Checking the Box
First grade. I am 6 years old, taking my first standardized test at Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Next to “Race,” I check “Black.” At 6, I already know what they think about me. What they think about us. I see the white schools when we drive across Rock Creek Park to play against them in basketball—with their sparkling hallways, their fancy, shiny gyms with the school mascot printed on the half-court line, smiling up at us, taunting us, making us feel small.
At our school on the Black side of the Park, we play basketball in the tiny auditorium, with duct tape on the floor for lines, plastic hoops wheeled in from the basement, and a ceiling so low you can’t even shoot a three-pointer without a chunk of the ceiling falling down on you. Our parents have to show up and yell at the school board for basic things: to get AC or heat in the classrooms, to stop the slime oozing down the classroom walls. We have to fundraise for supplies for the teachers, for musical instruments, for new uniforms, for new anything.
This is the same year my class wins the “I Love Life” song competition— a citywide competition created because Black kids in D.C.—kids our age—are already planning their funerals, designing tribute T-shirts, not expecting to live long enough to grow up in a city that is trying to kill them. We practice which forks to use for the fancy awards banquet, we get dressed up, we stand up on that stage in our Sunday best, we sing with all our hearts: “I love life, I want to live!”
At 6 years old, I already know what they expect of me. I know the future they have written for me. I see how the world thinks of us, how they treat us—what they give us versus what they give them. Who they prioritize, who they forget. I see the lines drawn around my life, the lines carved through my city, the lines going back centuries that shape my world, that tell me I am not smart, I am not valued, I do not matter.
But I know these lines are not mine, were never mine. And despite everything the world tells me about myself every single day, at 6 years old, I know that I am smart.
So, I pick up my No. 2 pencil, and I check “Black.” To prove them wrong.
Second grade. I am 7 years old. My mom comes in to tell my class about being Japanese. She bakes butter mochi, teaches us origami, passes around the Rafu Shimpo. As my classmates flip through the newspaper, a photo catches their eye. I look at what my classmates are pointing at: Caricatured Asian faces, slanted eyes, words in fake Asian font: Wong Brothers Laundry—Two Wongs can make it white emblazoned on Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts.
My mom tells us Asian people face racism, just like Black people. She points at the pictures, asks us, Does that look like me? No, my class says, shaking their heads.
I stare at the Asian faces on those shirts. They look nothing like my mom; they look nothing like me. I am the only Asian kid in my class, and sometimes I hear my classmates make ching chong Chinaman talk, or see them pull their eyes like that, or call our volunteer chess teacher Mr. Tsunami when his name is actually Minami, or make fun of the “smelly” musubi my mom packs in my lunch. I stare at those Abercrombie shirts, and it makes me feel the same way I feel when my classmates do that stuff: like something is wrong with me, like something is wrong with my mom. And lonely, real lonely, like I want to go hide, like I want to disappear.
When my mom is done, she asks if we have any questions.
My classmate Stephen raises his hand. Ms. Matsuda, why do white people hate us so much?
A classroom full of Black second graders stares back at my Asian mom, waiting for an answer, as my mom searches for words.
We are young, but we already know.
The First Time
Seventh grade. I am 13 years old. Riding the chartered city bus that carries us Black kids across the park to our middle school on the white side of the city. On the way to school, this drunk white man gets on the bus, belligerent, angry, yelling. He calls us all the N-word, tells us we’re all going to hell. The boys at the back of the bus stand up, pushing forward, ready to fight. I am hot, I am shaking, my heart is pounding. I see the hate in his eyes, the way he looks at us, like we’re animals.
The bus driver manages to kick him off, and we ride the rest of the way to school in silence. We walk through the cops and metal detectors at the entrance. We eat lunch in the cafeteria, where the Black kids sit on one side of the pillars, and the white kids on the other. We sit in fourth-period Algebra 1, where there are only four of us, where the white kids who walk to school instead of riding a bus make fun of our names and call us ghetto when they think we’re not listening, where we are always trying to prove them wrong.
That day, I go home and tell my mom about the white man on the bus. I sit there in the kitchen while she calls the city bus company and reports the incident, getting more and more worked up. I look at my mom. She is angry. She is hurt. But that man on the bus, he was talking to me. He was calling me that. Not her. She is hurt, but she is not hurting like I am. Sitting there in the kitchen, suddenly, I feel the gap between us. The ways in which she is safe and I am not. And I realize, she cannot protect me. I sit there in the kitchen, with the weight of all this. I am still shaking.
Freshman year of high school. I am 14 years old. We have just moved to Honolulu, where my mom is from, where I’m one of two half-Black kids in my class. Pretty much everyone else is Asian or Pacific Islander, and even though I’m half-Asian, I feel so different here. My classmates hang out in cliques: the Japanese, the Filipinos, the Polynesians. I don’t know where I fit in. The girls in my class comment on my butt, tell me my body reminds them of Nicki Minaj. I know it’s a compliment, but it feels weird. I miss Black people.
One day, this Asian kid in my class comes to school wearing a T-shirt covered in cartoon animals wearing chains and grills, riding in a lowrider, eating fried chicken. When I see him at the lockers that morning wearing the shirt, my stomach drops. I stare at the T-shirt, at the twisted reflection staring back at me . . . and I know that shirt is talking about me. About us. This is what they think of us. This is how they see us. Like that white man on the bus. Like we’re animals.
I want to tear that shirt right off him and rip it to shreds. I want to scream. But I don’t say anything. I just walk right by, try not to look at him in class, avert my eyes when we pass by in the hallway, look at the floor when I see him in the cafeteria.
I steal glances at the other half-Black kid in my class. I wonder if he sees the shirt, if it hurts him like it hurts me. I want to ask him, I want to reach out, but I can’t find the words. We move around each other silently in the tiny world of our school, an invisible line tying us to each other, holding the same weight. But we never talk about the shirt, never talk about how lonely we are. How much we need each other.
The kid in my class wears the shirt to school again. And again. And again. Every time he wears it, I don’t know what to do. I think about what I’d say, plan it all out in my head. A couple times, I almost say something. But when I see him at the lockers in the morning the next time he wears it, I can’t do it—I just pass by like nothing’s wrong. Every time, I hate myself for not saying anything. I feel like my silence is permission, like my silence somehow makes it OK for him to wear that shirt. Like this is my fault.
He keeps wearing the shirt. I never say anything.
Just a Word
Senior year. I am 18 years old. There’s this kid in my class who won’t stop saying the N-word. One day, I can’t hold it in anymore—something breaks open inside me, and I go off on him. I tell him about the history of that word, tell him how much it hurts me.
You can’t say that, I say.
It’s just a word, he keeps saying.
It’s just a word.
It’s just a word.
He never apologizes.
The night of graduation, we do a senior class lock-in at a hotel in Waikiki. We’re in this big banquet hall, and they make us do this exercise where we go around in a circle and hug every person in our class. I’m dreading getting to him. I don’t want to hug him, I don’t want him to touch me. Then he’s in front of me, going in for the hug, then his arms are around me, and all of a sudden I’m sobbing, I’m shaking, it’s all coming out, and it feels like a dream and a nightmare, and then it’s over.
Ten years later, I still have dreams about it, I still wake up shaking.
My first week at Harvard, the Asian American Association shows up at my dorm room. They look down at their list, then back up at my face, confused.
Is your roommate home? they say, scanning the room behind me.
We’re looking for Kimiko.
I am Kimiko, I say.
Oh, they say. They stare at me. At my brown face, my curly hair, unable to process.
I take their invitation; I close the door. I never show up to a meeting.
One month later, an anti–affirmative action op-ed published in the Harvard Crimson blows up on campus. Suddenly, everywhere we go, people are talking about us—in the dining hall, in the dorms, in classrooms and lecture halls—debating whether we deserve to be here, saying we got in just because we’re Black. My Black classmates are talking about their SAT scores and AP classes, trying to defend our presence on this campus, trying to fight off the sickening feeling that we aren’t wanted here.
Back in my dorm room, I am the only one. At the beginning of the year, before the affirmative action article blew up, I’d hang out with my three Asian roommates a lot. But now I take shelter in the Black community on campus, sit at the Black table in the dining hall, where I know everyone is feeling the exact same way I’m feeling right now. We are under attack, and this is the only place I feel safe. I worry that my Asian roommates are talking about me too, saying the same things as the white kids when I’m not around, agreeing with that article that said I shouldn’t be here. I know everyone on campus thinks they deserve to be here, never questions whether they got in on merit. There’s an unspoken assumption on campus: their faces belong here, mine does not. And nothing—not my Japanese name, or my SAT scores, or my grades—will change that.
This is the moment I realize: Yeah, I’m half-Asian—but when Black people are attacked, my Asianness doesn’t protect me. I can’t hide. I can’t choose. In this moment, I am Black.
I’m in my first job, sitting in the back of the car, on the way to the Women’s March. My white woman boss, who is sitting next to me, casually drops the N-word. My other boss, a half-Asian, half-white woman, doesn’t say anything. No one says anything, and the conversation moves on. I sit there shaking, but no one sees. I want to say something, I want to scream, but my voice is gone. At the next truck stop, I lock myself in a bathroom stall and cry. I don’t want to get back in that car.
A couple years later, I’m in another job, sitting in a room full of Black people. Someone says a joke, and the word hits me. Jap. They called my grandpa that when they locked his family up behind barbed wire at Heart Mountain during World War II. My cousin’s high school baseball coach called him that a few years ago, and he quit baseball.
No one says anything, and the conversation moves on. I sit there shaking, but no one sees. I want to say something, I want to scream, but my voice is gone.
You wish you could pitch your body into the space of the nonnegotiable
This is the body that says NO
I will not move
I will not bend my rules
I will not let this happen
But you are swallowing your scream again
And suddenly you are the person
Who has made it OK to say this
Who has made this an OK thing to say
But it is not OK
And your body knows this
But it is too busy negotiating its presence
So that you can stay here
I am 27 years old. I’m sitting in the living room, surrounded by Black people. The news is playing. On the television, President Joe Biden is signing a bill, surrounded by smiling Asian people. But the people in this living room aren’t smiling. They’re saying, They got it so fast. They’re saying, We can’t even get an anti-lynching bill.
The underlying sentiment: they’ll never do that for us.
I feel so much at once. I know about Vincent Chin. I know about the Chinese massacres in the late 1800s. I know about my cousin who was attacked on the street in New York last year in the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
I know all this and yet—
They got it so fast.
I also know fast is relative. Because everything is slow for us. Because it’s been 400 years, and we are still waiting, always waiting—for a country that will never protect us.
I look at the Asian people on the TV, smiling and cheering. But sitting here in this room full of Black people, in the body that I live in, I don’t feel like part of it. I feel guilty, both for not feeling fully able to join in the celebration of this moment that should be my right as an Asian American—and for getting something that everyone else in this room has yet to have.
Because I’m also feeling what everyone else in this room is feeling. The pain of being forgotten, the betrayal of always being last, the knowledge that America will never pass a hate crime law for us. Because America itself is committing the hate crimes; America itself is killing us.
Then, on the news, they play leaked footage of cops beating a Black man to death in Louisiana.
I stare down at the floor. I can’t watch.
I don’t feel like celebrating.
What Are You?
I go to Bon dances every summer, I know how to cook all the New Year’s foods, I eat natto, I wash my rice until the water runs clear, I take my shoes off at the door, I never show up without omiyage, I never take the last piece, I hold back, I apologize constantly, I say no no no when I want to say yes, I say yes when I should probably say no
I walk into a store
and no one greets me
I walk into a restaurant
and no one serves me
I walk into a neighborhood
and everyone stares
There is a line, and I know which side of it I fall on
It’s never straight down the middle
I’m never just an Asian girl
Yes, I am Asian, but I will always be Black.
“On Being Black and Asian in America” Copyright © 2022 by Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence. From the book MY LIFE: Growing Up Asian in America edited by CAPE, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment to be published by Atria Books/MTV Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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