An Asian Woman’s Experience of Racism
This was originally published in This Good Work, a publication from our community.
by Sr. MikYoung Teresa Hwang
Racism was a topic all of us Precious Blood Sisters reflected on during the last year, and the recent Leadership Conference of Women Religious Virtual 2021 Assembly also discussed it. This complex topic continues to need attention, so this short piece continues our conversation about race.
Months ago, I was introduced to a book titled Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a New York Times bestseller. I found the book helps me to understand my inner reality and to name what I have experienced in the U.S. as an adult Asian woman. Although I had read a book about racism before written by an African American woman, I couldn’t resonate much with her experience. Yet on reading Minor Feelings, I recognized that what I have been experiencing is racism.
The author, Cathy Park Hong, was born in California as a second-generation Korean immigrant. One of her painful experiences in her childhood was related to her parents. She watched her mother speak to a white person in her rudimentary English. After hearing her mother, the white person responded to her mother in the manner of talking to a toddler. Then, Hong had to intervene to speak for her mother even though she was a child. She was treated as an adult and her mother, a child. This is a characteristic of racism because the white person doesn’t recognize an adult Asian as a person of dignity and an Asian child, of innocence.
Although watching her mother belittled was the deepest shame for Hong as a daughter, her mother might have felt more pain in her heart with shame in front of her daughter. Her mother bore every pain for her children in order to give them a new life and a safer environment in a new land.
The issue is not English here for an Asian experience of racism. Think about white Europeans in the U.S. with bad English. Will they be treated as Asians are treated? Why are Asian people expected to have better English in order to be treated equally? Otherwise, Asian people are treated as invisible by seemingly polite, educated and white people. Asians with bad English merely exist in order to show diversity but are not truly alive to them.
One day, I went to a car center which was introduced by our Sisters. When I asked to check and fix my car according to the insurance network showing the paper, the person without looking at the paper properly, said they don’t do that. Later on, discovering me as a Catholic Sister, his attitude changed and his “no” turned to “yes.” I was nobody with my Asian being but became somebody as a Sister. He showed his rosary to me and said he is a Catholic. A range of emotions accumulated in me from daily experiences: isolation, anxiety, shame, self-doubt, anger and depression. Hong calls these minor feelings. Minor feelings are “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” And these feelings occur “when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”
We find the force of the ideology of a fair meritocracy of American capitalism and American optimism to enforce on people of color in the Church as well. When a white Catholic says to a migrant person of color: You are in the U.S., so assimilate yourself in it; when a white Sister says to a foreign candidate: You are welcome to be yourself — but affirms her only when the foreign candidate follows her instruction; when a white priest affirms a brother of color from abroad only when he was able to get a good job position … these are racialized treatments under the ideology of fair meritocracy, not under Christian thought. There is no listening to the other’s unique stories, no dialogue in mutual respect and openness, and no space to be an authentic human being without the success of profitable employment.
When I see white people put this invisible fence of prejudice around them to divide, whether consciously or unconsciously, this awakes in me a silent haunting voice of you-don’t-belong-here-go-home. If there were no people in the U.S. who listened to me with an open heart, understood me as an authentic human person, and had dialogue in mutual respect and learning, I couldn’t withstand those racialized realities I have experienced. Some Asian Americans have success stories, but the majority of Asian American stories are still hidden, and these people suffer from their racial experience with minor feelings.