Disillusioned Affirmation

On the first day of my orientation here in Nanjing, my group traveled downtown by subway. While I thought I had left behind dreary, cold winter days, I was wrong. As we were walking, I was mentally kicking myself for switching out my short boots for cloth shoes right as I left for the airport.

My lack of an umbrella demanded an unexpected shopping trip. While walking through the underground shops to the subway, advertisements were plastered everywhere for phones, cosmetics, clothing, etc. And on each sign were beautiful Asian faces. Everywhere I looked I saw faces like mine, faces that I connected with, faces, that for the first time in my American upbringing, affirmed my image.

But while at the Chinese store, I realized that this was a disillusioned affirmation. The faces around me promoting home goods and clothing were white as snow with small noses and delicate features. Their large, round eyes with prominent eyelid creases gleamed with excitement for their respective products. The Asian faces on these posters were highly westernized either through digital enhancement, careful selection of Western looking models, or both. The decision to show these pale, doe-eyed faces confirms not only an American center around whiteness, but a global preference for whiteness – illustrated further through the white-washing of movies, products like skin lightening creams, and the popularity among Asians for eyelid surgery.

Through viewing the photos, advertisements, and signs around the city, I re-realized that internalized racism doesn’t have to be felt only in a majority white community. It can be learned through the media, viewed in the shopping malls, and subtly ingrained.

I think about all of the ways I internalized racism when I was younger – I internalized racism every time I told myself I “Asian failed” after getting a B on a test. I internalized racism every time I told myself I looked better in the winter when my summer tan would fade away. I internalized racism when I tried to use makeup as a tool to change the appearance of my monolids. And I internalized racism every time I squinted my eyes and held up a peace sign for a photo with my white friends, because that’s what Asians do.

I see internalized racism in the Asians who wear blue tinted contacts, who use editing software to make their eyes larger in photographs, who give up resisting outward racism because it becomes too much. When there is so much daily pressure to live by stereotypes, when we are told constantly by the media that we don’t fit into the narrow standard of beauty, when we don’t know who we are but know who others are telling us we are, it’s only natural some of these outside thoughts slip into and become our own.

I think part of the reason I’m in China now is to find more of me and to undo some of the internalized racism that has inevitably seeped in me. But then I think about what it means for racism to be internalized not only on an individual level, but on a national scale within a predominantly non-white country. When young Chinese girls walk down the street and see these images of westernized Eastern beauty, what are the messages they receive? Is that who they aspire to be?

At the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative (APRC) Conference, Chad Sojourner very poignantly said, “You can’t love the tree if you hate the roots.” This quote really resonates with me on a biological level in regards to feelings towards first parents and also on a racial level. I am learning, hoping, and trying to embrace my Chinese roots. The advertisements I first noticed when I arrived are a sad reminder of how much large scale work is needed to de-center whiteness both within the U.S. and internationally.

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