Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, doesn’t consider himself a photographer. He prides himself on a more specific talent–drawing out deep and intentional meaning from random connections. Stanton, a 32-year-old white male, relies on these niche abilities to literally support himself.
As a person of color, I couldn’t help but envy Stanton’s privilege as he told his story at Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday, Oct. 15. As a Korean-American adoptee, I’ve experienced judgement based on my perceived ethnicity across both professional and personal experiences (I say perceived because I’ve been pejoratively referred to as Chinese or Oriental more times than I care to remember). Some instances were less explicit than others, but each proved harmful in their own way. As I listened to Stanton share his stories, I wondered, “Could a person of color be equally received by complete strangers?”
The next day, Buffalo Bills pre-game festivities outside New Era Stadium offered a hint. A video captured a young white male violently tackling a mock bust of Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, now known for his peaceful protests of the national anthem in support of minority populations subject to police brutality. The video made me further question how people — especially white people — perceive a person of color like me. Does my ethnicity incite some type of uncontrollable rage or anger among certain white people?
A few days earlier, I caught up on The New York Times feature, #thisis2016, which shared a cross section of Asian Americans’ experiences with racism and bigotry in the United States. I later took to Twitter to share my own memories. From the first day of kindergarten to more recent moments at a Rochester-based athletic and social club, I recognized how often I’ve felt the need to minimize my race or ethnicity for the sake of other people’s comfort.
For more than two decades, I’ve emulated and adopted behaviors from dozens of white men — from religious leaders to educators to politicians to higher education administrators to business executives and professionals. This conscious effort was more than a way to appease friends, bosses or clients. Moreover, it was my way to abate a deep-seated fear of being seen as a young minority.
At 31 years old, I’m only beginning to accept and honor my own identity as a Korean-American adoptee. I’m also realizing my fears were not entirely unfounded. Today, there’s GOP presidential nominee and his supporters in tow; the now infamous Jesse Watters’ Chinatown segment on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly; and then video clips like those of the Buffalo Bills fan whose violent antics provide casual entertainment to other western New Yorkers.
Detractors always ask, “Why does everything have to be about race?” By confronting my own experience with race, I’ve overcome fears of a manufactured identity to discover a more authentic sense of self full of strength and hope. In the words of Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, “Man struggles to find life outside himself, unaware that the life he is seeking is within him.”