original proposal included studying 4 groups: White, Asian, Black and Latino, after I collected surveys from 20 Blacks and 16 Latinos, an advisor warned me off the record that I would commit academic suicide if I studied any group other than my own and Whites. “Whites are fair game for everyone,” he explained.
The White and Asian elite Eastern university students often talked about the importance of “comfort zones” in friendship. At the time, most friendship theory emphasized the importance of similarities in forming friendships. My research raised how differences, especially cultural ones, repel.
Loudness was one of those repellants. In fact, the students reported an expressiveness continuum from quiet to loud as:
Asian–> White–> Latino–> Black
Although Asians, Latinos and Blacks have similarities—all racial minorities, all from collective/communitarian cultures as opposed to White individualistic culture, all low in power in our country—White and Asian students felt intimidated by their louder brethren. They perceived that Asians and Whites hung out more because they were quieter, and Blacks and Latinos hung out more because they’re more expressive.
I’m not a quiet Asian. I’m drawn to Black and Latino friends precisely because I enjoy how different their culture is from my own. In my line of work, it’s also my job to initiate with students, faculty and the staff I supervise. But when I’m “off duty,” the lone non-White in the room, and find everyone talking in groups to everyone but me, I can feel like I’m back in college, shaking hands with a fraternity brother who’s winking at a White girl across the room.
With fellow moms in my suburb, mostly I think it’s my fault—I work, I rarely can volunteer at the kids’ schools, I’m congenitally bad at small talk (especially White suburban mom chit-chat).
But like my daughter, sometimes I can’t help but wonder.