When the discussion of race took over the media after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, heated opinions and issues such as white-privilege began to rise in many cities across America. In Alhambra, the white population is only around 9 percent and the black population 1 percent, which perhaps explains why it felt like this debate had passed us by. As I followed the developments and discussions, I began to wonder if perhaps as a minority-majority city, we are blind to the concept of race and privilege. After confronting my neighbors and friends, I found that while we are not blind, our personal experiences with race diverged greatly from mainstream dialogue.
Tax professional Thuy Luu, an Alhambra resident of over 17 years, and a parent I have known for over a decade, immigrated to the United States back in 1979 from Vietnam. She said her sons, now 23 and 25—both recipients of Fulbright Scholarship Awards— speak fluent English and identify themselves as American.
“They do not deny their Chinese or Vietnamese heritage,” said Luu. “But they are from America and are American.”
Being an immigrant, Luu was initially aware of herself as a minority. Luu said that, in the past, she used to define the term “American” by looks. “Americans were supposed to have white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair,” said Luu.
But her two sons, who were born and raised in Alhambra, challenged her to change that perception.
“They pointed out to me that few American presidents had blonde hair and blue eyes, and that besides Native Americans—everyone else, from George Washington to Barack Obama—were products of immigration.”
Luu reflected that, ironically, she was more aware of racial issues when she was growing up in Vietnam, which was more racially homogenous compared to America.
“I was used to seeing discrimination between the Vietnamese people and the Chinese immigrants there. But when I moved to America, I didn’t experience racism here. People may look down on me because of my accent, but I can not just dump everything on race.”
“American is not a race,” Luu added.
While Luu feels that she has been integrated into the fabric of America, others still feel that, at times, they are met with glaring reminders that they’re minorities.
One of my peers from middle and high school, Alex Davis, an Alhambra resident of over 13 years, has a Caucasian father, Korean grandmother, and Creole grandfather. Davis recalls asking a teacher which racial category to check off on a survey in school, and being told to check off “Caucasian” because instructions limited her to “select only one.” She’s glad that surveys have changed since her middle-school days, allowing her to check off more boxes including “mixed,” “other,” and “decline to state.”
But Davis says that it hasn’t stopped her from being singled-out. When she describes her racial makeup to people, sometimes they challenge her on it, saying “are you sure?” as if she doesn’t fit in with racial stereotypes.
While this kind of profiling makes her uncomfortable, Davis, a California Licensed esthetician and MUD-Certified makeup artist, said that there are times when it’s appropriate to acknowledge race. In her line of work, for example, “race is very useful in knowing how your skin will react to certain products; for example, many Asians are missing one lipid, causing them to have more sensitive skin.”
Davis also feels that it’s natural for our brain to “compartmentalize” information using visual cues, and race isn’t an exception. We are hardwired to recognize differences between people.
“The problem isn’t that our brains compartmentalize,” said Davis. “The problem is how we design what we do and how we react after we compartmentalize.”
Christopher Sanchez, a tutor who works with several of my cousins’ classmates, agrees that we may be conscious of race on a subconscious level. He points to school playgrounds as an example—it sometimes seem as if children are “clustering together in the schoolyard,” and that it ”may appear to be racial.”
“I think most of this clustering happens unconsciously,” said Sanchez. But, ultimately, Sanchez believes that there are other forces at work, and that we’re not so fixated on race.
“The groupings are usually not racial; they deal with language, food, faith, and other things like clubs and classes,” said Sanchez.
As a community, we tend to undergo a varied “minority-experience.” Mainstream racial dialogue tends to overlook such experiences, but we should not only be aware of our city’s identity as a minority-majority community; we should also create platforms for such dialogue to ensue.