Personal  •  February 20, 2017

Should Race Define Who We Are?

In my twenties, my answer was an unwavering no. I didn’t want my race to define who I was. I didn’t want to be thought of as Asian this or Asian that. After all, what we all ultimately want is for the colors of our skin to be irrelevant. Driven by ideals with full of hope and possibilities in my twenties, I did not want to assume that race had to be relevant. I simply wondered: Could I ignore my race, charge ahead in my life, and get away with it? If I could, why not? Why assume from the get-go that race would hold me down? Why accept defeat or blame the society before I tried?

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with my friend who is legally blind, whom I have known since our college days thirty years ago. He is White but we had always shared the same ambition not to let our inherited traits define who we were. He remains idealistic as ever to this day. He informed me over our dinner that he started a job as a bicycle messenger. At fifty, although I have no problem with my vision, I’m too scared to ride a bicycle in New York City. For him, the world ahead of him is a big blur. I’m not sure how he does it, but he loves it. He shattered my impression of him being introverted and reclusive; he turned out to be a closeted outdoor man. He still spoke passionately about not letting his impaired vision define who he is. He is quite angry at the laws that prohibit him from getting a driver’s license. I admire his spirit and youthful energy.

In some ways, I’m lucky that race is such a dominant discourse in our society. Because there isn’t much public discourse on blindness, it’s as if my friend is fighting a war all by himself. This too is prejudice; prejudice of prejudice. It’s not the depth of suffering but quantity that determines which forms of prejudice get the attention of the public. It’s essentially a popularity contest.

After thirty years of butting heads with the American society (twenty years before that in Japan), I don’t feel that my race held me down. Even if it did, the degree to which it did so pales in comparison to the degree to which blindness would have for me. The influence race had on my life, however, is undeniable. I’d say it was more on the direction of my life than it was on the height of it. A few of my White college friends did become quite successful but most of the others are no better than I am. But this is my story, or the result of my experiment; it is not to diminish the struggles of others.

I could continue as my friend does, but at this point in my life, I feel there is value, to myself as well as to our society, in synthesizing the disparate influences of my life into a cohesive story. I tried not to let race define who I am; so what’s the result? Without this synthesis, I feel like I cannot make progress from here on. It would be like a scientist continuing to experiment without drawing any conclusions.

Race does matter, at least in today’s society. “Duh,” you might say, but we cannot learn to what extent it matters unless we try ignoring it. If we move ahead with the assumption that it matters, we risk becoming victims of our own confirmation bias. For some, the gust of racial resistance or outright hostility is overwhelming from the moment they start their journeys in life. For me, it wasn’t so obvious.

When my daughter was in fifth grade, as a part of the curriculum, her class spent a whole year discussing the racial problems in America. Before that, she rarely spoke about race. Now she is preoccupied with defining herself and her friends in terms of race. I was hoping that she would ignore it until she experienced the racial problems first hand. I didn’t want her to form any preconceptions, let alone group her friends into oppressors and oppressed. It is not obvious to anyone to what extent racial problems will still exist and how they might manifest for her generation. If we look for problems, we tend to find them, so I didn’t want her to start looking for them so early. I wanted her to give her world a chance. But this is part of the reality of race. It’s a public discourse; I cannot control it, not even as a parent.

Being born white or black, male or female, rich or poor, urban or rural, handsome or ugly, tall or short, strong or weak ends up having inevitable influences on how we perceive the world and what we value. The emphasis here is on “end up.” That is, it’s not a given; it’s not predetermined. We can only observe after the fact because everything is contingent on everything else.

There are vast individual differences too. Race influences some more than it does others. This is why, I feel, it’s important to start without any assumptions, expectations, or preconceptions. Did race (even if you are White) matter for you? If so, to what extent? At some point in your life, the answer will become clear. There is a time for us to choose who we want to be, and there is a time for us to evaluate what ingredients have come to define us. We cannot forever be in denial of the latter.

For me, having grown up in Japan probably had a much bigger influence than race did on who I am today. In my youth, I ignored this too. Once I moved to the States, I tried to be as American as I could. I stopped speaking Japanese, stopped reading Japanese newspapers and books, stopped watching Japanese TV programs, and even stopped befriending Japanese people. Last summer, I went back to Japan to visit my parents, and that was the first time in about sixteen years. It wasn’t that I hated Japan. Coming to the States was my bold experiment and challenge. I didn’t want to compromise it. Now it’s time, I feel, to gather up some facts and draw some conclusions before I take the next step.