Why I Chose Not to Be Angry at White People as a Person of Color
Writer’s note: This article was first published in 2018 via my media site, Brown Gal Trekker.
When I first arrived in the U.S. at the age of 13, I walked into the classroom at the one and only American high school that I attended in Auburn, Washington as a new student. It didn’t take long for the white students to make fun of my accent or the fact that I came over to America from the Philippines. As an immigrant, it was traumatic enough to uproot myself from my home country. So, when these white kids persisted in criticizing the features that made me stand out, the ridiculing never left my subconscious. Their actions made me angry and fueled my desire to assimilate quickly so I can avoid being labeled as the weird kid in class. But also, my dad who led a successful career as an accountant in the Philippines sacrificed all that when he moved the family to the U.S. He spent the rest of his life in America working full-time as a housekeeper at a hotel and part-time as a bookkeeper. He faced age discrimination in which companies declined to hire him claiming he’s “overqualified.” As a result of my father’s demotion, my two older brothers and my mother all had to work to make ends meet while we lived in a two bedroom apartment. Everyone except me worked at a hotel chain as housekeepers. The second class citizen treatment of my family in America and the unjust outcome of my father’s efforts to re-establish his career further exacerbated my views of and feelings towards white Americans.
I held the anger for years and well beyond my college years although I have to say my time at the university was significantly better in that I found groups of students that shared my culture and background. These groups became my allies in fighting against racism on campus and beyond. I found myself involved with various student activist groups in support of affirmative action which at that time became the cornerstone of racial debates at universities nationwide. I became the best advocate for myself while using the groups collectively as a means to channel the anger that I experienced from my white critics. I majored in American Ethnic Studies which further escalated my negative sentiments towards the white majority of this country upon learning the scope of their oppression of all racial minorities — learning first-hand that no person of color was spared from discrimination and injustice. The academics armed me with the knowledge I needed to defeat and obliterate racism at least on a personal level, if not at a macro level. In the process, I lost friends due to my assertive vocalization of the issues. I didn’t mind losing people at all who didn’t fight my fight. In my view, making enemies was simply part of the ordeal. I somehow thought then that I had it figured out and that I could sustain that level of energy even though I knew this accelerated manner of advocacy can quickly lead to burn out.
But by the time I started law school, the same level of ridicule came back, this time in a more implicit fashion but nonetheless degrading. In law school, my critics were savvy enough to act in a more discreet way to hide their biases and prejudices. They gave me that condescending look and that arrogant smile in between jovial discussions and greetings. The same attitude could be said of the white lawyers who served as judges at our law school’s mock trial competitions. That inner feeling of hurt derived from high school resurfaced and persisted. Since graduating from law school and practicing as a lawyer in Washington, DC, I carried that unresolved sentiment towards white people in general. And luckily, out of 40 attorneys in our legal office, the minority in our office was comprised of whites at any given time. It gave me a sense of relief and comfort knowing that majority of my colleagues shared a painful history with America. This allowed me to tuck away my anger for a moment as I catered to other aspects of my life, both professionally and personally.
But now it’s 2018. Should I still be angry at white people?
Obviously, there will be different responses to this query from people of color, and rightfully so, given that we all have varying experiences when it comes to racism. In my case, I used to hold the view that the sentiment I held against the white majority should run eternally, or at least until they remedy the history of oppression of racial minorities. Sure, that logic applies at an institutional and systemic level. It’s reasonable to expect institutions to address racism first-hand and to make our society as a whole more compliant with the notion of equality under the idealism inherent in our U.S. Constitution. I wanted that change to happen so badly because as a prosecutor in the child and abuse and neglect practice, I observed on a regular basis the system’s implicitly executed racial bias and the undermining of the advancement of minorities, especially the black families in Washington, DC. The hidden truth here is that people of color who find themselves part of the court system have little chance, if at all, of lifting themselves out of poverty and crime ridden communities. This predicament is concocted not by accident but by virtue of the fact that it’s a natural outcome of the choices that were made by white people in power historically to oppress racial minorities. The vestiges of slavery and oppression of all types remain, albeit covertly.
But on a personal level, does it benefit anybody to hold that anger and bitterness towards whites as a whole? Over time I realized there’s a distinction to be made between being angry at the system versus white people as individuals. As an advocate for racial equality, I gradually and deliberately made the choice to expend any anger I hold at the former, and not the latter.
Let me be clear by first saying this — there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. In my world, I have learned that to hold such anger towards whites as individuals is futile. And it took a decade to realize this. In my college years, it was easy to fall into the notion of racial divisions — the “us versus them” mentality. But once I left the educational system for good and started my career as a lawyer, I realized the divisions we create are mainly based on emotions, not logic. If I learned anything about being an angry advocate back then who relied on divisions heavily, it’s the idea that I ended up creating more enemies than allies — an outcome that ultimately undermined and defeated my purpose.
Would it be beneficial to continue to advocate with anger based on the assumption that all white people are racist? Does generalizing that all white people are evil serve a useful purpose to effectuate change? I personally don’t think so. White people are born each day with a different sense of the world compared to those born earlier. The perceptions they hold vary depending on their parents’ philosophies and their own experiences in life. As advocates, it is crucial to have the ability to discern the allies from enemies as opposed to generalizing. That way you can effectively execute your strategies. Not all whites are created equal either as some happen to be oppressed, as well, whether by experiencing poverty or disability or any other attributes that will render them uniquely different from the majority. We, as people of color, can also have biases and prejudices, and as a result, are also capable of acting in a way that can be detrimental towards one racial group including whites, assuming we hold a certain level of decision-making ability or status in the working world, or otherwise.
Let’s be honest. People of color are capable of being racist in our times, now that racial minorities are assuming leadership roles more than ever. As humans, we naturally gravitate towards those who share similarities with us and if we operate based on anger towards whites, this same anger may very well compel us to give a job opportunity to a fellow person of color over his or her white counterpart.
It’s possible but unlikely.
Why? Because what makes people of color different from white people is their history with oppression, inequality, colonization and all other forms of degradation that white people have inflicted on racial minorities. And that, in and of itself, is where the power lies for people of color — it’s called empathy. With that in our possession, we have the capacity to understand how it feels to be singled out and deliberately or implicitly targeted merely based on superficial differences that white people cannot tolerate due to their own insecurities and inner struggles. Through empathy, we’re able to be on the side of the coin that steers away from perpetuating the idea of unfairness and inequity in situations where we find ourselves possessing some form of power and authority. It’s the self-awareness and strength we gained from our personal struggles that allow us to make the right choices for the sake of fairness. This should then lead us to learn how to identify our white allies because not all white people are the same.
It’s 2018. Trump’s America certainly infuriates most racial minorities if we allow it to. But we have to remind ourselves that the current administration operates without the support of our laws and the Constitution. It’s imperative more than ever not to let our anger get in the way of fighting racism based on fear and ignorance. Focusing on the steps towards educating and combating the fears of white America is our saving grace.
On the upside, 2018 shines brightly with a new enlightening phenomenon, as well. Many of us including white people have woken up to the truth — that racial diversity in America is imminently making its way to the moment we are currently living. As people of color, we can take comfort in the fact that soon enough there’ll be plenty of American families with mixed race kids who will challenge the inequities and injustices that we continue to face. In light of the rise in interracial marriages or partnerships that the future holds, it’s difficult to imagine the current level of racial inequalities continuing to sustain itself. I’m sure the bullies and critics I had in high school and law school are angered by this phenomenon. In contrast to their experience, I’m happily embracing the changes, instead of dreading them.
As modern-day advocates, the art of distinguishing our allies and enemies is not only crucial but mandatory in successfully creating an authentic form of inclusion. In our current circumstance, while an alarming number of white people have shown their racist tendencies, others have evolved to become our allies.
And for me, once I learned to identify my white allies, I was able to distance myself from that decade-worth of anger that sat inside of me for far too long towards whites. Some may label this as “healing.” After all, holding onto anger for this long is a debilitating experience. As much as I would like some form of retribution and validation from white Americans for this country’s racist past or an apology from those who impacted my family and I negatively with their words and actions over the years, there’s nothing I can do to make that happen. So, within my power, I learned to let go of the anger for the sake of self preservation and deemed such journey as my liberation from white-centric America. In doing so, I manage to get closer to what’s real and true in my personal definition of racial equality as a person of color. In the end, the choice is ours to make. By making the choice to silence my anger, I’m also making the choice to be listened to by white Americans and building the bridge to address the longstanding invisible gap between us.