As the legend goes (according to my mom), when I was in preschool in East Lansing, my teachers put me in the middle for a photo since I was only Asian in the class. Apparently, putting me in the middle made us more diverse. Thus, at the holy age of four, I became yellow Moses parting the White Sea to cleanse America of its racism.
In first grade, when my family moved from East Lansing to Ann Arbor, I was put in the ESL program at my new school. I thought ESL was fun — I had ‘cool kid’ privileges where I could leave class to go watch Polar Express over and over again with a couple other Asian American kids. It wasn’t until middle school, when I was years removed from ESL, that I learned what it stood for — English as a Second Language.
English is my first language.
My name is Lei Lei Wu. I moved to Michigan at 18 months, drunk on baby milk and strapped to my mother after a 14-hour plane flight from China. Since that moment, the Scarlet Letters of my name and my yellow skin have shaded every aspect of my life.
I’ve had interviewers visibly relax after I’ve opened my mouth because (surprise!) I have no accent! I’ve learned that beautiful is code for different — every other person I meet comments on how beautiful my name is after learning it for the first time. And, I’ve gone through the quintessential foreign name rite of passage: My own Starbucks alias, Lily.
As hate crimes against East Asians in America skyrocket, more people are talking about racism and xenophobia against Asians. More people are writing about it. In an op-ed he has since conceded as ‘short-sighted’, Andrew Yang quotes himself: “The best thing that could happen for Asians would be to get this virus under control so it isn’t a problem anymore. Then any racism would likely fade.” Yang frames racism as a product of coronavirus. However, the hate crimes that Asians and Asian-Americans are experiencing are less a symptom of coronavirus and more a symptom of America’s longstanding history of xenophobia.
In the Alternative Spring Breaks program at Cornell, we discuss how even if you remove all of the racists in the U.S., people of different races would still experience unequal outcomes because racism is just so deeply ingrained in American history. We use the groundwater analogy from the Racial Equity Institute: Racism is in America’s groundwater; it manifests across all fields, and it can’t be solved by removing individual fish.
Therefore, racism isn’t reserved for bigots. None of my experiences I mentioned above were perpetrated by racists. In fact, most of the people meant well — whichever school administrator put me in ESL just wanted Lei Lei Wu to learn English. No one called me a “Chinese virus,” but it felt like they had.
While hate crimes have victims and perpetrators (and are absolutely heartbreaking), we should not reduce xenophobia in its entirety to simple victim-perpetrator dynamics. I went random for my freshman year roommate assignment, and when I opened the housing portal on the roommate announcement day, I found out that one of my roommates was named ‘Yunyang Wang.’ I immediately thought, “Ugh, my roommate is an international Chinese student.”
Not only was it deplorable that I immediately attributed her Chinese name to a foreign origin, but it was worse that I thought badly of her being foreign. Even though I come from a family of foreigners, my immediate reaction was that foreign equals bad. Over twenty years, that’s the way America has conditioned me to think. Despite the xenophobic judgements I’ve faced because of my own name, I judged someone else the exact same way. Turns out, Yunyang Wang was born and raised in Ohio. (And she also thought I was international)
Making these subconscious judgements doesn’t make me a bad person. And it doesn’t make you a bad person either. While I’m ashamed of my initial thoughts, I’m glad that I quickly realized how wrong I was. As we read about racism and xenophobia against Asians in America during the coronavirus pandemic, let’s remember: just because we aren’t bigots or aren’t white or aren’t American does not mean we aren’t part of the problem. Even in isolation, it’s important that we check our biases because more often than not, our surface-level judgements don’t hold true.
Lei Lei Wu is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, Get Lei’d, runs alternate Mondays this semester.