My Race Is a Tattoo

Your race is a permanent tattoo that people can see from far away, and before they’ve seen the whites of your eyes, they’ve started to identify you.

When though, do they start to make something of it?

When I was in pre-school, I knew that my classmates didn’t have the same skin color as me, but it didn’t affect the way I saw them. They didn’t really acknowledge my race as something that could divide us. We just played around in the sand together.

In elementary school, I started to realize that our skin colors mean that some of us came from different countries. We ate different foods at home and we were out of school for certain holidays. Still, no one seemed to actively judge me based upon my race; it was just a side issue that no one even so much as gave a glance.

By junior high, I began attending private school, and while I’m thankful for the opportunities that I never would have otherwise found, race has become a very, very pertinent issue.

As I made my way through middle school, I found that due to a combination of both different racial mixes, different social mixes, certain fashion styles, certain music tastes, and certain popular restaurants dominated the community.

For a 14-year old girl who desperately wanted to make friends and to just feel okay in a new school, I couldn’t decide what to do.

The question lingered in the back of my conscience, wondering whether or not I should conform.

My family often eats rice for dinner and we sometimes speak Chinese to each other, but I wouldn’t consider myself actively Asian. I don’t watch Chinese TV or listen to Chinese music, and I don’t have an accent.

Again, a 14-year old girl rarely confronts the issue of race in the midst of all the other drama that plagued my life. (I was turning into a woman! Britney Spears had shaved her head!)

Only after lots of discussions with my mom and lots of internal thinking did I realize that lots of personality changes in junior high could be attributed to race.

Inside my mind, however, I was ashamed of my background and my family, and I was embarrassed by our differences. I ended up assimilating a great deal, deviating from many traditions established in my Chinese household.

No more Chinese restaurants–let’s try out that new burger place down the street.

Less Skype calls to our cousins in China. I don’t have time for them anymore, I’m supposed to see the new Ashton Kutcher movie with my friends.

I think back to that time, to the mindset that I somehow justified. I hate myself for it.

Why should we ever want to change who we are? Why should we forget where we’ve come from? Without it, I wouldn’t be me. Why deny who you are or what makes you you?

I was very unhappy in certain parts of middle school, but high school has come and now it’s almost gone.

In this institution crawling with exploring adolescents, race as a social issue has been magnified to a great extent. In the multiple communities in which I am involved (high school, debate, etc.), an explicit focus has been put on race, in that it is often the topic of debates and the subject of assemblies. There are Asian societies at school and I’m even the head of an Asian diversity club at my school.

But the strongest forces are implicit, going largely un-addressed in everyday life. I see it pervading classrooms and being exchanged between students without them realizing it.

I would refer to my individual experience (not speaking for others) as less discrimination and more stereotyping. The assumptions that people make about me get more and more absurd and derivative.

This is how my anger arose, this is how I started to take issue, this is how it became personal. Race has become a social issue unique to myself because I have stories and anecdotes to recall.

Racial ignorance stretches beyond my mere private school community. I see it as both misrepresentation and under-representation.

Why are there so few Asian role models? Singers, rappers, writers, actresses? They exist, but they are few and far between.

My present racial status is a balanced Asian-American fusion of both culture and identity.

I’ve lost much of my ability to communicate with relatives in Chinese. I used to live in a predominantly Asian community, but I had to move closer to my private school for reasons of sheer practicality.

I seldom go back to that community, and it’s almost as though I’ve severed off a part of myself.

When it comes to self-confidence and being able to accept who you are, race plays a major role. I am no longer ashamed of my skin color.

Catherine Zhang About Catherine Zhang
Catherine's a high school-college in-betweenie, and is constantly evolving. She loves music and writing, and you can find both at her main blog:

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