I am ethnically Chinese.
I was born and grew up in Myanmar for the first eight years of my life before moving to the U.S., so I also consider myself culturally Burmese.
These two aspects of my identity and upbringing play a critical role in feeding my anxiety around identifying as a person of color.
For the first 18 years of my life, I didn’t even know the term ‘people of color’ existed. I primarily identified as Chinese, Burmese, and sometimes Asian. I only learned of the term and started adopting it in college when I became active in social justice movements on campus and learned about white supremacy and the racialization of non-white people in America. These days, as a social justice educator and facilitator, I have acclimated to the term simply because it is the currently accepted term for describing non-white people. But deep in my psyche, I have long had my issues with the term and a palpable discomfort with identifying as a person of color.
The term ‘people of color’ centers whiteness even as it attempts to be an affirming identity label for non-white people. The term perpetuates the pernicious idea that whiteness is the default and white people therefore have no particular race. Race is a special identity marker that is only assigned to people who are not white; who are the other. Race comes with color. Non-white people are subsequently of color by virtue of not being color-free, white people. The term ‘people of color’ situates non-white people’s existence in strict relation to whiteness, rather than liberate them from it.
I am deeply uncomfortable with having my identity exist in relation to whiteness, especially when that relation situates whiteness as normal and my ethnic and cultural identity as deviant. I feel incredibly lucky to have lived in an Asian country where I was not racialized. In Myanmar, Chinese people are by no means the majority. We are in fact an ethnic minority in a Burmese-majority society, but that is immaterial, because Chinese people are not racialized as an other and there is no systemic racial oppression of Chinese people in Myanmar. I was able to grow up affirmed of my various cultural identities, and more importantly, see myself as a unique individual who was judged solely by his individual…