"Yeah I'm So Whitewashed"
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
| Illustration by Yi Jong
Nam reflects on the use of the term ‘whitewash’ and how it reinforces ideals of white supremacy and undermines attempts to reorganise and redefine cultural identities.
I’d like to first acknowledge all the conversations I’ve had with my Asian and BIPOC friends about whiteness. At some point I realised there’s something uncomfortable about how we use this phrase and I can articulate some of this now thanks to the dialogue I’ve had with the people around me. This dialogue doesn’t end here, however, and I look forward to exploring this topic further in the future.
Today, I want to unpack and challenge the way ‘whitewashed’ is colloquially used to describe ourselves and our peers and what this demonstrates about one of the most insidious and powerful cliques of all: whiteness. This is informed by my perspective as a 1.5-ish generation Korean immigrant but I hope there’s something here that can resonate with anyone in the struggle against white supremacy.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first. I’m speaking specifically to how it’s used in everyday conversation to describe the social relations we have within our communities. I get that in these contexts it’s often used casually and innocuously in passing but I think it’s still worth examining. It’s also worth establishing that language is constructed and changes and like all languages, the term is stretched to suit many contexts. When used to describe a Mahjong set made by white, #girlboss entrepreneurs, the shoe fits. When describing the dominant narratives of U.S. Cold War history which erase an extensive legacy of coups and nurturing fascism in the Global South, the shoe also fits. But does the shoe fit when used as a label for yourself or a friend? Someone who’s ‘not that Korean, Chinese, etc?’
On one hand, it does. We know what this tends to mean so it’s not an invalid phrase. It encompasses everything from integration, to white friends, to not speaking your mother tongue, and so on. On the other hand, does it always fit? It certainly taps into what it’s like growing up or living in a white society but it falls short in several areas when discussing our collective experience of this often strange, colonial place called New Zealand.
What helped me recognise and understand my discontent with this phrase was that it relies on the false binary between those who are whitewashed and those who are not. To not be Korean or X enough must mean there are those who are. The latter is generally perceived as the realm of ‘FOBs’ or those who stick to circles that only speak their native language. It seems that we’re positioned in either of these two cliques. I have no animosity towards anyone grouped into the latter, it’s the act of grouping itself that’s the problem. On my end, if you spent five minutes with me it’s obvious the circles I’m in mostly use English and aren’t Korean either.
But, I have no desire to belong to the clique of whiteness or be labelled as such. Those who don’t predominantly spend time with white people or the people who speak their language don’t fit into the boxes that the term whitewashing reinforces. And yet people who I’d confidently say haven’t bought into the promises of white supremacy are labelled as whitewashed and that doesn’t sit right with me!! It’s a tricky conversation to navigate but it’s one I’ve been having more often lately.
I’ll reiterate that it does capture how we adapt to fit in and ultimately reflects a society which whitewashes us. My beef with how it’s used, however, is that there’s an underlying implication that it’s a flaw of our character. I get that it’s usually got a bit of self-deprecating humour involved, a legitimate tool in our attempts to cope with living in our world, but why not draw attention to the ways we preserve our culture and save the barbs for white supremacy? As a repeated, subtle pejorative we direct at ourselves, it undermines the attempts we make at reorganising and redefining our cultural identities on our own terms. It’s also sometimes accompanied by a sense of shame that we haven’t done enough to be in touch with our roots wherever they may be. Shame isn’t how we heal, however, nor is it how we grow. It’s never too late.
We have the power to create new identities that aren’t contingent on how ‘white’ or not we are. We’re already doing it. Let’s acknowledge this more.
Quick rant: getting in touch with our cultural roots is a pursuit I love to see but when this is weaponised from a white lens to measure how ‘X’ we are and pits us against each other it becomes a problem. Pākehā love to point out, for example, how well-spoken someone is or how they have no accent. And don’t even get me started on being called a banana by someone who’s white. It basically reads as a backhanded compliment from a coloniser congratulating you for being colonised. That’s kinda fucked up! /rant.
Another important nuance I want to highlight is the difference between people who consciously attempt to buy into whiteness and those who do not. To some extent, we all bear the burden of internalised racism, which whitewashing is central to, but only some choose to try and join the clique of whiteness hoping they too can access these privileges. Whiteness changes. Irish and Italian Americans, to name just two groups gradually accepted and absorbed into whiteness, demonstrate this. Whiteness will continue to generously open its tent to new would-be colonisers but at some point we, ideally, realise the racial hierarchy itself must be dismantled. We’re encouraged to try to advance the ranks and sometimes succeed as so-called model minorities but it is a game that offers little protection as the escalation of Asian hate crimes illustrate. That said, the line between trying to fit in to survive and trying to fit in a little too hard to take advantage of entrenched racial power structures is one that must be confronted. What we can do is give each other space to explore the multiplicities of our responses to white supremacy. We can also hold each other accountable when aligning, consciously or not, with corporate interests and white supremacy against tangata whenua.
For the time being, whitewashed has left my vocabulary when introducing myself. I’m no less compelled to discuss white supremacy nor do I avoid the topic of internalised hate but I try to start off on a different foot. For example, I’m a fan of how colonisation has entered our popular lingo. It gets across how - as some academic or activist put it I can’t remember, apologies - colonisation isn’t just an historical event, it’s a structure that still exists today. It grounds the discussion in power and history while also removing some of the victim-blaming that whitewashing is susceptible to. It may seem like an arbitrary difference when both speak to the same issues but I want to emphasise that this is just a means of facilitating more discussion and critical reflections. (You’re welcome to keep saying it!) There’s always more ground to cover and more work to be done. We’ve got this.
(Don’t forget to take it easy on yourself too! Rested hearts resist oppression best).