speak up if you are a good ally
One of the first texts I wrote on this blog was about micro-aggressions. These little, seemingly innocent comments about appearance, behavior, language, that perpetuate the notion of a person being different and not-belonging. To a white person, these comments usually seem harmless and sometimes even friendly. To most people of color, they are everything but that. As an adopted person of color, there is a whole other dimension of hurtful comments that one encounters again and again. It is people who for some reason feel the need to force their opinion on adoption on us. Some just randomly tell me things like "A distant cousin of mine adopted a girl from the Philippines in 1995", and I am like ....alright, what exactly am I supposed to do with that information? Others, by contrast, have great advice for me personally and tell me how thankful I should be for having been adopted, or how they think I wouldn't be able to move on in my life without going to search for my birth mother. Although I am much more aware of these interactions now compared to a couple of years ago, I am also older and kinder and perhaps just more tired, so they don’t upset me that much anymore. Sometimes, I even find them amusing and they make me laugh. But I still get into situations that make me really uncomfortable and that leave me helpless, sad, and angry - whereas the other person usually doesn’t even notice what they are doing because I am so used to be kind and accommodating and not make anyone (apart from me) feeling bad. In those situations, when I feel paralyzed and unable to react, it is invaluable to have someone there who speaks up for me. Only that an experience I recently had made me realize that I actually never have had anyone doing that.
Over New Year's, I was invited to the home of a dear friend’s parents, in the far East of Austria. They are an incredibly hospitable and generous couple, so we sat around the dinner table with 15 people from different countries, friends, family, children, sharing a delicious meal. When I entered the room, I sensed surprise and astonishment about my presence but it felt friendly, so I didn’t mind. I had put on nice clothes and make-up and I know the “Oh, who is this exotic lady?”-kinda-looks very well. During dinner, it became more and more obvious that there were big inter-generational differences in terms of politics and lifestyle. It delighted me how the older generation, with their thick Austrian accent, made fun of us boring, orderly, vegetarian, non-smoking cyclists and yogis, while they were chain-smoking, pouring down wine and liqueur, and talking about the gold ol´times of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
At some point, the woman to my right turned towards me and started a conversation. She was blond and blue-eyed and I disliked her pretentious jewelry. It went the normal way of “Where are you from?”, “South Germany, close to the French border” , “No, I mean, where are your parents from, what’s your origin?” , “I was born in South Korea and adopted by a German family” etc. but I didn’t take offense because this is just how these conversations go. Then she suddenly asked me: “So how was it to grow up as an adopted child?” I tensed up because that question came out of the blue and was put in a very blunt, almost interrogative way. My body does that when people start asking me about my adoption, it goes into survival mode, highly alert, cautious, ready to fight or flee. But then I told myself to relax and give her a chance. The woman hadn’t seemed particularly inspiring to me during the evening, so it was interesting that it was her who asked me such a personal question about my experiences. I swallowed my initial irritation and set off to explain how difficult it had been as a child to always look different and always feel different and…. At this point, she cut me off. “Oh no no no, this is not what I mean”, she said. “I watched this documentary about adoption and how terribly the kids suffer from the separation of their mothers”, and then she went on and on to tell me about that documentary and how these kids’ lives had been so destroyed and every time I tried to say something, she cut me off before I even said a word, and continued her ramble. My friend and her partner, who were sitting to my left, tried to stir her monologue into a different direction but nothing worked. I went silent and completely withdrew myself from the situation. I stared down at my plate and silently pleaded that this may stop right now, while poking around some salad leaves with my fork. The woman felt our unease but didn’t understand what was happening; so instead of shutting up, she babbled even more and louder to share her uninformed and offensive opinions on adoption. She didn't even look at me anymore. Eventually, my friend intervened. I could see that she was boiling with anger. “It is really inappropriate to discuss someone’s very personal and sensitive issues at a dinner table in such a manner!”, she said sharply. The woman finally got it and stopped talking. She defensively mumbled something and then pressed her lips together, looking offended. I felt like crying. Not because of her – that sort of talk I’ve had so many times and I usually just bite my lips and wait it out. People like her are not actually listening to what others have to say, they just look for confirmation and prove that they are right in their opinions and judgments. Talking to them is like talking to a wall, just more annoying because a wall at least won’t talk back. No, I felt like crying because of what my friend had done for me. She had not only sensed that I was suffering, she had also recognized how toxic the situation was and thus intervened to stop the rude and aggressive behavior of a person who was hurting me. This had never happened to me before.
I don’t blame anyone for that. This kind of situation occur usually very suddenly and it is hard to know how to react within an instant. I know that people who are with me may be shocked about the interaction and freeze the same way I do. This happened to my ex-boyfriend when he introduced me to a drunk friend at a party who looked me up and down, to then congratulate him, saying that he always had wanted to sleep with an Asian woman. But also, it is very common that others simply don’t understand the gravity of the moment, which is one of the worst turn things can take. They laugh or shrug it off, they shake their heads and say “So stupid!” or “Don’t be offended, they meant no harm!”, or they just pretend it didn't happen. And often, of course, I encounter these situations on my own, engaging in a one-to-one conversation with simply nobody there to support me.
For me, acts of speech are the strongest kind of solidarity and resistance you can show as a white person who wants to be an ally to people of color in day-to-day life. And yes, it is of particular importance to have white allies because their word simply counts more, even when they talk about things they are not affected by (especially white men are very objective and don’t have distorted, partial views, as the story goes). There is lots of material on how to be a good white ally and I think if you are interested in being or becoming one, it is definitely worth giving some of that a thorough read and think. But in my opinion, the focus lies way too much on cultural appropriation and terminology and I can understand that that can feel very heavy and intimidating, same as unnecessary rants against white people on social media. Again, to me, speaking up is one of the most valuable things to do. We all encounter so many forms of injustice and racism in our lives, sometimes as victims, sometimes as witnesses and bystanders. If you make use of your white privilege and speak up, you are doing people of color a huge favor because many of us would never dare to raise our own voices. I hear it from friends, I read about in the media, it happens everywhere, all the time, individuals being attacked, insulted, excluded, humiliated, oftentimes in public and broad daylight. Luckily, I have been spared openly hostile encounters so far. As a young (-looking) Asian woman, it is rather a certain mixture of sexism and racism that annoys me and makes me feel ashamed, objectified, and sometimes threatened. I hardly notice anymore when boys or men shout ni hao or ching chong chang at me when I walk by, a particular(ly stupid) version of catcalling. It never even occurred to me that another bypasser might possibly step in and rebuke those men or saying something kind to me, and no one ever has.
My friend did not only speak up in that particular situation but she also sat down with her mother and aunt the next morning, when that unpleasant lady had left, and explained to them what had happened and why we had been so upset the previous night. Of course her explanations initially caused surprise and the usual "Oh but she certainly didn't mean any harm!" but because her family consists of very lovely individuals, I am sure it planted a little seed at the right place. I am not able to have these conversations, to defend and justify myself and my emotions, to explain my trauma and my pain to strangers. I simply can't. Seeing others stepping up and speaking up for my sake is one of the most healing and trust-building acts I know. That way, people do not only make me feel protected and supported but also validate my experiences. It is a very frustrating dynamic to end up not only feeling awful because of something that happened to me but actually questioning myself, my perceptions, and emotions, convincing myself that I am overreacting and hyper-sensitive, and thereby reproducing internalized white discourses. If you get upset because somebody says something offensive to you but everyone else thinks your reaction is wrong or inappropriate or unnecessary or out of proportion, it is very likely that after a couple of times, you convince yourself that it is actually truly you who is the problem, not the person who hurt you in the first place. I know that things like "They didn't mean no harm" or "They just wanted to be nice" are supposed to make me feel better, but they don't. I have gone through every possible explanation and justification for hurtful comments and behavior a zillion times, and I am tired of denying my pain for the sake of other, ignorant peoples' well-being.
Later that night, when my friends and I were going to go out on for a walk, we met one of the other guests in the hallway. She was a tiny, fiery Austrian lady who had cast friendly glances at me across the table the whole evening. She had had her share of liqueur, and gotten very talkative, affectionate, and sweet as sugar. She took me by the arm and said "Oh my, what a beauty you are!". Turning to my friends, she said "Isn't she so special, so beautiful?" We all laughed awkwardly and again my friend tried to smooth the situation by feigning hurt female vanity: "Ehermm! And what about me?!", to which that tiny lady said "Yes but of course you are, too, honey, but her beauty is so different, it's so exotic! Just look at her!" I laughingly unglued her hand from my forearm and thanked her, squeezing it gently. Then we went out into the black windy night to get a break, from food, from wine, from people.