Everyone in my algebra class pulled their desks away from me as if I was toxic — I became an island in the middle of the room. After 45 minutes of humiliation, my self-perception would never be the same. That was the first bad day I had ever had simply because I am Asian.
In February 2014, I came to the United States for the first time to study in New Jersey as an exchange student. To say I was excited would be an understatement. But that optimism would soon become crushing disheartenment. My classmates’ actions were, in a sense, unproblematic. No racial slurs and no physical attacks were involved, just microaggressions. I knew I was experiencing prejudice because I didn’t do anything offensive, but their bias was so intangible that my accusation would lack legitimacy. It could come off as another overreaction. The school administration wouldn’t have punished anyone for not wanting to be my friend. At 13 years old, I knew too little about self-advocacy but too much about overcorrections. My nerve only took me as far as dropping out from that algebra class. My identity, however, had no such option. This scenario would shape my self-awareness throughout adolescence.
I completely changed my behavioral pattern after this experience. Back in my Chinese middle school, I was an active participant in class discussions, an assertive speaker in presentations and a curious learner who asked way more questions than I should have. After realizing I was not welcome in the U.S., I silenced myself because I felt intimidated and disqualified. I was aware this behavior would only reinforce the stereotype of a passive Asian, but that still outweighed the dread of making a grammatical mistake in front of everyone and becoming the butt of a joke.
I’m glad to see racial inequity in politics, professional recruitment and college admissions dominate the news cycle, but we shouldn’t downplay the psychological impacts of micro-level racism, especially in educational contexts. Classmates’ underlying prejudices can strip minority students of their confidence and academic excellence. This is what causes the shame they feel when they see the colors of their hair and skin in the mirror. This is the loneliness that pushes them to hide in the bathroom rather than show up at the lunch table. This is the heartache they feel when wondering if any other minority students have experienced a similarly embarrassing 45 minutes.
I know the students’ young age could have been a factor in their microaggression. I’m positive those classmates have evolved as individuals and behave more maturely now, but it troubles me when I put myself in the shoes of someone who has undergone a more ruthless treatment at an even younger age. Later in my life, I was lucky to have met more supportive American students in Michigan and here at Emory. These more recent interactions have helped heal my scars, but for someone who never receives an apology or achieves healing later in life, early exclusions can be life-defining. Such trauma can even span generations, as Celeste Ng demonstrates in one of my favorite Asian American novels, “Everything I Never Told You.” In the book, a Chinese immigrant father projects his insecurity onto his daughter, which eventually causes her suicide.
I have spent too many years struggling to become the right kind of Asian. If I excel academically, I’m an Asian nerd who sacrificed social life to study under the supervision of strict Asian parents. If I fail, I’m a spoiled Asian kid who can’t overcome the most basic English proficiency barrier. If I dress more formally, I’m an outdated Asian lady who’s frozen in the past and can’t embrace modernity. If I dress casually, I can be over-sexualized and fit into the Asian fetish narrative. I’m scared to be polite because my kindness has too often been taken as a weakness, and the current Stop Asian Hate protest movement is an unprecedented and long-overdue stand against this stereotype. Still, I’m scared to be loud and angry because that would establish me as uncivilized and uneducated, which is itself another Asian stereotype.
In the case of racism, it’s always better to overreact. We have normalized too many bad days for Asians, which culminated most recently on March 16, 2021, as a horrific day on which six Asian Americans and two others were murdered. We remained silent because discrimination made us feel disenfranchised, and that silence birthed still more discrimination. We carefully avoid embodying those negative stereotypes just to realize the standards we can’t satisfy are the initiatives we sacrificed.
It’s only through activism that we can foster an environment in which the next generation of Asians won’t feel the need to validate themselves against something they are not. Equality means having the freedom of self-expression, whether quiet or loud, without dealing with negative connotations. Equality means people neither choose nor refuse to befriend someone because of their race. Equality means not mistaking society’s systematic marginalization as somebody’s personal failure and advocating for more inclusivity. I recognize that my experience may not be representative of all Asians in the U.S., but in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings and the Stop Asian Hate movement, I realized I should no longer be silenced by anti-Asian racism.
Kennedy Zhang (23C) is from Beijing.