I Tried It … Being White
As an adolescent, writer Sharline Chiang bleached her hair and listened to Bon Jovi, but she couldn’t shake being Chinese.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because having blond hair and blue eyes isn’t all that.
Sharline Chiang is a Berkeley-based journalist who has written for the New York Daily News, Los Angeles Daily News and Mutha Magazine. She’s a longtime member of VONA, a national community of writers of color.
I permed my hair.
Saved up for eyelid surgery, breast implants. I wanted blue contacts, badly. I only had white friends. I listened to Bon Jovi.
None of it made me white.
I remember being 8 years old and wishing Santa would make me white. I woke up Christmas day to find the same me in the mirror: same small eyes, sallow skin, straight black hair. Same ugly, Chinese-looking me. Somewhere inside, I was saying, “Fuck you, Santa! Thanks for nothing!” I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the ’70s and ’80s. At school there were a few black kids and a couple of Latinos and Asians, but we were scattered, like dim stars along the Milky Way.
I wanted to be white.
White was not being asked questions like you were a foreigner even though you were born in New York City (“Where are you really from?” “How is your English so good?”). It meant not having Jeff, the boy you had a crush on, place tacks on your chair and shout, “I GOT THE CHINK!” It meant not having kids set your trees on fire two Mischief Nights in a row.
I wanted to be blonde. Blonde Barbie ruled. Farrah ruled. Chrissy was hot. Janet was not.
When I was little and played with my favorite Honey Hill Bunch dolls, guess who all the boys tried to get with? Darlin’ — the sweet blonde who carried a pink purse, whose motto on her packaging was “I’m so pretty, don’t you agree?” No one wanted the girl with a high IQ. There was an Asian doll literally named “I.Q.” She wore glasses on her head and carried a book. Her motto was (I shit you not) “I always get straight As in school!”
When I was 14 my mother wouldn’t let me bleach my hair, but she did consent to my getting a Mohawk. A girl I admired showed up at school with one. My hair could not do perfect Farrah wings, but I was pretty sure I could rock spikes. Except, my mother said I had to get a perm first. She had a thing about perms, said they were the only things that made our “lifeless” hair look good. Here’s what happened:
My mother to hairdresser: “Give her a perm. And a ma-huck.”
Hairdresser: “A what?”
Mom: “A ma-huck. Long on back, short on top.”
Here’s what I got: a tight perm — and a mullet.
Do you know how long it takes to grow out a mullet? About the same time it takes to graduate from junior high. That year, I tried out for several school plays and finally got a role.
My father: “How could you be cast as the daughter of an American family? Won’t the audience be confused?”
“No,” I said. “They can put makeup on me. I could look, you know, French.”
My mother winced. “Sharline, you will never look French. You will always look Chinese.”
In ninth grade, when I wasn’t busy dressing up like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, I focused on becoming popular. I tried out for cheerleading; didn’t make it. Signed up for field hockey; sat on the bench. In a desperate move I joined the marching band. I couldn’t play an instrument, so I “played” the cymbals.
Over the next two decades I went on to date a lot of white guys (eventually I married a white guy). Still, I wasn’t white. I made my first non-white friend, a black woman in LA, when I was 28. To this, she said: “Are you shitting me?”
Somewhere in my 30s I stopped trying to be white. Living in California and making friends with proud African-Americans, Latinos, Middle Eastern Americans and Asian-Americans, my world opened. My old self-hatred slowly dissipated, replaced by a new appreciation for myself, of how I had spent my life internalizing racism and perpetuating the notion of white supremacy.
As writer Junot Díaz put it: “White supremacy is the great silence of our world … white supremacy would not fucking operate without people of color to run it. It’s not that white people don’t contribute to it. They do. But it couldn’t continue to exist without people of color. White supremacy is inside all of us. And that’s why it’s so malign and difficult to confront.”
I try to confront it by talking about it. I read works by writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison. They remind me to feel proud to be Chinese-American and a woman of color. They remind me of my ancestors’ resilience and the courage of people of color in this country. I read books featuring kids of different races to my daughter — a hapa toddler with eyes like mine but curly auburn hair — in hopes that this will help her love herself even though she looks “different.” I send her to a Mandarin preschool; she takes pride in being able to speak Chinese. I take a moment to celebrate the show Fresh Off the Boat, because it matters that for the first time in 20 years, I can see an Asian-American family on TV (hey, we exist!).
And these days, I just leave my hair the fuck alone. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a start.