My cousin blind contoured me a couple weeks ago at a bar near Williamsburg’s Rough Trade. Blind contouring is a drawing exercise in which the artist sketches someone else’s face without ever looking at the paper. We were all taking turns to do it, giggling along the way. The countertop was covered in crayons, damp napkins, and salt crystals that had fallen from the rims of our greenish tequila cocktails. Our brains had just crossed into hazy territory. Right before her fair-skinned hand lowered my cousin paused. She squealed something about how bad this was about to be, oh how bad, but funny too, so she was going to do it anyway. Seconds later she handed me the crinkled piece of paper.
On it was a small circle that was meant to be my face. On top of that circle was a triangle that was meant to be a hat. The only other marks on the page were two short, flat, horizontal lines where my eyes were supposed to be. Slits. My cousin laughed. So did my other cousin. As did their friend and his boyfriend, both of whom I had met only an hour before. They all laughed so hard they almost fell off their stools. I watched it happen in slow motion, all their cackles morphing together into one voice, the same voice that has informed me all my life on how little my family members understand or even care about my non-white, biracial identity. But I laughed with them–because my only other choice was to cry.
I’m not trying to villainize my family in this piece, because they’re not villains and I’m not an asshole who would try to make it sound like they are. But, being the only biracial individual suspended between two single-raced families hasn’t come without its aches and pains, and my relatives are responsible for much of that hurt, plain and simple.
I wouldn’t say incidents like this are common among my Italian family, but they have certainly occurred enough to where they no longer surprise me. I’ve got some baggage with my Korean cousins–I’m too Americanized to them, unfamiliar with our culture–but they and I live in the world as minorities. We at least have that in common. My Anglo-Saxon cousins, on the other hand, have always seen me as different, separate from them. So they have offered their fair share of racially charged words over the years. I have accepted it all silently, just like I did the blind contouring, not because I am weak or I am timid. On the contrary, I’m a capable woman who causes a fuss when necessary. I endure the prejudice time and time again because I’m terrified that my family will alienate me even further if I challenge their words, if I attempt to dismantle the way they see the world. I’m already on the outskirts. I don’t want to end up in no man’s land, completely alone.
For example, when we were tweens, my cousin said the following in order to introduce me — or rather, explain my existence — to someone we weren’t related to: ‘Yeah, her mom’s Chinese or something. She’s married to my dad’s brother.’ We were standing in direct sunlight but the back of my neck suddenly felt cold. In a millisecond there were a hundred different scenarios that ran through my mind, many of them starting off with my correcting him and identifying my mother and myself as Korean, thank you very much. But every last one of them ended in embarrassment, confusion, and a long stint of not being invited to any family gatherings. So I shook this person’s hand and slapped on a stiff smile. A few years later, another cousin congratulated me on my acceptance into Harvard, only to say she expected nothing less from a “smart little Asian” like me. Although I had been hit with a ton of bricks, I chuckled. I didn’t want to make a scene, especially not when everyone was already staring at me.
None of this was malicious or intentionally said to harm me. My family was ignorant, but innocent. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. It became a mantra. They’re ignorant, but innocent. I said it to myself so many times I actually believed it.
By the time I hit my early twenties, though, I was tired of their racial slurs, their disputable innocence aside. I had spent enough time spelling out my multiracial identity to the world, battling one offensive question after the next, that I was left with no desire to fight the same fight with the very people who shared my DNA. So I removed myself from the family for a couple years. I missed weddings, birthdays, even a funeral. I invested my time and energy in the kind of people who never assumed off the bat that my dad was in the military and picked up my non-English-speaking mother at a bar. I rooted in multiracial communities. I traveled.
I came back to New York at the start of 2016 ready for a reunion, because I was convinced things would be different this time around. My cousins had gotten older, more sensible. Right? We were all mature adults now, and they would finally appreciate me for who I was rather than sporadically tokenize me. Right.
That slits-for-eyes blind contour proved to me how desperately wrong I was. This particular racial microaggression hurt more than all the others combined, probably because I had made myself believe wholeheartedly that getting older was synonymous with gaining a better understanding of racial intersectionality, and that true familial love meant never having to be crudely stereotyped ever again. I lived in the pain of that night for several days, staring at the ceiling and not sleeping, unable to think clearly. Yet I said nothing to anyone about it, not to my boyfriend or my mother, and definitely not to my cousins, who should have known better, I told myself.
No, but really, they should have known better. That’s when the mantra from teenagehood came back to me one night as I sulked on my couch: They’re ignorant, but innocent. This time, though, as the words played through my head, my eyes stung with tears. I cried for every time I had laughed. I cried for every time I denied myself permission to be angry and feel utterly rejected by the only community to which I had a birthright. I slammed down my tub of Ben & Jerry’s in an act of declaration, vowing that I would never step foot within a ten-mile radius of my so-called family anymore. I deserved better and they sure don’t deserve my tears (ok, I admit, I was listening to Beyonce).
Not long ago, I picked up a pocket version of Tao Te Ching, the 6th century Chinese text, also known as The Book of the Way. I stumbled upon the following:
The Master views the parts with compassion,
because she understands the whole.
Assuming that I am the Master in this scenario that is my own life, I considered my cousins for a moment. While they certainly hold responsibility for their casual racism disguised as tasteless humor, I began to see their blunders in a new light. Rather than taking them to heart as indications of their not truly accepting me, I chose to interpret them primarily as reflections of our overwhelmingly monoracial society. This didn’t make the pain go away. But it did allow me to give my family a pass for a split second, a sliver of mercy through which I could start to address things I had simply let fester for years.
During my years of separation from my own flesh and blood, I had done my fair share of educating others on multiracial issues in America. I taught children in classrooms. I engaged in useful, although sometimes heated discussion with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I didn’t shy away from the uncomfortable conversations about multicultural and multiracial identities, knowing that at least one person would benefit from it. However, I’ve never said a word to my relatives when their racism washes over me, even though theirs is the one that causes me the most heartache. It’s a funny thing; being brutally honest with the people you’re related to can be infinitely more difficult than telling your neighbor that his use of Oriental is unacceptable. So I always ran in the opposite direction, leaving the burden on them to learn for themselves. Little did I know that this was the very thing separating me from them. Maybe I need to become as invested in breaking this pattern in my own family as I am with the outside world. Maybe this is my part in loving them.
I don’t see us blind contouring again anytime soon, but I know we’ll eventually find ourselves in another similar situation, in which they’ll hurt me without trying to, marginalize me without realizing it. And when it happens I’ll speak up. Hazy brain and all. Because as the Master, I can at least do my part by teaching what should have been learned a long time ago — and refusing to laugh when the discrimination is anything but funny.
Illustration by Paige Vickers