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.