The Trauma of Racism

Photo by Iva Rajović on Unsplash

I grew up as a Chinese-American in NYC, starting in the late ’40s. It was the time after WWII where Americans were still smarting from the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. One of the first stereotypes I faced is that all Asians look alike – “Jap” is what they hurtled at me! Then, in the early ’50s with the advent of McCarthyism, Americans believed I was a Communist.

I view racism as a trauma. Trauma is any incident that renders a person powerless. Racism is systematic trauma perpetrated on people who  did not ask to be born into a minority race, and the powerlessness is that there is nothing a person can do to change the color of his/her skin.

While abuse in the family is demeaning and affects the individual’s sense of self, racism is consistent and institutionalized prejudice. It is:

when one group in society has the power to limit resources, supplies, and opportunities over another group due to race.

The white race has had, and still has, the power to limit my job, my place of residence, and thereby also limits my ability to provide for the best education, the best health care services, etc.

Yet, as an Asian woman, while I may be prejudiced against a white male and it may hurt his feelings, I have no power to affect his standard of living.

My father’s hard-earned architectural credentials and experience in being chief architect to President Chiang Kai Shek of the Republic of China fell by the wayside when we escaped from Communism to the United States. Not only did my father lose his meaning in life, but this country also lost the talents of an architectural and artistic genius.

We became exiles in this strange land because once Mao Tse Tung took over the government, my father’s return would have ensured his execution. My father had a choice of two jobs in the U.S. that were open to those of Chinese descent – cleaning other peoples’ dirty laundry or working in a Chinese restaurant.

As for me, at 4 years old, I started to experience the devastating effects of racism. I became shy and introverted, afraid to step out of the house. Every time I went out, I faced constant and frequent spitting, being called derogatory names, pushing and shoving, and shouting for me to return from whence I came.

When one is continually degraded for something that cannot be changed, one is forced to adapt to survive.

I remember my parents teaching me to say in public that I’m not Chinese, that I’m American. With all the harassment I received from others, my parent’s teaching compounded my feelings of shame of being Chinese.

And, eventually, shamed of who I am, and eventually seeing Chinese as second class citizens, just like the majority sees us.

I didn’t realize until much much later that my parents taught me to say those things to keep me safe. There was no such thing as ethnic pride in those days. And my parents feared we’d be deported back to China where it would mean sure death for my father.

I understand now the reason why they told me to say those phrases; however, looking at it objectively, I see that we all are taught to collude with the system.

Of course, it is for our survival, albeit based on fear. We feared deportation.

Yet, what we are not taught in following these kinds of inhumane rules, is that we are all part of keeping the system in place.

I am certainly not blaming the minority, or what one might call “the victim.” We do what we do to survive, to keep ourselves and our families safe.

As a child, I didn’t fight back. I was the smallest and youngest in my class. And, Chinese are usually smaller in stature than Westerners. I had the added disadvantage of not knowing the language, always struggling to keep up in school, and not understanding the culture.

Through no fault of theirs, my parents were of no help. Their world turned completely upside down, it was all they could do to feed us. They certainly weren’t able to help me with school work.

Eventually, I became more knowledgeable of the language and culture than they. Unfortunately, that caused a rift between us, for Chinese children are not supposed to know more than their parents. This is a generic bi-cultural conflict between first and second-generation immigrants.

And, while my situation wasn’t nearly as bad as my African-American brothers and sisters, I want people to understand that it was devastating nonetheless.

My mother tells me I was very sociable and outgoing in China. I became shy and introverted, afraid to speak up, to ask questions, to get whatever help I needed in school, etc. When I see children coming down the same street, staring at me, I would cross to the other side. I would not raise my hand to answer questions in class, and when called upon by the teacher, my mind went blank even when I knew the answer.

I hated recess time because that’s when classmates would gang up on me, surrounding me, taunting me, making “Chinese” faces, speaking in sing-song Chinese – and the teachers did nothing! Instead, I was told that I was over sensitive, that they were just teasing me.

There was not a day that passed that I wasn’t terrified!

It’s taken me most of my life to speak to strangers at a party, to make phone calls, to face adversarial situations, to speak up when someone is belittling me. All I hear are the taunts, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.  All Chinese are stupid!” My face and entire body burns red with shame.  And, as my mind goes blank, I feel as stupid as I’ve been told over and over.

My body and my face actually turn red, and I feel like I’m running a fever. My mind goes blank so that I don’t have to speak back, afraid that it will be worse with me if I do. I learned early on not to fight back, because the one time I did, I got it even worse!

So, this becomes a physical and chemical reaction, in conjunction with any psychological impact I may feel.  It is now known in trauma circles as the Immobility of Freeze Response, when the mind and body shuts down to protect oneself from acknowledging the severity of the abuse.

It is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something I did not learn until recently from Belleruth Naparstek in her book, Invisible Heroes.

I believed what others told me, that I was stupid, that Chinese are stupid, that they can only be laborers.

I also watched my parents do nothing when they were taunted. They did nothing to help themselves. I even watched others take advantage of them in their laundry, and they took it.

So, when my father stands up for me one time, I am afraid he will get into trouble.

I am physically assaulted by a boy older than me. He happens to be a neighborhood boy, so my father marches me to his home. And, tells off his parents, that they must be very proud that their 10-year-old son hit a small 6-year-old girl, showing them my bruises.

I am in such shock that my father stood up for me. I don’t  realize ’til much later what a risk he was taking to do that. The white father could have turned the story around and the police would have believed him.

Racism, therefore, is a life of consistent non-stop degrading one as a human being, so that one begins to buy into what everyone says, that one does not deserve to be in this world.

Does it still exist? Yes.

Fast forward to the time my husband and I are looking for our first home in 1965. The real estate agent immediately brings us to a minority neighborhood, all African-American.

My daughter experiences it walking home from school when all the neighborhood children start calling her racial names: “Chink!” This is 1971. The difference is that, once she tells me about it and is afraid of walking to and from school alone, I accompany her. I also speak to the parents.

My son experiences racism from a cafeteria helper who reprimands him when he’s done nothing wrong. She overlooks other white children doing the same thing. This is more subtle, hard-to-pinpoint racism. In some ways, there is more consequence because the child doesn’t know what he’s done wrong and ends up believing that he is a “bad” person.

Again, fast forward to 1990 when my son is looking for an apartment in NYC. He called me to ask what a green card is. A green card is actually one  carried by Permanent Residents of the United States. Since he is a naturalized citizen, it never even occurs to me to tell him what that is. Yet, the landlord immediately assumes he isn’t American.

This is how debilitating racism can be – even though my son speaks perfect English, the landlord only sees his face and stereotypes him as a foreigner.

I came name others, some more overt, some more covert. I don’t know what’s worse – with overt racism, I know where I stand and can brace against it. With covert racism, I’m not sure what is going on, and causes confusion, leaving the recipient unable to prepare in his/her own self-defense.

Can an individual overcome the effects of racism? Yes, they can.

Is it hard to do? You bet it is! Especially when it’s always prevalent.

I didn’t start to overcome the effects until I started to see a psychotherapist in the late ’70s. I was already 35 years old.

I am grateful to find a white therapist who never discounts my perceptions about racism. She never assumes that I am making it up, or over-sensitive. After 35 years of “sucking up” what I am told I  have to live with, I begin to understand that it isn’t my fault, but that I am part of a system that degrades anyone different.

As we continue to work together, I learn how I unconsciously collude with the system, keeping myself as second-class citizen. I become more assertive, speaking out against injustice.

Am I completely over the effects of racism? No. I still get scared when I have to face the situation. However, I screw up my courage and say it anyway.

It is a process. Every time I speak up, I shake all over. And, every time I do it, I congratulate myself. Every time I cannot, I learn to forgive myself, knowing there’s always a next time.

Forgiveness leads to compassion, two of the essential concepts of spirituality.  In being able to feel these for myself, I am in touch with my heart and soul, something that is easily lost in the day-to-day harshness of dealing with racism.

I urge any of you who has, and are still, living through this situation, to find support – professional and personal.

You must always remind yourself that you deserve to have all the opportunities that others have.

Please share this article with as many people as you can. I believe that we need to cooperate with each other. Our very survival is at stake.

Thank you!