I am a first-generation Chinese American. And amidst the complexity of the pieces that form my identity (mom, wife, daughter, woman, doctor), it is the piece I have often prized the least.
In one of my earliest memories, I am riding a crowded bus in Beijing. My aunt and cousin are pointing out the American tourists as we pass, commenting on their high nose bridges and round eyes and how these features are superior to our own. When I emigrated from China with my parents, I remember grandma sharing her hope that someday I would have “yellow-haired, blue-eyed children.”
I don’t know how much this influenced my choice of partner, who is Caucasian. When we married, I was thinking about the large family that we would create, but I don’t recall consciously participating in the fulfillment of my grandma’s dream. But who knows, expectations and the dreams of others shape us in ways we don’t fully understand.
Within four years, we were lucky to bring three babies into our family — all were born with blue eyes and blonde hair.
My Chinese family was elated. “Look at how fair their skin is! They don’t look Chinese at all! How beautiful!” They excitedly circulated pictures widely among relatives and friends, boasting, “Look at their blue eyes. Little Americans!” And I also reveled in my children’s “whiteness” as friends or passersby made glowing comments about the color of their skin, eyes or hair — comments about how they looked like their dad or openly expressed the wish for their own half-Asian babies to have such light complexions. All of these experiences have made me feel deeply unsettled. It has taken me years to understand how entrenched in racism I was.
Am I a victim or a perpetrator?
The truth is, I have practiced assimilation, consciously and unconsciously, since I left China at the age of three. Growing up, I would never speak a word of Mandarin Chinese in public. I never used chopsticks in public. I pinched my nose to make it less broad. And I joined my peers in making fun of those who were less “assimilated” than I was. Once I was considered “basically white” or “white enough,” I wore this as a badge of pride.
I have dedicated my 20s to medical training and the last four years to psychiatry specifically. In psychiatry, we learn to recognize disparities in mental health, tuning in to transference and countertransference, and how our own identities influence our clinical interactions. And despite being immersed in this material for four years, it remains arduous and painful to look within and face my own biases. Psychiatry training is as much about patterns of mental disorder in individual patients as it is about inspecting how issues of disparity and discrimination contribute to mental health, or lack thereof, on a systemic level.
The concepts of “white adjacent” and “model minority” have emerged to the forefront of my attention amidst recent events. Asian-Americans have been classified throughout the last few decades as the “model minority,” a story of immigrants who “successfully assimilated” and “persevered” despite racial disparities. In believing this myth ourselves and doing our part to perpetuate racism, we simultaneously suffer from and reap the benefits of being “white adjacent,” of being a minority with access to the benefits of white privilege. And our silent acts of assimilation have ultimately made us complicit in oppression.
Practicing in the suburban Northwest, I stand out, especially amidst the ongoing pandemic. “Take you and your virus back to your country,” I have had patients tell me, “I don’t trust Asians.” Maybe the microaggressions, biases and racism toward Asian Americans was always there, subtle and insidious. But we have been dismissive of it until now, finding it much easier to hide under the protection that being a “model minority” offers.
And just as soon as our stories of triumph, our rags-to-riches narrative is elevated, rewarded with scholarships and college acceptances and seats in committees for promoting “diversity and inclusion,” our deeply racialized society is even quicker to turn its back, even on its “model minority.” In this way, being “white adjacent” for any minority group is a superficial and temporary position.
In psychiatry, we are taught not only to accept and validate but to question the status quo. We learn to call people’s bluffs, to tactfully challenge, to point out incongruities between thoughts and behaviors, to bring attention to things unsaid, to state uncomfortable truths, all in a way that still maintains the therapeutic relationship. Through this process, psychiatry training and practice put us in a unique position to be activists.
In my role as a psychiatrist, my way of action is by writing, by using my training to explore complicated topics of identity and the biases we all hold, by acknowledging power dynamics, by avoiding the comfortable urge to “laugh off” a targeted remark and instead of challenging my patients.
And when needed, it is the duty of supervisors, the training program, the institution to support and stand up for their trainees, invest in space and opportunities for exploring racism in the curriculum, and invite marginalized voices to the leadership table. Such actions have large downstream effects on the young doctors, students and the patients in our care.
In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings a powerful plea after learning of his exclusion from an unprecedented political decision: “I want to be in the room where it happens.” This “room” is where my efforts concentrate. It’s where I tear down walls and beliefs I have held since age three. It’s where dialogue happens, where I challenge beliefs, where I help heal patients. It’s where I look at my children and feel pride in the facial features that resemble mine. Where I question my family’s racial biases. Where I, for their sake, use my training to speak up against systems of privilege perpetuated within our society.
Eunice Stallman is a psychiatry resident.
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