I am a racist. I grew up in a racist culture and I am actively working on becoming an anti-racist. For most of my life, as a female I’ve been aware of sexism and I am an active feminist. Yet as an Asian, I’ve been lucky to not experience much racism towards me, while unthinkingly exhibiting racism towards others. Writing this is uncomfortable. I’m worried that I might offend or say the wrong thing. And this is better than silence.
I am an immigrant. I grew up all over the world, often as an “other,” not from the color of my skin or my gender, but from a sense of not truly belonging here. I’ve lived in Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong, where my race has been that of the majority. I’ve lived in the Netherlands and England where my race is the distinct minority, and I have little to no racial memories of those years. I currently live in San Francisco. Most of my working experience has been in California and in Silicon Valley, where Asians are as prevalent as white and are considered part of the majority. Yes, I’ve experienced some rare racism in the form of hurled insults from passersby, or a tokenism when I visited my white boyfriend’s tiny town in western Colorado and I was the first Asian that some had ever seen. But throughout my life, I’ve experienced far more sexism than any form of racism. I’ve been privileged.
Growing up in Bangkok within the culture of my upper middle class family, racism towards others is a casual fact of life. White supremacy is dominant, and I grew up within this commonly accepted cultural understanding of the hierarchy of races:
- White is best. Western is best.
- East Asian is good. We are Asian, and here’s where we fit.
- Brown is not-so-good. We are better than Indians, Muslims, Mexicans (the blanket term used for anyone Latinx).
- Black is at the bottom.
I was privileged to attend Stanford University. My parents were horrified that I was dating a white man, because he was non-Asian. Yet they accepted it because white is best. Tiger Woods, already a celebrity, attended Stanford at the same time. He is half Thai and half African-American. My parents only half-jokingly threatened to ex-communicate me should I ever date him. His Thai-ness (and celebrity) did not come close to overcoming his blackness.
I’ve never questioned my cliche of dating white men, and I have two bi-racial daughters who are half-Asian and half-white. In San Francisco, they are considered part of the majority. When in Asia, strangers will comment on the beauty and lightness of my daughters’ skin. Being more white is prized. Movie stars, models, and celebrities in Thailand are often half-Asian and half-white.
In my professional life, I’ve been an ardent feminist and, almost as an afterthought, an advocate of diversity. As a leader at Facebook, I had a reputation for inclusion — at one point in time, my team had a 50/50 gender ratio and also had a near 50/50 ratio of white+Asian (the majority in tech) to non-majority races. In addition to the demographic, I believe that I practiced the psychographic of encouraging dissenting opinions, diverse perspectives and using them to generate conversation, ideas, and better products to represent our world. I learned of my own unconscious bias, both against working women as well as most strongly against African Americans.
As a leadership coach, the majority of my clients are women and minorities. I help to draw out their individual voices, stories, background and encourage pride & celebration in their unique leadership. The white men that I coach have their own diversity and they are woke— quiet leaders and fierce allies.
As an avid reader, I’m in a feminist bookclub that primarily reads female authors. Increasingly we’ve tried to focus on women of color and non-American voices. I remember initially questioning why all this mattered, that there’s plenty of good books by white males. Over time, I learned the value of seeking out more underrepresented voices and authors. I have choices in my reading material.
My network of friends is multi-colored. I went to high school in an elite international school in New Delhi. We would joke that our photos looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad.
Yet all of these paragraphs feel like weak, shallow justifications. They’ve been activities that I’ve passively stumbled into. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve often been on the periphery and resolutely silent on the conversation of race. Life has felt hard enough. I’ve kept my head down about race, remained silent when I’ve been in the presence of blanket judgements about black people (and Asians), and felt that I had enough on my plate with my own feminist struggles. Why rock the boat? Why take on someone else’s problem when I have enough to handle. Yet… Silence is violence.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Martin Luther King
I can do more and I need to do more. I will understand my majority privilege. I will examine my Asian-ness, and my relationship with race. I will better educate my bi-racial girls.
This week, every conversation I’ve had has been about race. It’s been as small as acknowledging what’s happening around us, and as large as holding the space for a client experiencing flashbacks of police violence from decades earlier. I remember a conversation with a fellow coach, a white woman from a family of small business owners. She talked about the plight of restauranteurs who are just now starting to reopen after being pandemic-shuttered for months, and are now faced with broken windows and looted property from this week’s riots. For the first time, I was brave. While trying to hold trust, instead of building upon her empathy, I provided another perspective. Clumsily, I talked about generations of rage and anger… of the inability and impotence against a systemic racism in this country… and of how I still struggle to understand, and feel so far away from truly feeling and living it every day because I am not marked by the color of my skin. It wasn’t much, and it was a start.
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” —Martin Luther King
What I’m Doing
1. I’m understanding and claiming my Asian privilege
These are many aspects of Peggy McIntosh’s daily effects of white privilege that I cannot claim. Given that I’d been trying to live a color-blind life, it was surprising to me that almost half of them did not apply. My wealthy tech-bubble privilege has blinded me to the fact that I am not white and not the majority. Yet, there were others that resonated and are an effect of my Asian privilege:
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
2. I’m reading widely as a portal to reframing my relationship with race
In the past, there have been many heavy books on race that I’ve been unable to finish. I’m currently reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and working through the 28-day exercises in Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. Reading informs my opinions. It’s a way for me to process the world, and then share my questions, discomfort and thoughts.
3. Open discussions with my bi-racial girls
Our world is changing and we are living through history right now. My role as a parent is to educate my girls to not be color-blind. We watch the videos together, and discuss their reactions to them. I may have crossed the line showing the video of George Floyd to my nine year old, yet I’d rather err on the side of over-sharing, and sit with her through her fear and sadness. It’s the least we can do given the fear that nine year old black boys and girls have to internalize daily.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t know what to say. I continue to be racist and make mistakes while working towards being anti-racist. I do know that speaking is the only way to end the violence. I acknowledge my Asian privilege and I’m starting the conversations right now.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.