On the Internet, I can pass as white, but at a cost.

Even now, when I am part of the anti-racist blogosphere with supposed anti-racist allies, I avoid mentioning my ethnicity on the Internet, because I don’t want people to use that knowledge to guess where I’m coming from, even empathetically. Because they would guess wrong.

A few months ago, I browsed the submissions of the first Asian Women Blog Carnival, and in a post titled On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re Chinese, aozhoux articulated how I used to feel, and still feel (emphasis mine):

Because there are, in my opinion, possible downsides to owning my Asian-ness. I worry – accurately or inaccurately – that people’s impressions of me might change should they be confronted with the realisation that I am, after all, not white. That anything I say or do may henceforth be conveniently attributed to my Chinese-ness, especially if any of my personal quirks should happen to fall into certain common stereotypes (and oh, some of them do *g*). Even worse, people might go so far as to start projecting their language biases onto me, and then I’d start getting the equivalent of “but you write so well (considering your ethnicity, never mind the fact that you grew up exclusively in white-dominated, English-speaking countries)”, and then I’d… have to kill them.

Perhaps this last point sounds a little absurd, but let’s just say it isn’t coming out of nowhere. I’ve seen a milder variation of this kind of language assumption happen right in front of me on lj, and while the corrections and apologies were gracious all around, it still kind of hurt. And in my personal experience many people, of all ethnicities, still seem to have problems with the idea that someone with Asian features and language ability could possibly be a competent, educated, native speaker of English. While I do understand the balance of probabilities backing that assumption, I’d really rather not have to prove myself every time I attempt to construct a sentence.

See, if I meet you in person, I will be in your face with the entirety of who I am – with my accent and my attitude and my personality and my background. It’s less like that online. I do fear that without knowing me, you might just register the “Chinese” part and then filter every future encounter through that, consciously or not (that Seinfeld episode with George’s mother and “the Chinese woman” who wasn’t springs to mind here). You might start assuming things about my appearance, my family, my relationships, my history, my birthplace, and most of the time you will be wrong, because I diverge from the stereotypes in at least as many ways as I conform to them. But you won’t notice those parts.

Before blogging, I participated in serious, intellectual discussions on various Internet forums. I avoided contributing to certain topics, when answering honestly could out myself as a non-white person. Thus, many topics that were immersed in white worldviews remained so, because if I challenged it, I would have made myself vulnerable.

A year or two after I established my credibility and veteran status on an serious-discussion-based forum, I could finally mention my ethnicity when relevant. I thought that the years of writing that I had accumulated—and which revealed a lot about myself—would act as a buffer against people filtering everything I say based on my ethnicity. I believed that I could trust the network of intelligent and progressive people with whom I developed mutual respect.

Although nobody commented that I wrote well for an Asian, I came to understand how much race shapes people’s perception of your written words.

When I mentioned that I liked hip hop, a white liberal said it was because hip hop is generally popular in Asia. When I wondered why Asians were overrepresented in a certain non-racial political organization, people thought that I was implying that (1) the political organization was good; and (2) the political organization must be good because Asians were overrepresented in it. Another time, somebody singled me out and suggested that I should debate a historical, anti-immigration, anti-Chinese topic—a topic I had little interest in or knowledge about. (Another time, I wasn’t sure if a general topic that asked Asians to defend themselves for sticking together was directed at me, as my friends are of different ethnicities, and this person may have expected me to answer for or explain the actions of Asians in general.)

In other words, I had the same worry as aozhoux that people would have a distorted view of who I am if they knew my ethnicity, and after being extremely careful, my ostensible paranoia proved to be accurate. They say, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. However, when I hide my ethnicity, I censor myself. Yet, when I reveal my ethnicity, people don’t see the real me, either.

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14 Responses to “On the Internet, I can pass as white, but at a cost.”

  1. thelady Says:

    I’ve stopped using my photo on anti-racist blogs because I’ve found that people automatically interpret my comments as angry, hateful, and having a negative tone because I’m black.

  2. Mackenzie Says:

    @thelady:
    Irony FTW!

    This is reminding me of an article one of my friends from high school wrote called The Model Minority Myth.

    The other thing it’s reminding me of is an old roommate. She’s ethnically Chinese but grew up in Indonesia and Malaysia. When she tried joining the Chinese Student Association but had no interest in traditional Chinese cultural things like Chinese New Year (except as an excuse to party), she was considered “not Chinese enough” and kinda shunned by the other kids.

  3. thelady Says:

    My friend is ethnically Indian/Malaysian but her family has been in South Africa for generations. She eats Indian foods and is Hindu but does not speak any Indian languages. She is shunned by the Indian international students on campus, especially the women. This seems to be a common problem.

  4. Therese Says:

    total yes to this post! as you know, I’ve been accused of “wanting to be white” or something similar to that effect on the internetz. if you meet me in real life, my ethnicity is literally shown all over my face and written all over my surname. personally, I like heavy metal music… omg I’m hearing more accusations of wanting to white again urgh! it seems as though being a genuine individual (and everyone is – everybody is unique and thus all the same lol) and not wanting to be lumped into a generic (racially and stereotyped) group makes you a wannabe-white (if you are not already white) because white obviously makes you exempt from being judged as being like “the rest of your people” and your actions stand on their own. talk about being backwards. it is not even due to a desire to pass as white, the internet assumes I’m white until I reveal otherwise and then it chatises me for it… weird.

  5. Brinstar Says:

    Before she knew my ethnicity, my parter thought I was an old white lady. I was amused kind of curious about that. I have no idea what made her think I was white and old.

  6. Nquest Says:

    The only thing I decline to reveal online that many people talk about is what I do for a living, work-wise. I am, however, very aware of how people react more to a person’s stated (and sometimes unstated) racial/ethnic identity. I’ve gotten the same response THELADY has but it’s funny how, with few exceptions, White posters can be as insulting, purposely or otherwise, and angry as they want to be and their behavior is either ignored or accepted because, somehow, White anger/resentment is justified and White racism/obliviousness is excusable or something POC shouldn’t hold against White people especially those who are “trying.”

  7. Lxy Says:

    I have no qualms about mentioning my race if people want to know (I’m Asian American). If White people in particular have “issues” with it in some way, that’s their problem. It’s on them.

    Personally, I think it’s important not to let White opinion or perspectives “get in one’s head” or give them racial legitimacy–even tacitly.

    Pass for White? Uh … no thanks.

  8. Nquest Says:

    On the “passing” issue… I really wish there was a way to figure out the number of Whites who pretend they are not White or go out of their way not to announce their racial identity and post on boards/blogs geared toward, populated or hosted by POC vs. the number of POC who try to use the relative anonymity of the internets to pretend like they’re White…

    My experience as a long time poster on Black oriented boards/blogs and as someone who has posted on a variety of political boards/blogs is that a significant, though perhaps small, percentage of Whites feel compelled to disguise their identity out of desire to create mischief and/or because they are overly-conscious of their lack of credibility on issues of race/racism. I haven’t witnessed much if any cases of POC acting that way so this idea of POC “passing” or considering “passing” is new to me.

  9. Restructure! Says:

    I don’t think it’s that POC who do this are purposely trying to pass as white, but in mainstream online communities, people assume that you are white and male (and American) unless you indicate otherwise. For forums, etc. that are not about race—say you want help with computer issues—you don’t want to randomly mention your race, yet you know that if you don’t, they assume that you are a white person.

    For non-political communities, often race is not relevant, and you don’t want have to deal with it since you already have to deal with it offline.

    For example, let’s say the forum is dedicated to topic X, which has nothing to do with race. However, sometimes people go off topic and talk about topic Y, which is related to race. You don’t want to out yourself in topic Y, because then it might affect how people deal with you back in topic X. You don’t want to racially defend yourself and “educate” (white) people 24/7 of your life, so you just ignore topic Y.

  10. Nquest Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Restructure.

  11. Nquest Says:

    OT… I just thought I’d drop a couple of links:

    http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

    … which was referenced on the following blog:

    http://honkytalkantiracism.blogspot.com/

  12. Melinda Says:

    Interesting. I’m blatant online about the fact that I’m biracial. Problem is that people assume I mean that I’m half black. No problem usually. I just correct them, though it does irk me that people think there are only 2 races. Some don’t believe me and continue to insist I must be part black if I’m biracial. Or they say that I can’t call myself biracial if I’m not part black. For the record, I’m Native American/White.

    In person, it goes between people not believing me because I’m pale and knowing right off what I am. I don’t know what benefit people who are pure white get from playing mixed race or bragging about some distant ancestor they’ve never met who may have been 1/64th Cherokee. (It’s always Cherokee for some reason.) Personally, I got enough of being called half breed mongrel and having people making “Indian noises” at me in school.

    To the point, though, I think you’re right that people assume whiteness until you tell them otherwise. To far too many people in the West, “white” is humanity’s default (no explanations/stereotypes needed) even though only a minority of humans are white. Though I have to say that some people who assume I’m white have asked me to defend all white people.

  13. g531 Says:

    I think, given light to research on facebook and the white supremacy embedded in the internet and networking sites, this is an important and significant debate. Especially the way we are continuously racialized in school systems whether being asked ‘what’ we are–obvious and transparent dehumanization–or asked to ‘represent’ some aspect of our history as constructed by others, whether from ‘our group’ or outsiders.

  14. Zaibatsu was a hidden black man on Digg. « Restructure! Says:

    […] On the Internet, I can pass as white, but at a cost. […]


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